Category Archives: Off the field

MLS Playoffs: Bringing the World’s Game Home

Leander Schaerlaeckens (took me about three cross-references to make sure I spelled it right) wrote an excellent piece for ESPN.com today about ‘fixing the MLS playoffs.’ As he points out, the MLS–since its inception–has had to wrestle with a major identity crisis: it’s the world’s game, Americanized. Or at least that’s what the MLS is hoping it will someday become.

The higher-ups at Major League Soccer must balance the well-mapped template of world football with the things that American sports fans want and expect. It’s been tricky. In the nearly two decades of MLS, they’ve achieved some things for both sides through widespread–and often weird–experimentation. To spin off Schaerlaeckens’ piece, here are three simple ways to balance the tradition of soccer and the restrictions of American sport.

1) Erase the conferences. Plain and simple: to succeed as an American sport you must have a playoff system. But the conference system adds nothing to the league, and now that there are even teams, it simply introduces weird variables (for example, because of the sloppy Wild Card system, a team can be a Conference Champion of a conference they aren’t a part of). Do away with the conferences, and you get one, clean league table like the rest of world football, that still leads directly to American postseason play.

2) Shrink the playoffs, in both size and duration. We’ll start with size: this year, 10 of the 16 teams in MLS make the playoffs. That’s more than 60 percent of the teams! This is unacceptable. The playoffs are supposed to be the best teams, playing the best football against each other to win the cup. Teams in the lower half of the table should not be in the mix. In terms of duration, the postseason doesn’t necessarily need to be clipped, but it should be carefully watched and shaped better around the November international break (as Schaerlaeckens points out). Among the biggest flaws of the NBA and NHL are the eye-gouging length of their playoff systems–the MLS is competing with these leagues for viewership now. Don’t make their mistakes.

3) Stick with two-leg ties. It took them a while to arrive at it, but MLS officials are finally on the money with the home-and-home series. This should be the system for all stages except the final. More than any other improvements, this idea straddles the American elimination bloodlust and the European tradition. You get a series of sorts, both teams get a chance at home field–but you don’t have the awkwardness of three or seven game series in soccer. At the end of the day, we have to be true to the game’s roots.

 

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Alone in a crowd

On Fan Appreciation night, the team from Boston hobbled across the finish line, slumping to another humiliating defeat at home. It was a fitting end to an infamous season–hobbled by injury and underperformance, a stacked team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Outside of the stadium, nobody noticed.

Boston is generally revered as the current epicenter of sports success. Across the four ‘major’ sports in the United States, the city (and surrounding area) has claimed seven titles and 29 playoff berths since 2001. Last month, ESPN the magazine’s cover hailed it as ‘America’s Most Dominant Sports City.’

The New England Revolution are the outlier. In a town where titles talk, the Revolution have never won the league. Two years in a row, they haven’t even made the playoffs.

While the Red Sox hold the record for most consecutive sell-outs in MLB, the Revs struggle to seat 14,000 in a 82,000 seat stadium. Their home games are remarkable in their unremarkable characteristics–how fast you can get in and out of the parking lot, the availability of tickets, and the ease with which you can make out the chatter on the field.

After watching the dejected 2011 team hang their heads as they left the field to near-silence, the thought pervaded–why doesn’t Boston care about the Revolution?

Some will try to cite the facile–soccer hasn’t taken off in America. This vague argument of the turn of the millennium is now plainly untrue: median and average attendance figures in the MLS are at an all-time high. Teams like the Portland Timbers, the Seattle Sounders, and Toronto FC consistently sell out their matches. Seattle averages more than 37,000 fans per game–more than triple the Revolution. Sporting Kansas City registered 70% growth in ticket sales this season. MLS attendance averages have now leapfrogged both the NBA and the NHL–only trailing MLB and the NFL.

It’s not a case of building a fan base, either. The Revolution is one of only ten “charter” teams in MLS. Most of the teams that break the attendance records are actually the newer teams, like Seattle and Portland. Exposure to the locality is also in the Revs favor. Get this: the Revolution is the only MLS team in the league’s history to have every single home match televised.

Let’s take a look at the team, then. The head coach, Steve Nicol, has some commonalities with recently ousted Red Sox manager Terry Francona–both presided over their respective team’s most successful periods before eventually sliding into the mire. Francona led the Red Sox to two World Series titles; Nicol took the Revs to the finals four times.

Nicol is one of the original faces of the MLS. Since taking over full-time in 2002, the team only finished outside third place in the regular season three times–in this golden period, the Revs made at least the Conference semi-finals eight years in a row.

Nicol’s reputation preceded him–he’s a Liverpool legend, voted 39th in a fan poll of favorite LFC players. A likable guy with a big reputation, he earned the honor of the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year in 1989, bestowed upon the experts’ pick for best player in the English Premier League. Does any of this matter for the Revolution? In a word: yes.

In any sport, but particularly a fledgling league with enormous potential for growth, the public perception of a head coach is vital. The league is trying to attract top young talent; once lured, the players often decide based on the coach.

Nicol has cemented this idea, even through the unsuccessful past two seasons. This year specifically, Nicol attracted one of the premier American talents: Benny Feilhaber. Feilhaber could be likened to Steve Nash–he’s a relatively small, graceful player with a remarkable gift for playmaking. At times he’s been touted as the “future” of American soccer, but after injury problems, he was looking to rebuild in the MLS. He chose Nicol’s Revolution, despite the fact that the team was floundering.

