Category Archives: MLS

Gold Cup 2011: Jamaica-US Preview

Thanks to this absolute laser by Jozy Altidore, the US beat Guadeloupe to advance to the knockout round of the 2011 Gold Cup.  Despite this victory, the US finished second in their group and drew Jamaica in the quarterfinals.  On current form, this could be an extremely tough game for the Yanks.  The Reggae Boyz have been one of the most impressive sides in the tournament, while the Yanks have underperformed.

Despite the uninspired performance of the USMNT, ESPN’s Five Aside Blog had this to say about the upcoming match:

The United States failed to win its group for the first time in Gold Cup history. As Group C runner-up, the United States faces Group B winner Jamaica, the only team other than Mexico to win all of its group games. USA has reached the semis in nine of the 10 previous tournaments, while Jamaica hasn’t reached the semifinals since 1998. Despite tournament form, SPI rates USA an 83.9 percent favorite to advance and extend its unbeaten (9-0-8) record against the Reggae Boyz. Jamaica has lost all four of its Gold Cup elimination games.1

Clearly, the SPI algorithm thinks the US will be able to overcome its malaise and put in the kind of performance American fans expect.

Player/Position Comparison:

Goalkeeper -  Tim Howard has been stellar for years and cannot be blamed for the loss to Panama.  He is one of the best keepers in England and arguably the world.  The US is lucky to have him guarding their goal.  Donovan Ricketts has been a rock in goal during the tournament, leading a defense that has yet to concede.  He’s also posted 6 clean sheets for the L.A. Galaxy this season.  Despite this good form, this comparison is simple.  One of the best in the MLS vs. one of the best in the EPL.   Advantage: USMNT

Defense - The Jamaican defense has yet to concede a goal, though part of that is probably thanks to the impotent competition they faced in the group stage.  Jamaica’s defense should not be discounted as three of the four starters play in MLS and they have paired well together all tournament.  Shavar ThomasJermaine TaylorDicoy Williams and Eric Vernan have all played well.  The US has struggled to find the right combination to start along the back.  Tim Ream looked out of his depth playing against Panama and Oguchi Onyewu is still lacking in form and hasn’t made an appearance.  Not without their struggles against Guadeloupe, expect the back four of  Steve CherundoloClarence GoodsonCarlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj to be in the Starting XI on Sunday.  On paper it would seem the US, with defenders from the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, the Premier League and the Danish League, has a better defense, but Jamaica is hot and is playing well as a unit.  Advantage: Push

While Bob Bradley stubbornly continues to deploy Clint Dempsey in the midfield, he's the USMNT's best hope at forward.

Midfield - Jamaica’s midfield has been on fire during the tournament.  Demar Phillips, who plays his club soccer with Ålesund in Norway, has scored three goals in three games. Dane Richards has been a terror on the wing.  Jason Morrison and Rodolph Austin, both of the Norwegian Tippeligaen have also put in solid efforts. The US midfield should be its strength.  With Landon Donovan on the left and Michael Bradley in the center the Yanks have two midfielders who have proven they can play at the top club level.  Who lines up on the right and in the center next to Bradley is a different story.  Jermaine Jones has not played his best during the Gold Cup, though Bob Bradley seems to be enamored with the former German under-20 international.  Clint Dempsey has lined up on the right, but as stated in a previous post, his best position for the USMNT may be up top.  Alejandro Bedoya has provided a spark off the bench and Sascha Kljestan has reignited his international career with a good showing.  Again, the US has a better midfield on paper, but the Reggae Boyz have been on fire this tournament.  Advantage: USMNT

Forwards – Another area where the USMNT has better players on paper – if you include Clint Dempsey.  As with players across the rest of the pitch, the Jamaican forwards have had a great tournament.  Led by San Jose Earthquakes striker, Ryan Johnson, the Jamaican front line has both scored goals and set up Jamaica’s lethal wingers.  Providing support for Johnson are Keammar Daley who plies his trade in the Jamaican Premier League and Luton Shelton of Norwegian side Vålerenga IF. Both have scored and assisted in Jamaica’s group games.  On the opposite side of the pitch, Jozy Altidore has looked great this tournament.  While still prone to lapses in concentration, he has provided 2 of the US’s 4 goals and assisted on another.  His wonder strike against Guadeloupe should have him feeling confident.  The rest of the US forward contingent has been less than stellar.  Chris Wondolowski has been wasteful in front of goal (see  this video) and Juan Agudelo is still learning.  With Bob Bradley seemingly unable to imagine Clint Dempsey as a forward, the US could be in trouble. Advantage: Jamaica

