Monday, November 30, 2015

Monday, Cup Countdown Begins

I figure that since the team here that I've been writing about for the last five years has made the MLS Cup Final I'll get a little loose and journal-like leading up to this Sunday's game.

11-30-15 Dispatch
First up is a little housekeeping note; The site podcast "Red Cards in Helltown" will be recorded later this week. The plan is to have it ready for everyone Friday. We sort of expected Columbus to advance (and likely host) so we felt like a preview show might be neat instead of covering the result. We've been all over that the last few weeks, though. If you want to check those shows out head over to iTunes or Soundcloud.

Next up is the sports page of today's Columbus Dispatch. The paper does a nice job of providing team coverage despite some comments otherwise. Adam Jardy recently got moved over to Buckeye Basketball shortly after the paper was sold so it looks like Shawn Mitchell will have the job until this season is over. My understanding is that no one has been assigned the beat on a permanent basis. Nice photo on the cover by AP's Julio Cortez.

Speaking of... there were a lot of pretty pastel colors last night after the game ended. I took a quick snapshot of head coach Gregg Berhalter getting interviewed after the game because I thought it was so neat looking. Games at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ generally have a soothing blue hue to them because of the seats. The smoke muted that a bit and brought out some greens and reds, like what you get on a cloudy day.

The muted background also makes it look three dimensional in a video game-y kind of way.

Doubt it will look like that post game in Columbus after the final on Sunday. Mapfre Stadium is filled with yellow and gray bleachers and seats. It creates its own brand of neat though. During winter games the stands are filled with people wearing black or dark colors. When the stadium is full you get this sort of wildly intimate atmosphere. It's a cross between being in a gym watching a basketball game and a spaceship with nothing around the stadium but the vastness of space.

I got my tickets for it early this morning at the stadium box office. There was a decent sized line when I got there a little after 9 am. I'm hearing now it is sold out, but I have a feeling they will figure out a way to sell more.

The folks standing around me seemed to be in it more for the event save for the group towards the front who seemed to be supporters. A group behind me talked about the 2001 final that was held at Crew Stadium. It was used as a neutral site then and featured the LA Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes. Lots of memorable players on both those teams. At least as far as MLS goes. Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario scored that day to give the 'Quakes the win.

Speaking of that game - I hadn't looked up the logo until just now. It featured elements of the original Crew logo, including rivets and the color gray (which is the forgotten Crew color). The whole thing is gloriously ugly, haha. What a damn mess. I do like the practical nature of the rivets and how the old MLS logo fits in. It's like a physical thing. To the designers credit, it does have weight to it. You sort of have to strain to see it because of the rollercoaster ride your eyes go on because of the sash-type thing and the railroad-ish tracks the ball is on.

Within the world of soccer logos, that design could be seen as ahead of her time when you consider the eyesore that is the new Bethlehem Steel badge. That said, there are folks that have done a great job here in Columbus and the Crew SC aesthetic. I'll post more this week but here is an example of what they are doing well.

Could be I like it because it reminds me of a header image I did for Massive Report a bit back. Sort of makes me what to set up a FIFA or FM simulation and pit these two rosters against one another.

Running out of time so last up here is a Google photo-edited shot of the Eastern Conference Champs Trophy. They had it on display in the team shop this morning when I was getting tickets. One thing this hardware had me wondering today was whether or not there was a separate trophy for the regular season conference winner AND the Finals winner. Looks to be only one trophy. I hope it is anyway.

Let's make it nice and big.

Parkhurst, Man of the Match

I thought this was a neat short video of Crew SC Defender and Team Captain Michael Parkhurst. He was voted Man of the Match for his play in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Video via @ColumbusCrewSC

Saturday, November 28, 2015

MLS Cup Would be 1st for Crew SC

Crew SC badge with '08 Star
It may seem like a "game the game" type of scenario, but a goal is all that remains between the Columbus Crew SC and the MLS Cup final. Score one during the Sunday, November 29th match in Harrison, NJ and the Red Bulls will need four to win. The away side could lose 1-0, 2-1, or even 3-1 and still make it to the 20th iteration of the MLS Cup Final.

