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FORMER FIFA BOSS HAVELANGE DEAD AT 100

Joao Havelange, who as president of FIFA from 1974 to 1998 transformed the world soccer governing body into a moneymaking behemoth and in turn a breeding ground for corruption that ostensibly has peaked in recent years, has died.  He was 100.

The imposing Brazilian died at Rio de Janeiro’s Samaritano Hospital from a respiratory infection as the 2016 Summer Olympics track and field competition began at Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange.  It was Havelange who in 2009 led Rio’s bid presentation to the International Olympic Committee, and he invited the members to “join me in celebrating my 100th birthday” at the 28th Olympiad he correctly believed would be held in Brazil.

Havelange the athlete made his mark not in soccer but aquatics, swimming for Brazil at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and playing water polo at the 1952 Helsinki Games.  An imposing figure, he swam every morning before breakfast well into his 90s.

Havelange had been in charge of Brazil’s soccer federation for nearly two decades when he upset the status quo in international soccer by defeating incumbent Sir Stanley Rous of England in the 1974 election to become the first non-European to take the FIFA helm.  He wasted little time in transforming FIFA from a sleepy administrative organization in Zurich into a worldwide juggernaut.  As he put it, in his familiar deep-throated croat, perhaps in French, perhaps in his native Portuguese, “I found an old house and $20 in the kitty.  On the day I departed 24 years later, I left property and contracts worth over $4 billion.  Not too bad, I’d say.”

On his watch, FIFA membership expanded by a third, to more than 200 nations and territories–more than that of the United Nations.  Among the additions was China, which left FIFA in 1958 but was coaxed back 22 years later, and South Africa, which was suspended from 1964 to 1976 but would go on to host the 2010 World Cup.  But it was the minnows of the soccer-playing world that made Havelange’s long rule possible.  The Brazilian saw that the end of colonial rule had created scores of new nation-states, and under FIFA’s one-member, one-vote statute, Fiji had as much clout as England or Italy. Adding members, no matter their status on the playing field, and sharing FIFA’s increasing largesse with them all but guaranteed his unprecedented five re-elections as president.

Havelange also gave those minnows a shot at international experience and dreams–however faint–of international glory.  Quickly recognizing the power of television and the untapped potential of sponsorships, he expanded the World Cup from a stingy 16 nations to 24 and finally 32, and he created world championships for under-20s and under-17s.  He also introduced the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and later the women’s under-20 championship.

This rapid expansion and transformation of world soccer from a relatively naive enterprise that missed any and all commercial opportunities into a $250-billion-a-year industry threw open the doors to corruption that has only been slowed by an aggressive probe by the U.S. Justice Department that has left an indelible stain on Havelange’s legacy.  Havelange, who accepted no salary as FIFA president, enriched himself with kickbacks, and soccer officials worldwide eventually followed his lead–if they hadn’t already begun the practice.  Among them were scores who have been recently indicted by the Feds.  Havelange’s successor and loyal No. 2, Sepp Blatter, has not been ensnarled as yet, but he was banned from FIFA for eight years by its ethics committee in late 2015, six months after winning a fifth term as president.  The suspension stemmed from his $2 million off-the-books payment in 2011 to former star player Michel Platini, the UEFA chief who had hoped to defeat Blatter in his bid for a fourth term that year but who dropped out of the race.

Havelange’s most spectacular take, shared by his then-son-in-law, onetime Brazilian soccer president Ricardo Teixeira, was nearly $22 million over nine years beginning in 1992 paid him by the body in charge of FIFA’s marketing and commercial rights, ISL, which filed for bankruptcy in 2001.  Havelange and Teixeira ultimately paid back $6.1 million in a confidential settlement.

