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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.

 

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A REVOLUTION ACROSS THE SEA

The owners of Liverpool FC have backed down from plans for a significant hike in ticket prices and apologized to the club’s fans, insisting they are not greedy.

The club’s supporters were outraged when they learned recently that some tickets for next season would be increased to $112 (that’s 77 pounds).  At Liverpool’s next match at Anfield, on February 6 against Sunderland, 10,000 spectators staged a walkout in the 77th minute.  Their club was cruising along with a 2-0 lead at the time, but Liverpool gave up two late goals in front of thousands of empty seats and limped away with a point.

“On behalf of everyone at Fenway Sports Group and Liverpool Football Club, we would like to apologize for the distress caused by our ticket pricing plan for the 2016-17 season,” read a letter to fans by ownership, which announced the most expensive ticket will remain frozen at 59 pounds (that’s about $86).

The fan revolt came at a time when ticket prices throughout the English Premier League are on the rise despite clubs being increasingly less reliant on fan admissions.  Next year, a new three-year television deal will kick in in which clubs will share $12 billion.

“There is a problem here where some teams and some clubs put up prices very rapidly every year, even though some of the money for football actually comes through the sponsorship and the equipment,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons the day of Liverpool’s backdown, in response to a question about the prospect of walkouts elsewhere in the EPL.  [February 10]

Comment:  Fan power, on a scale unknown in the United States.

American sports fans have every reason to follow suit.  According to Team Marketing Report, the average ticket in the National Football League, whose teams play eight home games each, is in the neighborhood of $82.  In the National Hockey League (82 games), it’s more than $62; in the National Basketball Association (41 games), $54; in Major League Baseball (81 games), $28.  Which means a family of four in the rapidly shrinking U.S. middle class cannot afford to attend a game.  And these are leagues, like the EPL, whose revenue from TV and licensing dwarfs the money that comes in from the box office.

But these fans won’t revolt.  That’s not the American way.  Or at least American sports fans are completely unorganized compared to their soccer colleagues overseas.  Soccer fans sing and chant for 90 minutes each weekend; they stand and turn their backs, literally, on their team when it plays poorly; their pressure gets coaches fired and club presidents replaced.  The same week that Fenway Sports Group was furiously back-pendaling, in Germany fans of Borussia Dortmund, angered over an increase in ticket prices, threw tennis balls onto the field during a match and displayed a sign, “Football Must Be More Affordable.”  Americans?  Over the past 35 years, after player strikes or lockouts that have affected all four sports, outraged American fans can’t pull off even a limp boycott or other half-hearted demonstration to make their displeasure known.

Liverpool’s owners, in particular, had better hope that American fans remain sheep-like.  Fenway Sports Group–headed by John Henry, Tom Werner and Mike Gordon–also owns baseball’s Boston Red Sox, whose fans are among the most passionate in the world and where ticket prices average $52.  Henry and his pals were admittedly shaken by the Liverpool walkout, and what better place for gouged American ticket buyers to shake their stupor than the home of the original American revolution?

As for the one sports league here where large blocks of the fans are loyal, loud, highly organized, feeling empowered and quite capable of a walkout or other, similar action if displeased, Major League Soccer tickets average a still-reasonable $28 and don’t seem in danger of a startling price hike anytime soon.  As American sports fans go, MLS clubs, including the New England Revolution, are best to leave them undisturbed.

 

 

 

 

 

 



BRAD FRIEDEL, USA’S BEST EVER?

Brad Friedel, one of the most decorated players in U.S. history, announced that he would retire at the end of Tottenham Hotspur’s English Premier League season.

The 44-year-old, who made his EPL debut 17 seasons ago with Liverpool and went on to play for Blackburn and Aston Villa, holds the league record for consecutive starts with 310 and made 450 overall.  He’s eighth all-time in career shutouts with 132, and he is only the second goalkeeper in league history to score a goal.

Friedel made 82 international appearances from 1992 through 2004.  He won the 1992 Hermann Trophy as a UCLA junior and two years later was the USA’s backup goalkeeper to Tony Meola, along with Juergen Sommer, at the 1994 World Cup.  He was the 1997 Goalkeeper of the Year, with the Columbus Crew, in his only season in Major League Soccer.  Friedel then left for England, where he made 450 starts–310 consecutively.  The Ohio native recorded 132 shutouts (eighth all-time in the EPL) and became only the second goalkeeper to score a Premier League goal, still only one of five to do so.

The 44-year-old Friedel, described by one writer as “follicularly fulsome” at the beginning of his career and bald as a soccer ball since, now brings his curious British/Midwestern accent to the tube as a full-time commentator for Fox Sports.  [May 14]

Comment:  For all the accolades that came Tim Howard’s way for his heroic performance in the USA’s overtime loss to Belgium in the second round of the 2014 World Cup, the greatest sustained  World Cup performance by a U.S. goalkeeper was Friedel’s at Korea/Japan 2002.

