Saturday, April 30, 2016

Brand Journalism and Frank Lampard

The death of newspapers isn't only about the physical paper. The paper created a news economy that was able to stand separate from the entities and topics they covered. The paper was an entity in and of itself. From the highest levels of Washington DC to high school coaches - the old press was something you had to work with, in and around.

That position of power is gone now. Filling the void is Brand Journalism. What is it? Well, first off - hopefully, you are not asking that question... second off; you probably have a few tabs open on your browser right now that are filled with it. Or, more likely, just scrolled past a brand journalist on your Twitter and Facebook feed.

Sitting right in front of me is a copy of the latest Sports Business Journal. A rag that falls somewhere between trade magazine and smarmy marketing arm for the industries it covers. It's possibly the pinnacle of brand enhancement.

The trick to all this is to blur the line between journalism and marketing. It's a hustle. Cash in on hundreds of years of independent journalism and turn it into propaganda.

Major League Soccer is entirely made of this type of journalism. The small size and relative newness of the league put it right in brand journalism's wheelhouse. The older and more established leagues don't need to use it as much, their place firmly established in the American lexicon via decades of honest dealings with fans. Mostly due to... independent journalism.

A perfect example of how MLS employees brand journalism is, well, happening as these words are typed. The situation with Frank Lampard.

Lampard has mostly been in the shadows this year but a quick search of his name on Google News turns up a recent crop of frustrated "news" pieces that sort of shame him. "Worst MLS signing in league history," type stuff. Each of them hitting the same notes. Each using the same quoted Tweets.

None of them actually talking to Frank Lampard or his people.

Make no mistake. This is the League talking. They are frustrated with their $6 million dollar a year player who is seemly taking a nice New York vacation in the twilight of his career. Anyone would be, right? But, there is is a certain level of dishonesty with how this is being handled. The league is communicating with fans, through the "press," to put pressure on Lampard to play.

Where was this weeks ago? NYCFC is already eight games in and fans are just now getting a blast of samey articles? What gives? Well, I'll tell you. MLS is not happy. A couple Tweets later and we've gone form a Telegraph story about the "WORST SIGNING IN MLS HISTORY," to Reddit users dusting off "Fat Lampard" jokes to top 10 worst signings in history. Meanwhile, thinking people will respond to most of all this with "no shit."

This Lampard situation is a disgusting example of brand journalism eating itself. These folks lapped up the signing a couple years ago with little, to no, critical thought. From there, they rode the click-bait train when he remained on loan with Manchester City after promising to come to NY.

It took almost an entire calendar year for him to finally play for NYCFC and now he's basically done.

Competitively, Lampard was one of the worst signings in league history the moment MLS signed him. The brand journalists knew this but they stayed on narrative. It's the way it's done now. Clicks and likes. A scripted soap opera instead of a series of actual events happening, bereft of thinking or honest individuals.

Know what? I hope Frank Lampard is sitting there collecting his half million a month soccer severance package (that is coming via Soccer United Marketing) with a giant smile on his face.

This isn't on him like they want you to believe. MLS were the ones that signed him. It's their cockamamy rules that allow this to happen. They created this monster and now they are trying to slay it with the same methods they used to create it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

New Low for MLS on ESPN

Major League Soccer posted a new league low on ESPN this past Sunday as only 180k tuned in to watch the afternoon San Jose Earthquakes / Sporting Kansas City match.

It's the lowest watched ESPN game since the league signed the latest deal last year. That's not good! To put 180k into some context - It's the 2nd lowest rated program (all programs) I have on record for ESPN in the month of April.

MLS is down 10% overall on ESPN / FS1 YOY (median viewership is down nearly 25%). If that weren't bad enough, games were shown on ESPN2 this early in the season last year. What that means is viewership has dropped off a cliff, even when on the "flagship" channel.


I've been tracking these numbers for a couple years now. My Google Doc doth overfloweth. These audience figures are going the wrong way. In a bad way. Even the viewers between the ages of 18-49 are going the wrong way.