MLS is an ever changing animal. Fundamental things like rules, number of teams, competition formats (both regular season and playoffs) and the money involved are drastically altered from year to year. So, while there are moments of glory of which to draw, there is no long history or memorable 2nd leg moments on here for either side.

Back when the Hunt family ran the Columbus Crew that won the 2008 MLS Cup, 14 teams in the league were directly operated, or recently so, by a handful of groups. Eight made the playoffs. San Jose had a team of some sort again and KC was still the Wizards. Conference Semifinals were two-legged series, but the Conference Finals were single elimination and the Final was at a neutral field in warm weather.

Seven years and versions of the league later, things couldn't be more different. Especially for the MLS team in Columbus.

In just two years after Anthony Precourt purchased the team from the Hunt Sports Group, he has taken them from a floundering franchise playing under a burning scoreboard and in a half full stadium, to within a single goal of hosting MLS Cup. It's a remarkable achievement. One that is a first for him and his team.

As for the fans, supporters, writers and even those lowly bloggers - where does this fall in their trophy cases? Well, while you would be closer in saying The Ohio State Buckeyes College Football National Championship is more similar to winning an MLS Cup in 2008 compared to MLS 2015, don't be surprised when you see the aforementioned group tying the victories (or losses) of every team in the state of Ohio in some form or another to what Crew SC are doing here in town.

This isn't about them. What's happening here in Columbus for Crew SC is a unique achievement full of firsts and truly special for the organization and the city.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

[podcast] Red Cards in Helltown: Conf Finals Special

Rick Gethin, David Burgin, Justin Bell and Larry Johnson talk about the Columbus Crew SC win in the first leg against The NY Red Bulls and look forward to next week's matchup.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Crew SC vs. Red Bulls Sunday

MLS Cup Playoffs kick up here again on November 22nd. After a long international break, it's the Conference Finals portion of the event. If you'll turn to the back cover of the playbill you were given when you entered you will see a description of this event. It's a two-legged series, winner advances on aggregate goals, away goals serve as tie breakers.

November 22, 2015
Columbus Crew SC vs. NY Red Bulls
MAPFRE Stadium, 5:00 PM on ESPN

Portland Timbers vs. FC Dallas
Providence Stadium, 7:30 PM EST on FS1

The reverse fixtures happen a full week later on November 29th. Times are TBD.


Having played three times already, these two teams are very familiar with the 2015 versions of themselves (does that make sense?). Each match finished 2-1, NY winning two of three. They've been tightly matched affairs. Each very similar in style of play as well as general statistics.

It's pretty amazing what NY manager Jesse Marsch has done as far as consistency with his team. From the start of the year to the end. The story on the Crew SC side is a little different in that the team lost its footing early in the year when LB Hernan Grana left the team abruptly. Gregg Berhalter's style of play didn't change, but the team had to scramble a bit to find an adequate replacement.

The match will look and feel similar to the last time these two lined up in early October. It started with a flurry of goals but eventually settled into a tight match. Connor Lade and Mike Grella were easily able to handle the speedy Ethan Finlay. Once they were up, it forced Crew SC into their default (and less effective) mode of just pumping crosses into the box (27!).

What ended up happening early in that game will be the key to this one: Justin Meram. NY will undoubtedly work to negate Ethan Finlay's runs and cut off the supply to Kei Kamara. No other team in MLS relied as much on two attacking players as the Crew with those guys. This leaves the match up to Meram and his ability with the ball to get off shots. He'll be coming off a long trip to Asia for the Iraqi national team so it's difficult to predict exactly where he'll be in body, but I think his mind will be right. He's improved a great deal there this year (from my perspective).

Be it Meram, Kamara or Finlay on the Crew side or Wright-Phillips, Grella and Sam with NY... this game will be about finishing big opportunities.

Here are the averages from the three games this year, two of these games were played in Columbus:

Shots - Crew 15, NY 12
On Target - 5, 5
Goals - 1.3, 1.7
Passing - 74%, 75%
Possession - 50%, 50%


Contrary to what you might think, Columbus stays on the mild side of freezing until the end of they year. By that, I mean 40-ish when the sun is out. Scheduling isn't doing the Crew any favors though. The game start on Sunday means that the 2nd half is going to get cold. By 6 PM it will be below freezing.

