Aside: Destination England

This sprung out of an idle conversation with some excellent folks on twitter during Manchester City’s routine win against United, about which player from each club you take for the Timbers, and then which Timbers player could get into a top Premier League club. This is in no way a suggestion I want any of these players to go, nor should it be taken any more seriously than a post conceived and written after 11PM on a Tuesday deserves. Continue reading

Old Words

An unexpected benefit of our bad luck in defense is that Jean-Baptiste has probably gotten more games than he would’ve done if things had gone according to plan. He’s still raw, but I think the point you make about his ability to come back stronger from setbacks is key. He’s got a good coach working on him, and he gets to work with/talk to the likes of Kah and Silvestre, who can mentor him and give him the benefit of years of soccer at high levels, but all that would be for nothing if he crumbled or hid after making a mistake because without that character, you’ll never be a player that can relied on when the pressure is on and a trophy are [sic] on the line.

– My words in mid July, shortly before AJB’s loss of form (as part of the defensive collective)

Seems judgement has been made. We shall see.

Who’s The Bastard In The Black?


Seeing as how I haven’t written anything here for a while, I really should be working on getting that idea for an article fleshed out but instead I happened across a tweet about referees, linking to this article about the terrible standards of refereeing in MLS and how a Designated Referee would be the solution to this self-diagnosed problem.

I read it, and as soon as I could stop by eye balls from rolling around their sockets, I got to writing these words: Please Don’t Talk Such Shite.

Why can’t we have games that are decided by the play on the field with consistent calls?

Why can’t a foul on one end of the field be a foul on the other end?

Why can’t a yellow card offense be a yellow card offense regardless of which team does it?

Why can’t a referee set clear boundaries that apply to both teams and make sense to anyone watching the game?

Gross exaggeration. They are in the overwhelming majority of games.

Because it’s very unlikely that both fouls were identical or seen in the same way by the ref.

See previous answer.

They do, and it does in the overwhelming majority of games, though I may prefer a ref to take a harder/softer line at times.

Obviously there is work to be done on improving standards of refereeing in the States. I’m not going to use this article to excuse refs getting it wrong, but I am getting rather tired of this “ref’s a shit” circlejerk that is launched any time a set of supporters perceive a slight against their team.

You simply aren’t going to fix things by buying in talent, just ask NYRB or Toronto FC management about that one.

How many times do we have to watch EPL/La Liga/Bundeliga/Serie A/SPL/Ligue 1/UEFA Champion’s League/ World Cup/ Euro Finals/MDX/any other league on this planet and think “why can’t MLS have refs like this”?

A lot less often than I watch those leagues and think “man, this ref is terrible” or “that was an awful decision”. Ask fans of those leagues for their opinions on their domestic referees and the conversation there will be much the same as the one we’re having about ours. Besides which, interpretation of the Laws of the Game can vary wildly across federations such that a “good” ref in Brazil might be an absolute nightmare in England or vice versa.

No, the way to fix things is by better training and education so that there is a talent pipeline that will sees standards improve from within. It takes a special kind of person to pursue a career as a referee. The job doesn’t pay particularly well, but demands a high degree of fitness as well as a skin thick enough to deal with the kind of abuse that comes with being the “bastard in the black“. There are few kids growing up who dream of awarding a penalty in a World Cup Final some day, even fewer who have the will to hold onto that dream after taking more than few game’s worth of abuse. No-one likes ’em.

Refs don’t help themselves, of course, with some composing themselves in such a haughty manner as to give the impression that the game is all about them, but I’d rather have a bull-headed, arrogant ref than a weak-willed, indecisive one cos I know which one is the more dangerous out there. And it would be nice if contentious decisions could be better explained, or refs owned up to making mistakes, but they aren’t helped by the fact that their every error is highlighted in unflattering slow motion for the benefit of the watching public.

It’s easy to sit at home, watch a replay and scoff at how badly a ref got it; much harder to spot it at the time, and I will be honest and say that, at a guess, I maybe get 60-70% of as-it-happens decisions correct, and that’s largely thanks to having a nice TV angle which refs don’t get. Oft times there are bodies or legs in the way, and when things are moving at full speed and players are happy to cheat to get a decision their way, the job becomes a lot more difficult than the replays would have us believe.