Havelange resigned in 2011 as a member of the IOC just days before its leadership was expected to suspend him and rule on claims that he accepted a $1 million kickback.  That ended, after 48 years, his tenure as the committee’s longest-serving member.  Two years later, facing suspension, he stepped down as honorary president of FIFA after FIFA ethics Judge Joachim Eckert called his conduct “morally and ethically reproachable” for accepting kickbacks from ISL. [August 16]

Comment:  Heading into USA ’94, Americans had known little of the power of the World Cup and the power of soccer outside this country in general.  On the eve of the 15th World Cup in their own backyard, they got an eye full of all that, along with the man behind it, Jean-Marie Faustin Godefroid de Havelange.

Ian Thomsen of the New York Times, reporting in December 1993 from the Las Vegas Convention Center, site of the 1994 World Cup draw:

Two hours before the globally televised presentation of the World Cup Final Draw, the soccer player whose work had largely made the ceremony possible still had not been told that he had been banned from appearing on stage.

“I don’t have any official word yet,” Pele said Sunday morning at a breakfast hosted by MasterCard International, an official World Cup sponsor which said Pele would continue to be its worldwide representative despite the controversy.

“All I know is that they said the names of the players appearing in the draw and I was not there,” Pele said.

The decision to bar Pele from the ceremonies had been made by his fellow Brazilian, Joao Havelange, the president of FIFA.  The reason:  a dispute between Pele and Havelange’s son-in-law, Ricardo Teixeira, president of the Brazilian soccer federation.

Pele has charged that a group with which he is affiliated bid $5 million for the rights to televise Brazilian league games, but that a rival group was awarded the contract, despite bidding $1 million less, because the Pele group refused to pay a bribe to Teixeira.

Teixeira responded by filing a defamation suit against Pele.  Havelange, over the objections of FIFA’s general secretary, Joseph Blatter, and other officials of the sport’s governing body, then entered the dispute and ordered Pele removed from Sunday’s ceremony because he didn’t want to share the World Cup stage with Pele.  He even refused to mention Pele by name at a news conference.

Members of FIFA and the World Cup Organizing Committee were unable to alter Havelange’s decision, which reportedly was made without discussion with either organization.

“FIFA has to respect the wishes of its president,” FIFA spokesman Guido Tognoni said.  “I can’t add more.”

U.S. officials said Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and chairman of the World Cup USA 1994 organizing committee, was livid over the decision to exclude the only household name in American soccer from the grandest ceremony in American soccer history.

Havelange then rebuked Rothenberg.

“Mr. Rothenberg would be disappointed if we withdrew the World Cup,” Havelange said.  “Mr. Rothenberg has everything he wants.  Nothing will be missing.  The absence of one person is not going to affect the World Cup draw.  Persons who don’t participate are not important.”

Pele said he would be in the audience of 3,500 at the Las Vegas Convention Center to see the group assignments of the 24 finalists drawn by movie stars, entertainers and star athletes–everyone but the world’s greatest player.

“His son-in-law, with the secretary of the Brazilian federation–they proposed to me something which I do not accept,” Pele said.  “I do not accept corruption.  You know the problems of Brazil.  Corruption is a big problem here.  What I want to make clear is, my problem is with the Brazil federation.  I don’t accept their proposal for corruption.  Everyone knows I am for Brazil, I want to help Brazil, I want Brazil in the final, I want the best for Brazil.

“Everybody knows I don’t have anything against Mr. Havelange and FIFA,” Pele said.  “Mr. Havelange has been my idol since 1958.  He has encouraged me, he has given the message to me.  He is the boss of FIFA.  He can say whatever he wants.”

Of course, it was Pele who made Brazil an international soccer power, which helped put Havelange in place to become FIFA president in 1974.  And it was Pele’s decision to play for the North American Soccer League in 1975 that created the possibility for the World Cup to come to the United States almost 20 years later.  Pele remains the only soccer name recognized by Americans.

“When I came here to play for the New York Cosmos, we started to talk of the World Cup coming to the U.S.,” said Pele, now 54.  “They said, ‘Pele, are you crazy?  The World Cup in the U.S.A.?’  But today the dream comes true.  In my view, we are here today to start the World Cup.  This makes me happy.”