To those going - bundle up, but don't fret. Your reward will be provided no matter the result. Skies will be clear, a beautiful late Autumn sunset awaits.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Don Garber, The Wrong Voice

"If you're investing billions and billions of dollars, which we are now at about $3.5 billion invested [in MLS] in twenty years, to build something in Kansas City and they have a shitty season, to think they might be playing in Chattanooga in a stadium of 4,000 people on a crappy field with no fans, makes no sense." - Don Garber talking at "BlazerCon," Saturday, November 14th, 2015

Don Garber, MLS Commissioner, has a deep-rooted misunderstanding of the sport of soccer. At the very essence of it, soccer is a sport open to everyone no matter their means. This is what separates it from other sports out there and why it has become the most popular sport in the world.

There are many out there that can trace the invention of the game back hundreds of years, but the modern game (as we know it, mostly) started forming in the mid 19th century. The Victorian age. Back then two entire towns would gather around one rugby / American type looking ball and kick, fight, throw, knaw, punt and everything in-between to get the ball to the other side of town (okay, oversimplification... still though - for quick, informative read check out The Victorian Football Miscellany).

While the Victorian version of the game is where rugby and American football originated, soccer split and ended up going down a slightly different path. In the 1800's teams could hardly agree on rules let alone the formation of nationwide leagues. Rules were different everywhere.

What wasn't different was the inclusionary way it all started. Every town, city, and village could participate. Because of this, the game exploded in England and beyond to where it is today.

Except here. In the United States. Weird, right? Why is that?

Don Garber's thoughts;

"Promotion and relegation was created in the 1800s," he said. "It was a system that existed because there was no other way that existed to create good competition. They were amateur teams. If you were to create professional football in England or Italy or Spain today, I don't believe you'd have promotion and relegation. We need to create a league that works for the fan base in this market. Nobody looks at the NFL and says it's not working because there's no promotion and relegation."

The game would be nowhere near where it is in the world today were it not for the open systems. England alone has 92 fully professional teams with another seven thousand plus playing in organized leagues.

Every time Don Garber gets a national platform to talk about MLS he turns it into a league history lesson. He does this without fail. In that history he loves to stroke his ego by talking about the bold decisions in the early 2000s to contract a couple teams. He likens it to saving the sport in the US when in reality, the only thing he saved was MLS and their exclusionary system that only benefits the few and not the many.

If you stand it up to other sports in the USA, Garber plays the part of "commissioner" very well. Proud, arrogant, boisterous, untouchable, ignorant and so on. It's what we have in this country (including where they all got it from - pro wrestling). Where this doesn't play is in a global marketplace. Which is the obvious future of sports.

From the NFL attempts to get a foothold in the rest of the world, to the NBA playing games in China to MLB having regular season games in Austrailia - they all want their game to spread all over the globe. It never will though. Not with closed systems.

MLS, and the sport of soccer, has the opposite problem. The rest of the world is ready and waiting already. It's just Garber is going the wrong direction on a clearly lit path.

Soccer has been played in the US for over 100 years and the most played sport in this country for decades. MLS, just like the rest of the professional game here in the US, should be light years beyond where it is now. Don Garber is doing nothing but selling a narrative - and it's insulting.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Carryover Minutes Strike Again

It's the ops manager in me. When I first started digging into MLS stats to get a quick understanding of the league I made a beeline to player minutes. What I believed (and still believe) is that a stable roster is representative of a stable organization.

I've been on both sides of the turnover scenario. Even in the simplest situations, when you are starting something new you have heavy turnover. Same goes for when you make the wrong staffing decision or leadership change. More often than not, though, burning through resources (staff, money, materials, etc) is an unhealthy sign.

Conversely, maintaining a stable group (from the front office on down to the players) is a sign of a healthy organization.