Coaching Staff - Let’s not even go there…

On paper, the US has better players than Jamaica.  More US players play in the top leagues around the world than the current Jamaican squad.  On form, the Jamaican squad is playing better than the USMNT, though they were in the easiest of the three groups. Is Jamaica’s form entirely due to its easy group, or are they a team to be reckoned with?  The USMNT, its fans and the rest of CONCACAF will know the answer on Sunday afternoon.

Prediction - Jamaica will make it tough, but I expect the real US team to show up for this game.  USMNT 2 – Jamaica 1.

 

Attendance in the NBA and NHL

While Cavs fans might feel betrayed by LeBron James, they have shown their support for the team despite a 19-63 record. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

Beyond my interest in sports as fan, my interest in the business of sports has grown over the past several years.  One of the aspects of sports business that I find the most interesting are attendance figures for teams in the various leagues. I’m interested in the raw numbers, but also in what cause fluctuations from year to year or within seasons.  A helpful tool for my odd obsession with attendance figures is the SportsBusiness Journal’s Turnstile Tracker.  The SBJ, in its April 4-10 issue, published the latest Turnstile Tracker for the NBA and the NHL and some of the statistics were surprising.  Let’s take a look at the NBA first.

NBA – A couple of things jumped out at me as I was perusing the figures.  These numbers are through March 29, which accounts for between 35-38 of an NBA team’s 41 home games.

1. The Cleveland Cavaliers are 2nd in the NBA in overall attendance at 763,636 fans through 38 games (the Chicago Bulls are first by a wide margin – 803,874 fans through 37 games).  While the average (20,096) isn’t 100% of capacity (which is 20,562 for the Quicken Loans Arena), it’s still pretty impressive.  Cleveland wasn’t competitive this season, finishing just 19-63, and lost LeBron James to the Miami Heat in the offseason. It’s almost like the fans in Cleveland came out to support the team as a way to stick it to LeBron.  Impressively, 24 home games counted at the time of publication, were played before an arena holding 98% or more of capacity.  The only other teams – the Boston Celtics, Chicago, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, and the Utah Jazz,  to match that are in the playoffs or in Utah’s case are the only thing in town (no offense to Real Salt Lake who don’t play for most of the NBA season). Several playoff teams – the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Atlanta Hawks – couldn’t match Cleveland’s support.

2. The Philadelphia 76ers played the most games (25 out of 35) in front of crowds that were less than 75% of capacity.  This surprises me.  The 76ers got off to a rough start, but were competitive throughout the season and made the playoffs.  On average only 70.8% of the seats in the arena were filled on any given night.  It’s pretty clear that the Sixers have slipped to #4, and maybe even #5 behind the Philadelphia Union, in the pecking order of Philadelphia sports.

3. Only two teams (the New Jersey Nets and the Indiana Pacers) played before crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans.  New Jersey played a game before just 8,866 fans, and Indiana played before 9,466.  An interesting fact about the Nets – despite playing before the lowest crowd in the NBA this season, the team has enjoyed an 8.6% increase in attendance from last year.

4. Overall, the NBA has seen a 1% increase in attendance vs. last season and is playing before arenas filled to 90.1% of capacity.

It seems like a lot of fans will be missing the NBA if the current labor situation does not get resolved before the start of next season.  The current collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30 and the possibility of a lockout looks more and more likely. That said, there are clearly a couple of markets that probably wouldn’t miss the hardwood too much if the 2011-2012 season if the NBA shortens or cancels its season.

NHL – The NHL, more than the NBA, relies on putting fans in the seats to pay the bills, and is having a pretty good year overall.  The numbers cited below account for between 37-40 of the NHL’s 41 home games. Some interesting numbers:

1. The NHL is averaging only a couple hundred fewer fans per game than the NBA – 17,071 for the NHL to the NBA’s 17,262.  Not bad for a sport that is a distant 4th in the pantheon of American sports.

