Welcome To The North

By Brad Hubbard | @bradhubbard

MNUnitedFC

Minneapolis received the 23rd MLS franchise. Minnesota United FC (MNUFC) will begin play in 2018. Two interesting things to take away from this announcement; first, Minneapolis will enter a rare stratosphere in the US. It will be one of nine cities in the United States that has a team in every major professional sports league and second, a woman co-owner.

Minneapolis is considered a lot of things. Cold, a fly-over city, hockey country, etc. It has over the last 15 years become a sports mecca. While some of it’s teams have not been at the top of their profession (Minnesota Timberwolves) others have been very competitive over the years like the Major League Baseball’s Twins or the NFL’s Vikings. More importantly, each pro franchise will have their own sport specific venue in the next five years or so. This doesn’t include the University of Minnesota who has their own facilities.

With the addition of MNUFC, the Twin Cities joins the likes of the Bay Area, Denver, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Boston, and the New York City area that has a pro franchise in every one of the five major sports leagues. From the NFL to the NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS, these cities (or areas if you prefer) have a team that competes at the highest level. While Los Angeles and Miami could soon join these ranks, it shows how difficult it can be to support a professional franchise in any sport much less all five leagues. A massive, diverse and economically well off population is needed to spread around that much disposable income.

During the official announcement MLS commissioner Don Garber said that soccer was ‘a sport for a new America’ in reference to why the league and team where focusing on the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market area for a soccer stadium. This reflects in the ownership of the franchise as well. Wendy Nelson Carlson was introduced as a co-owner of the franchise.

Wendy-MNUnited
Yes, the graphics person got the name wrong.

 

Carlson is in rare company. There are only a handful of women listed as owners or co-owners of a major professional franchise. Virginia Halas McCaskey is listed as the principal owner of the Chicago Bears, a franchise she inherited from her father George Halas upon his death in 1983. While she is the principal owner, the ownership of the team is often referred to as ‘being owned by the McCaskey family.’ While female executives and other minority groups are underrepresented in the C-Suite at just about any business, it’s even more rare for a female co-owner to be introduced at the official announcement of an expansion franchise. (To show how far women have to go, Fox couldn’t even get her name right.)

The MLS and Minnesota United FC have their work cut out for them. Minneapolis is a very crowded sports market (we didn’t even go into the University of Minnesota Men’s Hockey team) and one that has recently built or is building stadiums for just about every professional and college team in the last 20 years. But this is not new to MLS. They have done this expansion thing many times before (not always successfully) and have a pretty good blueprint of what to do and how to do it. Add in their understanding of their fanbase and MNUFC should find success on the and off the pitch.

 

 

 

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The Stretch Run

By Brad Hubbard @bradhubbard

There are about two months left in the MLS regular season. Some teams will make a playoff run while others will begin playing for next season. Some players will rise to the occastion while some coaches will lose their jobs. Either way there are some intriguing match ups and interesting storylines heading into the stretch run for Major League Soccer.

The MLS Stretch Run

Can PorterBall Make the Playoffs? 

Portland has been one of the more consistant teams in the league this season. First year head coach Caleb Porter has been able to get his players to buy into his system. The result, the first ever playoff berth within reach if they can finish the season strong.

That run starts this weekend when they travel to Seattle in what should be the biggest crowd to ever see an MLS match. Some 66,000 will pack into Century Link Field in Seattle on Sunday night for a game with massive playoff implications. They also face Western Conference leaders Real Salt Lake two more times, Seattle again, the LA Galaxy, Vancouver and Colorado. In other words, a playoff berth is going to be a battle.

RBNY Makes Another Run

Like Porter in Portland, first year head coach Mike Petke has the Red Bulls believing. The question for this franchise is can the overcome the playoff slump and finally win an MLS Cup?

Like Portland, it won’t be a smooth road. They travel to Houston twice in the final two months and have to make two trips to the West Coast before the season is out. They have all the tools, including some of the most consistent goalkeeping in franchise history thanks to Luis Robles.

Who Gets Fired? 