The soccer world we know today is, for better or worse, what the arrogant autocrat known as Havelange hath wrought.  For those who watched his career as FIFA strongman, this quote, to Time magazine in 1998, summed up Havelange:

“I’ve been to Russia twice, invited by President Yeltsin.  In Italy, I saw Pope John Paul II three times.  When I go to Saudi Arabia, King Fahd welcomes me in splendid fashion.  Do you think a head of state will spare that much time for just anyone?  That’s respect.  They’ve got their power, and I’ve got mine:  the power of football, which is the greatest power there is.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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18-YEAR-OLD MLS BRINGS US THE NEW 40

Pedro Morales converted a penalty kick in the 19th minute and struck again on a 20-yard shot a minute later to lead the Vancouver Whitecaps to a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in a Major League Soccer match before a crowd of 21,000 at BC Place.

The meeting commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first game between the Whitecaps and Earthquakes, who opened the North American Soccer League season at Empire Stadium as expansion franchises on May 5, 1974.  Fans at BC Place were encouraged to dress ’70s retro, which many did with long-haired wigs, sunglasses, fake mustaches and bell-bottom pants.  [May 3]

Comment:  The match was played about a month after the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders battled to an entertaining 4-4 draw before yet another standing-room-only crowd of 20,814 at Portland’s Providence Park.  The Associated Press referred to that encounter as “one of the wilder match ups of a rivalry dating to the mid-1970s.”  NBC, which televised the game, called it “the 85th meeting of the two teams.”  MLS noted earlier that the Sounders, along with a third Cascadia rival, the Whitecaps, and the ‘Quakes would mark their 40th anniversary seasons this year, with the Timbers celebrating No. 39.

What a stretch of the imagination.

Those clubs have as much right to claim a 40th anniversary as a married couple who experiences divorce, death, ressurection, marriage to other partners, further divorces, identity changes, separation, multiple relocations, and, finally, rebirth, all since the days that Richard Nixon was in the White House.

True, the Sounders, Whitecaps and ‘Quakes were born in 1974 as NASL teams, followed by the Timbers in ’75.  However, Portland, which once boldly called itself “Soccer City USA,” folded after the 1982 season, and Seattle, Vancouver and San Jose (known as Golden Bay for its final two seasons) went down with the ship when the NASL itself died after the 1984 campaign.

A year later, with professional soccer in the U.S. resembling a moonscape, two new teams, FC Portland and FC Seattle, joined with a reconstituted San Jose Earthquakes and the soon-to-be-forgotten Victoria Riptides to play in a hopeful attempt to revive high-level soccer called the Western Alliance Challenge Series (San Jose finished first with a 4-2-1 record).  The WACS morphed into the Western Soccer Alliance, then the Western Soccer League, then, through a 1990 merger with the East Coast’s year-old American Soccer League, the American Professional Soccer League.  FC Portland, born as an all-amateur side made up primarily of University of Portland players like Kasey Keller, and their rival, since renamed FC Seattle Storm, folded after that year.

As for the San Jose Earthquakes, they were replaced by the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in 1989; after U.S. internationals like Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda and John Doyle led them the to APSL title in ’91, they dropped into the USISL by ’93 as the San Jose Hawks and then folded.  After three years of darkness, the San Jose Clash became a charter member of MLS.  It shed the regrettable Clash nickname in 1999 and went on to win two MLS championships as the ‘Quakes, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the poorly supported team from moving to Houston in 2006.  Two years later, an MLS expansion team, named the Earthquakes, was awarded to San Jose; this fourth version of the ‘Quakes will move into a new, soccer-specific stadium, in 2015.

Vancouver?  It returned to action in 1986 as a freelance team, then joined the new, short-lived Canadian Soccer League the following year.  After six seasons as a CSL power, the 86ers embarked on an 18-year odyssey that took them to the APSL, A-League and USL-1.  Along the way, the 86es nickname was changed to Whitecaps.

