Sunday, December 18, 2016

MLS Managers - Company Men

A very strange and unusual thing happened once the final whistle blew on the 2016 MLS season. Did you notice? None of the coaches were fired. Nor were any fired at the end of the regular season. In fact, there were only three coaching changes all year.

MLS is a unique animal. The ins and outs of the rules just about make it necessary to have a company guy in charge and the insular nature of the league makes being a team player a job requirement. Digging into the professional histories of the each coach, there is nothing that tells us any different.

The only current coach to not have any experience with the league before being put in charge is Patrick Vieira. This, in and of itself, might not be terribly atypical of other leagues, but it does highlight something else. He, along with Gregg Berhalter and Veljko Paunovic are the only three to have any coaching experience outside MLS at all.

Totaled up, it's 166 years of coaching in MLS vs. just 8 years experience out of it.

There are three characteristics that define an MLS coach.

1. Former MLS player (15/20)
2. Born in the United States (14/20)
3. Be a former USMNT player (10/20)

These three things add up to what you call "Team Players." They are guys that will work within the system and play nice with corporate leadership.

It is striking that so many coaches have long time ties to the league, but is it that different to other leagues? Looking for answers it's better to turn to Liga MX than, say, the English Premier League (which might as well be from another planet than MLS). Do they meet the three criteria mentioned above?

1. Former Liga MX player (12/18)
2. Born in Mexico (7/18)
3. Former Mexican National Team Player (3/18)

Number one matches up but the others are different. Particularly, the national team experience. Interesting there because MLS and US Soccer Federation are so close.

There are a few other difference as well. The biggest being the range of ages and management experience. 13 of the 18 in Liga MX have been managing for over ten years, while only three in MLS have. All together it's Liga MX 256 years of management experience and MLS 140. Almost double.

Incredible differences between the two leagues. "MLS is young," you might say. First. It's not. And second, soccer has been played in this country for over 100 years. MLS is just picking MLS people.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Parkhurst moves on

It has been a while in the making, but Gregg Berhalter's voice on the pitch is officially moving on.

Not taking care of Michael Parkhurst this past summer doomed the already shaken 2016 Columbus Crew SC. Back in July, months after the Federico Higuain / Kei Kamara fiasco, Parkhurst did a very, very rare thing and spoke to the local media about his contract situation. He sounded unsettled, well, as much as he can sound that way.

For a league where the margin between good and bad is razor thin (re: MLS Cup last night) anything like not having your team captain locked up for the future is a punch in the gut.

The worst part about the situation is that Berhalter didn't tell Parkhurst either way. He just left him hanging (I'm speaking of back in July). It's impossible to say whether he would have played better had he known he was going to leave, but I'm confident that he would have played better.

The concern here for Crew SC going forward is the leadership role. There are not many Parkhurst-like players out there. Even fewer that fit so well with Berhalter's temperament (I wrote recently on this). Wil Trapp is the obvious person next in line, but they should think long and hard about that one.

As things stand right now, this is the single biggest problem the team has.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

MLS Cup Returns to Broadcast TV

The last time the MLS Cup was on an over-the-air network the Columbus Crew beat the NY Red Bulls. At the time it was on ABC and pulled 900k viewers, which matched a league the low in 2003. From there the game (at least for the English-speaking world) moved over to ESPN, where it has been ever since.

This year the game moves over to Fox per terms of the new TV deal that was signed before the start of last year.

After a strong start on ESPN in 2009 where ratings jumped back up over one-million viewers, ratings of the event have been slipping downward ever since. No doubt the switch to Fox will help get viewership back on the plus side of one million, but that doesn't mean there won't be some sweaty palms in MLS suites tonight. Anything less than that figure will bring a lot of public criticism and likely have both Fox and ESPN asking questions as to what is going on with the league.

MLS numbers across all English-speaking networks are down 15-20% this year over last. Based on what Fox normally shows on Saturday evenings, it's tough to say what the hell will happen tonight. This is uncharted territory. Fox did float a MLS game earlier this year and it pulled close to a million, but that was during a normal NFL window. It's entirely possible TV's just park on that station all Sunday out of habit.

Fox Saturday nights are a mixed bag of evening news, auto racing, college athletics and so on. That said, MLS is not a normal event on the network. People could watch out of curiosity or just skip it over altogether. Again, sweaty Don Garber palms.

