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SO-CALLED ‘BECKHAM EXPERIMENT’ HAS BEEN WORTH IT

A pair of two-time Major League Soccer champions, the Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles Galaxy, will meet Sunday, November 20, before a sellout crowd at the Home Depot Center outside Los Angeles in the 2011 MLS Cup final.  Kickoff will be at 9 p.m. EST/6 p.m. PST (ESPN and Galavision).  [November 13]

Comment:  The game could mark David Beckham’s final appearance in the U.S., and that’s not a good thing.

The 36-year-old English icon’s five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Galaxy expires at the end of the year, and among Beckham’s reported suitors are Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham Hotspur and even Queens Park Rangers.

If he leaves, despite the Galaxy’s reported interest in re-signing him, what sort of grade does the so-called “Beckham Experiment”–the title of a rather premature book on his MLS adventure published a couple of years ago–deserve?

Call it a high “B”; not quite a low “A”.   That’s an “A-” for overall effect, dragged down by an “S” (satisfactory) for effort.

There were just as many highs as lows over the five-year period.  More than a quarter-million Galaxy/No. 23 jerseys were sold before Beckham was even introduced as a member of the Galaxy, a media event that attracted 700 journalists.  As advertised, there were memorable free kicks that produced goals, and that crowd of 66,000 that poured into Giants Stadium to see the man with the educated right foot make his Big Apple debut.  There also, however, were injuries, plus the controversial loans to AC Milan and training spells with Arsenal and Tottenham that caused many to question Beckham’s commitment to his American team.  The collapse of  the much-vaunted Beckham youth academy in L.A. didn’t help.  So mixed has been the Beckham legacy in MLS that he earned–or was saddled with–the 2011 MLS Comeback Player of the Year award for assisting on 15 goals in 26 games a year after a torn Achilles limited him to just seven league appearances in 2010.  Oh, and no MLS championships or U.S. National Open Cups or CONCACAF Champions League trophies.

Nevertheless, Beckham will forever be linked with a brief period in MLS history when things went from flat to positive, from indifference to optimism.  The year before Beckham’s arrival, the league had 12 teams, too many of them troubled.  The charter U.S. internationals and key foreign starts like Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry who had given the teams their initial identities back in 1996 had retired.  It wasn’t, to quote Rodney Marsh’s assessment of English soccer in the early ’70s, “A gray game played on gray days by gray men,” but it was close. 

The creation of the so-called Beckham Rule–the introduction of the designated player exception that allowed teams to reach beyond their salary cap and sign marquee foreign players like Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Denilson (sorry, FC Dallas), Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and, most recently, Robbie Keane–changed all that.  Beckham’s arrival and how it lured other big names to MLS added the necessary flesh and blood to the brick and mortar as MLS grew by six clubs and added an impressive list of soccer-specific stadiums.

Most Americans aren’t aware that MLS (17,872) has surpassed the NBA (17,323) and NHL (17,132) in average attendance; that the expansion team fee has ballooned from $10 million, pre-Beckham, to $40 million; that the league’s most recent TV rights deal, with outsider NBC, hit $30 million for three years.  What they do know is that they can name one soccer player–David Beckham–where before they didn’t know Tab Ramos from Jamie Moreno from Mike Petke.  Back when the league was just trying to gain any sort of traction, back when the Galaxy was 11th out of 13 teams in 2007 (9-14-7) and 13th out of 14 the following year (8-13-9), people were talking and writing about Becks, or at least the photogenic Becks and wife Posh.

And that’s why Beckham will be missed if he chooses to close out his playing career elsewhere.  If and when he goes, don’t count on the general American public and the typical U.S. sports columnist or commentator to magically shift their attention to Dwayne De Rosario or David Ferreira or even Henry.   In that sense, Beckham has proved to be irreplaceable.

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MLS: CROWN YOUR TRUE CHAMPION

Seattle Sounders FC bowed to the Philadelphia Union, 2-0, at CenturyLink Field, ending Seattle’s bid to head off the Los Angeles Galaxy for the 2011 MLS Supporters’ Shield.

With two rounds remaining in the regular season, the Galaxy leads all teams with an insurmountable 64 points (18-4-10).  The Sounders, second in the Western Conference, trail by seven points (16-7-9).  Real Salt Lake (15-11-6, 51 points) is third in the West, and the next-best club, fourth overall, is the Eastern Conference-leading Union (11-7-14, 47 points). 

Los Angeles thus joins DC United as the only team to top the league in points four times. [October 8]

Comment:  Over its 16-season lifespan, Major League Soccer has repeatedly caved to the traditionalists.  It’s time for one more cave.

