Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Plenty Not to Like

Who put Bud Selig in charge of MLS?

There seem to be few explanations other than Selig-esque crass commercialism to justify the decision announced this week that the 20th MLS franchise has been awarded to New York City and its new owners, Manchester City and the New York Yankees. But apparently MLS Commissioner Don Garber is not only willing to take credit for the anointment of the newest club, he appears to actually thinks it's a good one.

Put together two of the most hated sports franchises in the universe and plop them down in a city that has shown a complete inability to support one, let alone two, professional soccer teams and you get what, exactly, that is appealing?

One wonders if the awkwardly named N.Y.C.F.C. was saddled with the moniker just to even things up with the New York Red Bulls and their uninspiring identification. "Go over-caffinated, sugary energy drinks!" doesn't lend itself to song or loyalty any more than the attempts by other MLS franchises to pander to Euro-snob U.S. fans by changing their names to sadly mimic storied franchises overseas ("FC Dallas", "Sporting Kansas City", "Real Salt Lake").

As smart as the decision was to add first Seattle, then Portland and Vancouver (with their devoted fan bases and true rivalries) to the fold in recent years, the selection of another New York City franchise appears even more ill-conceived than the attempt to create a rival for the L.A. Galaxy was by adding Chivas USA (whose attendance is abysmal so far in 2013).

Derbies aren't like sea-monkeys. They don't magically appear when you add water, or, in this case, a big pile of oil money and the Yankees' "mystique." That the Yankees were added as a minority owner in what appears to be an attempt to leverage Randy Levine's ability to strong-arm local politicians into handing over the use of public spaces to build nine figure playgrounds for rich owners makes the decision even more odious.

While the eight million or so denizens of The Big Apple will now have their choice of two soccer teams to ignore, those throughout much of the rest of the nation, many with soccer-rich traditions that pre-date both Garber and MLS, are left scratching their heads and wondering what they have to do to warrant consideration for franchises 21 and 22, which are apparently still in the works.

Prior to the NYC announcement, Garber had had identified Miami, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Orlando as possibilities for additional expansion. Orlando actually makes some sense, based on the dearth of professional soccer at the highest level in the fourth most populous state in the country. Miami has already had its chance and it, like Atlanta, has consistently proven for decades its inability to sustain franchises other than pro football. Minneapolis? A nice place in July and August, but it will almost certainly need a turf field, which causes its own problems.

The wrong-headed approach to MLS expansion appears to be driven by identifying owner groups seeking a franchise and then either choosing somewhere to plop it, or to accede to their demands for a location, rather than on the fan-base of an area and its interest in soccer. St. Louis, with a long history of soccer enthusiasm and excellence in support of teams at the youth and college levels, is ignored not because it wouldn't support a franchise, but because the individual who has put himself at the forefront of its efforts to capture a club is likely not up to the task. And don't even get me started on poor Rochester, which carried the banner for soccer in New York State for years and isn't even close to being in the conversation anymore.

More and more, despite its bizarre and inscrutable rules regarding salaries, designated players, and player contracts, MLS is just another American professional sport. While the players are still expected to be grateful for whatever is thrown their way, when it comes to ownership and the location of franchises, money is the only thing that talks.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Gone for Good

That Landon Donovan was not named by coach Jurgen Klinsmann to the latest U.S. Men's World Cup qualifying squad for five upcoming matches -- two friendlies and three hex matches -- is not particularly surprising. Donovan, after taking a three months sabbatical from soccer, is trying to round back into shape in the L.A. Galaxy line-up, with varying degrees of success.

After making the decision, Klinsmann said the right things about Donovan -- noting that he understood and respected his decision to take time away from the game -- but also made it clear that this team is his, not Donovan's, and that it is developing its own identity, one that does not include Donovan as its centerpiece, if at all. Donovan also made the appropriate "team player" comments after his exclusion -- understanding and respecting Klinsmann's decision, saying that he will continue to work hard to get in game shape and win his way back into the squad.