What we do know is that it won't be pulling College Football numbers or even those of NASCAR. It'll be in the one million range, I suspect - and MLS and SUM will put as much spin behind it is possible.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Crew Moves, Leadership Vacuum

The offseason still has a couple months to go before rosters for the 2017 season take shape and Berhalter is showing a great deal of action after a historically bad year - but, despite impressive contract dealings so far, he has cleared the deck of leadership and there is no clear option to fill it back up.

As soon as the 2016 season was over, Anthony Precourt and Gregg Berhalter went about working, on what seemed to be, the normal set of bullet-pointed communication with fans. Some of it was franchise related; "New stadium!?" (which keeps the fans occupied) and some of it was competitive in nature; "We're going to use the extra time effectively" (which keeps fans AND your boss pacified after a horrific season).

For what it's worth, Gregg Berhalter is making good on the additional playoff-less time afforded to them this year by looking for players overseas the week after the season ended, getting in front of the camera as much as possible and tidying up existing player contracts.

The contracts part of his post-terrible season itinerary has been swift and direct. This is likely due to the winter long issue they had with Kei Kamara last year, but it's likely also because it falls into Berhalter's pencil pushing wheelhouse.

The efficiency in which he has handled this offseason so far is better than any offseason in the last six years (since I've been paying close attention) which suggests that an administrative ("Sporting Director") role might be the best fit for him.

All totaled, so far, Crew SC have picked up eight player options. On top of that, the team have another 12 players currently contracted to play with the team in 2017. That's a roster size of 20 already ready to go and it's November 26th. Clear objectives. Impressive execution.


Major changes to the roster have already taken place. Michael Parkhurst and Steve Clark are the two most impactful guys not returning. In fact, if you were to (bare with me) view Crew SC as a solar system, Parkhurst and Clark would be the Sun at the center. They were Gregg Berhalter's brain, voice and temperament on the pitch.

Making this all work for the two of them was their long career experience. It commanded respect from the other players on the team. It's here that the most risk is being taken by Berhalter. He's created a vacuum in the most critical area of team-building.

It's difficult to point to another two players on the team that can fill that void. Is it 2016 vice-captain Wil Trapp? He's likely the odds on favorite, but I don't see him having much command of a room that includes Federico Higuain, Gaston Sauro and Harrison Afful. Is it possible it will be one of them?

There is no easy way to write this other than to say - 2016 blew up in Berhalter's face in this critical area early on and he never recovered. A team leader might not matter to some coaches in MLS. Outsized, brash and loud personalities like Peter Vermes or Pablo Mastroeni could probably change up their gameday captains each week and it wouldn't matter. But, for Berhalter, it's important. His style is different.


It was mildly surprising that Federico Higuain's option was picked up, all things considered. He certainly doesn't hurt the team, but there is concern about how much he can still contribute. Both the team and player likely know this. With that said, I estimate that Higuain's budget number next year will get walked back to something resembling 2014.

Player20102011201220132014201520162017Grand Total
Federico Higuain$604,000$744,000$1,175,000$1,175,000$881,250$4,579,250
Gaston Sauro$599,513$601,313$620,060$1,820,885
Ola Kamara$457,500$471,740$929,240
Harrison Afful$150,000$291,667$300,760$742,427
Tony Tchani$194,000$209,000$155,000$175,000$195,000$283,333$292,520$1,503,853
Wil Trapp$127,000$152,000$164,500$178,250$268,500$890,250
Ethan Finlay$59,000$62,300$65,848$142,500$250,000$257,500$837,148
Nicolai Naess$207,504$249,600$457,104
Waylon Francis$153,875$170,167$200,000$231,750$755,792
Justin Meram$66,375$70,575$80,695$91,827$175,000$185,000$222,000$891,472
Mohammed Saeid$110,000$120,000$144,000$374,000
Hector Jimenez$75,000$90,000$105,000$108,150$378,150
Zack Steffen$100,008$103,000$203,008
Ben Swanson$80,417$90,417$93,730$264,563
Cristian Martinez$67,008$80,400$147,408
Dilly Duka$62,508$75,600$138,108
Adam Jahn$67,500$74,800$142,300
Brad Stuver$48,500$60,000$63,000$64,890$236,390
Marshall Hollingsworth$51,500$62,400$113,900
Rodrigo Saravia$62,500$53,560$116,060


What this does (possibly) for the team is make room for all the other players (and their projected increases) without breaking the bank. In fact, I have the same players more or less making the same amount as a group because of it (in bright green).

