MLS expansion may spell death for promotion/relegation dreams
The relegation zone Remembering Chapocoense: the tragic loss of the Brazilian underdogs
The relegation zone Is it time to clean house at the U.S. Men's National Team?
The relegation zone The issue with Abby Wambach's rhetoric
Is it time for team manager Arsène Wenger's swan song at Arsenal?
Is it time for team manager Arsène Wenger's swan song at Arsenal?
It’s been a tough few weeks for Arsène Wenger, the venerable Frenchman in his 21st season at the helm of Arsenal. An early February drubbing at the hands of league-leader Chelsea effectively ended any fading hopes of a Gunners title charge; similarly, an even more deflating loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League all but assured a seventh consecutive Round of 16 exit in that competition. As it has in the past few seasons, Arsenal’s trademark midseason slump and European failures have brought out the vocal “Wenger Out” contingent of supporters calling for his head, and the English media has been ruthless in beating the “Will he, won’t he” narrative to death.
If Arsenal’s season thus far feels a bit like Groundhog Day, it’s because in many respects, it is. The same problems—the lack of steel and resolve, a frustrating inconsistency, injuries, the midfield—continue to plague the club as they have for years and have become such the running joke, it’s no longer shocking when they inevitably set in. It’s Arsène’s lack of awareness to them—or potentially more worrisome—lack of concern that is shocking.
On their day, the Gunners look like world beaters. Consider the first Chelsea match this season. Wenger’s men romped over the Blues with a perfectly executed smash and grab, striking three times in the first half with lightning quick fluidity and elegance characteristic of Wenger’s title-winning sides.
The reverse fixture a few weeks ago was the antithesis of the earlier meeting and emblematic of Arsenal’s recent problems under Wenger. They found themselves faced with adversity early when fullback Hector Bellerin was knocked out by Marcos Alonso’s flying elbow—a clear-cut foul and missed call—en route to Alonso heading in the Blues’ first goal. Instead of responding with any mettle, Arsenal was erratic. The fullbacks allowed Chelsea wide players Eden Hazard and Pedro ample space on the wings, and N’Golo Kante dominated the much-maligned Mesut Ozil in midfield. The story remained the same in Munich, where Bayern barely had to shift out of first gear to cruise past the Gunners.
Regarding Arsenal’s continually folding like a card table, columnist Alex Dunn wrote, “There’s a cigarette paper between them and Chelsea in terms of quality and a cigarette factory between them in terms of fortitude.” It’s an apt analogy; Wenger finally addressed one of his chief criticisms this season and slapped down serious cash in the transfer market, bringing in Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Perez on big money deals. All three look to be class on their day. Add to that a side with the otherworldly Alexis Sanchez and World Cup-winning Ozil, and the problem isn’t quality.
That tendency to roll over when pressed, either literally or figuratively, by top sides is one of the most frustrating characteristics of recent Arsenal sides. This year, it dropped 13 points against the other top-6 teams—Chelsea, the Manchester sides, Spurs and Liverpool—worst amongst them. Dating back to 2012-13, it’s won away from home against that top-six just three times in 22 matches. The inconsistency and lack of resolve, not to mention Wenger’s repeated inability to find a healthy, working midfield partnership, are too common of recent Arsenal sides and ultimately hold the club back.
It’s increasingly evident Arsenal has plateaued under Wenger and is content with stability over glory. To be sure, the club’s 20 straight Champions League appearances under Wenger is an unparalleled accomplishment and an important piece of its solid financial standing. That said, a consistent top-four finish is not enough when Arsenal is capable of so much more. With the club’s brand power and global reach, title contention nearly every season should be the expectation, not merely grabbing the fourth-place “trophy.”
It’s a disservice to Wenger to fail to mention his contribution to the club. Arsenal is where it is today because of Arsène. He championed the Emirates Stadium project and pushed the club into the modern era; he guided the club through those turbulent financial times with a steady hand and foresight to the larger plan; he dazzled supporters with a scintillating brand of football and helped the club cast off the “boring, boring Arsenal” moniker. Arsenal runs through Wenger’s veins just like it does for so many of its supporters.
That history is why it’s so hard for either Wenger or Arsenal to break up with the other. It’s a tired relationship with its best days behind it, but there’s comfort in familiarity and stability. Even so, the manager and the club need to plan for Arsenal after Arsène. As Manchester United showed when transitioning from Alex Ferguson, it’s near impossible to replace a legacy manager like Ferguson or Wenger unscathed. The best thing that Arsène can do for the club that he loves is to facilitate that transfer of power and help set the club on solid footing post-Wenger.
This weekend’s match with Liverpool looms large for Wenger and his future. In the most competitive top-four race in years, Arsène’s men can’t afford to drop points to a rival. The Reds hounded Arsenal in their first match, a 4-3 ‘Pool victory whose scoreline flatters the Gunners. Win, and the pressure lessens for a few weeks. Lose, and the chorus of “Wenger Out” will only grow louder.
MLS expansion may spell death for promotion/relegation dreams
Major League Soccer (MLS) is just a few short weeks away from kicking off its 22nd season. It will start the season, fittingly, with the additions of its 21st and 22nd clubs: Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC. Despite teams continually adopting European football naming conventions (looking at you, Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC), the league and its commissioner Don Garber have repeatedly stated that they will not adopt one great bastion of the European leagues that the MLS emulates aspires to be—promotion and relegation.
Promotion/relegation (known as pro/rel) is the standard operating model in European football. In the Premier League, the bottom three teams each season fall through the relegation trapdoor into the second division—the Championship—with three teams climbing the ladder from the lower tier to take their place. The cycle continues down to lower leagues, creating a constant churn of clubs through the leagues.
Even the mention of instituting this system in MLS raises blood pressures in U.S. soccer circles. Supporters of pro/rel, like the owners of clubs in the United Soccer League (USL) and the North American Soccer League (NASL), the two lower leagues in the U.S., see the system as a gateway to the top tier and the prestige and increased revenues that come along with it. Similarly, the fans gravitate toward the excitement that comes along with a promotion push or fight to avoid relegation—a full 88 percent of U.S. soccer fans surveyed by Deloitte last year said that pro/rel would increase quality of play across the board.
In that vein, supporters argue that the system incentivizes pouring both time and money into increasing the standard of play and investing in player development, and adds excitement to otherwise meaningless late season MLS matches between league bottom feeders. In his exhaustive “U.S. Promotion/Relegation Manifesto” in Howler Magazine, former MLS and NASL executive Peter Wilt writes that the risk of relegation “would ensure pressure on [cellar-dwelling MLS] teams to improve and win, even if the prospects of winning a championship that year are bad.” That pressure would catalyze fan interest and create exciting narrative, much as it does in England and across Europe.
There’s also a certain romance to a provincial lower league side investing wisely in the club and capturing lightning in a bottle to climb the ranks. Who will forget Leicester City’s promotion climb, then furious fight to stave off relegation in 2015, only to win the title in 2016? Or even Sunderland’s annual great escape to avoid the drop?
But MLS owners and United States Soccer Federation (USSF) executives don’t deal in romance. For them, the economics of pro/rel are not worth it for a team that has already attained MLS—and thus top division—status. USSF president Sunil Gulati has argued that it fundamentally changes the rules of the system MLS owners bought into, saying that “if you make an investment today and the next day the government—in this case, us—changes the rules completely and changes the value of your investment? That’s going to lead to some serious problems.”
To be sure, it makes little economic sense for an MLS investor like Robert Kraft or Stan Kroenke, or even David Beckham with his nascent Miami project, to risk losing most of their investment value overnight. In 2016, Forbes valued MLS teams at an average of $185 million; most NASL and USL teams are worth less than $10 million. That gap would close somewhat in an open system, but the difference is still massive.
Further complicating and, in my mind, ending the debate at least temporarily is the oncoming expansion. Last week, MLS fielded bids from 12 cities—Cincinnati, Charlotte and St. Louis, to name a few—for four expansion teams by 2020, to bring the league to 28 teams. Spots 23 and 24 are reserved for the Los Angeles Football Club and the future Miami team. The expansion fee is expected to be a whopping $150 million.
Expansion should put the pro/rel debate to rest at least temporarily for two major reasons. First, even with the exorbitant MLS-set expansion fee, there are 12 ownership groups in place willing to buy into the league, which signals excess demand for MLS franchises. MLS and these investors are not going to upset the status quo in the short term. With an expansion, part of what these ownership groups are investing in is exclusivity. If there is an avenue other than expansion, like promotion, into MLS, the fee the league commands for that exclusive right vastly diminishes along with the value of the franchise.
The other stumbling block is the sheer size of the league. With 28 teams on the horizon and both USL and NASL occupying an odd parallel second-division status thanks to the recent USL jump from third-tier status, it’s a logistical headache to institute a pro/rel system with that many clubs and interests at the table, at least in the short term.
