Stoking American Soccer

Soccer, as football is called here in America, has come a long way in the 50-plus years I have been on this planet. And just as its popularity has grown in the United States, so has the level and sophistication of the media coverage it receives.

Of course, as with all growth and progress, there has been some pain along the way. And we have certainly seen pain on the field (the collapse of the NASL, for example), as well as pain in the broadcasting booth (a competitive game being bumped by ESPN in favor of a college softball tournament, for example).

But things finally hit that nexus of American insanity last month when, during halftime of a Major League Soccer (MLS) match, former United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) player and current Fox Soccer commentator Alexi Lalas unleashed a tirade of criticism aimed directly at current USMNT players.

The Backstory
Now, to be fair, the USMNT has been struggling to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. US Soccer, which manages the USMNT, fired coach Jurgen Klinsmann late last year, after suffering two losses in the qualification process. Klinsmann was replaced by Bruce Arena, who earned considerable success as an MLS coach both before and after his previous stint at the helm of the USMNT.

Following Arena’s appointment last November, the USMNT has managed 2 wins, 3 draws, and 1 loss in World Cup qualifying. It’s worth noting that the two teams which the USMNT lost to under Kilnsmann in this round of qualification, Mexico and Costa Rica, are the two most competitive sides we traditionally face at this stage. With Arena in charge, the USMNT played both of those teams again, losing one game and drawing the other. To put this marginally better performance into perspective, of the six points available from playing those two teams, Klinmann’s side earned none while Arena’s earned one. In other words, we’re sucking ever so slightly less.

Those results, compounded by underwhelming draws against Panama and Honduras, have left the USMNT in a perilous position when it comes to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. We currently sit in fourth place, thanks to goal differential, which means we would need to win a two-match playoff with either Australia or Syria to advance.

The good news is that our final two games – the first of which is tonight, at 7:00 PM, on ESPN (unless, of course, a college softball game goes into extra innings) – are against the two weakest teams: Panama, who we previously drew with, and Trinidad & Tobago, who we previously beat. And since Panama currently sit in third place, which is a direct qualification spot that doesn’t involve an additional two-game playoff, getting the full three points from a win in that game is critical.

The Double-Standard
Alexi Lalas has a reputation for speaking his mind. And he was very critical of Klinsmann from the moment the German World Cup winner was appointed to head the USMNT in 2011. While some of that criticism was fair and well-placed, much of it was not. Despite a slow start, Klinsmann put the USMNT in front of uncharacteristically tough competition as he prepared us for the 2014 World Cup, where he led the team to an impressive Round of 16 exit against Belgium in extra time.

But Lalas was far from the only pundit critical of Klinsmann. In fact, there seemed to be an ugly faction in the US soccer community who felt that “foreign” coaches should not be welcomed here (perhaps reflecting a microcosm of the xenophobia that propelled El Trumpo into office). And that was compounded by the fact that Klinsmann tapped a number of dual nationals for the team, players who were born overseas to an American parent, which has become a common practice among many of the more successful European national teams.

Since Arena took over, the majority of the US soccer media have been exceedingly soft on the American coach, cutting him plenty of slack. Perhaps because he had led the USMNT to what many consider its highest achievement, a 1-0 loss in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals to Germany, who went on to lose to Brazil in the final. Personally, I consider the USMNT’s best achievement to have been in the 2009 Confederations Cup, where – under coach Bob Bradley – we lost to Brazil 3-2 in the final after beating Spain, who went on to win the World Cup the following year, 2-0 in the semifinals.

Even after our last two results – a loss to Costa Rica and a draw with Honduras, which left the USMNT’s qualification in peril – Arena and his team received only muted criticism. Had Klinsmann still been at the helm, it’s likely that the press would have been attacking him ferociously from every angle.

The Rant
All that changed last month when Lalas, seemingly out of the blue, laid into Arena and the entire USMNT in his on-air rant. He named names. And when he didn’t, he said it was because they weren’t even worthy of calling them out by name. You can see a clip of his tirade here.

Was his criticism fair? Not really. Was it over the top? Of course. But Lalas wasn’t necessarily trying to be fair. And being over the top is sort of his job as a pundit.

Here’s the thing about Lalas, though. He’s actually a smart guy, and quite astute. Many have treated this as the rambling lunacy of an angry man who, like a large swath of our nation, has come completely unhinged. I beg to differ, though. I think this was a calculated move by Lalas to anger and thereby energize the current USMNT. Given this string of lackluster performances by what is unquestionably the most talented squad we have ever fielded (which makes our recent run of results all the more frustrating) and the critical nature of our next two games, I think Lalas was willing to stick his proverbial dick in the meatgrinder in hopes of giving the USMNT something to rally around.