Things aren't going to get better this summer when the MLS season turns to swiss cheese with Copa America and Euro 2016. It only gets worse at the end of summer when the National Football League kicks off. Last year MLS games dipped below 100k on both ESPN and Fox in that time frame.


What's the solution? I'm working on a post that attempts to answer that. In the meantime, I've written about why people don't tune in... HERE.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Crew SC Report Card

Columbus appear to be shaking off their slow start. Well, on the table at least. Even with two wins in a row, their overall play has been poor. Last week, Crew SC beat a (what's turning out to be) miserable team in NYCFC - and this week couldn't break down a 10 man (and another miserable) Houston Dynamo. Both games at home.

Let's take a quick look at player ratings by our friends at and add some notes.

So, what's going on? It starts with Kei Kamara. He's still a top player, but what he did last year is not repeatable. Trying to pump the ball into the box over and over will not get you the same results, even if everyone else in form (which they are not).

Harrison Afful and Ethan Finlay are chewing up a lot of real estate on the right side and not a whole lot is coming from it. Do they communicate? They don't really look like they are on the same page. We also see Meram drifting all over the place on the left side. Waylon Francis, however, is more disciplined than Afful and it allows for players ahead of him to get creative.

Next week Columbus travels to (pretty bad) Seattle. I wouldn't be surprised if we finally see a few changes to the lineup this week or next. It's just a matter of if Gregg Berhalter thinks these guys will snap out of if or not.

I'm leaning towards not, and a change would be healthy. Particularly, if Columbus got a good result against a weak Sounders. Some of these guys on the bench are rotting away and need a boost. Critical if they want to not slip into a late season hole.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Clouds Lifted, the Gate Opened

2013 was a crazy year for pre-SC Columbus Crew. Calling it a transition year doesn't quite do it justice. The headline was new ownership and a terminated Crew lifers. Beneath that is the actual play of the players going through it at the time. The season didn't stop for them to re-evaluate things, or, because of MLS rules that restrict player movement more than collegiate players, explore other options with other teams. These guys were stuck.

Hope came in the only form of freedom it could. With Robert Warzycha gone, interim coach Brian Bliss brought in a fresh breath of clean air. Things had gotten so poisonous with Warzycha that, with him gone, you could almost feel the players levitating on the pitch when they took on Houston back in September of 2013.

It was round 27 and early in post-Warzycha days. You could sense the unknowns in the voices and faces of everyone in the organization - part nervousness, part excitement, part gulag gates opening. An absolute storm within the oldest MLS franchise that had settled into MLS comfort after a successful run just a few years earlier.

It was an Higuain-less game. Most everyone expected the Crew to just roll over for the rest of the season. Brian Bliss decided to let the players play. Looking back, maybe there wasn't any other option. At the time it looked like he made it, though. Regardless. Players played like they were 10 feet tall. Maybe there was a hint of a burden being lifted off the fans as well.

The 18 vs. Houston...
Matt Lampson
Chad Barson
Eric Gehrig
Chad Marshall
Tyson Wahl
Ethan Finlay
Wil Trapp
Bernardo Anor
Justin Meram
Ryan Finley
Dominic Oduro
Tony Tchani
Konrad Warzycha
Jairo Arrieta
Shawn Sloan
Daniel Withrow
Ben Speas
Agustin Viana

This was the first time we got to really see what all these Reserve players had. Up to this point we'd only seen glimpses of why they were brought in. It's too easy to say they arrived during this match. They didn't. But fans were able to understand why these guys were on the roster.

Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay, Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp and even Chad Barson and Tyson Wahl all proved themselves. In a weird way, it also might explain why the franchise toppled over. The team was young, inexperienced and not part of the 2008-2010 group where most of the coaches and admin staff made their Crew careers.

Bliss somehow tapped into all of this. We get so many nothing games in MLS, but this game oozed spirit.