While many fans (myself included) would appreciate the competition and increased incentives to invest in on-field performance and player development that promotion and relegation would bring to the U.S. soccer landscape, with MLS expansion looming and pent-up demand to join the league, pro/rel remains a distant pipe dream.
The relegation zone: The Kante Black Hole: Chelsea soars while Leicester struggles
Here’s a relatively uncontroversial statement: Chelsea will win the Premier League title this season. Even after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with fellow title contenders Liverpool, the Blues hold a nine-point lead at the top of the table with 15 matches remaining and have been the league’s most consistent and terrifying side.
Here’s a slightly more controversial statement: Leicester City, the defending champions who overcame 5000-to-1 odds to claim a fairytale title, will struggle to avoid relegation this season. The Foxes sit in 16th place, 2 spots and 2 points ahead of the relegation zone, tied on points with Swansea City. It seems ever more likely that Claudio Ranieri’s men will scrap it out for the rest of the season to avoid being the first team in England to be relegated in the season following a title since 1938.
Leicester’s troubles this season are numerous and well-trodden. Striker Jamie Vardy, last year’s snarling, trash-talking player of the season with 24 goals, has banged in just five so far this season. Riyad Mahrez, their maestro on the wing, has likewise been ineffectual after a monster showing in Leicester’s title campaign. Despite these difficulties, probably the largest factor in the squad’s drop-off this season—and Chelsea’s dominance—has been the loss of French midfielder N’Golo Kante, who was traded to Chelsea for £32 million this offseason.
Kante’s impact to Leicester’s championship side is hard to understate. As a hard-tackling, Energizer Bunny of a pivot in central midfield last season, he was relied upon for his aggression and shielded the Foxes’ backline while breaking up the flow of opposing attacks. Despite not quite winning the plaudits of Mahrez or Vardy last season, Kante led the league with 156 interceptions and 175 tackles. It was his constant energy and presence in the center of the park—Ranieri said he “must have a pack full of batteries hidden” away—that allowed their attackers to flourish.
The two clubs’ fortunes this season are inextricably linked to gaining and losing Kante. While Leicester has a Kante-sized hole in its midfield this season, Kante has been nothing short of a black hole in Chelsea’s midfield, gobbling up opposing attacks under new manager Antonio Conte, albeit playing a somewhat different role. He’s still breaking up attacks at a dizzying rate, leading the league in interceptions through mid-January, but has shifted his role from the destroyer who helped spring quick Leicester counters to more of a controlling player in Conte’s dominating 3-4-3 formation.
Since its 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Arsenal in late September, Chelsea has been lined up in the same 3-4-3 formation that Conte used while manager of both Juventus and the Italian National Team. The switch to this formation—which sets Kante playing alongside Nemanja Matic in central midfield—has reaped massive rewards. In the Chelsea midfield, Kante’s energy and motor allow him to shield the back three, while also controlling and balancing the pace of the game from the middle of the park by distributing to the wingbacks and attackers. As a result, he’s making fewer defensive stops—which consist of interceptions, blocks and clearances—per game this season. Instead, he has been a more effective passer with nearly 90 percent pass accuracy.
In Tuesday night’s draw against Liverpool, Kante made an astounding 14 tackles, and yet it seemed like a performance where the stats didn’t tell the full story. As Leicester observers last season so often noted of Kante, he covers the ground of two players, something on full display Tuesday. He was first to seemingly every loose ball in the midfield and was critical in disrupting Liverpool’s offensive rhythm, even as the Reds dominated possession and pressed Chelsea.
Barring a miracle, it’s hard to see any side catching the Blues at the top of the table, especially if the team avenges its early season loss and dispatches of a hot-and-cold Arsenal side in a massive match on Saturday. As it stands, N’Golo Kante is on his way to repeating as Premier League champion and may well be the most valuable—if underappreciated—player in the league.
The relegation zone: Remembering Chapocoense: the tragic loss of the Brazilian underdogs
Last Tuesday, the Brazilian club Chapecoense was on the way to Medellin, Colombia to cap off a remarkable season with the first leg of a two-leg tie against Colombian giants Atlético Nacional in the Copa Sudamericana final, the South American equivalent of the Europa League. The moment was supposed to be the culmination of a wild ride that saw the tiny provincial squad fighting their way up the from fourth division of Brazilian soccer in 2009 to battling—and beating—some of the continent’s best sides in this season’s Copa. Instead, the fairytale ended in tragedy when the plane carrying the team crashed into the mountains near Medellin.
Of the 77 passengers on the charter flight from Bolivia to Medellin, 71 were killed in the wreckage, including coaches, technical staff, journalists and 19 of the team’s players. It appears that the plane ran out of fuel over Colombia, with the pilot radioing in a “fuel emergency” moments before crashing, corroborated by the absence of an explosion post impact.
Newspapers and investigators have raised serious questions about the airline Lamia’s fueling protocol in the wake of the crash. The distance between their Bolivian origin and Medellin was slightly outside the plane’s range, and as such, the plane also lacked the 30 minutes of additional fuel aviation experts say is a necessary precaution. Further, the pilot reportedly waved off a refueling stop in Cobija. Lamia’s reputation as a cut-rate charter operator raises further questions about the procedures and is particularly disturbing because the Argentinian National Team flew on the same doomed plane just two weeks before.
Hailing from Chapecó, a small provincial city of 210,000 in the south of Brazil, the Chapecoense had only been a professional side since the mid-1970s. Even before the Copa success, Chape had earned comparisons to Leicester City, the Premier League club who rose from similar lower league obscurity to capture last season’s title.
The club rose through the ranks in Brazil on the back of investments in training facilities and infrastructure and sound management that is rare in Brazilian soccer. This season, Chape was on track to finish a club record ninth in the league before the tragedy. Like Leicester, they found success on the back of journeymen like top scorer Bruno Rangel and captain Cléber Santana, most famous for brief stints at Atlético Madrid and Mallorca in Spain. The story of lovable underdogs clad in green and white punching above their weight and slaying giants like Argentina’s San Lorenzo earned them the admiration of fans continent-wide.
On Monday, the South American Football Confederation, CONMEBOL, declared Chapecoense the winner of the Copa Sudamericana, after Atlético Nacional asked them to award Chape the title to honor the victims of the crash. Other outpourings of support have come from Brazil’s top clubs, who offered to loan players to the club for next season in order to help get them back on their feet.
As tragic and gutting as such an incident may be, the crash will not spell the end of Chapecoense. Albeit to a lesser scale, Manchester United lost eight players to the Munich air disaster in 1958 and eventually rose to even greater heights. Part of what precipitated Chape’s meteoric rise from fourth division obscurity to competing for a major continental championship was their grit and determination, along with sound management. If history is any indicator, the club and its future squad will pull on those same traits to ensure that it and the memory of those lost do not go gentle into that Brazilian night (to paraphrase a better writer than myself).
Arsenal’s Brazilian defender Gabriel Paulista played under Chapecoense manager Caio Júnior and was obviously stricken by the crash. On the verge of tears, he said, “If you think you want to do something, just get out there and do it, because we don’t know what tomorrow brings.” I don’t mean to end on too sentimental a note, but his words seem especially sage in the wake of tragedy. Go out and do something you’ve been putting off today.
The relegation zone: Is it time to clean house at the U.S. Men's National Team?
Dating back to World Cup qualifying matches in 2001, Columbus—Columbus, Ohio, of all places—has been the U.S. Men’s National Team’s (USMNT) fortress against archrivals Mexico, with four straight 2-0 wins against El Tri at Columbus Crew Stadium (now MAPFRE Stadium). So, when the USMNT learned that it would be playing Mexico in the first match of the Hexagonal, the final round of qualifying for World Cup 2018, it was only natural that it woul be in the state of Ohio.
Before the match last Friday, the banner unfurled by the American Outlaws, the team’s rowdy supporters group, paid homage to old and new, with the likeness of 18-year old wunderkind Christian Pulisic, stylized as the demon haunting Mexican fortunes, holding up two fingers on one hand and a big zero on the other—that famous Dos a Cero scoreline—over the tagline “Nightmares are Real.”
All good things come to an end though, as the US capitulated to the visiting Mexican side early, then again in the match’s dying minutes, after clawing back to make it one-all. The traveling Mexican support sang out “Dos a Uno, Dos a Uno” as the match ended, casting off 15 years of nightmares and history in Columbus. The 2-1 loss represented not just the end of Fortress Columbus, but also the team’s first World Cup qualifying loss to Mexico on US soil in over 40 years.
If a crushing 2-1 loss to the team’s most bitter rival wasn’t enough agony for one week, the USMNT then traveled to Costa Rica for the second match in the Hex on Tuesday night and were run off the pitch by a rampant Costa Rican side. Johan Venegas’ headed goal a minute from halftime broke the Yanks’ spirits and opened the floodgates for three more goals in the second half and a 4-0 thrashing.