The biggest surprise disappointment this year has to be DC United. They sit at the bottom of the league table with only 13 points. They have talent but it just hasn’t come together this year and people are frustrated. No one more than head man Ben Olsen.

Olsen and Columbus Crew’s Robert Warzycha are the most noticable managers on the hot seat while disappointing results led to the mid season firings of Frank Yallop in San Jose and Chelis at Chivas USA.

Does Dempsey Make a Difference? 

Seattle is on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs. They just signed America’s best player in Clint Dempsey but is that enough to get Seattle back into the playoffs?

Without Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins in the lineup, Dempsey and the Sounders were unable to get a point on the road against Houston. However, when all three are in the lineup, it could be one of the most potent offense in the league.

Dempsey can’t do it all himself. He needs help if the Sounders are to get back into the playoffs.

3 Peat?

Many consider the LA Galaxy to be the best team in the league…when they are at full strength. They are right now and if they can continue to be then they might just be the odds on favorites to walk away with their third MLS Cup.

Hang on soccer fans, this is about to get interesting.

The Rules Apply…Kinda.

By Dave Trausneck @Trausneck

In January, Sideline Signals highlighted the Charlotte’s Web of professional leagues, Major League Soccer; and the league’s confusing player system.

For the sake of this article, and possibly your sanity, you’ll want to take a few minutes to jot a few notes before you proceed further.  Oh, and take and Advil prior… save yourself the headache later.

MLS PLAYER MOVEMENTS

Since that article, some of Major League Soccer’s best players past and present decided the rules may not apply to them… and the league appears to be ok with that.  Reason being, they don’t want to play for the club that currently holds their rights.  And it’s turned into a blinking match between the league and its players.

Gomez and Rogers

We start in Kansas City who currently owns the rights to United States National Team forward Herculez Gomez. Gomez currently plays for Santos Laguna in Mexico, but stated he wants to come back to the U.S. and play.

Backtracking for a minute, KC offered Gomez a raise, but it wasn’t near what he could get on the foreign market, so he took his talents South of the Border.  But, because KC offered something, they get to retain his rights.  The former LA Galaxy and pre-MLS Seattle Sounder stated he may enjoy playing in Seattle if he returns to MLS, but he doesn’t understand the whole cluster of who owns his rights.  He even had an exchange with MLS Commissioner Don Garber over Twitter about it.

By rule, if Gomez returned to the league, anyone that wants him would have to trade compensation to KC for him.

It’s a similar situation for former USMNT player Robbie Rogers.  Rogers recently came out and announced he’s gay.  A staggering admission that made plenty of headlines, but after the dust cleared, Rogers started training with the LA Galaxy.  Rogers, who grew up in Southern California, admitted he could return to soccer (he retired earlier this year when he announced he was gay), but only in the right situation.  In recent interviews, he said he felt better about being in Los Angeles since he has more family in that area, and could draw strength from their support.

Rogers’ rights are owned by the Chicago Fire who acquired them in a way that’s not easy to find on the Internet, and also not easy to explain.  Leaving that to the side, like Gomez, if LA wanted Rogers to play for them, they would have to work out a trade with Chicago to make it work.

While neither of these players have broken any sort of agreement with the league, or the clubs that own their rights… it’s starting to create a sticky situation for the rest of the teams in the league.  Why is it that teams like New York and Los Angeles seem to get first crack at the top talent? It’s no secret MLS wants to put its biggest stars in the biggest television markets. But for league fairness, is it wise business?  Sporting KC is one of the top clubs in MLS right now, and Chicago is a very large market in its own right.  It appears we may be on the verge of the “Robbie Rule” or the “Herc Rule,” like we had the “Beckham rule.” 

Major League Soccer seems to favor the top clubs, then, they come up with a rule the following year that “other” teams can follow.  Oh, Landon Donovan wants to play for LA?  We’ll allow it, and next year every team can have not one, but TWO Designated Players.  Oh, you want to add Robbie Keane too?  Ok, well, we’ll have 3 Designated Players for the clubs next year.  New York you want Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez and Tim Cahill.  Ok, we’ll make that happen.