Again, just estimates based off general observations on how the league handles things.

Barring any surprises and as it has been for the past few years (even under the Hunts), Columbus has about a million or so dollars to work with going into the transfer / draft season. It's a nice amount to play with and plenty enough to strengthen the team.

Lots of road to go, but Crew SC is off to a good start.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

USA lose in Columbus - MLS View

There was dramatic change between the last USA v. MEX at Crew Stadium in 2013 and the one in 2016 - and it has very little to do with Jurgen Klinsmann and everything to do with MLS.

A few years ago Major League Soccer decided that acquiring USMNT stars from abroad would help jump TV ratings in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup and raise the profile of the league. Make no mistake, this was a league wide initiative and not made by individual teams. MLS is a league that works together as one. This is important to state, and restate and restate because it is such a critical part of what has happened to some of the better players in the (or eligible to play for the) United States.

In order for what happened in the loss against Mexico in Columbus on November 11, we have to take a look at the lead up to the 2014 World Cup. For it was there that MLS purchased three of what we'll call "Group A" - bigger names - Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. Each of them brought back for transfer fees in the $5-10 million range.

Because of this, a couple things happened that you don't hear much about.

1. The total spend is much more than anything MLS had paid for any cluster players in short period of time (for more details, see my post: USA's Place in the Transfer World). The expensive play vertically (re)aligned the USMNT with MLS. 
2. All the sudden, in one big swoop, MLS had three of the highest paid players in this hemisphere and they were all born on US soil. This, in turn, continued to dispose of the argument that MLS is inferior to Mexican competition because of salary restrictions.

No question that MLS went all in on the idea that bringing in these players would benefit the bottom line, but it came at a cost - an erosion in their playing quality. Now, this is a point of contention among some people in the United States soccer bubble, but in no way should it. These players have regressed. They are not as good as they were and it's absurd to suggest that not playing in the most challenging environment for them has somehow made them better.

A bi-product of bringing US born (an important distinction) players back from overseas was MLS doing everything it could to keep stars currently in the league from leaving. The examples of this are Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. Both players got sizeable wage increases to keep them both playing in the United States and with MLS (I wrote about how this would impact Sporting KC back in March 2015, head over here).

Same thing has happened with them. They never got better. Besler is to the point right now where he regularly is not selected for the starting eleven and Zusi has drifted into average with intermittent minor injuries.

Before we get to the second wave of players returning to the United States to play, let's take quick stock of key players so far...

1. Bradley: Worse than he was
2. Dempsey: Not playing, health
3. Altidore: Not as sharp, not getting better
4. Zusi: Got worse, not better
5. Besler: Didn't get better

On to the next round of USMNT eligible guys coming back in and around the last World Cup. We'll call this Group B. Jermaine Jones, Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Kljestan, Maurice Edu, DaMarcus Beasley, Brek Shea, Tim Howard and Michael Parkhurst.

Of this group, it is only Sacha Kljestan that has retained most of the quality he had playing for Anderlecht in the Belgian First Division. Jones is sort of in a category all his own. He is one of those players that by all rational football measures isn't meeting the grade yet somehow he immediately lifts shitty MLS teams into better competitive places. First, it was with New England (taking them to a Cup Final) and now it's with Colorado, who are currently in the quarterfinals this year.

The others in Group B are in various stages of not playing well (Diskerud, Shea) / breaking down (Edu) / ending their careers (Parkhurst, Howard, Beasley) or, lastly, just becoming anonymous (Bedoya).

Between Group A and B we have a total of 12 players who were once playing abroad just a few years ago and are now playing in MLS. Twelve! And out of all of them, it's only Kljestan and Jones who might be able to say their quality is not slipping.


The two goals scored were the result of direct involvement of two MLS players. On the first goal we had Bradley getting out worked and on the second we saw Altidore standing with hands on hips for the late corner Mexico scored.

There were moments in this game where both Bradley and Altidore played well (even Matt Besler!), most notably the first few minutes after halftime. But when you inch up the competition level it's the tiny moments that expose the quality difference over the course of a full game. Particularly at the international level where speed of thought, action and decision making are knives that need to constant sharpening 10 months a year.