Opening the Hex with two straight losses has left the USMNT adrift at the bottom of the qualifying group and desperately searching for answers. While losses to two of the region’s strongest sides is nothing to be ashamed of on paper, more alarming is how the squad looked without direction for long periods of those matches. The team has seemed generally rudderless for sometime now. Against this backdrop, it’s time for the Jurgen Klinsmann experiment to end as USMNT manager.
Klinsmann has no doubt brought the USMNT great success. His recruiting and scouting efforts have helped to restock the squad’s cabinet with talented youngsters like John Brooks, Lynden Gooch and the aforementioned Pulisic, and the team’s great escape from the “Group of Death” at the 2014 World Cup remains stuff of legend, overexaggerated as that squad’s performance may be. Despite that, Klinsmann has clearly lost the script with the team and it’s doubtful if he will find it again.
One of the selling points of Klinsmann has always been his ability as a motivator and man-manager. It’s those efforts of giving youth a chance and teasing out the best in players that inspires willingness in some players to charge through a brick wall for Klinsmann. The team’s matches in the last year or so have demonstrated that he no longer inspires that confidence in his players though, and if a motivator can no longer motivate, what good is he leading the USMNT?
This rift was on full display in Columbus last Friday, as Klinsmann made the puzzling decision to start the match in a 3-5-2 formation, playing an unfamiliar formation with three at the back against an incisive Mexican attack, leading to Mexican domination and an early goal. As a result, US captain Michael Bradley and ageless warrior Jermaine Jones, the two most vocal leaders in the field at the time, argued openly with Klinsmann about tactics during a stoppage. While the team reverted back into a familiar 4-4-2 formation after the confrontation, the damage was done and the rift between manager and players evident.
Perhaps more damning was the way that the US capitulated against Costa Rica after the half, going into the break just down a goal. The Yanks came out of the break looking listless and without desire in a vital match, showing just how little confidence Klinsmann inspires in his men.
Even the world’s best managers have a shelf life and it looks like Jurgen has reached his with the USMNT. His constant refusal to accept responsibility for puzzling tactical decisions and lackluster on field performance date well beyond the most recent losses (the Gold Cup debacle against Jamaica and CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico, both last year, come to mind). The USMNT doesn’t have another qualifier for nearly 4 months, a match against Honduras that is now a must-win. If he has truly lost the locker room, as it seems, the time is now to make a change and part ways with Jurgen Klinsmann.
The relegation zone: The development of the 'American Messi'
What were you doing at age 17? The answer is likely not nearly as impressive as pulling on the Borussia Dortmund kit and taking the field in front of the famed Yellow Wall and 80,000-plus Germans at the Signal Idurna Park, which is exactly what the latest American wunderkind Christian Pulisic has done over the last 10 months.
A Hershey, Pa. native, Pulisic was spotted by Germany’s perpetual second superpower, Borussia Dortmund (BVB), while playing for the U.S. Under-17 residency program, essentially an incubator for young U.S. talent. He then made the hop to Dortmund at age 16, where he promptly made a name for himself by scoring an eye-popping 10 goals and adding eight assists in just 15 matches with the BVB youth teams.
Pulisic’s strong performances earned him a call up to Thomas Tuchel’s first team last January. Since then, his career trajectory is best described as meteoric. Tuchel wasted no time in throwing Pulisic right into the fire, making his first two starts against Bayer Leverkeusen and in the “Revierderby” against bitter rivals FC Schalke, two of Germany’s strongest sides. He later became the youngest non-German ever to score in the top flight of German football at just 17 years old.
This season at just 18, Pulisic has cemented himself as a regular face in the Dortmund squad, tallying two goals and five assists in 10 matches across all competitions. Among those included a dizzying display of skill against reigning European champions, Real Madrid, where he darted past Danilo on the wing before charging into the Madrid penalty area to cross for the André Schürrle equalizer, snatching a precious Champions League point for the Black and Yellows.
All of this has the transfer rumor mill spinning already. Dortmund reportedly rejected an £11 million (roughly $14 million) bid for Pulisicfrom Liverpool in August, and that was before his superb start to this year’s campaign. Likewise, Barcelona—arguably the best team on Earth—is reported to be closely following Pulisic.
As enticing as it is to dream about American Messi donning the Barca kit and striding onto the pitch alongside actual Messi, Dortmund is undoubtedly the best place right now for Pulisic’s development. Dortmund is currently laden with talented youngsters (Emre Mor, Ousmane Dembélé, Julian Weigl) and manager Tuchel has shown a willingness to entrust young players like Pulisic with significant minutes. If he continues to get first-team action alongside the wealth of talent at Dortmund in one of the strongest leagues in the world, the sky is the limit (pardon the platitude).
Naturally, U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) fans are absolutely giddy. Pulisic represents the purest attacking talent the USMNT has seen since at least Landon Donovan, demonstrating incredible pace cutting in from the wing mixed with tremendous dribbling ability and pure football sense.
While the ridiculous technical ability draws the attention, his mental attributes are what set him apart. Pulisic plays with infectious confidence and fearlessness, highlighted by both the Madrid match and his performance last week against FC Ingolstadt, where he almost single-handedly erased a 3-1 deficit, providing the assist to draw BVB within a goal, then scoring the equalizer in stoppage time.
While there have been other ultra-hyped U.S. prospects in the last decade (Freddy Adu, anyone?), none have risen to such heights so quickly. Pulisic made his USMNT debut little more than seven months ago and already has nine appearances and two goals in World Cup qualifiers, making him the youngest player to score for the USMNT. The Pulisic hype-train is alive and well in US soccer circles.
With a looming date against archrivals Mexico in Columbus next weekend to kick off play in the Hexagonal, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, Christian Pulisic has the stage to not just seize the mantle of the US’s next great hope, but to show that his time is now. Here’s to another famous “Dos a Cero” next Friday night.
The relegation zone: The issue with Abby Wambach's rhetoric
U.S. Soccer has an Abby Wambach problem. The World Cup winner and international soccer’s most prolific goal scorer—male or female—made headlines again last week not for her scoring prowess, but for her off the pitch conduct. In a very poignant and candid interview with the New York Times, Wambach valiantly discussed battling alcohol and painkiller abuse and depression while coming to terms with the end of her marriage and career. The problem with the interview came when was she asked about her previous criticism of the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) Coach Jürgen Klinsmann and his use of so-called “dual-nationals”—players with multiple passports who are eligible to represent both the U.S. and other nations at the international level. Previously, in an interview with Bill Simmons late last year, she criticized Klinsmann for bringing in “foreign guys” to play for the USMNT, specifically naming Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones. Her comments caused an uproar in many U.S. soccer circles, and for good reason. Both of the players she mentioned have American passports and are the sons of American servicemen who were stationed in Germany, not to mention Johnson and Jones are standout players for the US.
After keeping mostly quiet since those comments, she doubled down on her criticism of dual nationals in the USMNT in her interview with the Times, this time attacking the players directly instead of just Jürgen. She insinuated that dual nationals took the easy way out in choosing to play for the U.S., stating, “to me that just feels like they weren’t able to make it for their country and earn a living, so they’re coming here.”
She went on to question both their “killer instinct” and how much they “love their country”, this time calling out Norwegian-American Mix Diskerud.
Wambach is well within her right to criticize Klinsmann (and, for my money, levels some very fair criticisms on other issues), but on the issue of dual-nationals, not only is she dead-wrong, she is downright irresponsible. First and foremost, the claim that dual national players could not “earn a living” playing for their countries, so they settled for the USMNT is factually incorrect. Comparing U.S. national team duty and earning a livelihood is an apples-to-oranges comparison in that the former makes up a small portion of a player’s time and income. Further, both Johnson and John Brooks, arguably the USMNT’s best players currently and both German-Americans, play at elite clubs in the German Bundesliga; likewise, Jones spent the vast majority of his career in Germany before moving to Major League Soccer, as did Diskerud with his native Norway.
More troubling though is the fact that probably the U.S.’s greatest player of all time, men’s or women’s, and undoubtedly a role model, is openly questioning the patriotism and commitment of American players who have chosen to represent the stars and stripes at the international level. Many of the dual-nationals subject to Wambach’s criticisms are the sons of American servicemen who have seen firsthand what dedication to the country she claims to love means. To claim that John Brooks, who has both his family’s native Illinois and his native Berlin tattooed on his arms, or Julian Green, who was born in Tampa and raised in Germany, don’t love this country because they have dual citizenship is frankly little more than thinly veiled xenophobia. They pull on the U.S. kit and, to use the famous platitude, shed blood and sweat for this country, the same as Wambach.
While Wambach is not alone in her sentiments (U.S. legend Landon Donovan and former USMNT manager Bruce Arena have made similar comments), she has been the most outspoken critic. In the midst of a presidential election characterized by ugly, bigoted and xenophobic rhetoric, it falls on role models like Wambach to elevate the level of discourse rather than reinforce such divides. It’s a privilege to represent the U.S. on the international stage at any level, and to not only belittle the efforts Jones, Johnson, Brooks and others have made to do so, but to openly question their love of this country brings unnecessary division to sport, the sole thing that brings together Americans of all beliefs.
