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John Bladen


MLS Cup 2013 – What Are We Doing Here?

Written by on December 11, 2013 | 2 Comments »
Posted in MLS, Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

With the LA Galaxy having come off two lucrative MLS cup wins at home, and with the memory of very poorly attended and cold 2010 MLS Cup in Toronto (officially listed as a sellout despite thousands of empty seats clearly visible) fresh in their minds, MLS decided that future cups would no longer be played at a neutral venue designated beforehand.  Instead, the league’s marquee match would be hosted by the club with the better record of the final pairing.

There are some sound reasons for making such a decision.  It does reward teams for regular season success.  It also ensures that home fans can see their team play in a championship game easily, which hopefully leads to fewer empty seats (MLS cup tickets were being sold on the secondary market for more than $350 last week)

It’s one thing to reward teams for good play in the regular season.  But to allow the possibility of an MLS cup to be hosted in December in more than half of the league’s markets – Kansas City included – is inviting disaster.  The pitch condition (frozen) was very poor, despite an undersoil heating system that clearly wasn’t up to 20 degree temps.  The temperature at kickoff made much of the core of the game that is soccer difficult to play.

Early on Kansas City took the match to Salt Lake with Graham Zusi’s pace down the left side of the pitch clearly giving Beltran and Schuler fits.  After about 20 minutes, the RSL defenders had worked out their communication issues and managed to more or less contain the winger thereafter.

While creating chances using a frozen ball on a frozen pitch was difficult, KC did move it around well early on – only to have their finishing let them down.  Nagamura misfired from 12yds just 4 minutes in.  Defensively KC’s plan seemed to centre around taking down Robbie Findley whenever and wherever they could.  Eventual MVP Collin hacked him down in the 22nd, 35th and 69th minute in pretty much identical fashion.  Curiously, referee Grajeda found only one (35′) of these to be worthy of yellow card.

In the 29th minute, KC goalkeeper Neilsen misplayed a ball in the air allowing Finley a clear chance at a near open goal.  The Salt Lake attacker inexplicably struck the woodwork on the near side.

Game analyst Alejandro Moreno had the most apt comment possible on the game at halftime, saying the play had been “very sloppy, but you have to take your chances”. 

No-one had done so, nor did they look likely to.

Just three minutes after the break CJ Sapong broke free in the box and shinned a sitter straight over the bar from 6 yds out.  Four minutes later Saborio brought down an inspired Beckerman pass just outside the KC area and hammered it into the lower right corner past Neilsen.  Replays showed he had controlled the ball with the uppermost portion of his left arm, but Grajeda rightly allowed the goal to stand.

RSL 1 KC 0.

Salt Lake seemed genuinely buoyed by this success and had perhaps their best spell for the next 15-20 minutes.  Findley was fouled by Collin again in the 69th while going past the defender just outside the 18yd box.  With Findley arguably having only Neilsen left to beat, there were thoughts a card might be warranted.  Referee Grajeda awarded only a free kick.  In a match in which creating scoring chances was always going to be difficult given the conditions, Grajeda’s laissez faire approach was perhaps misguided.  While no-one wants the match official to “be the show”, the rules do need to be enforced less the game descend into farce.

The moment of the match for Salt Lake perhaps came in the 73rd minute.  Findley again made a good run down the left and, with RSL heading in 3 on 3, he pulled up and centred to Morales 20 yards out.  The Argentine chipped a nicely weighted ball toward the wide open left side of Neilsen’s net.  The keeper, clearly beaten, looked away in disgust.  Morales’ placed shot landed just at the base of the post and rebounded across the face of the goal to the keeper.  Salt Lake’s chance to put the game away had gone.

Just three minutes later the scale of the missed opportunity would be revealed.  Myers drove a ball into the box from the right side.  Sapong threw himself clumsily into Schuler pushing him away from the ball, which Borchers then cleared into touch.  Sapong’s effort was not unlike two barging tackles that Grajeda had carded players for earlier in the match.  This time, he awarded a corner kick to Kansas City rather than a goal kick to Salt Lake.

From tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow.  Off Zusi’s fine corner, Aurelien Collin launched himself into a perfect header at the edge of the six yard box, depositing it neatly into the far corner of goal.  1-1.  Perhaps the corner should never have been given.  Perhaps Collin should already have been sent off for (3) cautionable offenses.  Nonetheless, it was a fine goal and arguably the one true moment of offensive quality KC mustered.

RSL nearly snatched the win in the 84th when Saborio hammered a ball from the edge of the six yard box.  It was labelled for the bottom right corner and looked certain to beat an out of position Neilsen.  Only a fine block from fullback Seth Sinovic preserved the draw.

With both teams very tired, extra time was more or less a non-event.  In the 103rd minute Schuler and Sapong clashed again in the box with Sapong going to ground.  Grajeda again chose not to intervene. Feilhaber – who had spent much of regulation yelling at his own teammates and diving, kept yapping to the ref about the contact and eventually earned a deserved yellow card.  The Schuler/Sapong battle was a keen one to watch and both players are to be commended for playing hard but fair for the full 120 minutes.  In the 105th Saborio appeared to have scored on a fine cross from Findley, but the linesman’s flag was up.  Replays showed it had been very close, but the official’s call was absolutely correct.