This, of course, is the same sort of thing that the US military and college fraternities try to achieve with practices like boot camp and hell week. They use a perceived threat, which is typically a well-orchestrated artificial annoyance, to bring a group of people together, forming the bonds you only get when confronted by an external adversary. Lalas is the drill sergeant, the pledge master, and he just got in the face of everyone on the USMNT, creating an external adversary that will hopefully draw the team together in time to win their final two games. And for that, I thank him.

We won’t know if Lalas’ rant was effective until we play the final two games of our qualification campaign, with Panama tonight and Trinidad & Tobago on October 10th. And we may never know the extent of the damage it has done to Lalas’ relationship with the USMNT players, coach Arena, and US soccer in general. But the one thing that is already clear is that Lalas approaches his role as a commentator the way he approached his role as a USMNT defender: with passion, tenacity, and a commitment to victory at any cost.

The Jingos of Major League Soccer

MLSup14This Sunday will feature the 19th MLS Cup, which is Major League Soccer’s (MLS) version of the season-end championship game. The New England Revolution, who finished in fifth-place overall, will face the team who finished second, the LA Galaxy, who eliminated the team that topped the table, the Seattle Sounders, in the playoffs.

In most soccer (football) leagues, the team with the best record over the course of the season is crowned the champion. In MLS, that team is awarded the Supporters Shield, a largely secondary honor. Which leaves one wondering why the team that performed the best throughout the season doesn’t receive all the glory? Why is there a perceived need for post-season play?

MLSogoEverybody’s A Winner In MLS
Part of the reason has to do with American culture. Most of our sports have a post-season, leading up to a championship game (or games). Apparently being consistently the best isn’t as important to American audiences. You simply need to be the best once, on a specific day.

Of course, the real reason behind post-season play is the money. More fans will tune-in to see presumably the best of the best compete. It’s a chance to sell more ad space and at higher rates, just as it is a chance to sell more game tickets and at higher prices.

Though MLS has an additional reason for its post-season play. Unlike most other soccer leagues, it doesn’t have relegation and promotion. In other words, the teams who performed the worst in a particular season do not get sent down to a second-tier league for the following season, with the best teams from that second-tier league getting promoted to replace them.

One of the benefits of relegation is that it ensures that the games played by teams no longer vying for the title – those in the bottom half of the standings – remain meaningful through until the end of the season. These teams may no longer be in the running for the title, or even post-season play, but theoretically their fans will remain interested because they are still battling for something: to avoid being relegated to a lower division.

In an effort to keep the fans of all but the worst MLS teams engaged through to the end of the season without the benefit of relegation, the league’s 10 best teams get to compete in post-season play for the MLS Cup. And that’s where things get really silly, because it’s actually harder not to qualify for this post-season knockout tournament than it is to qualify. The league only has 19 teams, so the majority of them get to advance, including one club that had 14 wins and 13 losses this season – hardly a record worthy of a post-season berth. Next season, when the league expands to 20 teams, the plan is to have 12 qualify for post-season play, creating a likely scenario in which teams with losing records make the playoffs.

The MLS “Right or Wrong” Mindset
I can overlook the unfortunate fact that the MLS Cup dilutes the importance of regular season play by allowing the majority of teams to participate in a post-season competition that is viewed as the ultimate prize. Without relegation, it’s understandable.

What I find harder to stomach is the delusional, jingoistic fervor of so many MLS fans (and even a few league officials) that clouds the league’s genuine improvements on the field with a sickening, fecal stench. Like some neo-nationalist ideologue on Fox News, they adamantly argue that MLS is one of the best leagues in the world. And anyone who dares to question let alone dispute that assertion is viewed as a traitor by them, branded a “Euro snob” or simply accused of not being a “real” or “true” fan.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I will say that I am indeed an American, and I have been playing soccer since the early 70s. I have, on occasion, coached, refereed, and even written about the game. And I recently started playing regularly again (albeit far more slowly). Yes, I grew up watching European soccer on TV. But I also became a fan of the NASL, back when that league was the top tier in America.

