Sunday, January 29, 2017

MLS Ohioans

Fig. 1
Rounding out the 2016 MLS season with a dive into minutes and where players are from. A couple of items stick out. 1. US born players now play less than half the minutes, and 2. There is a strong group of Ohioans in the league right now.

In regards to the first point, MLS is starting to look more like the English Premier League. There's nothing right or wrong with who is playing as it should always be the best available player. But there are forces at work here that might be something to keep and eye on. 

The EPL has the entire globe of which to draw the best players. Players are signed based almost entirely off playing ability. Teams cannot afford to lose. Keep in mind that it is a matter of degree, as well. Teams like Arsenal and Manchester United have to remain in the top four. Anything less is a failure. Others, like Sunderland or Burnley, are trying to not get relegated.

Things are different in MLS. Teams bounce around the table all year, every year. The way rosters are constructed are influenced by a number of factors outside of where they will finish. Jersey and ticket sales are at the top of the importance list. Making a splash in the news (social, mostly) is also critical. 

Nestled in there somewhere is how competitive a team is. There is a bit of a myth out there that says MLS teams don't suffer consequences if they are bad. For the most part, that is true. No matter how bad they are, they stay in MLS. That said, bad teams do suffer in attendance (the real kind, not the "announced" kind). Bad teams like Chicago or what was Chivas USA or Colorado before the end of last season draw half full stadiums.

Ohioans, 2016 MLS regular season
With the way MLS is constructed this not only hurts the teams but the overall league. The pitifulness of Chivas USA drew the attention of the league office and eventually a sale was attempted. When no buyers emerged, the team was folded. It was a drag on the rest of the teams. The Chicago Fire are currently living the same state of affairs. Have you seen the news that the MLS Allstar game is going to be in Chicago, but not at the MLS stadium in Bridgeview that is the home of the Fire? In recent years, the annual all-star game is usually reserved for new stadiums. This year's game being played at Soldier Field has everything to do with trying to resurrect the MLS franchise there.

Now, to the second point. In the midst of all the wackiness that is how MLS rosters are constructed, the state of Ohio continues to produce a strong stable of good players. This past year was no different. 

One piece of information that is a testament to many of the qualities I've witnessed first hand in my ten years here is how teams with Ohioans perform strongly in the MLS Cup Playoffs. In Fig. 1 up there (extra time playoff games trimmed to 90 mins) you'll notice that the percentage of minutes played increases measurably in the playoffs.

It's a one year look in, but it's enough to pull out a thing or two. It's an impressive list of players. There are two players, in particular, to make mention of. Evan Bush and Nick Hagglund. Hagglund wasn't a lock in Toronto's XI during the regular season but did play five playoff games, notching a goal and two assists in a defensive role.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

MLS Mins by Age

Finally getting back to checking in on MLS player minutes and age after touching on the lack of minutes played by young players in MLS a few months ago.

MLS teams finished the year not giving many minutes to young players. Spending a few weekends watching widely available on TV leagues in England, Spain and Italy will tell you, in general, that they are playing younger players more. Beyond that, a quick look up at or Squawka will tell you how MLS compares to many of the other top leagues out there. Going in on MLS regular season data it should be expected. With that, I'm not (nor do I have the time) going to data mine those figures. Safe to go with observation on this one.

Dropping the info into a spreadsheet it wasn't surprising to find that young male players in MLS aren't playing much. By young, we mean under 20 years old or so. That said; there was something else. Something... unexpected.

Click around. A gap has formed in MLS. Players in their prime aren't getting minutes. Mid to late twenties. Not sure why this is happening, but it shouldn't be what MLS wants. You want those guys. As it stands right now, you have a group of older (established-ish) players going up against college kids. It's like playing your EA FIFA game on a difficulty level a notch or two below what challenges you.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Cable Snapped, or Innocence Lost
By: Vidda “JibJab” Grubin
September 7, 2014 (Amended January 16, 2017)

{The below is an update of a piece I wrote over two years ago. Given the trajectory of Major League Soccer, I thought a redo was in order.}

The cable snapped…twang…quietly. The auditory nature of the “twang” made sense, the cable was made out of Twizzlers. The kids picked up the scatted pieces of red deliciousness quicker than a soccer mom, or dad, can peel an orange.