So, for the third time in the last 8 Cup finals, the result would be decided by penalty kicks (6 of the last 9 have gone to AET!).  Perhaps the players were just dog tired, perhaps the 20 degree weather made bending the ball impossible.  Through 20 penalty kicks, only 13 were converted.  Of those 13, perhaps half were attempts of reasonable quality.  Ultimately, the unfortunate Lovel Palmer took the final kick.  He beat Jimmy Neilsen, but the ball clattered off the underside of the crossbar and bounced out, making Kansas City champions.

In truth, neutral observers would have to credit KC as the better team on the balance of play.  But whenever a Cup final ends with central defenders taking penalty kicks, an epic competitive failure has occured.  It was a messy, chippy, badly officiated, uninspiring game and an awful advertisement for a league that portrays itself as soccer’s elite level in North America.  Outside of Kansas City itself, it’s hard to imagine even one fan was converted to the MLS brand by what was on display.

Surely the showpiece event of the MLS season should not be hampered by conditions like those seen on Saturday?

MLS Playoffs And The Parity Problem

Written by on November 20, 2013 | 3 Comments »
Posted in MLS

Born of necessity –  it’s very creation a condition of the awarding of the FIFA 1994 World Cup to the USA – MLS has come a long way in less than 20 years. 

As the league moves toward the close of it’s second decade of play, it is very easy to forget how humble were it’s beginnings.  Initially, there were concerns there wouldn’t be enough “pro calibre” players to fill it’s rosters.  There was, of course, an existing system of leagues in place when MLS was brought into existence.  And at least some clubs in those leagues would pay players more money than MLS could.

Nonetheless, the fledgling league and it’s 8 teams did take the field in 1996.  Included were many domestic players, a few CONCACAF internationals and the obligatory sprinkling of fading European and South American stars – needed as much for their names as remaining ability.

The principles that allowed the league to survive it’s formative years are well known:  extraordinarily wealthy and patient benefactors (Hunt, Anschutz et al), central ownership of contracts and, as a result, an artificially low salary cap.  MLS itself might enter into a bidding war for a player, but the owner-operators could never engage in the traditional “checkbooks at dawn” duel amongst themselves.

These factors kept expenditure relatively low (even for teams employing a prized DP or two, the annual wage bill tends to be less than 25% of the value of the club – for the bigger clubs, much less).  With distributions from SUM (Soccer United Marketing) also providing significant income for member teams, owning an MLS club isn’t a bad business these days.

That hard salary cap may solve one obvious problem for ownership and administration, but it is far from a cure all.  In fact, it has created for MLS a significant problem in the form of staggering parity.  While leagues typically consider parity to be generally desirable, the fact is that in any sport it is great teams and dynasties that drive interest amongst the general public – particularly if those dynasties are based in major economic centres. 

This playoff season has been unusual for MLS in that three of the top four seeds have moved on to the conference finals (though not the league’s top three markets, nor it’s two most star studded teams).   Generally, the league has not been this lucky.   Indeed, the viewer is often left to wonder after an MLS cup, “do we actually know that the champions are better than the sixth place club in either conference?”.   When the cup is contested between two midpack sides who either became healthy or came into form during the last few weeks of a long season, this is not an unreasonable question.

In a league in which the salary cap seems akin to the holiest of sacred scrolls, can this parity problem be fixed?

If we accept that a hard and relatively low salary cap is not going away; and that MLS will retain relative parity among teams (even those spending heavily on DPs), there are still ways that the playoff system can become more relevant to broadcasters and fans alike.

First, there is no legitimate need for playoff matchups based on a two leg total goal format.  There should be a reward for finishing above your rivals in the league table, and that reward should be hosting a one game elimination playoff.  Total goal playoff series are an anathema to North American broadcasters – they don’t know how to handle them and they’d really rather not be stuck broadcasting both games when only the last one “matters”.  These ties lack the finality required for drama obsessed sports fans & networks.

Second, if MLS insists on having five teams from each conference in the playoffs, at least give the conference winners a bye.  The others will playoff over the course of a week  to determine who meets the league champions in the conference finals.   Again, there should be a reward for finishing first.  A bye into the conference final is not too great a prize, nor is a 7-10 day break after a long season.

Finally, stop using wins or goal difference as a playoff qualifier.  If two teams are tied on points at the end of the season, schedule play in games as needed. 

Losing the two leg playoff would impact the the two lower ranked team’s gate revenue, of course.  However, the full week saved in this new playoff format could easily be incorporated into the regular season, meaning that all teams get one more home date to sell, rather than just the two 3rd & 4th place finishers.  Alternately, those two free dates could allow for more international dates to be honoured or a break during the sweltering summer heat.

Networks would be much more drawn to a sport in which there is a clear winner after each playoff match (as well as a loser packing for the off season).  A compacted playoff schedule in which two teams are eliminated every three or four days would drive greater fan interest and general media coverage (as it does in several other sports).  MLS already has the core soccer fan.  What it lacks is broader appeal to a general audience.

