Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


THE LEICESTER LESSON

Leicester City, a 5,000-to-1 shot to win it all at the beginning of the 2015-16 English Premier League campaign, pulled off the near-impossible when its closest challenger, Tottenham Hotspur, came from ahead to tie host Chelsea, 2-2, allowing the Foxes to assume a seven-point lead with two matches remaining.

It was the first top-division championship in the 132-year history of Leicester, which had not finished higher than second in the then-English First Division since 1929.  A four-time loser in the English F.A. Cup final, its trophy case previously consisted of English League Cups won in 1964, 1997 and 2000.

The Foxes–or Filberts, take your pick–were on the verge of relegation this time last year, but the unfashionable club from the English Midlands won seven of its last nine matches under then-coach Nigel Pearson.  It was an omen that this band of unknowns, with ex-Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri hired to replace Pearson during the summer, had bigger things in store this season.  [May 2]

Comment I:  Leicester City, previously known on these shores only as the club for whom U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller once toiled in relative anonymity (1996-99), indeed took the EPL by surprise.  The Foxes were a true party crasher, finishing ahead of the usual suspects named Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.

So Leicester’s surprise climb to the top was amazing, fun, worth a headline or two even in the U.S. sports pages, and a refreshing break from the usual routine, which has seen previous EPL titles–since the Premier League was created in 1992–go to Manchester United 13 times, Chelsea four times, Arsenal three, Manchester City twice and Blackburn Rovers once.  And it sent a wave of hope rolling across the country, lapping up against fans of clubs as pitiful as Middlesbrough, Brighton, Hull, Derby County, Norwich, Sunderland, Bournemouth–for such a small country, the list is long.

But it serves as a lesson in America, where Major League Soccer, now at 20 teams, has designs on expanding soon to 28.  This isn’t about dilution of talent, it’s about dilution of interest.

The reason leagues like the EPL can hold their public’s interest with–usually–one of the same small cluster of clubs finishing first year after year is because of promotion/relegation.  No season is completely uninteresting for the fan of a mediocre-to-poor club as long as there’s the thrill of booing a perennial bully and the terror of dropping into the second division, or the generously named “Championship League.”

Without promotion/relegation, a bloated MLS runs the risk of being saddled with a dozen or more clubs that endure years–decades, even–in which they neither truly contend for a championship nor get punished for their mediocrity.  Death by boredom.

Will MLS ever adopt promotion/relegation?  No.  But perhaps it will reconsider its race to over-expansion, or at least try to publicly offer a justification for its “bigger is better” approach to running a soccer league.

Comment II:   The point was made in some quarters that outsider Leicester rolled to its 22-3-11 record and the league crown partly because it could keep its eyes on the prize while EPL royalty was wrung out by pesky midweek UEFA Champions League and Europa League commitments.

Or, in other words, the EPL’s top clubs sure are impressive, but they don’t win in Europe because winning the lucrative Premiership is Job One and they don’t have the luxury of playing in a league that’s dominated by one club (Germany, Bayern Munich) or two (Spain, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid).  Alas, they have to play one another on Saturdays, so the pursuit of Continental silverware is an afterthought left for midweek nights at faraway places.

That’s an excuse that England would do well to retire.

Deep pockets mean player depth, which means the means to get through league, domestic cup and European cup matches, and there are few clubs more wealthy than England’s big five.  If need be, they can just study Spain’s La Liga, where teams manage to find a way to win a variety of trophies or at least come within touching distance.  The UEFA Champions League final will feature, for the second time in three years, two clubs from one city, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, one year after FC Barcelona came out on top.  Atletico won Europa League crowns in 2010 and 2012, and Sevilla, a Europa League winner in 2006 and ’07, just won its third consecutive Europa title, beating Spanish rival Villarreal in the semifinal.  And all these clubs had the wherewithal to compete in La Liga, a league that’s supposedly FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and a bunch of nobodies.