The game was over and Tommy and Timmy had somehow found a way to tie Twizzlers around their two dirt and grass-stained soccer balls. After circling the individual balls in sugary goodness, the two friends got the idea to tie the balls together with the remaining stretchy lengths of candy.

Gabbi, the goalkeeper for the under seven Squarepants Middleburg Youth Soccer Association team, had shouted “See how far you can stretch the balls apart.” Her declaration of childhood ingenuity was met by a raucous cheer from the rest of the Squarepants team.

Tommy and Timmy began pulling, slowly, the two balls apart. Time seemed to stand still as the small group of six and seven-year-olds (scraped knees, runny noses and bed hair) leaned closer. One or two attentive parents joined the time altering fun.

Six inches apart, seven, eight and then…twang…quietly. The picking-up and eating of the Twizzlers was accompanied by shouts of “Don’t eat that!” and “Gross!” Not a single child present remembered the game which had ended only five minutes earlier.

One particular dad remembered. He was busy waving his hands wildly at the 13-year-old referee. Words were coming out of the crimson faced father’s mouth. Something about offside and something about the Squarepants’ opponents, The Fiddlesticks, deserving to win. The 13-year-old ref stared, slack jawed, at the wild-eyed father. And then, the 13-year-old walked away, while mumbling “Wow” under his breath.

Like that Fiddlesticks father, North American soccer has finally made it to the edge of reason. North American soccer’s version is the billion-dollar, sports as big time business precipice. Major League Soccer has pushed the beautiful game up the rocky slope. There have been casualties along the way. The Tampa Bay Mutiny come to mind. There have been near disasters. Paul Caligiuri almost having to play more than a single season in Columbus, Ohio may have destroyed what little credibility MLS clung to in its infancy.

Don Garber, Major League Soccer’s billionaire owners and wanna-be owners want to push our sport over the edge and into the rainbow, unicorn and pot of gold filled valley below. The LeBron James, Mark Cuban, Jerry Jones, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter filled valley.

For many soccer fans, myself included, the trip up the mountain has been fun, a kind of affirmation of the bullied child’s life and dreams. For many soccer fans, like myself (somewhere between 45 and 60 years old), the thought of riding the unicorns and digging in the pots of gold is both quiver-inducing and nauseating.

We want to see the world’s greatest players on our Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, New York Red Bull, Seattle Sounders and L.A. Galaxy. We want to watch youngsters born and raised in the United States command Messi-like respect. But we grew up with a chip on our shoulder. We carry that chip proudly. That chip helps define our soccer minds. That chip is as big as a boulder taken from the mountainside as we climbed higher and higher. That chip is made of taunts like “Soccer is for sissies. Why don’t you move to France if you want to play that commie sport? Soccer will never be big in the United States.”

Despite the rocky past, we cherish Saturdays at the park with our children. We look forward to a Thursday evening beverage remembering the ferociousness of a shot, the creativeness of a pass shared with the handful of lucky travelers who played the game alongside us in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Our sport was our special secret, only the chosen few knew what made it shine.

Now, North American soccer is about to leap into a world of cocky, self-assured prominence. There is no room for hard-won boulders. What are we supposed to do with all those boulders? So many un-answered questions.

Will there still be room for size four soccer balls wrapped in Twizzlers? Or, perhaps more importantly, for the adult equivalent of size four soccer balls wrapped in Twizzlers, hidden coolers of beer dragged triumphantly from beneath team benches, flung open, contents emptied in a glorious celebration of the local team, it’s fans and caretakers winning the right to play at the next level?

You know, those boulders might just come in handy. Strap them on. Wear them proudly; because, there is one universal truth about our sport. The more human beings who feel a direct connection to the ball, the field of play, the teams, the players, coaches and fans, the greater the magical players become, the more vivid the magical moments shine.

We and all those who came before us, and our children after, those who slogged through mud puddles, spent hours juggling into the night, used trashcans for goals and cracked shins created the opportunity for the handful of businessmen who started Major League Soccer. It is our boulder to carry, and that boulder is shared with hundreds of millions around this beautiful planet.

