Sunday, June 26, 2016

A Familiar Slog

Columbus salvaged a draw last night after surviving a bevy of early NY Red Bull chances. That's about all the summary you need from last nights game. The match was slow and disjointed on both sides. And to be frank, it was one of the worst Crew performances in recent memory.

The table may say that Gregg Berhalter's team is in a familiar place right now. In 2014 it was 18 from the first 15 games. Last year and this year it is 17 points. All of these starts are mind-numbingly mediocre, but that's MLS! It's designed to be this way for three-quarters of the league.

Looking back, however, there is something different about this Crew SC season verses 2014 and 2015.

2014: Two years ago you could see the work being done on the minds of the players. It was fantastic to watch. Many of the guys we had seen struggling under the previous coach were acting new and improved. The change was refreshing and visible. All was not perfect, however. A fast 9 points in the first three games slipped into what was one of the worst runs in team history. One win in 16 games. Right, smack dab in the middle of the year.

2015: The season that others will forever be measured against. It was a slow-ish start for the team but you could see the attack mentality of the team starting to take shape when they scored 10 goals in three home games late April and beginning of May. Again, though, Berhalter's team slipped into an eight points in 10 game run (one win) in June and July before catching fire at the beginning of September.

2016: And here we are this season. Another early lull, according to the table. But how much is the MLS table worth, really? Berhalter learned the league (largely) under Bruce Arena. The same man that openly admits that results most of the year matter little.

Is this season like the other two? It's missing the re-programming of players in 2014 and the outrageous offensive form of Ethan Finlay and Kei Kamara of last year. The key difference this year is that you have long-term injuries to key players in Federico Higuain and Gaston Sauro on top of intra-team drama - nor was the team ever more than a point out of a playoff position.

Columbus is currently 4 points out of a playoff spot and sitting behind two teams for that spot.

It's easy to point to results and say, "this team has been here before." Yes, the familiar slog of mediocre results is here, but that doesn't mean it's somehow easier to digest. Extended mediocre runs of results may have become a signature of this team. Injuries and poor play are not, but that's what we've got right now.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Crew and Berhalter, Important Measured Decisions in Immediate Future

The Columbus Crew have money in the bank. The Columbus Crew have one month to decide how to spend that money. The Columbus Crew are already mulling options and contacting potential additions to their roster, and must carefully weigh the immediate future (2016/17 seasons), current roster age/fragility, positional needs and the longer term future (2016-2020) of the franchise.

Simply put, given the style of play and Gregg Berhalter's leanings, the Columbus Crew should be looking at signing a proven mid-twenties central defender and a proven mid-twenties attacking midfielder.

While healthy, the Crew back line is solid, but old. Parkhurst and Wahl can hold down the middle, but not for an MLS Cup winning side. Gaston Sauro will, hopefully, be back and 100% next year. At 26 years-old, Sauro is the first half of a MLS Cup winning central back pairing, potentially for another 5-6 years. Another central defender of Sauro's age and quality sets the Crew for years to come.

Attacking-mid is a similar situation. Higuain just had hernia surgery. The annals of soccer are rife with aging players having this surgery and never being the same. Higuain had already lost a step, not in mind but in body. Signing a proven attacking-mid in his mid-twenties, spending the money to do so, would set the Crew for the next 5-6 years.

If the only goal is to win right now, and the Crew believe Higuain will be back and 100%, then they will most probably sign a proven striker. Will this route win an MLS Cup, I don't think so. But, can the Columbus Crew win an MLS Cup title without signing an out and out striker? I think so.

With players like Finlay, Meram, Mabwati, Ola Kamara and now Duka, the Crew have the type of players capable of scoring a lot of goals in Gregg Berhalter's system, especially with a younger attacking-mid, one with greater range, stamina and strength.

Players like Higuain, Parkhurst and Wahl would still play important roles, on and off the field, for the next two years. The improved defense, with Tchani and Trapp providing the boiler in the boiler room, would be MLS Cup worthy.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Crew Didn't Concede

The game plan for Columbus last night appeared to be to keep possession and not give up a goal. It worked, but maybe too well. With no true forward on the pitch, the normal approach of banging crosses in all match (though, it didn't stop them from racking up 14 - To whom? no idea) wasn't a productive option and forced the team to try and move around Montreal and get a good look on goal.

