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.