We are nearly three years on now, but this game stands out as one of the most important in recent team history. Opta has it rated in the top five Columbus performances since 2013. Remarkable, considering the situation.

I, myself, thought that this team would get run over the remainder of the season. A hole too deep. Too much change. Too young. Too much dark funk to fumigate out of the offices and in the hearts of the players. That's what we've seen over in over, isn't it?

Didn't happen. Credit likely goes to many across the board. Maybe it's one of those "iron sharpens iron" moments we rarely get to see in MLS. Whatever it was, this match stands tall. It's certainly shaped the current roster that fans will see play the Houston Dynamo tonight.

If you happen to attend the game tonight. Skip the damn "craft brew festival," and watch the game. MLS might be missing many (many) things that make this sport so special, but THIS is a wonderful sliver the game. This is why we watch.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Meram - Another One

Justin Meram has the unique gift of making a game his. Many midfielders drift in and out of entire MLS careers and never put together single game like Meram did last night. And he has done in multiple times before.

Columbus has built a team with players that play consistently good, and better than Justin Meram. Kei Kamara and Gaston Sauro to name a couple, but there is something different about Justin Meram having a standout game.

Is it the that his is more creative than, say... an Emil Larsen? How about a Cedrick Mabwati? Kristinn Steindorsson? Corey Ashe? The list of guys brought in to possibly move him out of the starting eleven is getting long. Is it he has the guts to take on a player when he has the ball? The different ways he is able to score goals? Meram is one of those players that will flat out win you a game. Kamara has that ability, we saw it over and over last year (most notably in the playoff game against Montreal). Federico Higuain might be another, but he's one of those consistently great players. You expect it from him.

Maybe it's Meram's propensity to have a dark game. One where nothing goes right for him. One where we see his shoulders slump after he makes a mistake or one where he tries too hard to get that penalty.

Over the last four years, Justin Meram has been subbed out 48 times in 95 appearances. That 17 more times than the next closest player on the team, This spans two coaching staffs and investment groups. It's odd. In MLS you usually don't get very long, especially if you are a college player, to have this kind of long opportunity.

It's clear that people know that something is there and last night it paid off for Gregg Berhalter and company in a big way. It was a team effort, but Meram won that game.

A month or two from now, Crew SC will have some average-ish record and be working their way around the middle of the table and people will forget this game. Just another "W" in the endless list of facts and figures you hear on the local team broadcast. But fans that have followed this team over the last handful of years, through all the changes, needless PR and hype, will remember this as a Meram Game. One that got the 2016 season back in order.

Maybe one of *those* games for Justin Meram is like the satisfying payoff longtime watchers of a great TV series get. Or that perfect song from one of your imperfect favorite artists. I guess seeing him out there playing like he did on a beautiful Ohio evening in the correct team colors is sort of like that.

Onward Justin Meram.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

MLS Expansion - Adrift

Having not quite expanded to 24 yet, Don Garber announced last week that MLS plans to expand to 28 teams sometime around 2020. Just like the plans to go to 24, the situation surrounding further expansion sounds really vague. 

The backdrop of the announcement was Sacremento and their drive to join MLS. Attendances there have been strong since they formed and they've made no secrets about wanting a MLS move. Garber met with town and corporate leaders to gauge overall interest. 

"The corporate support that was expressed in the meeting today was kind of unprecedented," Garber said. "We had it in [Minnesota] when we met with a diverse group of people there. We saw it in Orlando, but to the extent in the initial phase that we saw here today."

He also mentioned Detroit and St. Louis as a couple more cities the league is looking at. Add in San Antonio and the spots are filling up pretty quick. 


This next round of expansion will test the league. Atlanta United FC "plans" on joining the league next season, but there appears to be little info or buzz surrounding it. Out West there is another LA team "planning" to launch in 2018, but again, buzz has just wilted. Minnesota United FC is being called the "23rd" MLS team, but AGAIN, there is no firm launch year. Could be 2017 or 2018.

It's unbelievably strange that team allegedly paying 100 million dollars to join a league is not sure if they will be playing in less than 12 months. MLS has two such teams. 