Soccer itself is unique in that its fan base is exceptionally young and diverse. Wambach needs to be more responsible with her rhetoric and seek to unify, rather than divide, U.S. Soccer at a time when the program can serve as a model of inclusion for a divided country.
Fear and loathing in Glasgow: the Old Firm returns after four-year absence
From Manchester to Milan, Istanbul to Rome, few things stir primal passions quite like a local derby, the name given to soccer matches between bitter geographic rivals like Arsenal and Tottenham, who contest the North London Derby, or River Plate and Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires’s Superclásico. Fewer still incite the level of sectarian hatred and violence of Britain’s greatest rivalry, the Old Firm derby between Glasgow rivals Celtic and Rangers, which made its return to the top flight of Scottish football on September 10th after a four-year absence.
The origins of the name Old Firm are unclear, but the results (and the hatred) are not. The two teams have maintained a dual hegemony over Scottish football since inception, winning a combined 101 of 120 league titles, including the last 31 titles.
They say familiarity breeds contempt, and the crosstown rivals are certainly no strangers, but the roots of animosity go much deeper than that. Rangers’ identity as an establishment Scottish, largely Protestant, club was already largely developed when Celtic was founded in 1888 as a way of raising money for East Glasgow’s relatively poor Irish Catholic immigrant population.
The rivalry increasingly took on a political and religious sectarian dimension in the early 20th century, as the Catholic-Protestant, Irish-British, and Irish Republican-Ulster Loyalist identities all became entrenched in respective club identity. Celtic supporters often brandish the Irish flag and sing songs in support of a united Ireland and sometimes even the IRA, while their Rangers supporting counterparts wave the Union Jack and Ulster flag, deride the pope and express support for Northern Ireland.
This deeply entrenched divide has made the Old Firm a natural battleground, both literally and figuratively, in the ever-ongoing religious and political sectarianism in Glasgow, even after the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Rangers famously maintained an unwritten rule not to sign Catholic players, finally broken in 1989, and violence at Old Firm matches between the two groups of supporters is the norm. As recently as 2011, Celtic’s Northern Irish Catholic manager Neil Lennon and a number of players were mailed bullets by Rangers supporters. Likewise, a number of high profile murders and assaults in Glasgow, often before or after Old Firm matches, have been linked to sectarianism.
Tensions have been somewhat quelled in recent years, thanks in part to Rangers’ bankruptcy and subsequent relegation to the lowest tier of the Scottish football hierarchy in 2012. After Rangers finally won promotion back to the Scottish Premier League last season, the Old Firm finally met in the league last Saturday at Celtic Park in East Glasgow.
Despite an energized crowd and a roaring rendition of their signature pre-match anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (a tune more famously employed by Liverpool supporters, mind you), the action on the pitch was relatively listless. Rangers sat deep early to absorb pressure and were punished again and again by an incisive Celtic attack, who cruised to a 5-1 drubbing of the crosstown rivals. New Celtic signing Moussa Dembélé, just 19 years old, dazzled with a perfect hat-trick, the first in an Old Firm league match since 1966. Celtic captain Scott Brown accurately summed it up when he said, “It was men versus boys.”
It is a bit ironic that, as much as supporters of Glasgow’s Green and White might hate to admit it, Celtic and Rangers need each other now more than ever. Without Rangers in the top-flight, the last four seasons in the Scottish Premiership have been marked by Celtic dominance and four consecutive titles. For comparison, last year’s upstart darlings Aberdeen finished a full fifteen points off the pace. The lack of parity and competition at the top has meant a similar lack of interest in the Scottish league. Viewership figures and TV revenues have remained flat, all while Scotland’s neighbor to the south has seen the value of the English Premier League’s TV deals explode to the point where even the worst Premier League clubs are among the richest in Europe.
A resurgent Rangers back in the Scottish Prem to challenge Celtic hegemony means increased interest and more cash for both. To illustrate, last year’s Scottish Cup tie between the two sides drew 100 million viewers globally, and Celtic’s chief exec Peter Lawwell has recently admitted that Rangers’ absence from the top flight has cost Celtic upwards of $50 million. It should be in everyone’s interest then, whether your allegiance is Celtic, Rangers or neutral, to see the Old Firm resume one of the world’s most bitter and storied rivalries back in the top flight of Scottish football.
The relegation zone: Jurgen Klopp and Dortmund’s future
Amidst a dismal season in Dortmund, Jürgen Klopp, the charismatic manager who brought Borussia Dortmund (BVB) out of the wilderness and back amongst Europe’s elites, announced his plans to step down at the end of the season after seven years at the football club. By resigning, Klopp leaves large looming questions about the club’s future, while setting himself up as the hottest managerial commodity in soccer. When Klopp arrived from Mainz in 2008, Dortmund was far from its past heights. Teetering near bankruptcy in the mid-2000s, the club suffered on the field as a result of player transfers and payroll cuts, finishing seventh, ninth and 13th in the Bundesliga in the three seasons immediately preceding Klopp’s appointment. Klopp brought a charisma and energy to BVB, manifested best by his roster, which was restocked with young talent like Mario Götze, Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski, and the team’s counterpressing system, a style not unlike Barcelona’s. After winning back possession though, Klopp’s team serves as sort of the antithesis to the methodical tiki-taka passing of Guardiola’s Barca, setting up lightning quick, direct attacks, that are exhausting but simultaneously exhilarating and beautiful. For a time, it was also incredibly successful. Dortmund climbed out of mid-table anonymity in 2008 to back-to-back league titles in 2010/11 and 2011/12, including the double of the league and DFB-Pokal, the German equivalent of England’s FA Cup, in 2012. While the team fell short of three consecutive titles, it made it to the Champions League Final in 2013 before falling to bitter rival Bayern Munich. Success comes at a price, though. Bayern pilfered and modified the counterpress to suit its skilled passing game. In its 2013 season, Bayern won three trophies, including the Champions League title, then went on to poach Götze and Lewandowski from BVB in consecutive years. This season, Dortmund, hampered by injuries, was bottom of the table midway through the campaign. After stringing together recent wins, BVB has climbed to ninth, but will certainly miss out on next year’s Champions League. Thus, the Klopp era at Dortmund ends not with a league title, but a whimper. As a replacement, Dortmund is set to bring in Thomas Tuchel, who, like Klopp, was the manager at Mainz before taking the Dortmund job. Tuchel is regarded as a brilliant tactical mind, and for good reason. At Mainz, his teams have effortlessly switched between formations and different play styles not just from match to match but within matches as well. Perhaps his most successful tactical scheme is the transition from a high press in an attempt to win back possession, to a lower-stacked defensive line, content to sit back and absorb pressure. Switching between the two distinct defensive structures can catch the opposition off guard, and it provides the flexibility necessary to counter different playing styles. Tuchel’s tactical acumen and flexibility alone should breathe fresh air into a squad that has looked stifled at times this season by Klopp’s one-dimensional style. Klopp’s departure also raises important questions about the future of the roster. Captain Mats Hummels has been heavily linked to Manchester United for a summer move. Marco Reus, for my money one of the most exciting players in the game, has also been heavily rumored to be leaving this summer. With Klopp leaving, it will be interesting to see if Dortmund’s stars follow suit. Already swirling are the potential landing spots for Klopp, who will undoubtedly be linked to every high profile opening, especially in England, where he’s expressed interest in managing next. He’s been mentioned as the frontrunner for the Manchester City job, amidst rumors that Manuel Pellegrini will be sacked after a very disappointing season defending City’s Premier League title. City is in dire need of a retool, with one of the oldest and most expensive squads in England, and Pellegrini is a likely casualty of any rebuild. A more likely destination, should it choose to move on from Brendan Rodgers, is Liverpool. It’s not that Rodgers has been awful—his squad was within a Steven Gerrard slip of the title last year—but his transfers have been questionable, and Liverpool’s top-four chase is quickly losing steam after the team was flattened by Arsenal and United in recent weeks. It’s hard to imagine Liverpool sticking with Rodgers should Klopp express interest in the position. Klopp is a charismatic manager who thrives on emotion. A packed Anfield singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” seems a much better fit for him than the new money of Manchester City. For that, a job like Liverpool seems a more realistic next step for Klopp.
The relegation zone: Predicting the Champions League semifinals
While the race for places in next year’s Champions League heats up in Europe’s domestic leagues, the quarterfinals of this season’s competition are set to kick off next week. The round of 16 saw continued English futility as Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea all got bounced—the latter two in ties they probably should’ve won. Hipster darlings Borussia Dortmund also exited the tournament.
I unpacked my crystal ball to predict the teams who will move one step closer to being crowned European champions.
On Tuesday afternoon, Italian champions Juventus will meet “the dullest team in Ligue 1,” Monaco, in Turin. Juve flew past Dortmund in the Round of 16, cruising 5-1 on aggregate. The team from the Principality squeaked past Arsenal on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate draw, but was especially impressive in a 3-1 win at the Emirates in London in the first leg.