Below is a list of the clubs and their “guaranteed compensation for players.”  Notice a trend among the top 3 teams and who “usually” gets crack at top stars who want to play in the U.S.?  Kudos to NY, the Galaxy and the Sounders; they found a way to game the system in their favor.

NYR         $10,860,960
LAG         $9,685,263
SEA          $5,958,813
MTL         $5,288,700
VAN         $4,809,278
TOR         $4,710,844
CHI          $4,333,357
FCD         $4,244,860
DCU        $3,906,065
PHI          $3,832,575
SKC          $3,783,882
HOU        $3,648,640
RSL          $3,646,402
CLB          $3,617,001
POR         $3,564,501
NER         $3,476,086
SJE           $3,371,908
COL         $3,371,325
CHV         $2,607,146

It’s no wonder top players want to go to those 3 clubs.  They want to get paid.  But, if Major League Soccer wants to get serious about their player system, and they want to make sure it’s a level playing field for all clubs.  They’d look at some of these recent cases of players just wanting to go to a club because they “feel” like it.

It sets a dangerous precedent for the league moving forward and could be a major roadblock for the league’s development and potential expansion either to New York for a second team, or Orlando as an expansion franchise.

Fatigue Makes Cowards of us All.

By Brad Hubbard @bradhubbard

3 Eastern time zoned based MLS teams started out with back-to-back West Coast games to start the 2013 MLS Season. 2 of the teams stayed on the West Coast after their first game while 1 team made the trek back and forth. In total the teams went 3-2-1.

Impact Score

The Montreal Impact are in their second MLS season and on their second head coach, Marco Schällibaum. They were able to equal their road win total from last season by gaining victories at Seattle and at Portland. Arguably 2 of the toughest places to play at for a road team. The Columbus Crew were able to capture 1 win on their West Coast excursion and nearly drew with the Vancouver Whitecaps in their second match. Only the New York Red Bulls did worse, they let 2 victories slip away in matches at Portland and at San Jose.

Can you guess which team made the cross-country trip twice?

While Montreal and Columbus stayed out west New York chose to fly back to New York in between matches. In both cases the flights out west experienced delays (their first flight to San Jose was cancelled) and arrived later than expected for each match. In both matches they failed to close out the game by allowing both Portland and San Jose to score 2 goals each in the second half. The collapse in San Jose was almost unprecedented.

Did the travel have something to do with it? Probably. While everyone agrees that New York has one of the better clubs on paper in all of MLS they were unable to gain 3 points in either match. Montreal, complete with a new coach and the oldest average staring lineup in all of MLS (30 years old) were somehow able to gain a total of 6 points on their road trip. Was Montreal better rested and hence better prepared than New York? Probably. New York spent roughly 12 extra hours in the air traveling as opposed to Montreal and Columbus who only made the trip out west once.

Staying in the same time zone has proved beneficial in other sports as well. Over the last 2 seasons the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers have twice played back-to-back East Coast road games. Both times, after the first game they stayed in Youngstown, Ohio for the week before traveling to their next game. The result, 3 wins and 1 loss.

Cross-country travel takes a toll. It’s not just the 5 to 6 hour flight in coach but also the waiting at the airport. The getting to and from the airport and the stress of making sure that you brought the essentials. Combine these with a time change and it can wear you down. 2-time Super Bowl winning Head Coach Jimmy Johnson once said that ‘fatigue makes cowards of us all’. He’s right. Fatigue leads to cutting corners and mistakes. When you start doing that bad things start to happen that can, in the world of sports, lead to losses. Unnecessary travel can lead to fatigue and hence to losses.

24/7 Soccer World

Most people have come to terms with the reality that the world is a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week place. There are some remnants of the old school way of thinking such as evening newscasts, office hours and last call. The world of sports, especially soccer, has thrown out the idea of office hours.

During the fall or spring you can almost watch soccer for 24 hours a day. From Australia’s A-League to the German Bundesliga to the Barclay’s Premier League in England to MLS in North America. Soccer can be found either on TV or online. All live and in HD. Just follow the sun and you’ll find soccer.