These 40-year anniversaries are all well and good, but they ignore the difficult days between NASL and MLS, when there was genuine doubt that pro outdoor soccer would ever be seen again.  Ask those in the crowd of 34,012 who watched the Sounders beat the Timbers at the Kingdome in 1979 if any of them were among the 1,500 or so who saw an amateur Portland team play a semi-pro Seattle team at the old Memorial Stadium eight or nine years later.  Would any of them have drawn any sort of parallel between the two games?  Could any of them have foreseen a day when an MLS Portland Timbers and MLS Seattle Sounders would meet at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field in front of 66,452 in 2012 or 67,385 last season?

Given the ups and downs–and glaring gaps–in these and every other major soccer-playing market in the U.S., creating milestones like this is a shameless example of revisionist history.  If not, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) should’ve just claimed the legacy of the New York Cosmos as their own and begun life in MLS in 1996 with five NASL titles to their name.  Better yet, the New England Revolution should’ve simply traced their roots to the Fall River Marksmen, founded in 1921.  That would’ve given the Revs an immediate 75-year history, plus seven American Soccer League championships and four U.S. National Open Cup crowns.  A stretch?  Fall River, which of course is part of New England, is only 36 miles from the Revolution’s home field, Gillette Stadium.

These MLS clubs are right to give a nod to their respective cities’ rich soccer histories.  But the Whitecaps, Earthquakes (with their new stadium on the horizon), and Timbers and Sounders (with their routine sellouts) should celebrate the here and now without trying to re-write history–especially without forcing themselves to drag memories of mutton chop sideburns, Watergate and disco into the equation.



THE AMERICAN-GERMAN-AMERICANS

Bayern Munich forward Julian Green has applied to FIFA to change his national team association from Germany to the United States.

The highly touted 18-year-old, who was born in Tampa, FL, will become the latest German-American to join the U.S. National Team pool under the USA’s German coach, Juergen Klinsmann, following in the footsteps of dual-nationalists Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Daniel Williams (Reading, England), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Austria) and Alfredo Morales (FC Ingolstadt).

The son of an American father and German mother, Green moved with his family to Germany when he was 2.  He played for Germany’s under-16 and under-17 teams, then represented the U.S. in an U-18 friendly against Holland.  He later played for Germany in a qualifier for this year’s UEFA Under-19 Championship.

“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Klinsmann, who first attempted to call up Green for U.S. friendlies in November.  “He is a very special talent.”

The teen winger has made just one appearance for Bayern Munich, a brief stint in November at the end of a UEFA Champions League match against CSKA Moscow.  Green has been a regular with Bayern’s Regionalliga team, scoring 15 goals in 19 games.  [March 18]

Comment:  Green is unlikely to play a role in the USA’s adventure at Brasil ’14, but this June we will finally learn whether the German way is the American way when it comes to soccer.

Back in the mid-1970s, when the growth of the North American Soccer League was forcing a spotlight on the American game in general and the national team in particular, the U.S. Soccer Federation took the tack that the style that best suited its team was German.  It hired Dettmar Cramer, an assistant to Helmet Schoen on West Germany’s 1966 World Cup runner-up team, as coach in August 1974.  Cramer was in charge long enough to lose two games to Mexico, throw up his hands at the lack of talent, money and organization at his disposal and, 5 1/2 months into his tenure, returned home, where he would guide a Bayern Munich starring Franz Beckenbauer to consecutive European Cup titles.  Less than a decade later, the USSF tried again with the appointment of former FC Cologne coach Karl-Heinz Heddergott as national coaching director, but Heddergott ran into the same frustrating constraints.  All the while, critics of this Teutonic shift claimed that the national team program–if “program” was the right word–was ignoring the coming USA wave of Latin players, eventually led by hyphenated Americans Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos, and Claudio Reyna, that would transform the national team and carry it to glory.