Quite simply, beginning next season, it should declare the Supporters’ Shield winner–the club with the best regular-season record–the one and true league champion, and stop pretending that the MLS Cup winner is somehow the best team in MLS.  We’re all grown-ups here; we can handle it, just as we’ve handled the concept of ties and game clocks that count up, not down.

A post-match comment by Sounders coach Sigi Schmid perhaps best illustrates the current Supporters’ Shield/MLS Cup dichotomy:  “You look at who won the MLS Cup last year, Colorado.  Did they win the Supporters’ Shield?  No.  Who won the MLS Cup the year before?  Salt Lake.  Did they win the Supporters’ Shield?  No.  So maybe winning the Supporters’ Shield isn’t all that necessary to win the MLS Cup, and at the end of the day that’s our goal.” 

Such an adjustment in emphasis and perception might not have been possible until recently.  In the beginning, MLS was trying to woo a fan base accustomed to American sports in which teams shift late in a season from a league format to a knockout format (gee, kinda like the World Cup), and it all ends with a climactic game or series.  Nowadays, many of those spectators at MLS matches know full well that the league is the league and a cup is a cup–the English F.A. Cup winner, the team that hoists Spain’s King Juan Carlos Cup, Germany’s DFB-Pokal Sieger, is oftentimes not the best team in the country. 

And seldom is the MLS Cup winner.  Only five times has the team with the best record in MLS gone on to win the MLS Cup (1997 and 1999 DC United, 2000 Kansas City Wizards, 2002 Galaxy, 2008 Columbus Crew).  The MLS Cup is what it is:  a crap shoot to which even the ninth- and 10th-worst teams in the final standings are invited to bring their bankroll and toss the dice.  In the end, 67 percent of the time, the team that didn’t win the Supporters’ Shield but best embraced a do-or-die atmosphere and capitalized on a break or two, or three, has taken home the MLS Cup and the perception that it is somehow the league’s finest.

More important, MLS has gone to a balanced schedule after years in which it cut travel costs by having its teams play more games within its own region.  Now, more than ever, the playing field has been leveled:  Each team plays the other twice, home and away, and that top point-getter did it without beating up on a weak conference.

There are concrete ways in which MLS can make this shift.  At present, the Supporters’ Shield winner gets a nifty trophy, a pairing against the last MLS Cup qualifier, home-field advantage through the playoffs up to the final itself, and an undisclosed amount of cash to help it beef up its roster for the CONCACAF Champions League, for which it qualifies automatically.  But MLS should drop the other shoe and declare that team the host of the MLS Cup final, regardless of whether it wins its way there.  So far, the organizational geniuses at MLS headquarters have done a great job of staging all manner of galas and special events when the site of the MLS Cup has been pre-determined by months.  Surely they can do a very good job when that site isn’t known for sure until four, five or six weeks in advance.

In the end, MLS gains credibility and loses nothing.  Its best team, after nearly three dozen weeks of competition, is properly identified and recognized.  Its post-season last-chance saloon for also-rans still stands.  Its best team has a well-deserved advantage in winning a league-cup double.   And MLS still ends it all with a climactic match made for TV.



TAKE A HIKE, MEXICAN STYLE AND SCOTTISH STYLE

One-time Mexican powerhouse Pachuca, reeling from a dreadful showing in the recently concluded clausura season, placed every player on its roster on the market.

“After a meeting, we decided to make all the first-team players transferable,” the Pachuca board said in a statement.  “This does not mean they will go, but that they have the option of leaving the club if that suits their interests and those of the club.”

Among the Pachuca players are U.S. internationals Herculez Gomez and Jose Torres, Paraguay’s Edgar Benitez and Colombians Yulian Anchico, Franco Arizala and Miguel Calero.

The Gophers captured the 2010 CONCACAF Champions League but closed out the year with an upset loss to African champ TP Mazembe of the DR Congo in the quarterfinals of the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.  They then stumbled through the Primera Division’s closing season, posting a 4-7-6 record to bring up the rear in their six-team group.  [May 4]

Comment:  It took days for the Pachuca board to come to its decision.  In another time, in another place, a group of team directors made it known immediately that its players had to go.  From Soccer Stories:  Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats:

IT’S TIME FOR A SUBSTITUTION OR TWO . . . OR ELEVEN

          There’s nothing like the ol’ vote of confidence from the boss–something the starting lineup of Selkirk, a team in the Border Amateur League’s “W” Division, did not receive during its darkest hour, a Scottish Cup first-round match in December 1984 played before hundreds at Stirling Albion.