Rules and regulations in Major League Soccer work against stability. Budgeting (salary cap) each team is just one mechanism the league uses, but it has the greatest impact. You see it most when a player improves (which is what we all want right?). A good year means a lot of players are playing at a higher level and want more money. This is expensive and a team's budget does not increase enough to keep up with it. What ends up happening is teams letting go of players they would rather not or making sacrifices down-roster with younger players.

It's a reality of MLS, but managing it has clear rewards.

Here's a look at how teams fared in returning minutes from the previous two seasons, on the combined table of 2014 to 2015...

1.72 - Top 5 (58 pts)
1.64 - Top Half (56)
1.23 - Bottom Half (42)
1.41 - Bottom 5 (48)

The difference between the top and bottom half is where to look, here. The jump you see in the bottom five belongs to both Sporting KC and the NY Red Bulls. It suggests instability in their organizations, though. If you are familiar with those two teams it sort of proves true. The Red Bulls are riding a sort of high post-Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill group and Sporting has cleared (significant way) for both Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. Looking at this way suggests that NYRB might be in for a bad 2016. Write it down.

Three of the remaining four teams in the MLS Cup playoffs finished close to 70% in regards to bringing guys back from the previous year and fall in the top half when looking at the last two years.

58% - FC Dallas (7th)
57% - Portland Timbers (8th)
55% - Columbus Crew SC (9th)
35% - NY Red Bulls (last)

Again, NY is the oddball here. I asked Justin Bell about them during this site's last podcast because I'm really at a loss as to why / how they had such a Supporters' Sheild winning year. I really like their team this year, but perhaps it is entirely possible that, be it this postseason or next year, midnight is quickly approaching on their special season.

The further back I go with "carryover minutes" the clearer the end of the road is for some of the better teams. Success isn't sustainable in the league's current format.

Much has been made about the final four in the MLS playoffs this year in regards to budget. The way I see it though, success this year means the Grim Reaper awaits in the next as player wages increase at a rate greater than the salary cap.

Congrats to the final four. Best of luck navigating that salary cap next year. More importantly, my best goes to the players whose careers are derailed by it.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

[podcast] Red Cards in Helltown: Season 2, Episode 18

Host Rick Gethin is joined by Larry Johnson and Justin Bell this week for the latest episode of Red Cards in Helltown.

► Thoughts on France, news
► Neat insight from NHL players, coach
► Upcoming MLS matches, week break
► International calendar
► USMNT performance against St. Vincent...

► Edge in the NY / Columbus upcoming match
► What Crew need to do, central defenders
► Lots of words on Dax McCarty (good... and bad)
► Robles or Clark
► How much is NYRB doing well Jesse Marsch

► MLS Playoff television ratings
► Crew pulled good numbers, why?
► Justin's experiences in 2008
► Always play 2nd fiddle

► Rick's Hawaiian shirts
► Good talk on "rubber crumbs" (pellets)
► Important to keep things open

Reminder that you can also find us over on iTunes as well. Thanks for listening.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

MLS Final - Want vs Need

MLS does not hide their desire to have good teams playing in big markets. Los Angeles is the biggest beneficiary of top talent with Toronto and NY (Red Bulls normally or City FC) not far behind. Ever since Seattle joined, they too have landed huge stars. For the most part, it has worked the way MLS wanted as the LA Galaxy have been in almost half (9/19) the finals across league history, which includes appearances in three of the last four (winning each).

Is that the right recipe, though? TV ratings for the MLS Cup final (the league's highest-rated match of the year) have generally declined since 1996. Part of that is due to the move from ABC to ESPN, but those games have been steadily shrinking since the switch over in 2009.

To help turn this around the league gave in and allowed two channels to carry the final last year. It worked as far as eyes on the game. At first glance you would think that it was the star-heavy team in LA and the large market in New England that drove the uptick in ratings - ESPN pulled 1.0 million, it's best since 2009, and Unimas pulled another 0.7 - but in reality it was likely just one of those stars that helped it out... a retiring USMNT star in Landon Donovan.

MLS is trying out the same approach this year, only the final will be missing Donovan. Both ESPN and Unimas will televise the match. It means more viewers for sure but the potential matchups this year are far from what they had last year (not to mention what the weather might be in a couple of those cities).

