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.

sebastian-giovinco
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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Behind Messi’s Decision

Make that three in a row for Argentina. After losing to Chile on Sunday, Argentina came up short in its third straight tournament final. The loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup Final, followed by two consecutive defeats to the Chileans in the Copa America have left the Argentine with a sour taste in their mouth.

Lionel Messi
Messi is Argentina’s all-time leading scorer with 55 goals in 113 caps. (Wikimedia Commons)

So much so, that Argentinian captain Lionel Messi has said that he is retiring from international football. His proclamation came shortly after the heartbreaking loss, where Messi fired his shot over the bar during the decisive penalty shootout. It might have just been his emotions getting the best of him in the heat of the moment. But there are plenty of other reasons that could be fueling Messi’s desire leave the international game.

First and foremost, it is no secret that he has a certain amount of disdain for the Argentina Football Association (AFA). For anyone who has consistently read this blog, you know I hate FIFA for being a corrupt organization. The AFA fits into that same mold.

For some context, the Argentinian players beat the USA last Tuesday, and then were set to fly out to Houston on Thursday. However, the flight was delayed due to weather concerns. That didn’t stop Messi from taking to social media to bash the AFA for the mishandling of the situation. The AFA issued a response saying that Copa America organizers were responsible for all travel logistics. I think Messi was just looking for something to be mad about here, but he was probably already a bit pissed off.

Just prior to the flight snafu, AFA president Luis Segura was charged with fraudulent administration regarding television-broadcasting rights. He hasn’t been found guilty, but the money in question is several million dollars over the course of the last six years. That reflects poorly on the AFA and likely already had Messi in a bad mood.

There is also a deep-seeded stalemate between those in Argentina and their most prolific player. Messi has played for Barcelona his entire career and that has led to the sentiment that he is more committed to his club than his country. It has been a long-standing love-hate relationship between Messi and the Argentine fans.

From their perspective, he has never delivered. Sunday’s loss was the fourth time Messi came up short in a major tournament final. He has only ever won one gold medal and it was at the Olympics, which is rather insignificant by world football standards.

Lionel_Messi
Argentina has not won a major tournament since 1993, when Messi was only six. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, it is hard to argue that Messi hasn’t given it his all while wearing an Argentina shirt. He was nothing short of magical in this Copa America run, tallying five goals and four assists during the team’s six games. He didn’t start all of them either, as he came off the bench early in the tournament. Think back to the 2015 Copa America, where Messi scored only once, but had three assists and was the only Argentine player to score in the Finals’ shootout. And before that, it was four goals and an assist en route to the Golden Ball Award at the World Cup in 2014.

The last three years have been some of the best of Messi’s career at the international level. He has guided Argentina to three consecutive major tournament finals, coming up short to Chile and Germany, both of whom are great teams.

The reality is that Messi must feel jaded. I honestly do not think his retirement at this point is permanent. He is, after all, just 29 years old. There is still a lot of magic left in the tank for Messi. I think his teammates will convince him to give it at least one last run at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. If the five-time Ballon d’Or winner cannot pull through there, then I think that might be the end of the line. Until then, just enjoy the show everyone.

Did Klinsmann Save his Job?

The United States faces off with Ecuador on Thursday night in the Copa America Centenario quarterfinals. Many expected America to be here, but not against this opponent. Peru messed up what should have been a meeting between the U.S. and Brazil, with some help from Costa Rica.

America is favored to beat Ecuador now and advance to the semifinal round. All of that would be great and it makes you wonder if Jurgen Klinsmann has taken himself off the hot seat.

Jurgen Klinsmann
America is 2-1 under Klinsmann heading into the Copa America quarterfinals. (Wikimedia Commons)

Klinsmann has had some mixed results in 2016 and continues to alienate players from MLS. Many felt that a poor showing in this tournament would see him packing his bags. We saw what failing to get out of group play can do to a manager of a very successful team (see Brazil). It was certainly in the realm of possibility that Klinsmann would be unemployed if his team failed to advance.