Perhaps more than any of the other ties, this matchup will pit fiercely clashing styles against each other. Monaco hasn’t earned the “dull” moniker for nothing; the team is quite content to sit back and absorb pressure and then attempt to score on the counter, a tactic it employed to devastating effect in the first leg against Arsenal.
Juventus, on the other hand, thrives with possession, allowing its world-class playmaking midfielders like Pirlo and Paul Pogba to break down defenses and set up incisive finishers like Carlos Tevez. This season is probably the Old Lady’s best opportunity for European glory before Pirlo retires and Pogba moves to greener pastures in England or Spain. Juventus will cruise past Monaco and into the semifinals.
Tuesday’s other match is a Madrid derby between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, a rematch of last season’s Champions League Final, where Real triumphed in extra time to claim its 10th European title. Despite its high-octane attack, Real looked vulnerable in the last round, squeaking past Schalke 5-4 on aggregate. Atletico wasn’t much better, only advancing past Bayer Leverkeusen after a dire penalty shootout.
Despite Real’s flashy names and history, Diego Simeone’s men seem to have their crosstown rival’s number. Atletico humbled Ronaldo and Real with a 4-0 victory the last time the two met, and has lost its their last 6 derbies, dating back to last year’s final. With 52 total yellow cards in those six matches, the tie will be a physical affair, with Atletico looking to impose its will physically at the back and in the midfield to counter Real’s skill.
Atletico has skill of its own though; forward Antoine Griezmann is one of the most underrated players in Spain and will prove the difference on the counterattack as Atleti continues its recent stranglehold on the Madrid derby and advances into the semis.
Wednesday sees Bayern Munich, the 2013 European champs, take on FC Porto in Portugal. Bayern demolished Shaktar Donetsk 7-0 to advance, while Porto had a similarly easy time, defeating Basel 5-1. The two sides met in the 1987 European Cup Final, a 2-1 Porto triumph.
Bayern should have no trouble advancing past a pesky Porto side. The Portuguese squad’s only real hope is to get up early in the first leg, as Bayern will be electric in the return at the Allianz Arena in Munich. Porto has class up front in Jackson Martinez and Christian Tello and creativity in the midfield with Yacine Brahimi. That trio will need to be on top of its game to give Porto a fighting chance. Although recovering from a torn ab muscle, Arjen Robben is having one of the best years of his career; he and Bayern’s variety of other weapons should have no trouble providing the firepower to advance.
In probably the most intriguing matchup, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) meets FC Barcelona on Wednesday afternoon. PSG advanced in a thrilling match with Chelsea, coming from behind twice despite being down a man for over 90 minutes. Barca dispatched of Manchester City with relative ease, winning 3-1 on aggregate.
All the oil money in the world hasn’t been able to buy PSG European success yet, as this is the team’s first time in the quarterfinals since the Qatari takeover that propelled them into European soccer’s financial elite, but Laurent Blanc’s squad will be eager to show that it has exorcised its Champions League demons with its gutsy triumph over Chelsea.
PSG’s laundry list of injuries and suspensions will make that difficult. Talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimović is suspended for the first leg, as is Marco Verratti, the key cog in the PSG midfield and one of the best young players in Europe. David Luiz and Thiago Motta are both injured and will miss the match. PSG’s best chance is to dictate the game in the midfield and keep the ball away from Barca’s forward line of Messi, Neymar and Suarez. While the teams met twice and split their matches in the group stage, smart money is on the Catalans, as PSG is too banged up to contain Barca over two legs.
The return of the Champions League means another chance to watch Europe’s best on display. Barcelona, Juventus, Atletico, and Bayern will continue their respective quests for European glory and advance to the semifinals.
The relegation zone: The downward spiral of once-proud Parma
After a 10-minute hearing in Italian court last week, Parma F.C., with it’s outstanding debt estimated at nearly 200 million euros, was declared bankrupt. This means that for all intents and purposes, the club is dead. Long live Parma.
For a club that collected four European trophies and four additional Italian trophies in the late 1990s and early 2000s while swashbuckling around the pitch in its blue and yellow striped kits emblazoned with the logo of dairy giant and club benefactor Parmalat, the fall from grace has been swift.
I'm left with this question: How could a comfortable member of European football’s middle class burn through three different owners in the past six months and ultimately end up in bankruptcy court?
The Parma story starts with Parmalat, which bankrolled the team through its glory days. On the back of the vast dairy money, Parma seemed secure as a member of the Italian top flight, with aspirations to challenge traditional Serie A giants like Juventus. When Parmalat imploded during a massive financial fraud scandal in 2004, Parma was declared insolvent before being bought by Tommaso Ghiradi.
Under Ghiradi, Parma found mixed success on the pitch, but qualified for European competition as recently as last season with a sixth place league finish. While it was not claiming UEFA Cup titles, the club seemed to have stabilized after its financial struggles.
The first cracks in the façade appeared when UEFA kicked the club out of this season’s Europa League for an unpaid tax bill. Ghiradi chalked the issue up to a clerical mistake rather than underlying financial issues.
He proved to be a poor liar though, as the depths of the club’s financial struggles were revealed over the following months.
Players haven’t been paid since August and are now forced to do their own laundry and drive the team bus to matches. Meanwhile, the club has had to cancel home matches because it quite literally can’t keep the stadium lights on. The youth team can’t even afford water bottles.
In December, Ghiradi sold the team for a single euro, passing on its debts to a Cypriot-Russian company, which promptly sold it—again for a euro—in February to Giampietro Manenti, a Milanese businessman. Manenti promised to pay off debts, including back wages for the players. His failure to do so, culminated in Parma’s day in court. Manenti was arrested on money laundering and embezzlement charges last week.
After the bankruptcy ruling, Parma looks doomed. The club has already received an emergency loan from the other clubs in Serie A in order to complete its season. Unless a financial backer steps forward to buy the team and pay off the massive debts, the club will dissolve at the season’s end, forced to start again under a new name in the lowest professional tier in Italy.
It’s hard to assess blame for Parma’s demise without laying the bulk ofit at Tommaso Ghiradi’s feet. When he bought the club before the 2006-2007 season, Parma’s gross debt was estimated at 16.1 million euros, a substantial amount, but relatively insignificant in comparison to debt at other football clubs. Under his watch, the debt ballooned to its current levels.
Since the Parmalat bankruptcy, the club has clearly spent beyond its means. By my count, it has over 150 players on its books, an absolutely massive amount, with most out on loan throughout Europe. For comparison, Chelsea, a club notorious for snapping up young talents then sending them out on loan, has about 50 players on its books.
The problem though is also an institutional squeezing of the football middle class, especially in leagues like Serie A and Spain’s La Liga. The biggest problem is the massively inequitable split in TV revenues in those leagues, with the vast majority of the money going to a few titans like Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona. This stands in stark comparison to the relatively even split in the Premier League. Clubs from smaller areas face other issues as well.
They can’t depend on large ticket revenues and therefore have to spend outside their means to challenge for titles.
Parma’s tale is a tragedy, but it’s not entirely uncommon, especially in Italy, where corruption and shoddy management seem inexplicably linked with football. Fiorentina and Napoli both underwent similar deaths in the early 2000s and have since returned to competitiveness in both the Serie A and Europe.
Outside of Italy, storied clubs like Glasgow Rangers, Leeds United and Portsmouth F.C have “died” and been resurrected, although they have yet to reach their prior heights. So while Parma certainly seems dead and gone now, there remains a sliver of hope for its future.
The relegation zone: Kane’s rise spurs Tottenham’s top-four chase
Only one Premier League player has 20 goals across all competitions this season and his name isn’t Costa, Aguero or Sanchez. It is Tottenham’s Harry Kane. He plays with a certain unbridled energy reminiscent of a golden retriever, gleefully chasing after the ball in manager Mauricio Pochettino’s high-pressure game plan.
Kane’s rise from near obscurity to the most in-form striker in England has Spurs in the thick of the muddled race for the top four and a Champions League berth.
Born in North London, Kane spent a year in the Arsenal youth academy, before finding his way to the Gunners’ archrivals Spurs. He developed in their youth system before bouncing around on loan to various clubs in the English football league system. Cracking into the Tottenham first team last season with three Premier League goals, he’s roared onto the scene in recent months.
Making his name early in the Europa League, Kane seized his Premier League opportunities and impressed, setting up Eric Dier’s winner on opening day, stealing points with a last gasp winner against Aston Villa, and sparking Spurs’ rally with an equalizer against Hull. His New Year’s Day match against league leaders Chelsea served as a true coming out party.
Kane terrorized the Cahill-Terry central defense pairing, scoring two goals, assisting on another, and drawing a penalty, willing Spurs to a 5-3 win at White Hart Lane. This inspired performance, in which Kane grabbed the game by the scruff and manhandled the best defensive unit in England, was the apex of his dazzling run of form, and also helped Tottenham’s creep back into contention for the Champions League places.