 



LANDYCAKES 2, DEUCE 1

Landon Donovan out-shined Clint Dempsey in an unusual showdown of American stars as Donovan’s Everton came back to defeat Dempsey’s Fulham, 2-1, in an English F.A. Cup fourth-round match at Goodison Park.

After Danny Murphy converted a penalty kick for Fulham in the 14th-minute following a handball in the box, Everton answered with headed goals by Denis Stracqualusi in the 27th and Marouane Fellaini in the 73rd–both set up by sharp crosses by Donovan from the right wing.  [January 27]

Comment:  The performances by U.S. teammates Donovan and Dempsey probably only intensified the raging online debate among some American fans as to who is the better player.  Doesn’t matter.

It beats the bad old days, when the discussion began and ended with one player–a Rick Davis, followed years later by a  Hugo Perez, then a Tab Ramos, then a Claudio Reyna.  And with the possible exception of Reyna (Glasgow Rangers), none of them made a real dent overseas.

So enjoy the debate.   And perhaps someday the argument will involve–dare it be said– three U.S. players.



HENRY’S HOLLYWOOD RETURN

Thierry Henry celebrated his return to Arsenal by scoring the lone goal in the Gunners’ 1-0 victory over Leeds United in the fourth round of the English F.A. Cup.

The 34-year-old French star, on loan from the New York Red Bulls, entered the match in the 68th minute to a tremendous ovation.  He delivered just 11 minutes later.  Running onto a diagonal pass from Alexandre Song, Henry right-footed a shot from the left side of the box past Leeds goalkeeper Andy Lonergan that settled inside the far post.  [January 9] 

Henry’s appearance was his first for Arsenal since 2007, when he joined FC Barcelona.  He’d departed after eight seasons as the Gunners’ all-time scoring leader with 227 goals.

Comment:  Once in a while, a great player is handed a perfect script and follows it to the letter.

Comment II:   Henry’s dream start at the Emirates wasn’t foreseen by at least one observer, who, nevertheless, may be proven right before the veteran striker’s two-month stay in London ends:



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.



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.



WHAT THE U.S. NATIONAL OPEN CUP COULD BE

Tonight, the Seattle Sounders will play host to the Columbus Crew in the 97th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final before a sellout crowd of nearly 33,000 at Qwest Field.  Seattle and Columbus outlasted a 40-team field that ranged from dreamers from the U.S. Amateur Soccer Association and fourth-division Premier Development League to eight entries from Major League Soccer.  [October 5].

Comment:  The match will mark another milestone in American soccer history regardless of whether the Sounders become the first club since the 1982-83 New York Pancyprian-Freedoms, a semipro side, to successfully defend the cup.  The turnout at Qwest Field will break the previous attendance record for an open cup final, set in 1929 when 21,583 watched New York Hakoah blank the Madison Kennel Club of St. Louis, 3-0 at Brooklyn’s Dexter Field.  (That year’s final was played on a home and home basis; 15,000 fans were on hand a week earlier at St. Louis’ Sportsman Park to see Hakoah take the first leg, 2-0.)

No surprise that it would be Sounder fans who would be the ones to break this mark, but this green-and-blue-clad throng suggests that the nation’s oldest knockout sports competition has some potential in the modern age after all.  The attendance of 17,329 at RFK Stadium for last year’s final, when Seattle topped DC United, 2-1, was very good.  Thirty-three thousand is great.

It is doubtful that the competition originally known as the U.S. National Challenge Cup will ever approach the fervor of the granddaddy of them all, the English F.A. Cup.  But with better promotion and a more serious approach on the part of MLS clubs, who routinely schedule cup matches at secondary (read: bush league) venues and start second-tier players, perhaps there will be some extra luster to the cup by the time the 100th edition kicks off in 2013.  For soccer fans treated to a less-than-meaningful MLS regular season, a truly high-profile, win-or-go-home competition would be most welcome.