Finally, the 24th team is suppose to be Miami. This is the interesting one and may be the reason Garber is in Sacremento. He even admitted that he was "tired" of dealing with it. The trip out west and the subsequent announcement that the league will continue to add cities might be more about finding a replacement for Miami (or telling them to get their act in gear).

So, all this leads back to the league going to 28. I'm sure they want it, and maybe they will get there. But it won't be 2020. Don Garber and MLS have turned expansion talk into a regular interest generator almost to the point that they aren't actually delivering any new teams into the league.

Things got a bit shaky in the last round of expansion. Orlando bulldogged their way in and had a stadium plan go sour (it's still coming, I think?) and NYCFC was a necessary evil (in their eyes) and play unwatchable games on a baseball field. With this Garber still says, "We've moved to a point where we have the ability to work with expansion groups to put together the things that they'll need, whether they realize it or not, to ensure their long-term success,"

Perhaps it is because of this now drifting / rudderless approach that "The Soccer Don" announced the forming of a new "expansion committee," that will help pull all of these things together. 


We are living in a sports crazy time that's fueled by TV revenue. Every city in the top 50 in this country thinks having some sort of pro sports team is validation of "big time" status. This equation is changing rapidly, though. 

Outside the changing TV landscape is the changing public attitudes towards the public funding of city stadiums. Orlando's extended journey to get a stadium and lack of one for NYCFC is the new normal and has created many of the unknowns that has sent the league drifting this direction. 

The committee will have their hands full.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Turf Game Sinks Crew

Adding my team rankings now that we are getting close to 20% complete with the season (16%). Below is the median rank of each MLS team by PPG (Points per Game), WS (, SQ (Squawka), and HB (Helltown Beer).

Last week saw Columbus Crew SC at "11th", but this week they sink to "17th." That's the wrong way. With that, being that the game they played was on one of the worst surfaces in North America, they get a pass this week (in my head, not with the numbers).

Power Rank!TeamPPGWSSQHB
2Montreal Impact5113
2Sporting Kansas City2721
3FC Dallas2138
5Philadelphia Union5952
5San Jose Earthquakes45105
7Orlando City8376
8L.A. Galaxy8849
8Real Salt Lake19137
8Colorado Rapids79124
9New York City FC105820
11Houston Dynamo1431110
11Chicago Fire1091611
14New England Rev.12161512
14Toronto FC14141813
15DC United14131715
17Portland Timbers17181416
17Columbus Crew2015619
17Seattle Sounders FC1817917
18Vancouver Whitecaps12181918
20New York Red Bulls19202014

In my years following MLS, I've never seen Columbus drifting down around the bottom nearly 20% in. Back in 2013 they bottomed out at 16th in the league for most of the year, but never dead last like this.

I've seen comparisons to Supporters' Sheild winning years of 2004 and 2009, but holy hell, there's a million things wrong with that. Doing this sort of comparing to previous years drives me up the wall. MLS with a dozen or so teams is a crapshoot. A good three game run could shoot you up the table. This is now a 20 team league. Holes are deeper and the motivation is less (12 team playoff).

Anyhow, Crew host New York City FC this weekend. Everybody likes them better. Except for my system. I guess we'll see who's right.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Finlay's Thoughts on MLS Officiating

Moment of the match last night goes to Ethan Finlay. You hear the voices of players picked up all the time during MLS matches. The league's desire to pick up as much crowd noise from often quiet stadiums during the match ensures it. Montreal's Olympic Stadium is the best for this. Huge crowd but the "O" is a cavernous facility.

Finlay's first outburst is pretty clear. He follows up with another something I can't quite make out ("you need glasses"?). Then, awesomely, the 4th official finishes it with; "Don't be fucking loud."

Ah, anyway. It's a nothing moment in a nothing game for Columbus, but it's funny. I tend to pick up on these things and put them in my back pocket until the time comes when you find out everybody on the team dislikes each other. Key moment, then.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Crew SC Face a Fate...