The approach yielded one official attempt on goal. Not good! But, that's ok! Because after giving up six goals in their last two matches (11 in their last 5) meant that not conceding was priority number one.

Right behind that was not giving up goals (or the lead) in the 2nd half. If you listing out "big topic" issues this year's Crew have, it's exactly that. Actually, it's gotten to the point where you may need to question player commitment, discipline, guts, grit and broad, sloppy terms like that.

What's weird is that Columbus only trails in games an average of 12.9 minutes. If you look at when Columbus is either level or leading the opposition, they are 3rd only behind Colorado and LA. What that means is that the team has zero of those broad, sloppy terms late in games (mental discipline, being the big one for me).

Avg. Minutes Leading or Level
80.0 : LA Galaxy
79.7 : Colorado Rapids
77.0 : Columbus Crew SC
74.7 : Montreal Impact
71.9 : Real Salt Lake

That's an interesting metric to look at. Right behind RSL you find a couple bad teams in Chicago (71.6) and DC United (71.8). It suggests inconsistency and having a poor ability to close out a game is right up there with, well, consistency and closing out games.

Up to this point, I believe this to be a bi-product of a broken back four in defense. The return of Tyson Wahl will help keep things stable, but he is a band-aid on a big wound.

Moving past this point, Columbus will have to play more games like this because of the injury to Federico Higuain. Controlling matches at home, like they did last night, will be important as upcoming games on the road, where the other team will be pressing, will not be easy.

Columbus stopped the bleeding yesterday before venturing out on a tough upcoming month where they face a red hot NY Red Bulls at home and two teams in desperate need of points on the road (Sporting KC and NE Revs).

Saturday, June 18, 2016

2016 MLS Flops (so far)

The 2016 MLS season starts back up today after the three-ish week long summer break. With that, here is a list of players that teams are hoping to have a better 2nd half of the season.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Higuain Out (They Paved Paradise)

News out of wherever says Federico Higuain underwent sports hernia surgery this week. He'll be out for for a couple months. Another big hit for Columbus, along side the longer term Gaston Sauro injury. There are a host of other injuries for the Crew, but none more important.

The team was going nowhere before this latest blow, but the changes will bring in some much needed new faces. Of course, the playoffs are still in play (and a US Open Cup run, that I hope they go for), but don't expect anything but a herky-jerky summer. That's okay though. Just like old times.

Here's to hoping we get Higuain back and better than ever, soon. Sometimes you don't know what you got till it's gone.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

[podcast] The Long Break

US Open Cup: Same old from Crew

Via Massive Report - when asked about the importance of the US Open Cup, Gregg Berhalter responded with; "that's a difficult question."

What's so difficult about it? Crew SC have drifted as far down the MLS table as any Hunt owned team at this point in the season, and are about to take on the Montreal Impact for the sixth time in the last 12 months.

Massive Report went on to say that Berhalter see's the Open Cup as time for "guys that don't  play much to see some minutes."

It's the same old, same old from Columbus Crew SC. Why not go for it? Why not field your best team? The approach makes it seem like MLS has some 45+ game deep, cup heavy cup schedule, that it totally does not have. Columbus has been off for weeks due to Copa America and there's only one friggin' domestic cup all year.

Go for it, Columbus. Winnings are almost as much as winning the MLS Cup - and you ain't winning that this year.

Columbus takes on Tampa Bay Rowdies tomorrow night on the campus of Ohio State. Check local listings.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Top Rated in June, Cowherd Thoughts

Making a note here, before Euro 2016 starts over on ESPN. This is June 1 - June 9 and cable sporting events only.

