The Forgotten Playoffs: MLS

We are in the playoff push for the NFL season. The NBA season tipped off and NHL season is well underway. One of the most watched World Series ever wrapped up with the Chicago Cubs breaking a 108-year curse, the longest drought in American sports history.

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Sebastian Giovinco could deliver Toronto a league title for a franchise that had never won a playoff game before this year. (Wikimedia Commons)

Somewhere in all of that, the MLS playoffs kicked off. Now, the MLS is not quite on par with the core four of American sports, but the last few years have pushed the top American soccer league into the national focus. The last several years have been solid years of growth in terms of league money and fans.

If anything, this year had the makings of a big year for the MLS playoffs. It features several big market teams, think New York, LA, Seattle, Dallas and D.C., a team searching for its first ever playoff win in Toronto, all three MVP candidates between the two New York squads and the return of the most-accomplished MLS player ever in Landon Donovan.

Yet all of that very easily fell by the wayside when the rest of the sports world exploded. Factor in the most ridiculous presidential election possibly ever and the MLS playoffs have been largely forgotten.

Now it is easy to write this off as just Americans don’t care about soccer, but that isn’t really a fair assumption. MLSSoccer.com reported in July that viewership was up across all ESPN platforms, specifically 32 percent on television and 127 percent via the WatchESPN app.

More fans are showing up to the stadiums as well. Total gate numbers increased by about more than 100 fans per game across the league. That might not sound like much, but that’s an extra 34,000 tickets sold this year. According to Soccer Stadium Digest, roughly 7.38 million fans turned out for MLS games this year.

Jordan Morris, Jeff Hendrick
Jordan Morris (left) scored the decisive goal in the Western Conference Final for Seattle. (Wikimedia Commons)

The stage is set for a massive final tonight, between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. It is the first time that either team has even reached the MLS Final, so we are guaranteed to have a new champion this year.

The stage is set for an impressive final, yet it is unlikely that people will be watching. At least not in the United States. Canadian television ratings were smashed consistently during the Eastern Conference playoffs. Toronto matched up with Montreal for the first all-Canadian conference final ever.

As I mentioned before, the league holds its playoffs at a time that competes with the NFL, college football, college basketball, the NBA, NHL and the World Series. It is to imagine that soccer is going to break through all of that to make an impression or garner fans’ attention.

Once again, the league needs to start considering a shift in the season. If the MLS Final were to happen some time in September or June, there is a very good chance that it would merit more coverage. There would also be a lot less to compete with. Obviously, the league does not want to admit that soccer is not popular enough to stand out in the States, but that’s the reality right now.

Soccer is slowly growing the U.S., but the long-term success of MLS will rely on a breakthrough in television viewership.

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What is Los Angeles planning now?

The LA Galaxy always try to stay ahead of the curve. Or at least that’s how it seems. Los Angeles continually makes to biggest signings in MLS and without a doubt will be one of the top teams in the league. From Landon Donovan to David Beckham to Giovani Dos Santos, LA has landed star after star after star.

 
JuninhoTo stay ahead though, you need to make some radical moves sometimes. LA certainly did that this past week as it moved Omar Gonzales and Juninho to Liga MX for a boatload of cash and tons of salary space. Those two had the highest salaries on the team for players that weren’t under the Designated Player tag. The Galaxy also let Donovan Ricketts and Mike Vayrynen leave the team opening up a $2 million salary hole for the winningest franchise in MLS history to fill.

Omar GonzalezThat should read as bad news for the rest of the league. LA has the unique ability of attracting big names to come and this already star-studded team is clearly looking to get better. This season was viewed a major disappointment as the squad failed to even make it to the Conference Finals.

Now the rest of the league has to be wondering, what will the Galaxy do next? Well for starters, they are linked to former English International Ashley Cole. The 35-year old is without a contract at the moment so LA would not need to spend any of their transfer budget to bring him in. Outside of that, no one is really sure what to expect.

Looking at the current Galaxy roster, they need defensive help. Only two playoff teams allowed more goals than LA did last season. Bruce Arena is going to want to find someone to replace Ricketts at keeper and you can bet that it will be a top goalkeeping option by MLS standards. With Gonzales on the move too, you would expect Los Angeles to fill the void with a young central defender. If LA looks for a homegrown player at that spot look for names like Matt Miazga, John Brooks and Matt Hedges to crop up.