Kane has found the most scintillating vein of form in England, banging home six goals in Spurs’ last five Premier League matches and 23 across all competitions, while writing himself into club lore by vanquishing Arsenal with two goals in the North London derby. This season, he’s put together all the various tools showcased during his loan spells and is scoring goals at a dizzying pace.
All the ridiculous talk about building the English National Team squad around him aside, Kane has developed a remarkably complete game. He’s perfectly suited to Pochettino’s system, playing with an impressive workrate and tracking back to defend, while still occupying a traditional center forward role. His hold up play has created space and an outlet for the midfield, and his directness and finishing provide a nice foil for the creative talents of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela.
Kane and Eriksen have resurrected Spurs’ season, with the two stealing the squad a league best 12 points in the 88th minute or later this season—enough to put them in sixth place with 13 matches left, three points outside the top four. The North London derby victory has complicated the race for those Champions League spots, with five teams vying for the third and fourth place spots behind Chelsea and Manchester City.
Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham all have solid chances of latching onto one of the remaining top-four spots. Liverpool is starting to look like last season’s team that was one Steven Gerrard slip away from the title. With star striker Daniel Sturridge healthy again, Liverpool will have no problem scoring, but will play a number of tough fixtures down the stretch that may prevent them from reaching the Champions League for a second consecutive year.
The North London derby proved a massive missed opportunity for Arsenal to put distance between them and Spurs. But they are rounding into form, turning in brilliant performances recently against Manchester City and Aston Villa. Their match against Manchester United at Old Trafford on the penultimate matchday of the season may prove vital if they cannot distance themselves against weaker opposition in the coming weeks.
Current top-four teams Southampton and Manchester United are smart money picks to drop out of the Champions League race. A feel-good story all season, the Southampton bandwagon is running on fumes. Ronald Koeman’s team is struggling to break down defenses, with just one goal in its past three matches. The Southhampton defense is still the stoutest in the Premier League, but its tough to see them sticking around much longer without an offensive spark.Manchester United, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent this summer on transfer fees, has a comical lack of depth in midfield with their best attacker, Wayne Rooney, often forced to play as a deep central midfielder. Their lack of depth will force them out of the top four, as they complete the season with the toughest run of fixtures out of any of their rivals. Tottenham sit just three points off fourth place, with important matches left at Southampton and United. The supporters at White Hart Lane cheered during recent matches, “Harry Kane, he’s one of our own; he’s one of our own, Harry Kane”. If he can continue his marvelous goal-scoring run and drag Tottenham into the top-four, the Spurs faithful may well crown him King Kane.
The relegation zone: The Giovinco gamble and the future of MLS
As Europe’s top leagues enter the second halves of their respective seasons, Major League Soccer (MLS) opened preseason training camps last week, uncertain if they will even make it to the season. The collective bargaining agreement expired last Saturday and negotiations between the league and players’ union are seemingly at an impasse. The specter of a work stoppage looms large.
Despite this, the biggest stories going into camp have been the massive transfers of European stars to the U.S. Recent months have seen Frank Lampard, David Villa, Kaka, and Steven Gerrard all announce moves to the MLS. All are international superstars that bring exceptional talent to a league looking to fill a star power void left by Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan.
Toronto FC (TFC) stole the headlines though, landing the out-of-favor US Men’s National Team star Jozy Altidore from Sunderland and, even more shockingly, the diminutive Sebastian Giovinco from Italian champion Juventus. The Jozy deal was damn smart business and impressive in its own right. TFC shipped the unhappy Jermain Defoe back to England in exchange for Altidore, getting younger in the process and, by most reports, gaining a nice chunk of cash in the swap. Despite his struggles in England, Jozy had already excelled in the MLS and is one of the most recognizable faces for US Soccer, which is a great marketing opportunity when he hits the pitch next to his US national teammate Michael Bradley.
The real big fish though, somewhat ironically, is Seba Giovinco. At just 5’4,” but full of energy and with an incredible work rate, Gio lives up to the nickname “La Formica Atomica”—the Atomic Ant. He’s an incredibly creative talent with tremendous pace and versatility. That versatility will allow him to play anywhere from a second striker position behind Jozy to outside on the wing, to an attacking midfield position, all while creating space for Michael Bradley with his pace, dribbling and ability to take on defenders.
The Giovinco move is massive not just for the quality of player that he is, but also for how and when he decided to make the switch. While Gerrard, Lampard, and Kaka are all fantastic players in their own right, they are all on the wrong side of 30 and are well past their prime. Gio just turned 28 and still has his best years of football ahead of him. The MLS has improved by leaps and bounds over the past decade, but still needs to buck the “retirement league” moniker that, true or not, has dogged it in recent years. Snagging a player of Giovinco’s caliber at his age should help change that perception.
Perhaps just as importantly, he reportedly turned down offers from Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, and numerous other flashy-name European clubs. Other players of his caliber have moved to MLS in the past, but none have done so in their prime and turned down the top clubs in the world simultaneously.
The Giovinco move could be the start of a seismic shift that puts the league at least in the same neighborhood as the top European leagues. Seba’s Italian National Team manager Antonio Conte certainly thinks so, stating about the move, “In a few years players will elbow each other to go there. [The MLS] will grow so much”.
Let’s not pretend that Giovinco is doing the MLS a favor, though. He’s still getting paid. A lot. His new deal will make him the highest-paid player in the MLS, and the highest-paid Italian player in the world by most accounts. Despite all the inroads made toward developing into a major league, the MLS still has to overpay its stars, as every large name recently has received a deal well above their market value, highlighting some of MLS’s major issues. The wage discrepancy in the MLS is stunning, with the big-name designated players making upwards of $6 million per year, while the MLS median salary hovers around $90,000. Younger players are forced into semi-guaranteed contracts, where they can be terminated without compensation by the clubs at almost any time, leaving many without safety net.
All of these issues are ever more salient as the league and players union try to hash out a new collective bargaining agreement to prevent a work stoppage. Free agency remains the sticking point for the union, as the MLS still bizarrely operates without a free agency system, but issues like increased league minimum salary and salary cap, and guaranteed contracts remain at the forefront of their disagreements.
It’s hard to believe the owners when they cry poor after doling out massive contracts like so many of them did this offseason, and it seems the players agree. With no real progress made in the negotiations, all signs point to a work stoppage, which would cripple the post-World Cup wave of momentum the MLS garnered at the end of last season. World soccer is a competitive marketplace for attention and money, and it remains to be seen if the MLS can afford to lose ground while mired in a labor dispute. In the players’ minds though, they might not be able to afford not to.
The relegation zone: Destiny thy name is Landon: an MLS final
It’s a season that Landon Donovan probably never wants to end, but luckily for him, he’s got one more game to play. Donovan’s LA Galaxy eliminated the Seattle Sounders last weekend on an away-goals tiebreaker after a 2-2 draw across two legs of competition, setting up a date with the New England Revolution this Sunday in the MLS Cup final. The final will be Donovan’s last game as a professional footballer, as he announced his retirement from soccer in August.The Galaxy took a 1-0 lead into Seattle for the second leg but quickly fell into a hole. After Brad Evans scored early for the Sounders to tie the aggregate score at one, World Cup hero Clint Dempsey put a weak dribbler past LA keeper Jaime Penedo six minutes later to put Seattle on top.
Brazilian midfielder Juninho leveled the score at two apiece with a low rocket from outside the box that tied the aggregate score at two and gave LA the advantage by virtue of its away goal. Seattle tried desperately to find a late winner, but the Galaxy held on to advance to their record ninth MLS Cup final.
In the East, the New England Revolution faced the New York Red Bulls and another retiring legend in Thierry Henry. The Revs took a 2-1 lead into the second leg at Gillette Stadium and went through to the final behind two Charlie Davies goals, winning the two-legged tie 4-3 on aggregate and dashing any hopes of Henry and Donovan facing off for the Cup.
There are plenty of storylines to be gleaned from Sunday’s matchup. The Galaxy are seeking an MLS record fifth championship, while the Revolution are looking to claim their first title despite having already competed in four finals. The two franchises have met in the Cup final twice before, in 2002 and 2005, with the Galaxy claiming both titles.
But there’s also Donovan, who is probably the biggest storyline of all. He has decided to hang up his cleats at the relatively young age of 32, and throughout his career he has accumulated five league titles and pretty much every major scoring record in the MLS. It is puzzling that he is retiring now, as he’s still a prolific player. This season alone he posted 13 goals and 15 assists.
Donovan is a complex character. He has publicly acknowledged the role that soccer has played in perpetuating his depression. He’s stated many times during this playoff run that he would quit when the game was no longer fun and when it “felt right.” In that sense, retiring now is Donovan’s career in a nutshell; it’s him doing things on his own terms, whether that is leaving England for the MLS, taking a sabbatical from soccer during World Cup qualifying, or quitting with miles left in the tank.