TFC v SKC

You can do it from anywhere but it’s probably best to attempt this is from the West Coast of North America. If you start by watching an A-League game on a Friday night then snooze for a few hours. Get up before the sun for matches in the Netherlands, Germany and England and that should to take you until noon Pacific Coast time. At that point the MLS will take over for the rest of the day and end you’ll the day with a west coast game either in Seattle, Portland, San Jose or Los Angeles.

It’s a commitment but so is 90 minutes on the pitch.

5 Things To Watch For This MLS Season

 

 

MLS 2013

 

By Brad Hubbard @bradhubbard

A new MLS season is kicking off in North America. With any new season in any sport there are a lot of question marks. Below are our Top 5 things to look out for during this 18th MLS season.

5. New Coaches: There are 5 new head coaches roaming the sidelines in MLS this season and that now makes 12 former MLS players now managing clubs. Two of the biggest debuts square off in week one. Mike Petke of the New York Red Bulls and Caleb Porter for the Portland Timbers. Both teams have high expectations, a rabid fan base and a longing for MLS post season glory.                                                                                                  

4. The Donovan Odyssey: US Soccer poster boy Landon Donovan has taken a leave of absence from soccer but is returning to the the 2-time defending MLS Cup Champions LA Galaxy at the end of March. Will he be the same player on and off the field? Can he lead, along with Robbie Keane, the Galaxy to a 3rd straight MLS Cup?

3. Can Toronto FC Make The Playoffs?: Only the Red Bulls have gone through more coaching changes than TFC. However, the Red Bulls have been in MLS for all 18 years (formerly known as the MetroStars) while TFC kicks off it’s 7th MLS season on Saturday. They have never made the playoffs and after another off season of sweeping changes it is left to 1st time coach Ryan Nelsen to get this team into the MLS playoffs for the 1st time.

2. Running With The Red Bulls: The New York Red Bulls have arguably the most dangerous player in MLS in Thierry Henry. They’ve shaken up the coaching staff and the team but is it enough to get them their 1st MLS Cup? Maybe. If new signee Juninho  can be half of what he was and the back-line and pull together then they may just be the team the beat. It’s a lot of ‘if’s’ but in the sports saturated New York market the Red Bulls have to win. Not just for the team but for the league.

1. No Beckham? No Problem: The loss of one of the world’s sports and entertainment icons shouldn’t slow down MLS or the LA Galaxy. The Galaxy will get Donovan back after a few games and they still have the man who lead them all the way to the MLS Cup glory in Robbie Keane. The league on the other hand is entering it’s 18th season and is bringing in more and more top talent from around the world. There is only one David Beckham but the level of play, energy and popularity of the sport are growing and with all due respect to Becks, he probably couldn’t have taken the league any further.

The Great MLS Talent Drain?

By Brad Hubbard @bradhubbard

Right after MLS Cup 2012 we wrote about the bigger problem facing MLS which was that of Landon Donovan taking an extended leave. He still hasn’t returned but his manager at the LA Galaxy Bruce Arena recently said, “He’s definitely playing this year.” The Galaxy and in particular the MLS could really use his return too.

Andy-Najar

The January transfer window is rapidly coming to a close. In the last few days the MLS has seen the loan of striker Kei Kamara from Sporting KC to Norwich City in the Barclay’s Premier League, the selling of Andy Najar from DC United to Anderlecht in Belgium and the on again/off again situation of FC Dallas midfielder Brek Shea who may or may not be moving onto Stoke CIty in the BPL.

This could prove to be a costly couple of days for the MLS. While Kamara may only be gone for 10 MLS games he also may end up signing with Norwich and stay in England leaving Sporting KC to search for another goal scorer. Shea is considered to be a rising star in US Soccer. While maturity can be an issue at times, that aside he is a tremendous talent and a future face of soccer in America and losing him to the UK is tough to swallow but not unexpected. The biggest loss is Najar.