Two years ago Sporting KC hosted Real Salt Lake. The game was broadcast on ESPN and it pulled a miserable rating of 500k viewers. Two lesser known teams in mid-sized markets with no crossover national team stars (sorry Zusi and Besler) played in bad soccer weather conditions.

There is a real possibility that this year the league could see a similar matchup. Even if the NY Red Bulls beat out Crew SC and host the final, they don't have the star power of 2014 LA (or 2012, or 2011 LA). The big market, yes. That checks off one box, but they miss on big names and good weather. None of this is to mention that the game starts at 4 pm in the middle of a NFL afternoon (in a previous post I noted what the NFL does to MLS ratings, see links at bottom).

This adds up to bad news for MLS on the TV ratings front. No matter the matchup in the final, fewer people will be watching this year.

How many fewer? Here is a look at where the teams remaining fell during the regular season across all networks on ESPN and FS1 (pulled out UniMás, as good as ratings were, their cable reach measurably less - different market as well, will get a separate post in the future).

MLS likely wants a Portland at NY Red Bulls Final

The bright side of this situation for MLS is they type of soccer that can be played by the four remaining teams. Each one of the remaining teams try to play the sport. It might not always be pretty, but they aren't out there hoofing it (Houston) around or fouling the hell out of the opponent (KC).

You can't overstate the power that Landon Donovan had last year for both the English and Spanish-speaking audience. There are many issues MLS brings on themselves in terms of scheduling, competition format, rules, etc... but one thing they'll get right this year is having the "right" teams in the final.

The league might not be happy with the ratings and the regulars out in the media world will go deep on what didn't work in the shadow of bad ratings, but there is good that will happen in that final.

It might not be what they want, but it will be a little taste of what they need.

Now... about this competition format.

This post is part of my continued look at MLS TV ratings this year. For a couple recent thoughts on the subject, check out:

MLS TV Ratings Flat in Playoffs
Over There is a League
NFL Decimates MLS TV Ratings

Sunday, November 8, 2015

[podcast] Red Cards in Helltown - Playoff Special

Rick Gethin, David Burgin, Justin Bell and Larry Johnson got together right after the two Eastern Conference Semifinals to talk about what went down. Check it out!

Shutout Needed, Wild One Expected

uh oh
Throughout the season, Columbus Crew SC have been one of the more entertaining and satisfying MLS teams to watch. Playing an attacking type of possession game has pushed this year's team towards the top in the goal scoring category. Second overall, actually. That comes from being fifth in shots per game and first in those on target.

With all that attacking comes a rather leaky defense. Looking past the two late season shutouts the Crew posted against Toronto and DC in the last two games of the regular season, the team was only able to blank one team in the previous 26 matches (Chicago on August 15th). 

Anyone paying attention should know that discounting late regular season games is important. A lot of bad decisions are made over the course of late-season runs of form. Think of the Columbus Blue Jackets late last year when they had nothing to lose or the Colorado Rapids this year in MLS. Last minute efforts when other teams are winding down and / or prepping for the postseason leads many a team GM or President astray. It's fool's gold.

The addition of Gaston Sauro to the Crew defense might be more about timing than anything. Sauro is a good player, but one person is not able to turn a poor defensive team into a good one. Montreal had no trouble getting quality opportunities last weekend with a full strength Crew backline.

Montreal has outright beaten Columbus three times this year already, outscoring them by 5 goals even though they've dominated by the Crew in terms of possession and shots. Interesting note: the Impact have taken 12 fewer shots (29-41) but gotten 6 more on target (18-12). 

The first two games between these two were similar. Lots of opportunities for Columbus but poor finishing. Last match things changed a bit. Crew controlled the ball but were shut down offensively. Were it not for a somewhat right-place, right-time Higuain, the Crew could be looking at a much different game today.

A Crew shutout win would be incredibly impressive, considering. I don't think it will matter who scores first this evening. Goals will happen in this match. When the first one goes in, hold on.