While many have speculated that Donovan will return to the team for this summer's Gold Cup (and Klinsmann has noted that is a possibility) that doesn't necessarily mean there will be a place for Donovan in the matches that matter leading up to and hopefully including the World Cup in Brazil, since the coach has also said that he will likely call in an entire "second team" to play in the tournament. And while Klinsmann has not ruled Donovan out of future World Cup qualifiers, his comment regarding Donovan's chances of returning to the squad: "maybe later on we'll definitely expect him back in the team" hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement.

One of the obstacles that both Donovan and Klinsmann face to Donovan's return is where will he play? Clint Dempsey has essentially replaced Donovan in the number 10 shirt of the withdrawn forward or attacking midfielder (albeit with a somewhat different style -- Dempsey is more likely to try to advance the ball from midfield himself, taking on defenders, while Donovan relied on speed, passing, and diagonal runs).

Donovan after scoring the most exciting, if not most important,
goal in U.S. soccer history against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.
Photo from The Second Ball blog.

The team is desperate for out-and-out wingers and Donovan has played on both the left and right in the past. But he was never a true winger, preferring to return to the center of midfield and rarely took the ball to the corner to send in a cross. And one wonders if age is robbing him of the speed that was a hallmark of his game, as well as an essential tool for a winger who can stretch an opposing defense.

Qualifying matches have revealed a weakness in the Americans' dead-ball skills, something for which Donovan is known. But he's already missed two penalty kicks in the MLS season, so even that  potential contribution is in doubt.

Regardless of whether Donovan regains a spot in the squad, it is clear that it will no longer be "his" team. That in itself indicates the passing of an era. Clearly one of Klinsmann's goals is to make the national team his, or (to give him the benefit of the doubt) the U.S. Soccer Federation's . It may be the most significant contribution he will make to moving the sport forward here.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"I'm Kind of a Big Deal"

"Ron: I don't know how to put this, but I'm kind of a big deal.
Veronica:  Really.
Ron: People know me.
Veronica: Well, I'm very happy for you.
Ron: Um, I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books,
and my apartment smells of rich mahogany."

Far be it from me to suggest that Sunil Gulati would use the same terms to identify himself, and every indication is that he wouldn't, but the fact is he's kind of a big deal. That was emphasized late last month when he was elected by representatives of CONCACAF to serve on FIFA's Executive Committee.

Call me naive if you will, but I truly believe that Gulati has worked for the New England Revolution, MLS, the U.S. Soccer Federation, and now FIFA because he wants to advance the game in America. The unfortunate reality, however, is that he may be alone among the 25 members of the ExCom to put the game's interests above his own.

I admit, you can almost hear:
"I have many leather-bound books."
(photo from the "San Diego's #10" blog)

The tales of the excesses and arrogance of the men who run FIFA are legendary. Kickbacks, bribes, and private jets appear to be the rule, not the exception, when it comes to business as usual for the FIFA poo bahs. Some have suggested that the first question from most of Gulati's less-than-luminous predecessors upon their election was "just how many World Cup tickets do I get?"

I suspect that Gulati has bigger fish to fry. After the failed U.S. attempt to win the bid for the 2022 World Cup, Gulati didn't cry foul, as he was surely tempted to do, after many years of effort in the bid went down in flames (in particular, those from the gas wells in Qatar). Instead he shrugged his shoulders and vowed to carry on the fight for soccer in the States.

If Gulati sees his election as an attempt to remake FIFA from a fiefdom of stuffy old men in fancy suits into the actual international organizing body of the most popular sport in the world, he may have a few allies. Michel Platini, the President of UEFA (Europe's CONCACAF equivalent), is another influential member of the international soccer community who actually appears to have the best interests of the game at heart.

Can one or two or a few men change the mindset of what is essentially a huge multi-national corporation based on graft and backscratching? Time will tell. But that seems to be precisely what Gulati has in mind.