2. While it might have seemed sad that the Nets and Pacers played before fewer than 10,000 fans, they have nothing on the NHL.  The New York Islanders played a game at Nassau Coliseum in front of just 3,136 fans.  It is worth mentioning that this game was played during the post-Christmas blizzard that blanketed much of the Northeast in over a foot of snow, but other teams were still able to but fans in the seats.  There were 4 other teams that played before crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans – the Atlanta Thrashers (8,461), the Columbus Blue Jackets (9,128), the New Jersey Devils (5,329) and the Phoenix Coyotes (6,706).

3. Of the teams with the 10 lowest average attendance figures (click here to see the list from ESPN – this list doesn’t match the SBJ list exactly, but it is illustrative), 6 are located in the South and 1 is in California.  It’s pretty clear that the NHL’s strategy to expand into the South isn’t working and some of those teams need to be relocate to areas that will support the teams.

4. Chicago loves it NBA and NHL teams.  The Blackhawks and Bulls are the leaders in average attendance for both leagues.  While part of this can be attributed to the United Center’s ability to hold nearly 20,00o seated fans for hockey and nearly 21,000 for basketball, both teams are playing to capacities of over 100%, meaning fans are flocking to see the Blackhawks and Bulls play and are willing to stand to do it.  Impressive.

Philadelphia fans have been turning out in bunches to see the Flyers, but have abandoned the Sixers.

5.  While Philly has seemingly abandoned the playoff bound Sixers, the Flyers have seen an uptick in attendance compared to last season.  The Flyers are 3rd in the NHL in average attendance and have played before 100.9% of capacity over the course of the season.

It will be interesting to see if the NHL capitalizes on the potential NBA labor strife.  If there is a shortened or canceled NBA season, will that mean more fans going to see hockey?  Time will tell.

MLS Celebrates Sweet 16

First, Happy 16th Season MLS!

I am a voracious reader. For several years, I commuted to Boston on the train every day.  During that time I would go through a book a week (sometimes two depending on how quick a read the books were).  I know that this might not seem to be linked to MLS starting its 16th season, just hear me out.  Due to my love of reading and immense amounts of reading time, I’ve read countless books on one of my favorite topics – soccer.

The books ranged from the encyclopedic (The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt) to the quirky (Bloody Confused by Chuck Culpepper).  The most recent book to catch my attention was Soccer in a Football World by David Wangerin. In the book, Wangerin charts the convoluted and often dispiriting path of fútbol in the United States.  From the little documented early days under the auspices of the United States of America Foot Ball Association (now the United States Soccer Federation) and the American Soccer League to the 2006 World Cup, Wangerin provides a great background for anybody interested in soccer in the United States. In addition to filling in some historical blanks, Soccer in a Football World got me thinking about how MLS fits into the American sporting landscape.

As MLS enters its 16th season, which kicks off on March 15 in Seattle (Sounders v. Galaxy; should be a good one), there are reasons to believe that the league and the sport are finally gaining some true traction in America.

Positives Signs -

Philadelphia Union are one of MLS's recent expansion successes, and my favorite club.

Successful Expansion – MLS has added 5 teams since 2007 and will add the Montreal Impact in 2012.  Montreal’s introduction will bring the count to 19, with MLS looking to expand to 20.  Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia were all extremely successful at the gate in their first seasons.  Toronto has averaged more than 20,000 fans per game in each of its first 4 seasons. Seattle draws crowds that many European soccer teams would envy (36,000+ last season), and Philadelphia continued the trend of successful expansion by averaging over 19,000 fans in their inaugural season. Portland and Vancouver both look primed to continue the trend, with Portland selling more than 12,000 season tickets and Vancouver more than 15,500.

Could the revived Cosmos be the 20th MLS team in 2012 or beyond?

As mentioned before, MLS is looking to expand to twenty teams, and Don Garber has made it known that he would love a second team in the New York City area.  To wit, perhaps the most famous name in US soccer, the New York Cosmos, has been revived in an attempt to become that 20th team.  With Eric Cantona as the Director of Soccer, Pelé as Honorary President, and Giorgio Chinaglia as International Ambassador the club has some heavy hitters promoting its interests (both Pelé and Chinaglia played for the previous incarnation of the Cosmos).