Viewers - Event (Network)
3,490 - WWE: Raw (USA)
3,371 - WWE: Raw (USA)
2,903 - WWE: Raw (USA)
2,789 - NHL: Pittsburgh vs. San Jose (NBCSN)
2,507 - NHL: Pittsburgh vs. San Jose (NBCSN)
2,169 - WWE: Smackdown (USA)
1,996 - WWE: Smackdown (USA)
1,788 - Copa America: Mexico vs. Jamaica (UDN)
1,476 - College Softball: Auburn vs. Oklahoma (ESPN)
1,453 - Copa America: USA vs Costa Rica (FS1)
1,430 - College Softball: Auburn vs. Oklahoma (ESPN)
1,385 - NASCAR: Pocono (FS1)
1,377 - NASCAR: Pocono (FS1)
1,357 - MLB: San Francisco vs. St. Louis (ESPN)
1,302 - Copa America: USA vs. Columbia (FS1)

Despite empty stadiums, Copa America is all over the top programs in June. Lots of games, lots of repeats that people seem to be watching. It's got US sports personality Colin Cowherd taking about the popularity of soccer (video below) in the USA. It's an interesting conversation, but one that's been going on for generations. Soccer has been "top four" for some time. Just doesn't have a top four league in the US. MLS would be lucky to crack top 10 in the US when you include things like college sports and WWE and racing.

The overlap with Euro 2016 is going to be very interesting. The expanded tournament kicked off last night and is loaded with games (ie. content) for weeks.

Side note: These numbers for college softball are huge. For comparison, MLS Cup Final ratings haven't been able to crack one million for years on ESPN.

Non-Penalty G + A Leaders (MLS)

MLS is in the middle getting out of the way of one summer tournament or another at the moment, but it gives us some time to take a step back and take a look at a few performance metrics.

First up is non-penalty goals + assist leaders, thus far (with some extended info!) with a minimum of 900 minutes. "NPG+A" is a simple measurement that's a little worn, but an important one to monitor, non-the-less.

1.00Joao PlataRSL46902$175,000Guayaquil, Ecuador24
0.95Sacha KljestanNYR2101142$687,500Huntington Beach, California30
0.90Sebastian GiovincoTFC651101$7,115,556Turin, Italy29
0.85Ignacio PiattiMTL831169$425,000General Baldissera, Argentina31
0.79Kevin MolinoNYCFC53909$121,400Carenage, Trinidad & Tobago25
0.79Fanendo AdiPDX721027$712,500Lagos, Nigeria25
0.78Mike MageeLAG53925$250,000Long Grove, Illinois31
0.78Chris PontiusPHI541042$411,000Yorba Linda, California29
0.78Gyasi ZardesLAG44929$472,500Hawthorne, California24
0.77Bradley Wright-PhillipsNYR821164$710,000Lewisham, England31
0.77Dominic OduroMTL451058$235,000Pramso, Ghana30
0.65Thomas McNamaraNYCFC34969$85,000West Nyack, New York25
0.60Sébastien Le TouxPHI24906$310,228Rennes, France32
0.60Mike GrellaNYR431058$155,000Glen Cove, New York29

This year we are seeing, at least in the early going, goals coming from more players. Noticeably less top heavy this year vs. previous. General observation, but we usually see more players over the magical Helltown number of 0.60 (an attacking player of which I deem "Good").

Another observation is that there aren't any grossly underpaid players popping up at the top. Thomas McNamara is performing well in the metric and only at $85k, but we usually see a handful of guys up here in the under $100k club.

A couple more call-outs:

- Giovinco is have one of those MLS seasons were you feel he knows he's proved what he can do and on his way out.

- Good to see Chris Pontius on this list. Hopeful that he's finally fully returned from injury.

- NY Red Bull players benefitting from the freakshow vs. NYCFC.

- Last year Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay were bouncing around the top 10 all year. No Crew SC players so far this year. Ola Kamara (4 goals in 410 mins) still has a few minutes to go before he pops up over 900.

All for now. There's still a little over half the season to play.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Dropping in on MLS Free Agency

One of the bigger notes from last year's new MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement was that MLS would try it's hand at "free agency" for the first time. It was seen as a sort of victory for the players, but one they knew they had to improve.

Looking at it now, it's a win for the league. Only 27 players met the strict qualifiers that allowed them to become a free agent last year. For a refresher, here they are:

- Out of contract
- Are at least 28 years old
- Have a minimum of eight years of service in MLS

Don't you like how they call it "years of service?" Anyhow, let's dig into how things have played out.