Andy Najar was born in Honduras and his family emigrated to Virginia when he was 13. While a US citizen he chose to play for the Honduras National Team. He is a Homegrown player and is only 19 years old. Najar’s upside is somewhere north of Alaska. He has talent, plain and simple. Combine his skill, his background and the fact that he was playing for a 4-time MLS Champion club all the while down the street from the White House. Could someone have written this any better?

Najar Highlights

Najar will find success in Europe much like Kamara and Shea will but Najar has a chance to be something special. Possibly even a next generation Arjen Robben. He has that kind of explosive element to him. It’s something that shows up really well in highlights and could have put MLS routinely in places you don’t normally see it, like SportsCenter. 

This offseason has been one for the ages in MLS and it’s not even done yet. The regular season doesn’t kick off until March 2nd! Between now and then the MLS has to try and stop the flow of talented players out of MLS. From Beckham to Montero to Najar and possible Shea and Donovan. That’s a lot of good, marketable names to replace in one offseason. The league can only hope that names like Zusi, Gonzalez, Wondolowski, Pontius, and Keane stick around a little bit longer.

MLS SuperDraft and How It Can Get Better

MLS held the 14th edition of their Superdraft on Thursday January 17th. It was broadcast at times in the US on ESPN and on some outlets in Canada. The entire thing was streamed live on their YouTube channel and from the what we can tell peaked with around 10,400 concurrent views. That means that 10,400 people were watching at the same time. That’s pretty good.

MLS SuperDraft

In fact the entire thing was pretty great with a few exceptions. The first being Commissioner Don Garber’s speech at the start of the draft. While probably important to the MLS brass it was in all reality a waste of time. A short welcome is OK but a 5 to 10 minute thank you-fest is really unnecessary. Fans are watching. The ones who buy tickets, jersey’s and the MLS Direct Kick package. Gain more of them by starting the draft and the sponsors will be happy later. Thanking the sponsors and the NCAA for 10 minutes on a live broadcast is not a way keep the fans happy.

The second unfortunate thing about the draft is the unfimiliarity with the players. Contrast the SuperDraft with the NBA or NFL drafts where the average fan knows who some of the players are who are being drafted. The fact is that college soccer isn’t commanding major time slots on broadcast and cable television outlets. So when Toronto FC walks away with 2 first round picks and makes several trades in the process the average fan has no idea if this good or bad. It’s not MLS’s fault but it’s not the airlines fault either when your flight is delayed due to weather but they take the anyway.

The final thing that MLS must address in future SuperDrafts is the timing. While a Thursday afternoon in January usually seems like a great time to have the sports stage it’s still a Thursday afternoon in January. They’d have been better served to do the draft this upcoming Saturday when their only competition is college basketball and hockey (the opening day for the NHL this season but that only happens once every 10 years or so). If they did Saturday vs Thursday one could argue that the 10,400 concurrent views may have been 12-13 thousand.

You cannot control other sports and lord knows that the MLS had no control over the other sports stories grabbing headlines this week. From the Lance Armstrong doping admission to Oprah, to the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax to the NFL playoffs and various NFL head coaching positions being filled. They still do control the day and Thursday is not a good day.

The MLS wants to grow and by having a SuperDraft look and sound as good as it did today is another great step. The stream worked (which is always key) the commentary by Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman was top notch and the interactivity was second to none. If you were on twitter you noticed that the picks came in about 10-20 seconds before they were announced (that’s your encoding delay from satellite to the Internet). MLS is making this an event and you can only hope that in future drafts there is more hype and build up and with that comes more interest. With more fan interest comes more success for the MLS and in turn soccer in the professional sports landscape.

FIFA Chief Bashes MLS

Follow us @sidelinesignals

Sepp Blatter is the head of FIFA which is the world governing body of football (or soccer). He recently laid the wood to MLS in a recent interview on Al Jazerra TV. While Blatter has been the head of FIFA since 1998 and no doubt has a tough job he obviously has no idea about how to do business in North America.

Sepp Blatter on Al Jazeera

In North America, the MLS competes with the following sports for attention, space and airtime; NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL (When they play), College Football, and Mixed Martial Arts. That’s a pretty good set of competition. No other country in the world has that much competition and in every other country, except a few, football is the 800 pound gorilla. Not so in North America. That title belongs to the NFL or football as it’s called here.