Attendance - Thanks in large part to the success of the recent expansion teams, 2010 saw MLS attendance rise to 16,675 fans per game.  Only two prior MLS seasons top that number (2007 and 1996).  While the NFL and MLB both average far more fans than MLS, the NHL and NBA average only slightly more.  While these numbers might be slightly outdated, MLS ranks 13th in average attendance among world soccer leagues.  Not bad for a country that supposedly doesn’t like soccer.  Attendance has been on the rise and should continue that upward trend, on the strength of a new soccer specific stadium in Kansas City and the addition of the Timbers and Whitecaps.  As Geoffrey Arnold of The Oregonian writes (citing an article from the Wall Street Journal), there are several cities where MLS outdraws NBA teams.  Of the cities listed, only The Galaxy outdrawing the Lakers doesn’t present the full picture (the Lakers would certainly sell more tickets if the Staples Center could accommodate more fans).  The general upward trend in attendance over the past several years is certainly a positive sign for MLS; however, the attendance situation isn’t entirely rosy, there are some disconcerting signs for several clubs. More on the negatives to come.

Performance of the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) – As important as domestic soccer is around the world most (if not all) domestic leagues are set up to help the national team perform on a higher level.  While soccer fans enjoy watching the Champions League, the World Cup is what matters most. The creation and continued growth of MLS has given US soccer talent a place to develop and the performance of the USMNT has benefited from its existence.

MLS is the first domestic soccer league in the US to make developing American talent a priority.  The ASL and the NASL both relied heavily on imports (MLS is starting to trend this way as well) while neglecting native talent.  Since the creation of MLS, the US has qualified for all 4 World Cups, advanced from the Group Stage on two occasions, beaten the World #1 and been ranked as high as 4th in the FIFA World Rankings (I still can’t believe this, but it’s true).

While MLS hasn’t turned the USMNT into a legitimate threat to win the World Cup (yet), the investment in soccer (the USSF’s Project 2010, which didn’t work quite according to plan) along with the growing competitiveness in  domestic soccer has transformed the US from laughing-stock to CONCACAF power and occasional giant slayer.

Interesting side note: The US is one of only 7 teams to qualify for every World Cup since 1990.  The others: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and South Korea.

Bad Signs -

Profitibility – MLS continues to expand and more fans (on average) are attending games; however, these positive signs haven’t translated into profitability.  According to most reports, which are difficult to find as financial transparency is not an MLS strong point, very few teams turn a profit.  Thanks to some awesome work by Dave Clark at Sounder at Heart we can draw a few conclusions.  Using data from a 2007 Forbes study in conjunction with a study conducted on behalf of the Portland Timbers, Clark came to the conclusion that 2 clubs (Seattle and Toronto) were profitable in 2009. The long-term stability of the game and the league will require teams to move toward profitability.  Teams can only stay afloat while incurring losses for so long. See the NASL for proof of that.

TV Ratings/Contract – If MLS ever wants to make a collective turn toward profitability, the league needs to establish itself on television.  No professional sport can survive in today’s market without a TV deal.  MLS just agreed to an extension of its previous TV contract with Fox Soccer Channel that will pay the league $6.25 million this season (MLS has a contract with ESPN that pays the league $8 million per year through 2014, and includes rights to USMNT games). For the sake of comparison, the NFL earns $3 billion per year, MLB earns nearly $500 million, the NBA earns $930 million, and the NHL earns at least $75 million. While comparing MLS to the NFL, NBA and MLB is certainly unfair, comparing the league to the NHL isn’t entirely ridiculous.  While TV ratings remain poor (an average of 249,000 viewers for games broadcast on ESPN2), those numbers actually are comparable to the numbers the NHL records on Versus (297,000 per broadcast in 2009-2010, scroll to the bottom to see a table of the ratings numbers).  So the question that needs to be asked is: why the NHL can get $75 million per year from Versus and MLS can only bring in a fraction of that amount? If MLS wants to remain a viable league and grow its brand, it will need to secure a better television contract.