Saturday, November 7, 2015


The all-caps title is kinda over the top. Been using the same tools to measure performance here at Helltown, five years now. Bradley Wright-Phillips is the HELLTOWN BEER PLAYER OF THE YEAR for 2015. I'm as surprised as you are. I trust my system, though. Stay up to date. Throughout the year, I keep this MLS stuff updated on the right-hand nav of this site...

Below - past winners of such, this as.



Thursday, November 5, 2015

MLS 2014-15 Combined Standings, Cost per Point

There are many ways to measure success in Major League Soccer. Outside of performance in the playoffs (which, by the nature of it, can be influenced by loads of outside factors), perhaps the cleanest was is to look a regular season table points total of the last two years.

115Seattle Sounders FC23
114FC Dallas23
112LA Galaxy42
110D.C. United13
110New York Red Bulls24
105Columbus Crew SC15
105New England Revolution6
103Vancouver Whitecaps FC11
102Portland Timbers11
100Sporting Kansas City10
97Real Salt Lake5
90Toronto FC-10
81Houston Dynamo-26
79Philadelphia Union-13
79Montreal Impact-16
77San Jose Earthquakes-13
69Colorado Rapids-29
66Chicago Fire-25

Next up is a look at the point differences, 2014 to 2015.

Montreal Impact23
San Jose Earthquakes17
New York Red Bulls10
Toronto FC8
FC Dallas6
Colorado Rapids5
Portland Timbers4
Vancouver Whitecaps FC3
Houston Dynamo3
Sporting Kansas City2
Columbus Crew SC1
New England Revolution-5
Philadelphia Union-5
Chicago Fire-6
D.C. United-8
LA Galaxy-10
Seattle Sounders FC-13
Real Salt Lake-15

Going to have a little bit of fun here and whip up a little metric. We'll call it POWER POINTS. Consistency (repeatability) is extremely important in sports, so what I'm going to to is take the absolute value of the year to your point total difference and subtract it from the total of the two years.

Example: New York Red Bulls. 110 pts - 10 point, year to year difference = 100 POWER POINTS.

Power PtsTeam
108FC Dallas
104Columbus Crew SC
102D.C. United
102LA Galaxy
102Seattle Sounders FC
100New England Revolution
100New York Red Bulls
100Vancouver Whitecaps FC
98Portland Timbers
98Sporting Kansas City
82Real Salt Lake
82Toronto FC
78Houston Dynamo
74Philadelphia Union
64Colorado Rapids
60Chicago Fire
60San Jose Earthquakes
56Montreal Impact

Crew SC get a gold star here. Their point totals year to year were 52 in 2014 and 53 this year. That's about as consistent as you can be. In fact, best in the league. I love results like that. For me, it's the first place I look when trying to figure out if something is going well or not. One year improvements like Montreal, San Jose or the New York Red Bulls suggest instability just as much as teams that dropped points like a rock in Real Salt Lake, Seattle or the LA Galaxy.


Another clean way to look at success in the regular season is to take the aggregate (year end) salaries of both years and divide them by total points earned in the regular season.

$ p PtTeam
$75,547D.C. United
$76,057FC Dallas
$79,456Columbus Crew SC
$85,879Real Salt Lake
$100,091Sporting Kansas City
$100,185Chivas USA
$105,319Portland Timbers
$109,892Vancouver Whitecaps FC
$116,918Houston Dynamo
$118,635San Jose Earthquakes
$122,525Colorado Rapids
$126,126Philadelphia Union
$131,657New England Revolution
$138,175Montreal Impact
$138,249New York Red Bulls
$153,226Chicago Fire
$198,897Seattle Sounders FC
$291,386LA Galaxy
$429,503Orlando City SC
$438,746Toronto FC
$495,258New York City FC

You can see that there are basically three tiers of teams in MLS, in regards to spending on the competitive nature of the regular season (versus jersey sales, or ticket sales or what have you). DC, Dallas, Columbus and Salt Lake are clearly smart spenders. NYCFC, TFC and Orlando are wasteful.

The measure of success of any season is based upon goals each team sets forth (failing to set goals is a fail, of course), so it's impossible to know who achieved what on a team by team basis. What the above can do is give you a read on which teams are healthy and which are not.