Friedel was the guy who, at France ’98, was known as the USA’s No. 1 1/2, losing to Yugoslavia, 1-0, after No. 1 Kasey Keller had lost to Germany, 2-0, and Iran, 2-1.  But four years later, he was the undisputed starter.

He saved penalty kicks against host South Korea and Poland in the first round, becoming the only ‘keeper to accomplish that feat since Jan Tomaszewski during Poland’s run to third place at the 1974 World Cup.  Friedel’s performance against Korea included three saves of shots from inside 10 yards–without those, the U.S. doesn’t survive with a 1-1 tie and doesn’t advance out of its group.  Then, Friedel doesn’t post his 2-0 shutout of Mexico in the second round.  And in the quarterfinals, maybe there’s a call on Torsten Fring’s goal line handball on the shot by Gregg Berhalter, maybe the U.S. takes the game beyond overtime to penalty kicks, and maybe Brad Friedel . . . .



SIGI SCHMID: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, SEEN IT ALL

Four-time World Cup goalkeeper Kasey Keller, longtime MLS and collegiate coach Sigi Schmid and the late Glenn “Mooch” Myernick, a U.S. international and USSF youth coach, have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Keller, who made 102 international appearances for the U.S. from 1990 through 2007, played in the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga before ending his career with the Seattle Sounders.  Schmid, elected on the builder ballot, is the winningest coach in MLS history and a two-time winner of the league’s Coach of the Year award.  Myernick, elected on the veteran player ballot as an American soccer pioneer, earned 10 U.S. caps and starred for the NASL’s Portland Timbers before coaching the U.S. national under-23 and under-17 teams and the MLS Colorado Rapids.

Details on the induction ceremony for Keller, Schmid and Myernick have yet to be announced.  [April 8]

Comment:  For interesting stories among this trio, you could probably start with Keller and his family living in an honest-to-goodness castle in Germany while he played for Borussia Moenchengladbach 10 years ago.  But for a career that has amounted to a sweeping panorama of the recent history of American soccer, nothing tops what Sigi Schmid has seen over the past half-century.

It’s not Forrest Gump-ian, but it’s close.

Born in West Germany, Schmid moved with his family to Southern California as a child in time to play for the Firefighters, one of the first four teams in the history of the hopefully named American Youth Soccer Organization, in 1964.  Little is know of what became of Schmid’s teammates and opponents, some of whom played this strange new sport in high-top basketball shoes.  None could have known that AYSO would grow to become a national program with, currently, more than a half-million players.

Young Schmid, on his way to becoming a CPA, played midfield at UCLA from 1972 through 1975, then coached the Bruins from 1980 through 1999.  He could have padded his lineup with foreign-born talent, which was common in the college game at the time, but he insisted on American players, most of them Californians.   Led by future U.S. internationals like Paul Caligiuri, Cobi Jones and David Vanole, Schmid’s UCLA won three NCAA championships.

An assistant on the USA’s 1994 World Cup team, he served two stints as coach of the U.S. National Under-20 Team and won MLS Cups with the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy.  Now, he’s the only coach the six-year-old Seattle Sounders have ever known, having guided that club to four U.S. National Open Cups, and his team regularly plays home matches before crowds of nearly 50,000.

But before USA ’94, MLS and the Sounders, Schmid can remember other days.  Like how AYSO, to a ragtag collection of 11- and 12-year-olds, had no business catching on and going nationwide.  And despite 16 NCAA playoff appearances, how UCLA–and top-tier collegiate soccer–seemed destined to continue to labor in complete obscurity, as the Bruins drew about 300 for many home matches.  And in 1989, how, while Schmid was filling a summer coaching the California Kickers, the World Cup the Americans would host in five years seemed headed for disaster on the field and at the gate.  The Kickers played in the Western Soccer League, which along with the East Coast’s American Soccer League, was home to nearly every U.S. international player at the time.   No one, from Tab Ramos and John Harkes to Marcelo Balboa and Eric Wynalda, was paid a living wage.  Each club that year played all of 16 regular-season matches.  And as for the Kickers, their home games were played in a rickety high school football stadium.

The Kickers once played the visiting Arizona Condors in front of 72 spectators.  Seventy-two.  But Schmid, in retrospect, needn’t have worried.  Add 43,662, and that was the average number of fans at cavernous CenturyLink Field in Seattle who last season looked down and saw a former AYSO kid pulling the strings in front of the Sounders’ bench.



ONE LAST VOTE FOR LANDON DONOVAN

Landon Donovan went out a winner on his last day as a professional player as the Los Angeles Galaxy defeated the New England Revolution, 2-1, in extra time at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA, to capture its third MLS Cup in four years and its Major League Soccer-record fifth overall.