Bad starts are different than midseason slumps. Berhalter knows those types of blurry-eyed warm weather mornings of the latter. A bad start to the season is different. A bad start to your third season in charge, is different. It sticks with you. It puts you behind. You're half an hour late and at the bottom of the mountain you need to climb. Each press of the snooze button has you wondering if you can even today.

Columbus Crew SC is in a bad spot right now, but it certainly doesn't mean it's over. MLS, like most other sports in this country, are extremely forgiving. It does mean that Gregg Berhalter and team have some important decisions to make. This type of adversity is why they are here.

Should Berhalter change up his lineup? Maybe take the team out to Medieval Times for a fun dinner? It's not known what is going on inside the walls of the training facility down in Obetz or in the hearts of the players, but something is off. Something is in need of change.

The players on the pitch ("pitch") today looked absolutely spent. Anyone watching any level of sport closely knows what it looks like.

It's time for buttons to be pressed. Change it, or face a fate worse than death... average MLS season.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Hard Way

I like the guys that do it the hard way -- in, around and outside MLS in US and Canada... and then jump into MLS (and see some success). There's an amazing part of soccer in North America that many missed over the last four decades or so (many years before that of course, too). Mauro Biello, Manager of the Montreal Impact, is one of the guys that was part of it.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Ranking - For Hope!

Crew SC fans seem a little frustrated that the team is in last place (they should be!). It's an unusual place for the team to be at any point in the season - and with four games gone, it should be a concern. I've never seen Columbus in this position. Even in short five or ten game spans there always seems to be at least a team or two worse.

To help make sense of the local team finding themselves 20 out of 20, let us look towards the facts and figures of this season, so far. I watch a fair amount of MLS, but it's impossible to get a fair handle on how the season is going in the league top to bottom.

Below will be a ranking based on where the team is on the table (Points per Game - PPG) and ranked by Who Scored (WS) and Squawka (SQ). "Rank" is the average position of PPG, WS and SQ.

2FC Dallas212
2L.A. Galaxy421
4Colorado Rapids434
5Sporting Kansas City186
6Montreal Impact865
8Portland Timbers1148
8Philadelphia Union8107
9Real Salt Lake21214
9New York City FC1279
10San Jose Earthquakes41412
10Orlando City7815
10Houston Dynamo15411
11Columbus Crew20113
13Chicago Fire121216
14New England Rev.141613
15Vancouver Whitecaps101717
15Seattle Sounders FC171810
16Toronto FC151518
19New York Red Bulls172020
19DC United191919

Here are the figures extended out with some helpful key performance indicators on the right.

PPGTeamWS RatingSquawka RatingPGDPtsPoss%Pass%Shot AShot F
2.25Sporting Kansas City6.8574742957821111
2.00FC Dallas6.97825521050759.815
2.00Real Salt Lake6.8485428457213.810.5
1.75L.A. Galaxy6.94918447558010.313.5
1.75Colorado Rapids6.92769417547811.515.8
1.75San Jose Earthquakes6.79504407487715.89
1.67Orlando City6.8546831550811112.3
1.50Montreal Impact6.89749416498014.311
1.50Philadelphia Union6.84709416477413.813
1.40Vancouver Whitecaps6.71408507447315.211.2
1.33Portland Timbers6.91612304508011.320.7
1.25New York City FC6.8756240558791217
1.25Chicago Fire6.8415405457415.510.3
1.20New England Rev.6.734875-26507414.212.2
1.00Toronto FC6.7536440445701411.3
1.00Houston Dynamo6.9150743449721513.8
0.75New York Red Bulls6.511124-5355721314.8
0.75Seattle Sounders FC6.655114-2351821211.3
0.60DC United6.621385-63477112.814
0.50Columbus Crew6.828064-22558213.314.5

Looks like Squawka loves the Crew so far this year and Who Scored is kinda = meh. I'm thinking the trajectory of this team is middle of the table.