These two moments were not because of some tactical decision Jurgen Klinsmann and his coaching staff made. Nor were they the only reason the USMNT lost for the first time at Crew Stadium. But, they were part of the two goals Mexico needed.

Pulling back and looking at the bigger picture - Mexico had only beaten the US 2 times out of 14 from the year 2000 to 2009 (both wins at Estadio Azteca). Since then Mexico has won 5 out of 10 with 4 of them in the United States. That's the best run Mexico has had since the 1980s.

Saturday, November 5, 2016


Celebrate the 6th! Annual Helltown Beer MLS Player of the Year Award! How many independent MLS writers can say that? Eh? EH? Ah well. That and a dollar will get me a coffee at my local independent bistro... McDonald's... brewed by my own self at home. The 2016 season shows us that Bradley Wright-Phillips is the winner for the 2nd year in a row. Hm.

The all-caps title is kinda over the top. Been using the same tools to measure performance here at Helltown, six years now. 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.



Again. Scrap the Expansion Draft

Here we are again. Expansion Draft time is rolling around as an existing soccer team in Minnesota has met Don Garber's approval and paid a sizable sum to enter the MLS Club and another is magically appearing in the armpit of an NFL team in Atlanta.

The MLS Expansion Draft dates back to 1997 and has been implemented a total of nine times in the league's first 21 years. As the league expands (and contracts), each season it gets more difficult to implement. Rules change drastically from draft to draft and each year the players selected get hosed (mainly because the are going to a team that is likely going to stink).

The last draft, unsurprisingly, was two years ago when Orlando City (who had a team in the USL) and NY City FC (who had to start from scratch) joined the league via meeting Don Garber's qualifications and paying, presumably, a nine-figure sum.

Let's bullet point what happened.

  • 8 players no longer play in MLS (value dropped)
    • 4 of those dropped a level or two
    • Another 4 are no longer playing
  • 5 players are still with the team that drafted them
    • Only 2 of those are regular contributors
  • 4 Players were used to acquire various MLS dollars and draft picks
  • 3 players were traded right back to the team they were drafted from
    • In two of the cases, value was received in return

First takeaway is that the Expansion Draft has turned into more of a value / commodity acquisition event than a player acquisition mechanic. Well, at least for NYCFC it was.

Orlando is the clear loser of the last draft. Only Pedro Ribeiro, selected 7th, is still around on the team. Seven of the ten players don't even play in MLS anymore. The last two were turned in for value while NYCFC flipped 5 for value and still have four on the roster.

The second takeaway is that this mechanism is incredibly destructive for the player's career. Because these teams come into the league mostly "cold," the selected player is likely going to a bad team (top to bottom), therefore hurting their own personal value and earning power. I doubt the MLS Player's Union will ever look at this, but they should.

SOLUTION: Take the players out of the draft. Skip that step. Give expansion teams extra MLS financial benefits (ie. MLS-funny-money: TAM, GAM, Allocation money) so they can use that to work with other teams to acquire players. This way you're adding to the league instead of stripping valuable, hard-earned commodities from existing teams.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Lost Tickets and Missing Eyeballs

[from the Sports Business Journal]
Too much daylight has appeared between what MLS is and what MLS wants you to think it is. Nowhere is this more clear than in the league's reporting of game attendance and television viewership, two key metrics by which MLS sells itself to fans, advertisers and media around the world.

What follows below is how, in a conversational voice, MLS handles these two measurements of success in terms of reporting. It's based on my own observations of the league and careful tracking of MLS ratings via Sports TV Ratings over the last two years.

Is the stadium full or not? Are you reporting that it is? Are you using these numbers in your analysis?

MLS likes to report the way most of the other leagues in the United States report. Tickets Distributed. But what sets MLS apart from the other US based leagues is that they heavily discount, bundle and/or freely give out tickets in hopes to fill the stadium and tell a good story. While there is no doubt that teams track turnstile, it is not widely (or consistently) reported.

Over the years in following and writing about the league I've heard as high as 30% of tickets distributed go unused. Unfortunately, those exact numbers are locked away. Good news, however. Much to the chagrin of stat trackers of the world, we don't need this number. All we need is to turn on the TV and watch the games to observe that a large percentage people don't show.

Turn on a MLS match in Colorado, Chicago, DC, Dallas, Houston, San Jose, NY (Red Bulls) or New England this year and you would have likely seen a stadium only around 50-75% full. Yet, if you were to read the match report afterward or wonder over to Wiki to check the updated season averages, you'd see these teams reporting 75-100% capacity.