Even with the U.S. qualifying for the knockout stage, I don’t think Klinsmann has completely gotten himself out of hot water. The United States beat Paraguay and Costa Rica. The game against Los Ticos was spectacular and the Paraguay match was solid. However, they also lost in a rough offensive showing against Columbia. Now, the latter is the number three team in the world at the moment. Overall, this is a good slate of results for the Red, White and Blue.

But the U.S. hasn’t beat anyone they weren’t supposed to. Costa Rica was a toss up and Paraguay was a game America was expected to win. Columbia would have been a major victory. Those two wins were good results but nothing out of the ordinary. Really, the USMNT was lucky to win the pool.

A win over Ecuador would be significant, as they are currently ranked 13th in the world. A semifinal victory could be a huge sign of progress for this team. The US will likely play either Argentina, Chile or Mexico. Defeating one of those three teams would be a significant benchmark in the preparation for the 2018 World Cup.

Jurgen_Klinsmann
America is ranked 31st in the world at the moment. (Wikimedia Commons)

Realistically, the United States has no chance of winning this tournament. They lack to the defensive discipline and offensive fire power to upset potentially three top 20 ranked teams in the world back to back to back.

So while the U.S. won the pool and enter the knockout stage with high hopes, realize that nothing significant has happened yet. They won the pool mainly due to Costa Rica stunning Columbia in the groups’ final game. Everything the Americans have done to this point they were supposed to do.

If they lose to Ecuador, this is an average tournament for the USA. If they beat Ecuador, Klinsmann and his group has a positive result to take from this tournament going forward. Anything past that would be phenomenal progress for the United States. Klinsmann is trending in the direction of safety but I don’t think he has made it quite yet.

US 40-man roster for Copa America analyzed

By Jack Venezia

Jurgen Klinsmann
Klinsmann has won the second most matches as manager of the US in team history behind only Bruce Arena. (Wikimedia Commons)

On Sunday night US Men’s National Team Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann named 40 players to his provisional roster for the Copa America this summer. Copa America will be hosted in the United States. High level international teams such as Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina will be playing in Copa America along with the US. This summer will be the halfway point between the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, making this Copa America competition a benchmark for the USMNT’s progress (or lack thereof).

Here is the roster:

GOALKEEPERS (5): David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Ethan Horvath (Molde), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

DEFENDERS (15): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Ventura Alvarado (Club America), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Monterrey), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea FC), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland)

MIDFIELDERS (12): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (FC Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids), Perry Kitchen (Heart of Midlothian), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Reading FC), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

FORWARDS (8): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund),Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

Keepers
This is the exact group I expected to be selected. There was some doubt as to whether Will Yarabrough would steal a spot from the aging Nick Rimando, but that does not seem to be the case. As for the final roster, Howard and Guzan are locks, after that is anyone’s guess.

Defense
All of the selections at centerback make sense; we shall see who makes the final roster though. I am excited for the futures of Birnbaum and Miazga. At the leftback position, I take issue with bringing on Timmy Chandler and not Brek Shea. Chandler has never been consistent for the national team and Brek Shea has been killing it for Orlando since returning from injury. Plus, Brek Shea has been called up by Jurgen multiple times in the past which makes this even more baffling. Lastly, Eric Lichaj comes out of nowhere to join this roster. He has not been called up in quite some time.

Midfield
All of the regulars are here, which bodes well for the team’s chances in the tournament, i.e. no one crucial is injured or in an awful run of form. It is nice to see Perry Kitchen called up as many have been saying he should be the defensive midfield heir to Kyle Beckerman’s throne. He likely won this spot over Will Trapp, who has not been playing well with Columbus in MLS. Also interesting to see Nagbe listed among this group since these all seem to be central midfielders. Hopefully this means we will see Nagbe play in his preferred role rather than being pushed out to the wing as he has been in the past.