Standing in the way of a Hollywood ending for Donovan’s career is a red-hot Revolution team featuring MVP finalist Lee Nguyen and U.S. national team phenom Jermaine Jones. The Revs won 10 out of their last 12 matches of the regular season to climb to the No. 2 seed in the East heading into the playoffs.
The difference for the Revs was definitely the acquisition of Jones late in the season from Turkish club Besiktas. Manager Jay Heaps has built a strong, scrappy team by compiling castoffs from other teams like Nguyen and Davies, while trading for and drafting players like Teal Bunbury and Andrew Farrell.
Davies is a great story on his own, because he has returned to strong form after a near-fatal car crash in 2010. New England are surely the underdogs going in, but are peaking at the right time to battle for their first Cup.
The Galaxy are a veritable juggernaut, holding the statistically most productive offense and stingiest defense in the league. LA is home to many of MLS’ flashy names to complement its gaudy stats. The attacking trio of Donovan, newly crowned MLS MVP Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes combined for a ridiculous 48 goals and 29 assists this season, making them the most electrifying attack in the league. Anchoring the backline are Omar Gonzalez and Robbie Rogers, two of MLS’s best defenders.
It’s hard to pick against this Galaxy team. The image of Donovan leaving on top in front of a home crowd at the StubHub Center is certainly compelling, and his team will surely have extra motivation to cap off his legendary career.
The Galaxy also waxed the Revs 5-1 in their only other meeting this season, with Keane and Zardes both scoring twice. If New England can pull off the upset, it will be on the back of Nguyen, who has carried the Revs all season, and Jones, who will need to be massive in front of the backline to stall the prolific LA attack.
As hot the Revs have been lately, I don’t think even they can stop destiny: Donovan will retire a champion as the Galaxy claim their fifth title.
FIFA’s gross mishandling of the Qatari World Cup
While still nearly a decade away, the 2022 World Cup—which is slated to be held in Qatar—is making headlines again amidst new details about the treatment of migrant construction workers who are building facilities and an ethics investigation into FIFA’s selection process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The latest concerns are only the most recent in a long line of issues raised since Qatar was awarded the right to host in 2010. It is almost past the point where FIFA, or more importantly its sponsors, can take action to address the many concerns surrounding the world’s most popular sporting event.
Last week, the Guardian released a report detailing what it described as the “state-sponsored slavery” of North Korean workers constructing Lusail City, the ambitious $45 billion development built for the World Cup. The article alleges that the migrant workers have recieved no pay for the three years they work in Qatar; instead, all their wages are sent back to Pyongyang, where the regime pockets up to 90 percent.
This latest report comes on the heels of an earlier investigation, also published by the Guardian, which found that 1,000 workers, mainly from Nepal, India and Bangladesh, had already died in the construction work for the World Cup.
The bid process that chose Qatar to host the event also raises further questions. Allegations of potential bribery by the Qatari Football Association have been well-publicized—former FIFA executive committee member and Qatari politician Mohammed bin Hammam allegedly paid $5 million in fees and favors to other important members in exchange for the votes necessary to secure the World Cup. Bin Hammam subsequently received a lifetime ban from soccer. Jack Warner, former Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) president and FIFA vice president, also received a ban for allegedly accepting bribes to give Qatar the cup.
US attorney and head of the investigative arm of the FIFA ethics committee, Michael Garcia, finished an extensive ethics report last month about corruption allegations surrounding the awarding of both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. However, Hans-Joachim Eckert, chair of the adjudicatory arm of the ethics committee is withholding the Garcia report from the public over privacy concerns for the individuals it named.
FIFA did however release a summary of the Garcia report, which did not find a “smoking gun” connecting bin Hammam’s payments to the bid process. In Eckert’s brief summary, he acknowledged that “problematic conduct” took place in the bid process, but wrote that the ethics committee will not move to strip the cup from Russia or Qatar.
From the possible ethics violations, to the human rights concerns, to the fact that a summer tournament in the Persian Gulf could be dangerously hot, FIFA has grossly mishandled the entire 2022 World Cup process to date. As Sepp Blatter himself, president of FIFA, said in May, choosing Qatar as host was a mistake.
To rectify that mistake, FIFA first needs to release the full Garcia report. The summary released is a sham that cheapens FIFA’s already suspect integrity. Garcia blasted Eckert’s summary, saying that it contains holes and “erroneous representations of the facts and conclusions.” He has repeatedly called for the full report to be released.
Without the full report, there is no way of determining what actually happened in the bid process. Garcia said his full report detailed ethics violations at the highest levels of FIFA, including the executive committee, whereas the summary released spread blame on all football associations bidding instead of on those within FIFA. By withholding the full report and laying blame elsewhere, FIFA is protecting its own and maintaining, like it always does, that it did nothing wrong.
Beyond the corruption report, FIFA also needs to address concerns regarding treatment of workers in Qatar constructing World Cup stadiums and facilities. For an international organization like FIFA, which made $2 billion on the 2014 World Cup and will certainly make even more in 2018 and 2022, the massive death toll in preparation for these tournaments is unacceptable.
FIFA needs to work more closely with the Qatari government, NGOs like Human Rights Watch and the Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy—the Qatari organization responsible for completing preparations—to ensure that constructing World Cup facilities is done without human rights violations.
If FIFA fails to act on these concerns, it becomes the sponsors’ responsibility to act. Five of FIFA’s six main sponsors—Visa, Coca-Cola, Adidas, Sony, and Hyundai/Kia—have expressed concerns about the bribery allegations, but these and other sponsors need to go further and withhold financial support if workers rights and corruption concerns are not addressed. The significant cloud of concern over the 2022 World Cup only continues to grow. FIFA has mishandled just about everything possible with regard to the tournament, and now the onus falls on them to correct the mistakes and not make future ones. If FIFA does not address the worker’s safety, ethics, and weather concerns in Qatar, the sponsors should push for a new bidding process, potentially by withholding their financial support to a corrupt organization.
El Clásico: Spain’s biggest rivalry lives up to name
Real Madrid versus Barcelona. Franco’s favorites versus the Catalan nationalists. Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Ramos—the top players in the world on display. There is a certain glamour and mystique surrounding El Clásico matches, with all their storylines and political and cultural underpinnings.
Although the aura has been somewhat diminished by the fact that Real Madrid and Barcelona have met an average of 4.5 times per year the last four years between all competitions, the first clash of the season between the Spanish soccer giants last Saturday at the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid felt electric and fresh.
While many of the familiar faces were there, the pre-match focus was on the debutants, specifically one Uruguayan fresh off a four-month suspension: Luis Suárez. Bought during the summer transfer window from Liverpool for a massive €81 million fee, the new Barcelona man completed a suspension for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the World Cup (his third ban for on-field cannibalism) just in time to make his Barcelona and El Clásico debut Saturday. Colombian wunderkind James Rodríguez, brought to Real from Monaco in July, also made his Clásico debut, as did Ivan Rakitic and World Cup winner Toni Kroos.
Billed by British paper the Telegraph as the “first ever €1 billion football match,” referring to the massive combined market value of the two squads, this iteration of Barcelona v. Madrid did not disappoint. Barcelona commanded the early chances, as Suárez found Neymar, who slotted Barca ahead in the fourth minute. Messi missed just wide on a feed from Suárez minutes later, surprising in that it was a chance the soccer world has become accustomed to seeing the little genius put away.
Madrid charged back with an intensity befitting of the reigning European Champions. Marcelo’s marauding run down the flank and subsequent cross won Madrid a penalty just before half, as a sliding Gerard Piqué blocked the cross with his hand.
Ronaldo, cool as ever, converted the penalty to send the teams level into the half. Madrid found themselves ahead five minutes into the second frame, as Pepe headed home a corner. Karim Benzema effectively iced the match and started the celebrations around the Bernabéu soon after, finishing off the Madrid counterattack sprung as Isco picked Andres Iniesta’s pocket at the midline.
Even with the world’s most expensive footballer in Gareth Bale injured, Madrid showed more than enough class to dispatch their biggest rivals. After going down early, Madrid outran and outwilled Barca, illustrated best by the vicious counter leading to the third goal. New man James Rodríguez was stellar playing in his preferred wing position because of the Bale injury, making darting runs and assisting on the Benzema goal. Luka Modrić and Kroos controlled the match from the central midfield, and Isco showed great promise.
Barcelona, for their early chances, were thoroughly outplayed the rest of the match. Messi seemed to come back down to earth after his strong start to the season, although some reports out of Spain indicate he was injured for the match. Barca’s central defense was bad form, with Pique’s poor play leading to a penalty.
Their flawed set piece marking leading to Pepe’s goal. Manager Luis Enrique also made some questionable decisions, choosing to start the grizzled Xavi over the new man Rakitic, who had been La Liga’s statistically best passer to that point. Xavi made it 59 relatively pedestrian minutes before ultimately being replaced by Rakitic. Additionally, Suárez probably would’ve been best utilized off the bench, as he was not match fit, and despite his assist, looked out of touch with his new teammates.