The U.S. has had a link with German soccer that dates to 1923 with the founding of the powerful semipro German-American Soccer League (later renamed the Cosmopolitan Soccer League) in New York, a circuit whose best players helped make up the roster of the original New York Cosmos in 1971.  Paul Caliguiri made a major–and unlikely–breakthrough when he leaped from UCLA to Hamburger SV in the late 1980s.  He later played for SV Meppen, Hansa Rostock, SC Freiburg and FC St. Pauli, paving the way in the Bundesliga for players like Eric Wynalda, Kasey Keller and Steve Cherundolo.  U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic’s decision to bring FC Kaiserslautern midfielder Tom Dooley–son of an American serviceman and a German mother–into the national team fold established a two-way street whose inbound lane has only increased in traffic by plenty under Klinsmann.

But it’s not just personnel.  Klinsmann has tapped into characteristics common between the two cultures.  Despite shortcomings that continue to keep the U.S. out of the top 10 in the FIFA rankings, the Americans’ compulsion, like the Germans, is to attack.  On a good day, Klinsmann has his players pressing forward–some would say recklessly–at speed with six and seven players, followed, at speed, by a similar commitment on defense.  High tempo, hard work.  They expect to win every challenge.  They count on wearing down the opposition long before the final whistle.  And like the West German teams Klinsmann grew up watching and then playing for, they now consider no deficit insurmountable.  The U.S. demonstrated that resolve by tying host Russia, 2-2, in late 2012 on two late strikes.   The following June, in a World Cup qualifier,  it squandered a 1-0 lead late in Jamaica and emerged with a 2-1 victory.

Above all, for those who remember Steve Sampson’s team of complacent U.S. veterans who crashed at the 1998 World Cup, Klinsmann has called out his established players, introduced interesting outsiders and created a player pool that may not be deep but is certainly competitive as the 30 players with a realistic chance to make the trip to Brazil are whittled to the final 23.

The critics from long ago must feel permanently slighted at this point:  Klinsmann has turned his back on any possibility that Latin flair is the USA’s recipe for success.  It’ll be grit, not beauty, heading into Brazil this year.  Some of the players may have names like Omar Gonzalez,  Michael Orozco Fiscal, Joe Corona or Juan Agudelo, but it’s not the name, it’s the mentality and the approach.  After all, when Klinsmann’s looked over his shoulder two years ago at the German National Team he once coached, the joint scoring leader of the European Championship was a German named … Mario Gomez.



MLS: OLD ENOUGH TO VOTE–AND GLOAT (BUT WON’T)

Major League Soccer will kick off its 18th season Saturday, March 2, with 12 of its 19 clubs in action.  Another six will play the following day.

Aside from the usual player moves and coaching changes, the league remains relatively unchanged from 2012, although the start date marks the earliest kickoff in MLS history.  A record 87 matches will be televised nationally on seven different channels, and the league will be out to top last season’s attendance figures as it drew 6,074,729 fans and averaged a record-18,807–ahead of the NBA and NHL and behind only the NFL and Major League Baseball at the turnstiles.  [February 28]

Comment:  MLS, wisely, has never been a league to look back; given the alphabet soup of leagues that have crashed and burned over the past century, there never was a reason to remind anyone that it has been trying to be the very first one to fly.

But if it did publicly point to the past, it might … discreetly … modestly … pop a very quiet champagne cork and take a quick sip.

Season 18 makes MLS the oldest professional soccer league in American history.  Eighteen is one year older than the North American Soccer League (1968-84), the league formed by the merger of a pair of one-year-old circuits, the long-forgotten United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League.  The NASL was down to five clubs in 1969, then rode the Pele-led New York Cosmos gravy train to 24 teams and a national TV contract in the late ’70s, only to over-spend itself into oblivion a handful of years later.   The only other notable pro league in the U.S. was the original American Soccer League, which was founded in 1921 and was out-drawing the NFL until battles with the USFA (forerunner to U.S. Soccer) and FIFA and the Great Depression killed it off in 1933, although it reorganized and limped along on a minor-league basis until 1983.