          Though Stirling was a first-division side, no one was anticipating a double-digit blowout.  Still, the hosts took a 5-0 lead at the half, inspiring their bloodthirsty fans to chant, “We want ten!”  That milestone was reached after an hour, and late in the game the chant was inflated to “We want twenty!”

          With David Thompson leading the parade with seven goals and Willie Irvine not far behind with five, stirling won, 20-0.

          Late in the game, Selkirk officials on the sidelines were beyond mortified and could only laugh at the situation.  They collected as many numeral signs as possible from the fourth official and held them up in a mock signal to the referee that they wanted to substitute all eleven of their players at once.



THE BIG QUESTION AS MLS BEGINS ITS 16TH SEASON: WHO WILL FINISH 11TH?

Major League Soccer will kick off its 16th season–one shy of the old North American Soccer League’s 17–tonight with two new clubs, the scheduled mid-season opening of yet another soccer-specific stadium, and the introduction of an expanded playoff format.

The addition of the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps lifts league membership to a robust 18 clubs and creates a three-way rivalry in the Pacific Northwest among those two newcomers and the third-year Seattle Sounders.  A 19th team, what had been the second-division Montreal Impact, will join MLS next season, and a 20th–possibly a reincarnation of the New York Cosmos–will follow in 2013. 

In early summer, Sporting Kansas City (nee Wiz, Wizards) will leave its cozy but highly inadequate minor league baseball stadium for a sparkling new facility, and in the fall the biggest post-season field in league history will battle to lift the MLS Cup.  The first-, second- and third-place finishers from the Western and Eastern conferences qualify, along with the next four teams with the highest point totals, regardless of conference.  Those four wild card teams will be paired and play off for the right to join the top six in the quarterfinals.  [March 15]

Comment:  The 800-pound gorilla that has been seated on the floor at MLS headquarters, just to the right of the receptionist’s desk, since 1996 just gained another 200 pounds.

The expansion of playoff teams from eight to 10 allows MLS to claim that it continues to follow in the proud tradition of the NBA and NHL, where post-season berths are handed out like penny candy and fewer than half the teams go home early–or make that, on time.  However, it only compounds the challenge for a league that desperately wants to make more of its regular-season matches relevant, meaningful … exciting even. 

As always, MLS clubs will slog through what has grown to a regular-season campaign of some 250 games, and most–most–of them will then go into a bizarre sprint in which, too often, the very best team is knocked out before it can prove its mettle in the title game.   Nothing is really proven, except who performed best under knockout circumstances.  The team with the best regular-season record has nothing to show for its efforts but something called the “Supporters Shield” and a hearty handshake from Commissioner Don Garber.

Soccer traditionalists in this country have long pushed MLS to adopt the traditional European model in which 18 or 20 clubs fight it out over a 34- or 38-game, home-and-home schedule to determine who’s No. 1.  The bottom two or three are relegated to the division below to be replaced by that division’s top finishers.  Simple.  There’s pressure at the top to win and at the bottom there’s the pressure not to slip quietly under the waves.   And MLS’s response has been simple as well:  “We’re a single-entity enterprise; it’s an exclusive club not open to newcomers from below.”  And with the splintering and near-demise of the USL’s top division last year, that’s more true than ever.

But what’s to say that MLS can’t become its own first and second division?  Once it reaches a bloated, unwieldy 20 clubs,  it’s high time for the league to split into a 12-team top tier and eight-team second tier.    Promotion/relegation would involve the bottom/top three teams in the two divisions, and the best of the best would scramble for first place and berths in the CONCACAF Champions League.  If there absolutely must be a climactic match at the end of all this, have MLS “host” the Lamar Hunt/U.S. National Open Cup final; what with soccer’s lower regions in disarray for the foreseeable future, chances are very small that we’ll see the Atlanta Silverbacks or Carolina Railhawks or Puerto Rico Islanders crash that party.  It will be what we normally see, year after year, in the English F.A. Cup final:  two Premier League clubs in a death grip at Wembley.

Of course, this sort of arrangement is highly un-American, but MLS fans have proven time and again that they can handle anything un-American the league throws their way:  a game clock that counts up, not down; matches that end in ties; two-legged playoff series.  And as for the concern over what would happen if a club finished last in a proposed  MLS2 for three or four seasons, playing in front of 2,000 fans, the league’s devotion to that magic word “parity” makes that highly improbable.