Donovan, 32, announced in August that he would retire after the MLS season.  Thanks to the Galaxy’s victories over Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders in the playoffs, his season was extended through November into December.

Though he had an unspectacular afternoon against New England–drawing a caution at the end of the first half and missing on a 20-yard free kick in OT that would have put L.A. ahead–Donovan in the end lifted the MLS Cup trophy for a record sixth time.

He also exits as MLS’s all-time scoring leader and assist leader, and he holds so many other league regular-season and post-season marks that the only ones left involve either goalkeeping or defender-of-the-year awards.  His list of U.S. international records is equally long.  Donovan’s 57 goals include five in the World Cup and 10 game-winners, nine multi-goal games, 14 goals scored in the final 15 minutes of a match, nine alone in 2007 (tied with Eric Wynalda for most in a year) and 15 penalty kicks in 15 attempts.  His 58 assists–10 of which were recorded in 2009 alone–are 36 ahead of No. 2 on the list, Cobi Jones.  Donovan is second all-time in international appearances at 156 games, and if he weren’t left off the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup, he might have picked up seven more caps (three World Cup warm-ups and four games in Brazil itself), leaving him one behind Jones’ American mark of 164.  Of course, if Donovan, who logged nearly 13,000 minutes–nine days on the field–for the national team, hadn’t been dumped by U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, he might have continued adding to his numbers into 2015 and beyond.  (He’s only 32.  Galaxy teammate Robbie Keane, 34, says he expects to play until he’s 38.  The great Pele retired just shy of his 37th birthday.)

The individual awards in his trophy case are topped by the Golden Ball he was handed as the best player at the 1999 FIFA Under-17 Tournament, and he was voted the 2002 World Cup’s Best Young Player.  [December 7]

Comment:  Donovan has won several other individual honors during his career, including the U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year (2003, ’04, ’09 and ’10) and Futbol de Primera Player of the Year (2002, ’03, ’04, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10).  His exclusion from the U.S. World Cup team, of course, left him out of the running for either trophy this year.

Howard was the clear favorite for both awards as he set U.S. records for career wins, 55, and goalkeeper appearances, 104, blowing past the now-retired Kasey Keller (53 and 102).  His 15 shutouts in 2013-14 helped his club, Everton, finish fifth in the English Premier League.  And there were those World Cup-record 16 saves in the USA’s 2-1 overtime loss to Belgium in the second round in Brazil.  Howard won the U.S. Soccer award with 64 percent of the vote from a panel of U.S. players, coaches, administrators and others; midfielder Jermaine Jones was second with 19 percent.  Some 200 journalists made Howard the runaway winner in the FDP balloting, giving him 363 points to Jones’ 160 and Clint Dempsey’s 147.

Anticipating the Howard landslide, one FDP voter gave Donovan one final first-place vote (with Howard second and Jones third).  However, it was based not on sentimentality but a nagging doubt.

Naming Donovan the best player in America in 2014 requires a look through a different prism.  That is, Donovan may have demonstrated his value to the U.S. National Team at the 2014 World Cup not through his presence but through his absence.

Watching players who took his place on the roster, like Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski, struggle in Brazil, must have made Donovan squirm.  Couldn’t the greatest player in American history, perhaps a year beyond his prime, have made a difference in this or that situation?  Should he have been left behind in favor of 18-year-old Julian Green, and could he have scored the goal Green scored against Belgium in overtime?  Many would say no and yes–Donovan wouldn’t have mis-hit his shot like Green’s star-kissed volley.  As for what Donovan might have done with Wonolowski’s chance at the end of regulation against the Belgians . . . .

This upside-down look at a player’s value isn’t new.  Long ago, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, coming off an NBA championship in his rookie season, suffered a serious knee injury midway through his second, in 1980-81.  The Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, and the argument was raised in many quarters that Johnson proved that he deserved the league’s Most Valuable Player award because the Lakers struggled and ultimately crashed without him.

As for Donovan, it was only one Futbol de Primera vote in the face of a landslide.  It mattered not.  It was worth using it to lift the question “What if?” into a statement.

 



ARE WE NOT RUBES?

Manchester United, looking to recover quickly from its worst showing in the English Premier League era, rallied to defeat EPL rival Liverpool, 3-1, at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium to win the 2014 Guinness International Champions Cup.  A 14th-minute penalty kick goal by Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was cancelled out by strikes by United’s Wayne Rooney (55th minute), Juan Mata (57th) and Jesse Lingard (88th).