Barcelona-Real Madrid matches are always great affairs, and this one was no different. The two teams feature a wealth of attacking talent and utilized that to put on a display in offensive soccer. Adding to the excitement of world-class talent playing an aesthetically pleasing brand of soccer was the anticipation of the first such match of the season.
The next Clásico will almost undoubtedly be more exciting, as Suárez clicks into his new team, Bale returns from injury, and the two squads find their form and identity. The English Premier League may well be the best league in the world week in and week out, but there is something special about Madrid v. Barca. The storylines that surround these matches, the drama that comes with the big names, and the excitement of watching the world’s best battle it out in sports’ most storied rivalry make El Clásico a joy unmatched in soccer.
A farewell to the best: goodbye Landon Donovan
Wearing the captain’s armband for the 19th and final time for the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT), Landon Donovan was introduced into the starting lineup to thunderous applause from the 36,000 plus fans—myself included—who gathered to see the international friendly between the U.S. and Ecuador last Friday night.
Donovan announced his retirement from soccer in August, and was called up to the national team for a final appearence to close his storied career. As the fans anxiously packed Rentschler Field in Hartford, Conn., the tributes to Donovan had already started.
The American Outlaws, the team’s unofficial support group, unveiled a huge banner that simply read “LegenD 10” under his face, referring to his number and his status as probably the greatest American men’s soccer player ever. U.S. Soccer released a 7-minute short film about Landon and gave him a large framed collage before the game.
The sentimental feeling continued throughout the match as the crowd, even the groups of Ecuadorean fans seated around me, gave Landon a rousing ovation as he took the field. Chants of “Thank you, Landon” and the like accompanied the captain’s every touch of the ball and were never clearer than during the minute-long standing ovation Donovan recieved when he was subbed out in the 41st minute.
Even as Mikkel Diskerud put the U.S. ahead in the 5th minute, the focus was on Landon, the crowd rising every time he took a free kick or made a pass. The match ended 1-1, after Enner Valencia equalized late in the game for Ecuador. Despite that, all eyes were still on the man who has given so much to U.S. soccer, rather than on the scoreboard.
After USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann controversially left Donovan off the 2014 World Cup squad, many—myself included—were worried that we would never get to see Landon represent the stars and stripes again.
Donovan’s 157th international cap against Ecuador was an important closure for the U.S.’s all time goals (57) and assists (58) leader. It gave Donovan the opportunity to represent his country one last time, and the fans a chance to thank him and ensure that their final memories of Donovan was not the the World Cup omission.
Yet at the same time, it was an awkward closure, embodied by the Klinsmann-Donovan bro-hug after Donovan’s substitution—a testament to the not-completely-healed wounds between the two which date back to Landon’s time under Klinsmann at Bayern Munich and culminated with the World Cup debacle.
Landon made his disdain for Klinsmann’s decision very public and openly questioned the team’s tactics after its loss to Belgium in the World Cup. There was doubt that Donovan would ever play for the USMNT again, so long as Jurgen was still the manager.
However, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, not Klinsmann, pushed for the curtain call match for Landon. Donovan initially declined, but then agreed to a final match and looked glad he did. He cheered with the Outlaws, wore a supporter’s scarf, and shed tears as he left the field—a much more fitting end to his national team career than being cut in the leadup to the World Cup.
Landon will be best remembered for his last-gasp, extra time goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, which propelled the US into the knockout round, but his impact has been much greater than just one goal. Landon provided a recognizable, marketable face for US Soccer and especially for Major League Soccer (MLS).
He bucked conventional wisdom that said talented American players needed to prove themselves in Europe’s top leagues. He always came back to the U.S. after short stints abroad, paving the way for talented Americans like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey to do the same. His presence in MLS also helped shape a league that desperately needed to carve out a niche, which it has effectively done during the past decade.
When Landon first came to the San Jose Earthquakes, on loan from Bayer Leverkusen of the German Bundesliga, MLS was struggling to find support, with its 12 teams often playing in empty football stadiums and no TV deals in place. As Donovan is preparing to leave the L.A. Galaxy, MLS is a stable league of 19 teams with a planned expansion of at least four more—thirteen of the teams play in new soccer-specific stadiums. The league has a national TV contract and a higher average attendance than both the NHL and NBA.
How much that expansion in success and popularity is directly attributable to Donovan is debatable, but certainly a large portion of the rise in popularity of MLS, and soccer in the U.S. more generally, is due to the success of the USMNT—of which Donovan has been the face since at least the 2006 World Cup.
Donovan will retire as the U.S.’s and MLS’s all-time leader in goals and assists, and will fall just shy of Cobi Jones’ U.S. caps record. While there will almost certainly be a better player for the USMNT in the future, there may never be one as important to the growth of the game as Donovan.
Fittingly, he was named Man of the Match on Friday night, and as the fans streamed out of Rentschler Field, David Bowie’s “Heroes” played over the loudspeakers, carrying out into the parking lots. I like to think that it wasn’t mere coincidence and instead was a romantic way to say goodbye to LD, the man that was so often the hero that the USMNT needed.
Back alleys and pizza parlors—TPOs in soccer
On September 26, FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced that FIFA would move to ban Third Party Ownership (TPO) of players in world soccer—or the practice of buying a portion of a player’s ‘economic rights’—after a transitional period. This came after the European soccer governing body, Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), announced they would attempt to ban TPOs if Blatter and FIFA failed to act. A ban on the practice is likely to have far reaching effects on world soccer, as it is integral to the way business is conducted in many leagues.
Even without any details, the term “third party ownership” of players conjures images of backroom dealings and shady enterprises. The reality isn’t actually that far off. TPO has been dubbed “indentured slavery” by the chair of the English Premier League (EPL), Richard Scudamore. Critics call the practice “pizza players” because their rights are sliced up amongst different stakeholders.
TPO in the EPL brings to mind the now infamous deal with Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, where the two Argentinian players moved to the London club West Ham United. It was later discovered that the Brazilian club Corinthians, where the pair played before moving to England, did not recieve a penny in the move because a third party, Media Sports Investment (MSI), owned 100 percent of the economic rights to the players.
The problem was in a clause in the contracts the players signed with West Ham, which gave MSI the right to move the players to another club whenever they saw fit because they were the sole owners of the players. However, this was deemed a case of tampering in club activities, which led to a hefty fine for West Ham and a ban of TPO in English football.
Even with the English ban, TPO is still a very regular practice in world football, especially in South America, Eastern Europe, Portugal, and Spain. In South America, TPO is a way of life. It allows small clubs to mitigate some of the risk of buying and selling players by splitting the ownership with other groups. Many South American superstars who now play in Europe including Tevez and Mascherano, Radamel Falcao, Neymar, and James Rodriguez, were at least partially owned by third parties.
Neymar’s transfer from Santos in Brazil to Spanish giant FC Barcelona was heavily scrutinized because, among other reasons, only 17.1 million euros of the initially reported 57.1 million euros transfer fee went to Santos; the rest went to Neymar and Neymar, a company owned by his parents. Barcelona was later fined 13.5 million euros for hiding almost 30 million euros in additional fees related to the transfer, most of which went to other third parties with a stake in Neymar.
Despite its many detractors, combatting TPO is tricky for FIFA because it is an entrenched practice. According to a report by the consulting firm KPMG, up to 36 percent of the market value of players in the Portuguese first division, for example, is owned by third parties. This is part of what makes rooting out TPO problematic. Clubs like Porto, Benfica, and even Atlético Madrid have benefited greatly from the practice because it allows them to acquire players they otherwise could not afford.
It is also attractive to “feeder” teams like Porto because TPO acts as a pipeline for South American talent moving to “lesser” European leagues like the Portuguese league. The players can develop, be seen, and then get shipped in big money deals to the EPL or to other huge clubs across Europe, all at a reduced financial risk.
TPO also gives cash-strapped clubs like Atlético a way to quickly raise money by selling a portion of the economic rights of a valuable player.
With Blatter’s announcement it looks as though FIFA is going to actively fight against TPO. Critics have long argued that allowing TPO raises integrity concerns, as match fixings become possible when investors, rather than clubs, own the players. Scudamore and UEFA president Michel Platini have blasted the practice for restricting player freedom and choice in their careers. As with Super PACs in American politics, transparency is also a problem in the TPO system, with stakeholders often putting up unknown amounts of money.
The TPO system obviously has substantial problems that need to be addressed. However, this decision, especially so soon after the blowback over the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, looks like FIFA—widely considered among the most corrupt organizations in sports—is throwing a bone to moralists and critics. It will be interesting to see the degree to which any potential ban is implemented and actually enforced by FIFA, and how leagues like the Primeira Liga in Portugal and the Serie A in Brazil adapt to a completely new landscape of player economics.
Does the removal of TPO mean leagues reliant on it have to shift towards developing more homegrown talent instead of imported low-risk talent? As with any well-established practice it will be difficult to root out completely, but having FIFA recognize the issues with TPO is an important first step in making soccer more transparent.