 

Clint_Dempsey
Dempsey has a chance to pass DeMarcus Beasly for fifth-most caps wearing a US uniform. (Wikimedia Commons)

Forwards
It looks like Jurgen has listed the wingers (Finlay, Pulisic, and others at times) with the forwards, which leads me to believe the US will play a 4-3-3. Pulisic’s inclusion is exciting as he has been getting minutes and goals for German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund as a teenager. Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood have also been hot scorers recently. The real question is, who plays the center forward position of that 4-3-3, Jozy or Clint? Dempsey has been playing on the wing occasionally for Seattle, but with varying amounts of success.

It is worth noting that training camp starts on May 16 for the USMNT. US Soccer must submit the final 23-player roster no later than May 20. On May 22, 25 and 28 the 23-man roster will play three warm up games against Puerto Rico, Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively. Copa America opens on June 3 with the US playing Columbia.

The pressure is on for Klinsmann to find some success in this tournament. After failing to win the Gold Cup last summer and a poor run in World Cup Qualifying. This is going to be a much tougher test, but the US should come away with a couple positive results.

English Premier League Team of the Year

The Professional Football Association (PFA) announced its Top XI on Thursday and it leaves me scratching my head. I decided I needed to break down the flaws in their Team of the Year and create my own.

Jamie Vardy
Vardy (above) and Mahrez have Leicester on the cusp of an unlikely title.

Well first let’s start with what they got right. And most of it was right. Harry Kane lead the league in scoring so he is a no-brainer. Jamie Vardy has played out of his mind as well, scoring 22 goals and adding six assists. His running mate Riyad Mahrez has been a stud as well, finishing fifth in goals and tied third in assists. Deli Alli’s number are impressive with 10 goals and nine assists.

David De Gea is the best keeper in the Premier League as United has allowed the second fewest goals in the EPL this season. De Gea only allowed 28 of them too. With Tottenham being the only team to allow fewer goals, Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld are hard to argue with. Hector Bellerin has played deserving football as well to make this team. I can’t even argue with Wes Hoolahan, who has started and finished every game for Leicester this season. I could argue that Jose Fonte or Chris Smalling should have been included over him, but we will let that go.

Sergio Aguero
Aguero is tied with Vardy for the second most goals in the league.

That leaves only a few that I would leave off, but they really bother me. First, I am not a huge fan of Payet’s inclusion. He failed to register double digit goals or assists this season. That might be nitpicking, but everyone else in midfield or attack on this list, except Kante, has hit double digits in at least one of those two categories. In 27 games, he registered 18 points, which is very respectable, but with some of the other options out there, I would have changed the formation. I think I would’ve picked a third striker in place of Payet in the form of Sergio Aguero. He played the same number of games this season, often through some sort of injury and registered 24 points compared to Payet’s 18. That kind of performance is deserving of the designation Top XI.

Mesut Ozil
Ozil has been the engine behind Arsenal’s attack.

The other issue I have is N’Golo Kante. That’s not to say that he isn’t a great player and hasn’t had a great season. And yes, I know he lacks the counting stats because he is a defensive-minded player, but when you have someone like Mesut Ozil lead the league in assists, by a sizable margin as well with 18 compared to Christian Eriksen’s 12, you cannot leave him off of the team of the year. He also knocked in six goals of his own. Ozil is on the shortlist for player of the year, so it is mind boggling that he could be left off of the team of the year.

If you want to argue with me that I cannot replace Payet with a striker then fine, but I would leave Kante on before I left Payet. His play defensively I think outweighs that of Payet offensively. Payet is making this mainly as an offensive playmaker, a role which Ozil has surpassed him in this season. I might even argue that Eriksen was more deserving of the spot than Payet was.

The PFA did alright on the whole, but some of the snubs make it a very questionable lineup. Adding Ozil probably would’ve saved them from me writing this. I still can’t figure out how the guy who is on the shortlist for player of the year gets left off the team of the year. Oh well. Now we all just get to sit back and watch if Leicester can hold onto the title.