MLS, now just three years away from full adulthood, still faces many challenges, not the least of which are poor TV ratings in a sports landscape ruled by the tube, plus too many clubs operating in the red.  And there would not have been an 18th birthday were it not for the likes of Phil Anschutz, who at one point propped up half the clubs in the league. But while the NASL in its 17th season was in its death throes, hemorrhaging money as its number of franchises had dropped to nine and average attendance to a tepid 10,759, MLS is not far from adding its 20th club (a reconstituted New York Cosmos?  Orlando?), and the fan base in many of its cities is made up of young adults who are loyal, knowledgeable and loud.  While NASL clubs shoehorned themselves into all manner of baseball stadiums and pro, college and even high school football stadiums, 14 MLS clubs play in new or relatively new soccer-specific stadiums.  MLS has proven to be one of the most competitive soccer leagues in the world–nine different clubs have lifted the MLS Cup and eight have claimed the Supporters Shield–and the quality on the field continues to improve (though some critics would ask, how could it not?).   And while the NASL tried to build itself on the backs of big-name, high-priced foreigners, the MLS this season loses the world’s most recognizable star in David Beckham but has attracted enough stars from abroad to make itself interesting.

With the MLS  now old enough to vote, should it gloat?  Nope.  Would Major League Soccer’s cautious, spendthrift approach, without a legion of Internet-driven 20-something hipsters in the stands, without its soccer-specific stadiums, without the explosion of television-exposure options, have survived back in 1968-84?  Of course not.  In short, after ASL I, ASL II, the International League, USA, NPSL, NASL, MISL, AISL, USL, WSA/WSL, ASL III, APSL and A-League, Major League Soccer can thank the soccer gods that it has proven itself to be the right league at the right time.



AMERICAN CAESAR

Giorgio Chinaglia, the fiery Italian who scored the goals that powered the New York Cosmos to four North American Soccer League titles during the league’s glory days, died at his Naples, FL, home of complications from a heart attack.  He was 69.

After leading Lazio to its first Serie A title and playing for Italy in the 1974 World Cup–where he infamously flipped off coach Ferruccio Valcareggi while being substituted during the opener against Haiti–Chinaglia was signed in 1976 by the Cosmos, who sought a sure-fire goalscorer to pair with Pele.

While the Cosmos got about $20 million’s worth of publicity from the $5 million signing of Pele the previous year, Chinaglia proved to be a bargain when it came to production on the field.  He scored 193 goals in 213 regular-season games before he retired after the league’s second-to-last season in 1983.  That was an NASL record, as were his 49 playoff goals.  Seven of those came in an outrageous 8-1 humiliation of the Tulsa Roughnecks in 1980 as he set post-season records for goals in a playoff game and goals in a single post-season, 19.  He also holds the records for most goals in a season, 34 in 30 games, in 1978, and total points, 79, set that same year, thanks to his 11 assists.

Elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2000, Chinaglia later found himself an exile in his adopted country after a group he was involved with was accused by Italian authorities of price-fixing in the attempted purchase of his former club, Lazio.   [April 1]

Comment:   There are soccer fans here who remember Chinaglia as the American Caesar.  With his outsized ego,  Chinaglia was made for New York, the swingin’ ’70s and the Cosmos, who could number among their followers Mick Jagger and Henry Kissinger.   He marked his arrival by saying of Pele, who showed up in 1976 late and out of shape, “He’s just another player I’ll have to carry until he gets fit.”  He also had the good sense to become close with Warner Communications supremo Steve Ross, the Cosmos’ part-owner and biggest fan.  More important, Chinaglia backed up his bluster by becoming the NASL’s greatest scoring machine.  A classic poacher,  some of his goals were pretty, some not so.  His final notable goal was typical:   In San Diego, he bundled the ball into the goal with his thigh during a goalmouth scramble to give New York a 1-0 victory over the (original) Seattle Sounders in a forgettable Soccer Bowl ’82.