(my estimates)

There is a second aspect to MLS attendance reporting that the other leagues based in the US do not have to deal with; the rest of the world. What's common practice in the US is not in foreign leagues. In top leagues or when dealing with top clubs, you don't get the same amount of attention to attendance as you do with MLS because the games are of high quality and/or they are clearly well attended. Put another way, if you are watching on TV, it passes the smell test.

In the English lower divisions you see that attendance is taken like school or church. Actual attendance. It's usually reported as X amount for the home side and Y for traveling support. There is a sense of real pride that comes with bodies that show up vs. a sort of cattle call in MLS.

MLS does have teams that fill up stadiums. Games at Seattle and Orlando are consistently full and, though there was erosion this year, Portland, Montreal and Vancouver aren't far behind.

So, how should MLS attendance be tracked? Certainly not using exact numbers like we see from press releases and most certainly not from people taking those numbers and trying to derive anything from them. A number that isn't rounded for "attendance" that isn't actually tracking attendance, but "tickets distributed" is more or less used for legitimacy. "Attendance: 13,298" sounds much more official than "Tickets Distributed 13,298" in a post game report.

Reporting a tickets distributed number isn't a big problem for the majority of US pro sports. NFL, NBA and NHL figures, by and large, pass the visual test. 15,628 at that last Columbus Blue Jackets game? Sure, maybe a little high. But 15,628 at that last Chicago Fire game? No. That is a good 10k off. And this is a problem. The Problem.

A straight forward measurement made complex by MLS to mask a drop in numbers.

TV viewership is much more clearcut in terms of how the league is performing in the larger world. There are well-established measurement systems and loads of independent forces living and dying with each day with the reports. This leaves very little room for fudging, but that does not stop PR firms from around the world trying to spin the numbers in a positive light.

An example of spinning the numbers to show growth is represented in a recent World Soccer Talk piece and over at Socccer America.

In the former, they wound up combining ESPN + ESPN2 + ESPN Deportes and compared it against... a number I can't figure out, no matter how I run the numbers. With Soccer America they just posted figures given to them by MLS. 279k for ESPN and ESPN2, which is different than the World Soccer Talk number of ~308k (actual was 261k via my records sourced from and 236k for Fox / FS1 that includes the over the air broadcast.

What this leaves us with us with is two influential US soccer outlets reporting a confusing (which it gets when you are making the numbers dance in a way they should not) array of different figures, but trying to tell the story MLS wants.

In truth, the reality of the TV viewership situation couldn't be more different. When the figures are matched apples the apples MLS is down double digit points on their primary English speaking network partners: ESPN (-14%), ESPN2 (-18%) and FS1 (-20%).

Just like attendance, massaging the numbers is not necessarily illegal in the sports world. It's a common practice. Leagues and business want to tell a good story for their fans and customers. They all thirst for the precious momentum that will actually propel them into success, but there are real problems associated with this practice.

Outside of the general heartburn MLS just making things up gives long-time fans / observers of soccer in the United States, the problem with playing around with numbers is that communities and cities start making expensive decisions based off of the fluffy data MLS provides. In fact, we already have cities and towns that acted on these numbers (Bridgeview, Illinois and Harrison, New Jersey) that otherwise might have pumped the brakes had they searched out honest information.

You also have sponsors who partner with the league based on the figures given to them. Heck, ESPN, Fox and Univision likely bought in based on general misinformation.

Is it good that MLS got broadcast on the over the air network and that ESPN and not ESPN2 are carrying more games? Of course. But, if you are tracking and reporting correctly, these two actions are to help the league gain footing and not because there is huge demand for it.

MLS can get away with a lot because of their relatively small size. Not only in the US sports landscape (including, importantly, college athletics), but the global one as well. Spend some time with an average MLS fan and you'll find that even defenders of the league watch very little of it. Taking it one step further, you'd be surprised to find that from my time writing and podcasting over the years that folks you think watch, do not. We are talking big voices.

For the most part, I believe people are starting to look at things more honestly and the analysis is getting better. There's a long way to go.

Since I started putting this post together the LA Times published a piece called "MLS math doesn't always add up" that discusses the same topics I covered above. It confirms some of the figures listed above in regards to attendance. This is the sort of thing that happens when there is too much distance between PR and reality.