Blatter said that it’s been 18 years since the US hosted the World Cup and still does not have a strong professional league. In that time the MLS was formed and launched. It has expanded to 19 teams with 14 of those playing in their own soccer specific stadiums. Another team moving into it’s own stadium in the next year (San Jose) and the 2 others that share stadiums with professional football teams (Seattle and Vancouver). These last 2 teams also rank 1st and 6th in attendance respectively.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber is a very smart guy. He came from the NFL so he knows what MLS is up against. He knows that MLS could not survive if it went to the normal FIFA schedule which is from August-May and competed directly with the NFL, NBA, College Football and NHL. He also knows, and has said in interviews, no one is going to go to a New England Revolution game in Foxboro, MA in January or February. They barley go right now during the summer (they are also one of the teams without a soccer specific stadium). MLS’s best bet is to keep it’s current schedule, take on Major League Baseball during the summer and the occasional UFC event.

Blatter does not understand that. He has a one size fits all mentality. While he wants the game to succeed he does not understand how to do that in North America. Don Garber does. We can only hope that Blatter takes Garber up on his offer to go to an MLS match the opening weekend of the season. The word “hope” might be a stretch here too considering that Blatter has dismissed the use of goal line technology, replay and has been accused of corruption charges more times than…well probably anybody.

But we can always hope.

Trouble up North

Major League Soccer has been able to do something that several other major North American sports leagues have not been able to do with any success and that is break into the Canadian market. It doesn’t sound sexy and probably should be much simpler than it is however the MLS has been able to place franchises in three of the major Canadian markets (Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal). These clubs have been successful in just about all aspects of the business except for the most visibile one which is success on the pitch.

One of the reasons for the lack of success on the pitch is the amount of coaching changes these clubs have had. Toronto FC was the first Canadian club in MLS. Since coming into the league in 2007 they have had seven head coaches. Vancouver Whitecaps FC were the second club to break into the MLS. They came into the league last year and are already on their third coach and the Montreal Impact just finished their inaugural season and have already parted ways with the fairly successful rookie head coach Jesse Marsch.

That’s a total of eleven head coaches in six MLS seasons and a grand total of one playoff appearance between the three clubs.

Why can’t these clubs find a way to win? There have been several notable players to come through their ranks including Dwayne DeRosario, Maurice Edu, and Jay Demerit. All three are in great cities and all play in new facilites with great fan support.

This would lead to a look at ownership. Toronto FC is run by the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment group (MLSE) which also runs the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Neither of these franchises made the playoffs since the Raptors did it in 2008. Toronto FC has yet to make a playoff appearance in 6 seasons. While management has come out said anything short of a playoff appearance is a failure they have yet to show the leadership to get the club there.

Vancouver has an ownership consisting of NBA All Star Steve Nash. They have made the lone playoff appearance for the Canadian clubs. While they did change head coaches they did take a chance and bring their head coach, Teitur Thordarson from their USL and USSF days over to try is hand in the MLS. He failed. They have now brought in Martin Rennie who is considered to be one of the best young coaches in all of MLS.

Montreal has been run by Saputo family which brought the team over from the USL and USSF where they had a lot of success. They have parted ways with their head coach Jesse Marsch after just one season. Apparently Marsch and management could not agree on a plan forward for the club.

If any club wants to be successful in MLS they have to look at the clubs at the top. There is a certain level of stability. Three of the four remaining playoff teams have a head coach who has been there for four years or more.  The one exclusion is DC United whose head man is Ben Olsen. He played his entire MLS career with DC and has been the man in charge for about a season and a half. All of the head coaches have either won MLS Cup as a coach or as a player.

There is also confidence with these clubs. They know what it takes to win and more importantly expect to win. The Canadian clubs don’t have that confidence. For as much  support as they get and for how successful they are off the pitch, they have yet to understand what it takes to win in MLS. They need a vision, stability and faith. Once they get these three things lined up they will be able to have success on the pitch.