With Juninho out of the picture in Los Angeles and Vayrynen gone as well, the midfield is going to need some work. Finding someone to consistently start alongside Gerrard. LA did a lot of mixing and matching in their midfield last season, but down the stretch, you could just about count on Gerrard and Juninho starting.

Whoever LA brings in to replace Juninho will have a huge role to fill. The Brazilian started more games than anyone else last year for the Galaxy. Right behind him was Gonzales. They two were the center pieces of Arena’s starting eleven just about every week. With both of them gone, you can expect to see a very different style Galaxy team shaping up during the next two to three months.

Los Angeles GalaxySometimes, trying to fix was isn’t broken can be a major problem. However, I don’t think that is the case here. Los Angeles is looking to turn the page on their storied history and start a new chapter. A lot of the key players from that 2014 MLS Final victory are gone. Five of the Galaxy’s starting eleven in that championship game no longer don an LA uniform. The strikers have remained the same but everything has experienced a major shake up. LA is gearing up for another title run but also another shot at creating a dynasty. The Galaxy won titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014. LA is not looking to snag just one more title, they are preparing to dominant the league for a few years to come.

Age is but a number

Several new players to MLS by storm in 2015. Sebastian Giovinco lead the charge, Giovani dos Santos left his mark from the start and Andrea Pirlo dazzled wit his close control. Then there were other big names who drew thousands of fans like Frank Lampard, Stephen Gerrard and Kaka. However, none of them have experienced the type of success we’ve seen from the ageless wonder Didier Drogba.

Didier_DrogbaIt seems like a no-brainer that Giovinco will win MVP this year and probably the Newcomer of the Year award as well. Kei Kamara will probably take home the Golden Boot for the most goals scored. If you gave Drogba a chance to play the full MLS season, he might just challenge for all of those awards.

Through just nine career appearances in MLS, Drogba has scored nine goals and set up another one. He has been the talisman for Montreal since he showed up and almost single-handedly won Montreal the first match he played in.

Montreal has been on the cusp of making the playoffs for some time now and still cling to the final seed in the East. Realistically though, I do not think Montreal would have made the playoffs without the addition of Drogba. Montreal has scored fifteen goals as a team since adding Cote d’Ivoire international and he has been responsible for two thirds of them. That kind of offensive output is exactly what the Impact needed to stay in that sixth spot.

Some of the goals Drogba has been scoring have been absolutely spectacular as well. The first goal he put in against Chicago was impressive with his control and poise in the box. About four weeks later, he upped that initial goal with this beauty.

Drogba still possesses in excess many of the key assets needed to be a striker. His speed is still apparent despite nearing 40. His on the ball ability is incredible and his understanding of how to set up both the defender and the keeper to give himself the easiest goal is second to none.

Many of Drogba’s goals have come as a result of his physique. In other words, he smashes the ball in or out races a guy to the spot. However, he still has that deft touch to bend the ball into the net from a ways out as well. This might be the best one he has scored yet.

He sent that over the wall and curled it down under the bar with ease. Despite being a massive human being, Drogba still has plenty of finesse if he can do something like that.

In those three videos, Drogba scored five goals, all of them of varying levels of excellence. That could be spliced together as a highlight reel of the best of some players’ seasons. For the former Chelsea man, that is what he did in three games.

Obviously, this kind of production is just about unsustainable, especially for a 37-year old, but if Drogba can be a consistent scoring option, then this Montreal squad could make a run in the playoffs. For all of his success and honors throughout his career, you have to assume that Drogba would love to get his hands on an MLS Cup.

Didier DrogbaDrogba’s season has been short, but it has been nothing short of spectacular. He is already tied for 19th in the league in terms of goals. He is also the only player to have started at least one game and averages more than a goal per 90 minutes played. Unrealistic over the course of a season of course but impressive nonetheless.

With just two games left and Montreal clinging to that final playoff berth, look for Drogba to dazzle some more. He is quickly becoming the player to watch in MLS.