Attendance – As mentioned above, MLS attendance has been on the rise over the past several years, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. While there are successes, several clubs have woeful attendance numbers. Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes all hovered around the 10,000 mark. Several other teams saw drops in attendance from 2009. There is some hope for Kansas City, as they are set to open their new soccer-specific stadium this season. For a league that doesn’t derive much revenue from a television deal, it is vitally important to put fans in the seats.

An extremely interesting story will be if MLS can capitalize on the labor strife in the NFL and a potential NBA work stoppage to grow its brand. While soccer will never replace football or baseball in the hearts and minds of American sports fans and likely will never challenge the NBA, why couldn’t the beautiful game could supplant the NHL in the American sports pecking order.

MLS Needs to Allow Landon Donovan to Go to Europe

MLS announced that it would not field offers for Landon Donovan. Too bad we won't be seeing Donovan don Everton's kit permanently.

Yesterday evening, the Associated Press ran a story where MLS commissioner, Don Garber, basically said that MLS will not field offers for U.S. World Cup star, Landon Donovan.  Garber stated, “Landon is in my view the greatest player of our generation and an incredibly valuable part of our history but also of our future. He proved in England last year on loan and he proved in South Africa that he’s a world-class player and he’s also proved that he loves our league and really has accepted the mantle of really being one of the leaders of the sport. It is my hope and my expectation that we have him for the rest of his career because I think the contributions that he makes are invaluable to our future success.”

While not accepting offers for Donovan makes perfect sense for the league, why get rid of the most recognizable U.S. soccer player, it doesn’t make sense for U.S. soccer.  U.S. soccer needs its best players to play abroad where the competition level is higher and where they will become familiar with the players and teams they will face in international competitions.  MLS needs to allow the best players to leave to go to better leagues.  Period!  By not allowing those players that prove themselves internationally to play in Europe, MLS will never get better as a league.  This might sound counter intuitive, as keeping the best players should mean the level of competition would get better; however, US players will simply not sign with MLS if they know that the league is going to block a potential more to the more lucrative and more competitive European leagues.  Smaller European nations don’t keep all their best talent at home (see Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Croatia, Serbia) and countries in other parts of the world keep virtually none of their best talent in domestic leagues (Australia, most African countries).  Many of these countries’ best players play in one of the Big 5 leagues in Europe (England, Spain, Italy, German, France).  It should be the same with the US.

Some might argue that it would be better to keep talent at home than have them sit on the bench in Europe (see Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and others).  While I would agree in principle, I think many U.S. players go about their entry into Europe in the wrong way.  I believe that players should follow the path that Michael Bradley has taken in moving from MLS.  He first moved to a more competitive league in one of Europe’s smaller countries (in his case the Netherlands) and then on to a team in one of the Big 5 leagues (he now plays for Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany).  Following his standout performance at the World Cup, there are rumors that Bradley could be moving the EPL, the league for many that represents the pinnacle of soccer competition.  Under this model, MLS would have players in their early career, helping to develop the skills needed to compete.  Fans would get to see the next generation of USMNT stars and would develop rooting interests in them.  After a bit of seasoning in MLS, the players most ready to move to Europe should move to leagues in countries like the Netherlands, Portugal, or Greece.  Hopefully, at clubs in these countries American players would develop further as players, learning a more technical style to go along with the unmatched fitness that is the hallmark of the USMNT.  After proving their worth in these smaller leagues, players could then move to a bigger league where the competition level would be even higher and where skills could be further sharpened.  If U.S. players followed this formula, I believe that we would produce far more top-level soccer talent and that both MLS and the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) would benefit.

The simple fact is that U.S. players need to compete on the highest level to truly give the USMNT a chance to compete internationally.  MLS needs to get on board or get out of the way.

UPDATE (7/21/2010): Manchester City’s boss, Roberto Mancini, has stated that he is interested in adding Donovan.  I’m not a huge fan of a potential move to the Eastlands for Donovan, as Man City already has a ton of wing/midfield options.  I’m not sure that he will get the playing time he needs.  I still think a move back to Everton would be the best option.  More on the rumor here: http://www.mirrorfootball.co.uk/news/Manchester-City-transfer-news-Landon-Donovan-interesting-Eastlands-article502305.html

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