The tournament, held in 12 U.S. cities and Toronto as a warm-up to the European season, kicked off July 24 with eight European clubs, two of them defending champions of their respective national leagues, plus UEFA Champions League winner Real Madrid.  Manchester United (2-0-1) won its group over Inter Milan of Italy (1-0-2), AS Roma of Italy (1-2-0) and Spanish giant Real Madrid (0-2-1).  Liverpool topped a group that included Greek champion Olympiakos (1-1-1), English champion Manchester City (1-2-0) and Italy’s AC Milan (0-3-0).

Attendance for the 13 games totaled 642,134, for an average of 49,395.  Topping the list was the throng of 109,318 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., to see Manchester United defeat Real Madrid, 3-1.  That crowd was the largest in U.S. soccer history, eclipsing the 101,799 on hand for the 1984 Olympic gold-medal match at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.   A more modest 51,014 were on hand for the Manchester United-Liverpool finale.  [August 4]

Comment I:  Proof positive that World Cup fever not only hit America full-force early this summer but that it lingers.  Throw in the 84,362 who witnessed Manchester United’s 7-0 demolition of the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, a Bayern Munich-Chivas Guadalajara friendly at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and a dozen other exhibitions involving Major League Soccer teams and foreign opposition ranging from Spanish champion Atletico Madrid to EPL tail-ender Aston Villa, and about a million fans in the U.S. paid top dollar to say they saw in person some of the finest players from some of Europe’s most storied clubs.

Comment II:  Are we not rubes?

Sure, there are plenty of expatriates here who’ve just got to see the old hometown club.  And then there are the so-called Eurosnobs, young Americans who’ll get up at dawn from August to May to watch their adopted club–usually from the English Premier League–on a television at the local pub, er, sports bar, but wouldn’t cross the street to watch an MLS game for free.

But to the folks in Europe, a million people over here just shelled out big bucks to watch some clubs with fresh hardware and others living on their good name.  The spectators wore their replica jerseys and cheered and chanted as their favorite players went through the motions during cameo appearances while plenty of the playing time was taken up by fine fellows fighting to win a place on the roster, if not into the starting 11.  Wholesale substitutions disrupted the flow of the games, players weren’t exactly keen on the extensive travel, and coaches considered these moneymaking adventures an intrusion on serious pre-season preparations.  In the end, fans here saw moments of brilliance, mis-timed tackles, remarkable goals, and shots that actually resulted in throw-ins.  And at the final whistle of each match, a result that meant absolutely nothing.

There are many benchmarks that will indicate that the U.S. is developing into a soccer nation.  Like criticism of the U.S. National Team for its shortcomings in a World Cup instead of praising its goalkeeper for repeatedly bailing it out.  Or the prompt emergence of a genuine successor to the soon-to-retire Landon Donovan.  Or, in this case, attendance at meaningless midsummer friendlies involving European clubs in numbers that aren’t an embarrassment to MLS.



NO NEED FOR A FOURTH LION

Uruguay, behind two goals by Luis Suarez, defeated England, 2-1, in a Group “D” showdown in Sao Paulo that kept the South Americans’ hopes alive and all but sent the winless English home.

Suarez, who led the English Premier League with 31 goals to spark Liverpool’s strong run last season but was coming off knee surgery, scored in the 39th and 84th minutes.  The second came after an errant header by England midfielder Steven Gerrard–a Liverpool teammate–sent him in alone against goalkeeper Joe Hart.  In between, Wayne Rooney, scoreless in nine previous World Cup appearances, shrugged off two near misses to produce an equalizer in the 75th.  [June 19]

Comment:  American TV viewers saw not only the likely exit of England after just two matches but the temporary exit of impartiality on the part of ESPN commentators.

Englishman Ian Darke has established himself as the Voice of Soccer in the United States with his knowledge, authority, wit and professionalism, but on this day he was too much the England fan.

Darke and analyst Steve McManaman went from restrained and nervous cheerleaders for 84 minutes to sharp critics after Suarez’s second strike to, in the end, resigned fans.  What should have been, at most, recognition of yet another textbook example of a gritty Uruguayan team getting a necessary result dissolved into a eulogy for a not-so-good English team.

Two moments were telling.  In the 29th minute, Uruguay captain Diego Godin, sitting on a yellow card for a handball in the ninth, hauled down Daniel Sturridge and was not issued a second caution.  Darke was right in criticizing Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, but he wouldn’t let it go throughout the rest of the half.  And in the 61st minute he initially dismissed an apparent head injury to defender Alvaro Pereira as cynical Uruguayan time-wasting.  Only after replays showed that Pereira had been clobbered by the knee of England midfielder Raheem Sterling did Darke temper his earlier remarks.

Has Darke been impartial during his calls of U.S. matches?  Of course not.  His paychecks are signed by ESPN, and from the Landon Donovan game to what is now known as the John Brooks game, his calls have been enthralling.  But while there may be many fans of the English Premier League in this country, most soccer fans here are not, and most of those have no allegiance to England.