If you are going to have a playoff system,  “Win or go home” must be the mantra, not “Let’s see what happens tonight and then we’ll know what the teams have to do in the second leg”.

Like it or not, North America is not Europe.  We’ll never accept meaningless playoff games in our own leagues, just as we’ll never accept a league in which there isn’t a playoff tournament at the end of the season.

Return of the Kings? New York Cosmos 2013 Style

Written by on August 11, 2013 | No Comments »
Posted in History and Books

Many believed it would never actually happen; that the apparent rebirth of the once mighty New York Cosmos was little more than a marketing exercise. 

At times, it seemed as though the only real purpose behind the 2009 acquisition of the Cosmos name & logo from erstwhile owner Guiseppe Pinton (who was once personal assistant to the club’s star striker Giorgio Chinaglia) was to try and cash in on any brand value the 70’s era logo and history still held.  Pinton, for his part, claimed ownership of the Cosmos by virtue of being the last person standing when all others (including then co-owner Chinaglia) had deserted the crumbling franchise in 1985.

And yet, after more changes in ownership, several announcements (some curious) and a little media hype (if mostly local), one couldn’t help but notice that the New York Cosmos actually played a game last weekend.  Naturally, they won.

On August 3rd 2013 at 7pm at Shuart stadium (Hofstra University), the new Cosmos took the field for the first time in a competitive league match.  They defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers 2-1.  The late season start was the result of the Cosmos election to play competitive matches only in the second part of the NASL’s new-for-2013 split season.

In truth, the Cosmos that took to the pitch last week bore more resemblance to the Randy Horton led squads that played (at both Yankee stadium and Hofstra University) in the early 1970s than they did to the all star teams that drew tens of thousands of fans to the Meadowlands.  There was no modern day Beckenbauer, Pele, or Alberto in uniform, nor a Cabanas, Bogicevic, Romero or Neeskens.  If Studio 54 were still around, one gets the feeling the new Cosmos would have had to wait in line just like everyone else.

Happily, though, Pele, Shep Messing and Carlos Alberto were on hand to celebrate the rebirth of the club.  A crowd announced at just under 12,000 (capacity at Shuart) took up their seats and cheered the new team.  It’s just one game, but the attendance was 3-4 times what is considered good by modern NASL standards,  and more than double what the original Cosmos averaged in their first four years.

So what of these new Cosmos, then?  Could they ever recapture the kind of following that the original club once (briefly) had?

While playing in the NASL – inescapably now a second tier league – might seem a significant disadvantage, it may actually help their cause.  Unlike MLS, the NASL does not impose a rigid salary cap on teams, nor a formal allocation system to decide which team gets which player.  Acquisitions are therefore much easier to manage – assuming the money is available.  Certainly the Cosmos could never be recreated as part of MLS’ single entity structure.

Many factors are working against the new owners.  Primarily, the kind of money that would be needed today to assemble a squad with four or five (arguably more) of the world’s best players would be staggering.  It was possible to lure a 35yr old Pele from Santos with $1.4m in 1975 – several times what he could have made anywhere else (including Europe).  Given not only the pay scales today in Europe but the marketing opportunities outside the game for major stars, it seems impossible that any sum (now or ten years from now) could pry a player like Messi, Ronaldo or Vidic in their prime from their present employers.  Add to that the fact that MLS has been bringing over highly paid past-prime stars for years. 

Still, it is also true that no-one believed the Cosmos could sign Pele from Santos in 1975.

Even if the proposed $400m stadium is never built and the new Cosmos never manage to attract the caliber of stars the old club did, though, isn’t the football world better off with a franchise actually in New York?  And carrying that name?

Perhaps, but only if they have the wherewithal to carry it in style.  Over the next five or six years, the club will have to find a better home and at very least sign enough quality players to outshine their New Jersey rivals, Red Bull NY.  MLS is unlikely to make this easy for them (Cosmos requests for friendlies will likely fall on deaf ears, and it’s hard not to see Garber’s recent “we’ll expand to 24 teams” claim as anything other than an effort to keep the NASL permanently hemmed in to smaller markets)

The Cosmos of today will likely never be what the 1970s club was, but they cannot survive buried in the shadow of their own neighbors.  The ownership group is wealthy, but few owners in sport can outspend Red Bull principal Dietrich Mateschitz (the wealthy sometimes aspire to owning a Formula One racing team.  Mr. Mateschitz, of course, owns two).

Despite the difficulties ahead, fans should enjoy the nostalgia that seeing the Cosmos jersey and name will bring.  Try to remember that in 30 years away, the legend has grown quite a bit greater than the actual club was. 

Just don’t expect the new club to have the kind of meteoric rise and fall that their namesakes once had.  The influence of “outside” media company money that permitted the level of spending the Cosmos employed is no longer unique – every club of substance exploits those revenue streams and most do it better than North American soccer clubs.

You really can’t go home again, particularly in the modern sporting landscape.

For more on the history of the original Cosmos, readers are advised to watch “Once in a Lifetime”, a 2006 Documentary on the history of the New York Cosmos.

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