Those who think they “own” the sport of soccer in this hemisphere must earn their place among us. There is nothing stopping them, the United States Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer, from regionalizing soccer (the blueprint is already in place at the youth level) in this country from the very bottom to the very top. There is nothing stopping the USSF and Major League Soccer from implementing a standardized set of criteria/rules for promotion and relegation within each region. There is nothing stopping the USSF and Major League Soccer from beginning promotion and relegation in the lower divisions and promotion only into the top tier, MLS, when teams in the second tier win their way in and meet the set criteria for top level play.

Would Major League Soccer want twenty years before a single team is relegated from the top tier? So be it. Give them twenty years. Do they want 7 or 8 teams per region, per level and five or six regions? So be it. This is a large country and close proximity of regular competition brings us all greater joy. Would Major League Soccer still want a championship among the winners of each region? So be it.

In a weird way, it is our burden, those wearisome boulders, which may reconnect the frayed and snapped cables of North American soccer. It is all of us who bear their weight who must bring, kicking and screaming if need be, USSF and MLS back into the beautiful game’s wide open soul.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

2013 MLS Superdraftees

MLS held its annual "super draft" yesterday. Well, most of it. It's still going, in a way, as there are more rounds next week.

Columbus picked a couple players in the first round (5th pick: Lalas Abubakar and 9th pick: Niko Hansen). It's a little unusual for any MLS team to pick twice in the first round, but Gregg Berhalter and co. pulled it off via... whatever wonky MLS thing has to happen for that to work out.

This had me wondering out first round picks have worked out. The best way to work that out is to look at a draft class from a few years ago. 2013, to be more specific. How are those guys doing? Are they still contributing to their respective teams?

Turns out they are. Well, at least more than I thought they were. I remember looking at this a few years ago and coming to the conclusion that picking 1-10 is basically the only thing that nets you a good college player. Turns out, 2013 pretty much worked that way.

The success rate in the top 20 tells us a couple things. 1. College produces around 3-5 regular starters over a four-year span and 2. Much of it depends on the situation the player goes to. If you hit on both those then you have yourself a cheap, durable pro player who had no other options but to sign with the team that drafted him!

Here are the players in the graphic above:

1. Andrew Farrell
2. Carlos Alvarez
3. Kyle Bekker
4. Kekuta Manneh
5. Erik Hurtado
6. Deshorn Brown
7. Walker Zimmerman
8. Blake Smith
9. Ryan Finley
10. Eriq Zavaleta
11. Dillon Powers
12. John Stertzer
13. Jason Johnson
14. Mikey Lopez
15. Tommy Muller
16. Emery Welshman
17. Taylor Kemp
18. Fernando Monge
19. Charlie Rugg

Last note; None of these players, outside of Deshorn Brown, have progressed beyond MLS. Ryan Finley and Charlie Rugg are still bouncing around the nordic region, but have yet to take root.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

[podcast] Special, part 3/3

Wrapping it up, almost. The search for part one continues! Split show from a recording Justin Bell and I did back in mid December. Great time. We'll do it more often. Thanks for listening.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

2017 Crew taking shape

2017 is here and the Columbus MLS team is starting to shape up. First question has to be the same as the one publicly made by operator/investor Anthony Precourt as the 2016 season came to an early close; "Let Gregg do his thing. Expect FINAL roster by end of January."

We are 24 short days away from hitting that deadline, so let us take a look at the look of things. High-level, as always.

My observations:

1. Early action to improve was taken by the team after the season ended. Which is great! It's what Precourt wanted and what Gregg Berhalter said he would do. 
2. Berhalter is putting together a group of starters that is long in pro experience outside MLS. Raitala, Mensah are joining Afful, Kamara, Martinez and Naess as guys who have 61 years combined experience in not receiving SUM paychecks. 
3. 23 rostered players means the remaining slots will likely be draft picks and/or projects. There could be one more starter in the works but big 5 windows are open now. Makes business hard for teams on a budget. particularly one carrying dead weight (Sauro).

In keeping with my last post before the holiday break - here is a couple visuals that help us get a better understanding of the current roster. Frist up is one sorted by the number of years each player has been pro. This is essentially "real age." That big gray area is what point 2. is referencing.

This next one is similar, but is organized by age (at top).

It's impressive the way Columbus has gone out to find players with lots of playing experience at relatively high levels. Real players in the 25-29 age range. So far, so good from my point of view. A good offseason will put this team firmly in a playoff position come summer.

All I've got for now. Hope everyone had a nice holiday season.