What soccer fans of all ages here will remember is the Giorgio Chinaglia whom ABC teamed with former U.S. star Eric Wynalda as in-studio commentators during its coverage of the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan.  Many of those games aired in America during the wee hours, but the Giorgio-Waldo Show proved much more potent than black coffee in keeping viewers awake with their running game of thrust and parry.  Doing most of the thrusting was Wynalda, who played gleeful, smart-alecky high school student to the completely humorless but unflappable social studies teacher Chinaglia, and the result was classic TV.  The two parted ways as Chinaglia went on to host a satellite radio show while Wynalda, paired with Julie Foudy for the ’06 World Cup, became a bit more buttoned down in recent years as studio host for Fox Soccer Channel.  There hasn’t been an on-air duo like Waldo-Chinaglia, and we soccer viewers are the poorer for it.



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.



AMERICA’S 5-FOOT-8, 160-POUND EMBLEM

Landon Donovan won an unprecedented seventh U.S. Player of the Year award in a landslide over runner-up Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey in balloting involving nearly 200 journalists nationwide.

Donovan, who first won the honor in 2002, attracted 403 points based on three for a first-place vote, two for second and one for third.  Bradley picked up 169 points and Dempsey 157.   The only other multiple winners in the 20-year history of the award– organized by the national radio show Futbol de Primera and until recently sponsored by Honda–are goalkeeper Kasey Keller (1999 and 2005) and striker Eric Wynalda (1992 and 1996).

The speedy attacking midfielder-withdrawn forward probably became a favorite for the 2010 award with his stellar play early in the year for Everton, but he cinched it by scoring in three of the USA’s four games at the World Cup, including the dramatic winner against Algeria in added-on time that put the Americans into the second round.  He then returned home and helped the Los Angeles Galaxy finish the MLS regular season with the league’s best record.  [January 5]

Comment:  Once dismissed by the Los Angeles Times as “the overrated Landon Donovan” following the first of his two attempts to make an impact in Europe with Bayer Leverkusen, later criticized for disappearing in this match and that, the USA’s all-time scoring leader in 2010 cemented his status as not only the face of the sport in this country but a face that some average Americans actually recognize.

This country’s first notable soccer player was, probably, Archie Stark, a Scottish-born center forward who dominated the original American Soccer League in the 1920s and was dubbed “The Babe Ruth of Soccer” by a young newspaper columnist named Ed Sullivan.   From the early ’30s, oldtimers fondly recall a ball artiste named Billy Gonsalves.  Fast-forward to the 1970s, when the NASL tried but failed to make league scoring leader Kyle Rote Jr. its All-American Boy, and the 1980s, when it succeeded, somewhat, in planting that title on New York Cosmos midfielder Rick Davis.   Since then, the country has produced several outstanding players, like Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna, as well as personalities like bohemian gladfly defender Alexi Lalas, the fiery goal-scorer Wynalda and teen-idol Cobi Jones. 

It has been said repeatedly that what American soccer needs is a superstar–whatever that means.  It is doubtful, however, that the general American public would appreciate the subtle skills of a Xavi, a Zidane, a Cantona, a Maldini.  An incisive pass, a simple swerve, a change of direction, an immaculate take-away:  all would be lost on a viewership peering in on soccer only occasionally.  Donovan, however, does what Americans understand, has a track record of doing so, and is comfortable before cameras and facing a horde of reporters in front of his locker. 

Donovan has asked for a respite after several months of play, so it’s unlikely that he will return to Europe any time soon and add to his credentials this winter.  As such, enjoy his reign as “That American Soccer Player.”  Certainly, no successor is on the horizon, and that puts the sport’s longterm future on the fickle U.S. pop culture front in doubt.

[Full disclosure:  One ballot went to Donovan, Bradley and Steve Cherundolo, who served the role of grown-up on the USA back line in South Africa.  At 31 and playing for the obscure Hannover 96, it’s doubtful that the smart, energenic Cherundolo will ever get the credit he deserves.]