The Lesser of Two Evils

Don’t you just hate when people lie to you? Or when people just don’t understand when they have done something wrong? Or when it seems like everything someone does has an ulterior motive that seems to somehow benefit them?

Any of those descriptions could apply to Sepp Blatter or Roger Goodell. Both men run probably the two most powerful sporting organizations in the world. Honestly, two of the most powerful organizations of any kind. According to bloomberg.com, the NFL generates an estimated $9.5 billion per season with a market value of roughly $46 billion between the 32 teams. FIFA generated about $5.7 billion in 2014, according its end-of-year financial report. $4.8 billion came from the World Cup in Brazil, and only about $2.2 billion in expenses. Clearly, both of these organizations are very lucrative.

Then you realize that both of them are registered as non-profit organizations. Yup, that’s right. No taxes for either the NFL or FIFA league offices. Well, the NFL actually recently changed its stance on that. It decided to give up its tax-free ways so it could now hide Goodell’s salary. Go figure they want to be as opaque as possible.

That is definitely frustrating, as a tax-paying citizen, to hear. If that proves to be too much anger for you, stop reading this now, because it gets a whole lot worse.

Debating who is worse of these two clowns is sort of like debating which is worse, Comcast or Time Warner Cable. They both are awful, money-sucking entities with an inability to apply reason to situations that need to be fixed, but somehow, one has to be worse than the other right?

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Goodell has been commissioner of the NFL since 2009.

So, we’ve talked about the organizations completely dodging taxes, which is beyond ridiculous. The amount these two men make though is even more absurd. Goodell makes way more than any of his top players make in a given year. His salary was $45 million in 2012 and it took a drop to $34 million in 2013. However, he does not have to worry about his pay for a while. The New York Daily News reports that Goodell received a package that will pay him roughly $300 million over a seven year span starting in 2012. That average of close to $43 million a year is about double what the league’s top players make every year and they risk their bodies for our entertainment. Goodell sits in a cushy chair and just suspends whoever he likes (more on that later).

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Blatter has been the president of FIFA since 1998.

Blatter is not quite as bad as Goodell in terms of his greed for his salary. Different sources conflict on how much Blatter makes. One thinks Blatter makes roughly $1 million annually. Another pegs it somewhere between $5 and $18 million. FIFA does not have to release it’s executives salaries each year. However, the likelihood is that Blatter makes more than just his salary, it just isn’t listed.

FIFA also has a track record for ripping off host countries. Blatter and his organization are exempt from all taxes, local, state and national, when operating in the country for the World Cup. In fact, Brazil estimated $248.7 million in lost revenue following the World Cup just for letting FIFA evade taxes. More often than not, FIFA causes countries to shell out an inordinate amount of money and then actually walk away worse off financially than when FIFA arrived. The funny thing is, that isn’t even close to the worst part about FIFA.

Over the past year or so, FIFA has been rocked by allegations of bribery and corruption. 2015 saw the story break regarding a scheme that FIFA officials organized to generate more than $150 million in kickbacks for themselves. Now Blatter was not one of the officials named in this situation but this is not the first time FIFA has been accused of corruption or accepting bribes. Dating back to 2010, FIFA executives have served bans for violations of ethics codes. With all of this going on in FIFA it is hard to believe that Blatter has not been a part of some of the activity, taking his fair share of bribes.

Sepp BlatterWhile he wasn’t named then, things finally seem to have caught up to Blatter. The Swiss Attorney General’s office announced it was launching an investigation “on suspicion of criminal mismanagement…and – alternatively – misappropriation.” The report also mentions that Blatter’s office was searched and data was seized.

Goodell has never been accused of criminal activity, which would definitely go in the win column for him. However, he has grossly mishandled several legal cases with serious repercussions.

For starters, there was Goodell handing Ray Rice only a two-game suspension after he had weeks to review the situation and give an appropriate punishment. Rice punched his then fiancee in the face, knocking her out, then dragged her onto an elevator. The NFL received word of this and then rather than rationally seek outside counsel for a case they were not equipped to handle, brought Rice and his fiancee into the same room together to rehash the situation. That is a principle violation of how to handle assault cases mainly because the accuser is in the same room as the assaulter. More often than not, the accuser will stand down out of fear that if he or she tells the truth, the assaulter will hurt them again.