1. Twenty-Seven Players. That means only about 5% of all MLS players qualified for free agency under these rules. Professional sports in the US is heavy handed in this arena, but 27 out of 550-600 is setting a new standard. Last year the NBA, for example, had 196 Free Agents out of 446 total players under contract and the NFL had 525 out of about 1600 on rosters last year.

2. The 27 qualifying players made a total of about $4.5 million in 2015. After going through free agency MLS wiped $1.8 million off their books, down to $2.7 in 2016.

3. Just one player ended up going to another team for a higher salary. Justin Mapp. He went from Montreal at $199k to Sporting KC for $239k. The only other player to go up stayed with their own team (Ricardo Clark, Houston, +$19k).

4. Nine of the 27 are no longer playing professionally and two went to the NASL.

5. The still active players whose salaries tumbled the most are Mike Magee (-$218k), Jeff Larentowicz (-$96k) and Corey Ashe (-$85k).

6. Table:

Justin MappMontreal Impact$199,225Sporting KC$239,070$39,8452%
Ricardo ClarkHouston Dynamo$337,750Houston Dynamo$356,700$18,95097%
Chad BarrettSeattle Sounders$100,000San Jose$95,500-$4,50021%
Michael HarringtonColorado Rapids$130,000Chicago$125,000-$5,00057%
Alan GordonLA Galaxy$175,000LA Galaxy$170,000-$5,0006%
Paulo NagamuraSporting Kansas City$230,000Sporting Kansas City$225,000-$5,00013%
Nathan SturgisHouston Dynamo$75,375Seattle$62,508-$12,867
Drew MoorColorado Rapids$270,500Toronto FC$250,000-$20,50092%
Bobby BurlingColorado Rapids$140,000Colorado Rapids$116,000-$24,00069%
Kyle ReynishNew York Red Bulls$90,317New York Red Bulls$62,500-$27,817
Brian CarrollPhiladelphia Union$150,000Philadelphia Union$120,000-$30,00080%
Ned GrabavoyNew York City FC$215,000Portland$150,000-$65,00021%
Nick LaBroccaColorado Rapids$180,000Chicago$110,000-$70,00021%
Conor CaseyPhiladelphia Union$180,000Columbus$105,000-$75,0001%
Corey AsheOrlando City SC$189,750Columbus$105,500-$84,25027%
Jeff LarentowiczChicago Fire$271,000Los Angeles$175,000-$96,00018%
Mike MageeChicago Fire$467,500Los Angeles$250,000-$217,50079%
Kenny CooperMontreal Impact$285,625Unattached$ -
Jon BuschChicago Fire$90,000Indy Eleven$ -
Andrew WeberPortland Timbers$60,000?$ -
Stephen KeelFC Dallas$60,000Unattached$ -
Khari StephensonSan Jose Earthquakes$71,646Unattached$ -
Ty HardenChicago Fire$75,078Unattached$ -
Eric AvilaOrlando City SC$77,000Tampa Bay Rowdies$ -
James RileyColorado Rapids$83,750Unattached$ -
Edson BuddleLA Galaxy$106,250Unattached$ -
Troy PerkinsSeattle Sounders$136,663Coach (Sounders Academy)$ -

The impression we got after the latest CBA was finished was that this was merely a first step and that the union gave up a bit to obtain it. While it's hard to draw any major conclusions after year one, you can say that this doesn't appear to be any better or worse than players falling to one re-entry draft or another.

For this to work in a meaningful way for players within the current structure of MLS (and outside of blowing up the Player's Union) is to reduce the "years of service" gateway. Your talking about a small group, even if MLS was the only soccer league on the planet, let alone in the US. It puts most players well past their career peak earning time.

There are a good couple stories to tell in Drew Moor in Toronto and Mike Magee back in LA. Maybe they will be back up and in demand next year (or when their deal is up). Both are over 31 but can still be effective in MLS. Hell, after eight years, they practically are MLS.

We'll see where this goes next year.