I tried to follow MLS when it first launched but, as a soccer fan, I found the product utterly unwatchable. Since returning from South Africa in 2010, I gave the league another look and have been watching it more regularly. I even bought a partial season ticket plan for my nearest club. MLS has vastly improved since its inception. And while it is more entertaining, it’s still nowhere near the level of Europe’s top leagues (England, Spain, Germany, and Italy, for example) in terms of the quality.

Also, let me be clear that this criticism certainly doesn’t apply to all MLS fans. The league has some amazing fans. In fact, I’d categorize Portland’s fans as among the best in the world.

US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. (image source: ussoccer.com).

But too many MLS fans consider it heresy to question the quality of the league. And their brazenly chauvinistic accusations and outright contempt made headlines when US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann dared to offer an honest assessment of the league earlier this year, encouraging America’s best players to strive for Europe’s leagues because they are more competitive than MLS. Klinsmann has been tasked with developing America’s best talent to compete with the best the world has to offer, and the best the world has to offer play primarily in the top European leagues – not MLS.

Many MLS fans don’t want to hear any of this. Again, like a Fox News pundit, they simply ignore any facts that don’t support their ideological conclusion. In fact, if you ask these fans for evidence as to why MLS is such a great league, the answer I always get is because it’s one of the most “competitive” leagues in the world. But is there any truth to that claim? And does being competitive have anything to do with being among the best?

Competitive Against Who?
Unfortunately for these myopic MLS supporters, the claim that the league is “competitive” is a fallacy. The teams in MLS are not competitive with the teams in other leagues. They may be competitive amongst themselves, but that’s rather meaningless. It’s like saying Hyundai produces the best cars in the world simply because all of their models are of similar quality. The real test is how their cars perform against those made by other manufacturers, just as the real test of MLS is how its clubs fare against those from other leagues.

CClogoAnd there is sufficient evidence that MLS does poorly, and consistently poorly, when faced with teams from other leagues in North America, let alone against those in the best leagues in the world. Friendlies are largely meaningless, since they’re not competitive fixtures. There’s no incentive to win and most sides field an experimental squad instead of their first team. So the best test of how MLS clubs compare to those in other leagues is the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), a tournament in which the best club teams from each league in North America compete to be crowned regional champions.

However, American clubs have consistently failed to perform well in this competition. Soon after MLS was formed, its clubs had a good showing (when the tournament was still called the Champions Cup) with the LA Galaxy finishing second in 1997, winning it in 2000, and DC United taking the title in 1998. But since then, though, an MLS clubs have not fared well, with the lone exception of Real Salt Lake finishing second in 2011.

In fact, if you look at the 17 CCL tournaments in which MLS clubs have competed, they’ve only won two championships – less than 12 percent. Of the 34 opportunities to play in the final, MLS clubs have only shown up four times – also less than 12 percent. And even if you look at who made the 68 semi-final berths in the MLS era, which is something a “good” let alone “great” league ought to be able to achieve on a consistent basis, its teams only account for 26 percent of them.

If you look at the results of this regional competition, the clubs in Mexico are by far better than those in MLS (despite having the same number of seeded teams). And no Mexican fan would dream of comparing their league to the top ones in Europe. In fact, if you look at CCL performance, MLS is more on par with the Costa Rican league than those in Europe.

Since the creation of the FIFA Club World Cup in 2000, no MLS team has won the CCL, so they haven’t earned an opportunity to compete against the best teams from each of the other regional confederations. However, the CCL winners – teams proven to be better than the best in MLS that season – have never made it to the finals of the Club World Cup. In the 10 competitions to date, the best the CCL champions have been able to achieve is three third-place finishes and three fourth-place finishes. Which is proof that even these clubs (from the Mexican and Costa Rican leagues) aren’t as competitive as those from Europe and South America.

Don’t Bury Your Head – or Talent – in the Sand
Jurgen Klinsmann is right, in that American players need to challenge themselves by playing against the best players in the world – the vast majority of whom play in Europe’s top leagues. In the same way, MLS needs to stop comparing its clubs with one another and focus instead on how they perform against clubs from other leagues. That kind of open, honest assessment is the only way the game will move forward in this country.

To claim MLS is great because its teams are so competitive with one another, meaning no one is really any better or worse than anyone else (the league was designed that way, so that no one team can ever dominate), is like claiming that a boxing match between two armless men is competitive. Technically they are competitive with one another, just like Hyundai’s cars. But neither boxer would fare well against other title contenders. Nor would the bout between the armless duo make for very good entertainment, at least not for a boxing fan. Just as MLS, while vastly improved from its inaugural season, is still well short of the mark when it comes to competing with the world’s top leagues.