So there was that. Then there was Goodell mishandling Ray McDonald’s, Adrian Peterson’s and Greg Hardy’s cases as well.

Roger GoodellNeedless to say, Goodell had a rough 2014 offseason. But then his popularity rating dropped even lower when he picked a fight with Tom Brady and slandered his name despite having no hard evidence. Many people agreed with Goodell’s thinking that Brady was innocent but Goodell once again displayed his dictator-like powers, handing down a four-game suspension (keep in mind he suspended Rice for only two for punching his wife) to Brady on the account that Brady might have been generally aware that someone had tampered with the footballs in the AFC Championship game. Even now after a federal judge ruled the suspension unfair, the NFL continues to drag out the fight, looking to appeal the ruling on the appeal (which is also just stupid that it is allowed).

Right now, these two men are at an all-time low in terms of popularity. However, Goodell might have the slight edge. No NFL sponsors have publicly demanded for Goodell to step down from his post, (although, they probably should have). Meanwhile, Coca-cola just released a statement that Blatter must step down amidst the corruption scandal. It is a long time coming but Coke finally pulled the trigger. No word has come yet from Blatter on what he will do now that this is out in the open.

So while Goodell is an inconsiderate, greedy, sexist and overall incompetent man, he managed to make the NFL lucrative with having to break dozens of laws and fund himself with illegal hidden payments. Blatter has corruption written all over his organization during his tenure, from accepting bribes for World Cup allocations to illegal contracts.

Thankfully, it seems like Blatter is on his way soon between he “resignation” that should hopefully take place in December and a major sponsor turning up the heat. Now if only Nike could finally tell Goodell that he really just needs to take a hike, the world be a much better place.

Oh and just for sheer entertainment value because he fully deserves it: 

New York Color Wars

Soccer in New York has confused just about everyone this year. As with every sport’s team in the Big Apple under intense pressure at all time, New York’s soccer teams have been no exception. For the first time, the city that never sleeps has two MLS teams. The two have spent all season competing for dominance of New York in a battle of red versus blue.

David Villa
Villa has been the captain all season for City, scoring 15 goals in the process.

 In just their first ever season, New York City FC entered with lofty expectations. Signing Spanish striker David Villa offered a lot of promise and certainly brought some excitement to the club. The signing of Frank Lampard shortly after that pushed fans’ expectations even higher than most would have thought for a first year club. US international Mix Diskerud brought even more press to the expansion team, as did youngster Patrick Mullins arriving from New England.

NYC got off to a decent start to the season. They seemed like they might just meet those expectations after a solid start but then the wheels fell off. New York failed to win in 11 straight matches, including seven losses. They started winning games again at the beginning of June and climbed out of the Eastern Conference basement. Andrea Pirlo arrived from Juventus on a transfer and Lampard finally started playing for NYC. However, they have only climbed to the outskirts of the playoff picture. They are even with Montreal on total points but have played five fewer matches than the Impact leaving them in a rough position. Overall, City has been fairly disappointing with the star power they field.

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BWP leads the Red Bulls with 11 goals this season.

On the other hand, cross river rival New York Red Bulls were thought to be down and out this year. There was a changing of the guard as Thierry Henry retired and Jesse Marsch replaced Mike Petke as head coach. Most figured that it would be a year of rebuilding. Instead, New York made some shrewd moves to up their talent level and find themselves in a great position to win the Eastern Conference. Sacha Kljestan, Gonzolo Veron and youngster Matt Miazga have all been great additions to the starting XI this year.

The Red Bulls have marched to the third best point total in the Eastern Conference this year but the best points per game average of any team in the east until this point. Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mike Grella, Lloyd Sam and Kljestan have accounted for the majority of the offense for New York this year, each with at least five goals. That approach differs greatly from the star powered style of NYC. The Red Bulls are a lock for the playoffs at this stage after most expected them to miss the postseason altogether. 

So far, these two clubs have met three times. Continuing the trend of surprises, the Red Bulls have beaten NYC in all three of those matches by an aggregate score of 7-2. You would think that City could at least manage a draw in one of those three. This has been the beginning of a new, intense rival in the city of New York. To this point though, New York is definitely red.