As an aside, would video evidence be a solution? I’m not sure as I don’t think every decision warrants a call-back, and I wouldn’t want the game becoming any more stop-start than it already is. I can’t imagine many athletic or fitness coaches would be too keen on the game slowing to a halt every time the ref is less than 100% sure or accurate either, nor broadcasters who would find that 45 minute window of (virtually) dead advertising space extended even further (no doubt leading to “innovation” in that field).

The biggest problem the refs face, and it’s one I’m guilty of being a part of, is that we fans think we know more about the rules than we actually do. By all means, go take a test and see how you do, then take that test again while it’s all happening around you at a pace that can only be truly appreciated at pitch level.

Of course referees should be better than Joe T. Public, as this is their job (though you’ll find msot refs, even in top leagues, are part-time) and this is what they’ve trained for and worked at for many years, but much of the time listening to fan’s complaints about refereeing decisions is often like listening to Jenny McCarthy’s brainleaks expert opinions on vaccinations.

So, in conclusion…

Yes, the refs here aren’t great, but…

No, they’re not than much better elsewhere, and in some places they’re worse.

Yes, it should be better, but…

No, buying in refs won’t fix anything in the long term and, as any fan of the game in this country who has even the vaguest notion of its history here would know, short-term thinking isn’t going to get the game anywhere.

These kind of knee-jerk, over-the-top reactions and public flogging of officials aren’t going to do anything except turn more people off the idea of becoming a referee. This is still a pretty young nation in soccer terms, in the modern sense at least, and it is getting better and more assured as it matures. As tough as it is to watch refs blow a call and cost your team we have to understand that, just as the game itself is growing here and domestic talent levels are steadily increasing as, so the funding and training available for potential new refs will see better officials emerging in future.

But, above all, it’s never going to be perfect regardless of the passport of the man in the middle.

All Star

There are only 50 pulse-quickening days to go until the MLS All-Star Game, though I'm sure I’d don’t need to tell you that because you're already counting the days down yourself in fevered anticipation.

Or you could’ve just filed that little nugget of information to the back of your mind where it could be carefully disposed of until the official site and blogpack try to convince you that you care, you really, really care about this game. Vote! Vote now! Care!

I’m sure MLS do well financially from the engagement or else we wouldn’t be subjected to this carnival every year, even after factoring in costs to stage and to pay a team from Europe to travel over and attract sponsors. A big play will be made about selling the MLS brand abroad, and we’ll hear all kinds of talk about “markets”, “exposure” and “profile”; you know, the kinda stuff that really get a soccer fan’s juices flowing.

By the way, this is the same organisation that seeks to “protect” the Cascadia Cup trademark. Just saying.

But, from admittedly limited experience, I can tell you that in the UK, no-one cares beyond ” played a pre-season friendly today in America.” That situation is changing a bit as MLS slowly increases its profile abroad and I’m sure there will be those in MLS HQ who point to the All Star Game as a key part of that growth, but that’s equine manure.

MLS players making an impression in decent leagues abroad is increasing the profile as a place where you can actually buy talent, rather than send players who’s talents are waning.

The fans are doing it too by adding some literal noise and color to proceedings and getting the attention of international press.

The All-Star Game is a sideshow. MLS pats itself on the back for putting on their big boy soccer league pants while a bunch of superstars go about running off a summer spent on a beach in Dubai and people pay to attend this spectacle because this is just what the league does. A weird holdover from the days when the game here both helped and hampered in itself by modeling aspects on other US sports rather than other soccer leagues.

So, yeah, I’m not a fan of it, and the announcement of the opening of the ballot (VOTE! OR THE PUPPY GETS IT!) has left my twitter stream alternating from actively not caring to using the vote as a chance to weaken other sides because of course you’d schedule all this for the middle of the fucking week.

Given it’s squeezed into the schedule and could have a direct effect on the play-off race, I don’t see why we need to persist with a show-piece game in the first place. The big European teams will be here playing MLS sides anyway.

But if we do need some kind of event to drum up interest in the “package”, then why not thinking out of the box and, I’m not entirely unserious when I say this, why not hold a six-a-side tournament.

It’s a game that many fans will be familiar from playing in or attending, as well as non MLS fans. It’s quick, throws up lots of action in short bursts (that allow for commercial breaks), and will guarantee goals.

I remember from growing up that there was a similar competition held in Scotland called the Tennents Sixes. The top clubs would gather for a weekend and play a round-robin knockout tournament.

I loved it, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that a significant part of the reason I wanted to see Kilmarnock get promoted was that they would be eligible for the Sixes.

The tournament died due to increasing worries about injuries, as well as Tennents being an brand of lager and that kind of thing being frowned upon on TV. It’s never been revived, outside of a popular Masters tournament for old club legends, and I don’t think for a second MLS would actually entertain the idea, but I know which one I’d be watching every second of.

Still, I guess I better go vote for non-Timbers players because I don’t want our guys getting hurt in order to puff up Don Garber’s ego any further. Yay, All-Star Game.

Soccervision

It’s long been accepted wisdom, in the UK at least, that Americans don’t get football, and most likely won’t ever get it. They’d much rather watch hillbillies drive round in circles for hours on end, or padded freaks of nature crash into each other than enjoy the sport that the rest of the world recognises as the beautiful game.

It wasn’t for for the likes of them.

Except that in my brief stay over here it’s already clear that there is a growing proportion of American sports fans that are turning on to football. Literally.

This past weekend saw every single match on the closing day of the Premier League season screened live across Fox’s network of sports channels and ESPN, in an event called “Survival Sunday”.

This unprecedented event follows strong ratings for matches, with ESPN recording over a million viewers for the recent Manchester derby, while competitions like the Champions League also consistently draw high ratings.

It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that most of these matches – the Champions League group stages in particular – will take place during weekday afternoons. Many Premier League matches kick off in early morning for West Coast based footy fans.

They’re not prime time events, yet the fans know what they want, and are willing to seek it out, and the television networks have taken note. Make no mistake, if football wasn’t a big draw, Fox wouldn’t give it a second glance, yet it even has a dedicated soccer channel.

The breadth of choice for the football fan in the States is staggering. Coming from a country where live coverage of much of the sport is in the iron grip of vastly overpriced subscription channels, it really is a breath of fresh air.

And it’s really not that surprising. The sport is growing in popularity all the time. It’s the most popular team sport for under 13s, and 60% of soccer players are under the age of 18. It’s this new generation of football fans that will continue the sport’s rapid growth, as their love affair with soccer blossoms.

The missing link is in the domestic game. Attendance at MLS matches continues to grow thanks in large part to some very smart expansions in recent years – the end of the 2011 season saw MLS rise to 3rd in average attendance at professional sports, behind NFL and MLB. Yet, the television ratings still disappoint. Only 70,000 tuned in to a recent New York vs New England match, and it’s a rare event that sees the ratings nudge towards 500,000.

It could be a snobbishness towards MLS, considering it an inferior product, that lies behind some of the ratings disparity. Perhaps it’s the (relative) lack of history or drama that the final day of the Premier League season threw up, or the major European competitions regularly do.

While MLS is clearly not on the level of a Premier League or La Liga in terms of overall quality, the football is improving all the time. It is, however, difficult to increase quality greatly when a career in soccer can’t yet offer the same financial rewards to those kids playing the game that other major American sports can.

The average salary of even the NHL is over $1.3 million, a figure only a select few can hope to earn playing Major League Soccer. The average salary of NBA players dwarves even that of an MLS teams entire salary cap. This bleeding of talent from the game lowers the pool available to MLS clubs, though they may hope to plug this leak with the development of youth academies that will funnel the best players to the top.

Growing the sport at the grassroots, and bringing through fresh, exciting local talent will help to turn eyes towards the league. Tapping urban areas for the kinds of players that are largely lost to soccer will also be key to increasing the sports broad appeal.

But it shouldn’t be an either-or situation for football fans in the States. MLS and European or South American football can happily co-exist and even compliment each other as anyone who has followed Clint Dempsey’s career from MLS to Premier League could testify.

There is still a resistance to soccer among many American sports fans, but there’s been a shift in recent years away from trying to court these casual fans to the game. This older generation are not the market that soccer is aiming for any more, and it’s allowed MLS in particular to be more focussed on delivering a strong product to those that already love the game, but haven’t yet fallen in love with the American flavour of soccer.

The outlets are certainly there as the big sports broadcasters in the States have all awoken over the past few years to the huge potential of football. Advertisers clearly see value in placing their ads during shows, and footballers such as Lionel Messi, Frank Lampard and Sergio Aguero are seen as viable ambassadors for brands like Pepsi across even non-soccer specific channels.

This summer will see every match of the European Championship broadcast by ESPN, with over 200 hours of coverage dedicated to the event, as well as the continued coverage of MLS who may hope for a ratings bump as a result.

More people are playing it. More people are going to matches. More people are tuning in.

It’s safe to say soccer is here, and it’s here to stay.

Viva la Fútbol