Feilhaber doesn’t have the prestige of David Beckham, but a marquee signing usually means public attention. For Benny and the Revs, it didn’t. Further on in the season, they were given a new opportunity to try and capture the local eye; Nicol gave 16-year old Leominster High School student Diego Fagundez his debut. And he scored.

The marketability of the moment was absurd, and the Revs tried to capitalize. Diego-centric promotions abounded, but there was only a small ripple of attention.

In this state, the season ended, with the Revs registering their worst season in history. Reports of their troubles went unnoticed, buried under inexorable dissections of beer in the Red Sox clubhouse and petulant sniping in the NBA labor negotiations. Come March, Nicol and the boys will be back, and they’ll toil away in a stadium that feels as rented as the support.

Tebow, Suh, and your mailman

On Sunday morning, the NFL.com article previewing the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions game highlighted a buzz-worthy second year player on either side. From the Lions, it was bruising defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. On the Broncos side was Tim Tebow, the earnest athlete-cum-quarterback. The headline: “Good vs. Evil.”

It was certainly a leap, but the roots were basically in place. The reputation of being a ‘dirty’ player has been thrust upon Suh, an unapologetic guy in a position that demands brute force. Conversely, there is Tim Tebow: a player with less physical ability and technique than most in the league, but a sparkling public image.

The Lions dominated the game, winning 45-10 and shutting down Tebow. After the game, Suh responded to the article with a shrug.

“The league did do that for whatever reason. Evil prevails,” he said. “Hopefully we’re going to continue to keep it that way if that’s the way they want to perceive us as. For me personally, it means nothing to me. I’m going to continue to be me, I know who I am, I’m not an evil person. I may not be a good person in some people’s eyes. [But] I’m going to continue to play hard.”

On the surface, it seems a markedly poised and innocuous reaction from a player cast as a villain by his own league. In actuality, though, it fits with Suh’s off-field demeanor; maybe he’s no Tebow, but he’s not exactly Voldemort, either.

Suh is the latest unlucky recipient of hasty branding in a media-frenzied arena. In the 24-hour news (and sports) cycle, the character of players is regular fodder for talk radio. The conclusions are snap judgments; incomplete and hard to shake, they are widely accepted as truth by a public that doesn’t have the time or the resources to evaluate a player’s off-field decisions on their own. As a result, it’s safe to say a lot more kids will be hanging up Tim Tebow posters than Ndamukong Suh ones.

But is it fair to judge a player’s character at all? More importantly, is it a good idea for kids to view professional athletes as role models–no matter what their media image is? The answer is–or should be–no to both.

Professional athletes should be evaluated solely on their in-game performance. All of these external attributes we’ve assigned to them are unfair and slanted by reporters’ and writers’ biases. But most significantly, they’re irrelevant.

Players sign up for a certain level or transparency and scrutiny when they enter the profession. It comes with the territory of being in the public arena. But as long as their off-the-field choices don’t impact their on-field results, we shouldn’t be digging deeper.

What if we judged our mailman the same way? As long as he delivers your new Netflix movie on time, you don’t care what sort of weird or sinister things he may do behind dark curtains at home. That’s his prerogative. As long as he doesn’t say anything too inflammatory during your weekly 15-second conversation, you’ll never think about his character. Even if he did make some dark, bigoted remark under his breath, you’d probably take your mail and brush it off–oh, that’s just old racist Harry.

But regardless of that blatant double-standard, it’s important to draw a line between immoral acts and regrettable immaturity. Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring: immoral. Dez Bryant’s pants? Juvenile, but essentially harmless.

There needs to be some sort of Character Gradient for people in the public arena. Politicians, for example, must be judged on their values and their strength of character. This is independent of their political affiliation–it is quite simply part of their job. After all, they are elected. Movie stars would be in the middle, because their integrity has an occasionally negligible influence on their work. Athletes would be on the other end.

With that in mind, parents should dissuade their children from idolizing sports stars. Admittedly, it won’t work. But we should try. Kids should be encouraged to support teams instead of individuals. When that fails, parents should push for the separation of Game and State. And when that also fails, parents must desperately champion the perceived Good Guys–earnest, good-looking success stories who start charities with names based on puns about the position they play. Players who always say the right thing in press conferences by saying nothing of substance. Players who show us it’s okay to cry–but only when you win a championship or tear your ACL.

Okay, jibes aside, and back to the point: kids are going to emulate athletes. So, for our kids and for ourselves, we must separate the malicious from the ignorant. We must not jump to conclusions based on incomplete news stories or paparazzi output or blinkered NFL.com headlines. Or else we’ve got to start asking our mailman what he tips at restaurants.

Remembering the joy

After reading Brian Phillips’ brilliant piece on hyperfandom in soccer, I was reluctantly reading the columns and came upon this one: “…Anyway, the only thing worse than hyperpartisanship is overintellectualising a simple game for simple folk [sic].”

It’s true: before the age of the internet, before the age of the Barclays Premier League, soccer was a blue-collar game played without pretense or pomp. Fans went to the same pub at lunchtime on every Saturday to support their local club. Then, win or lose, they went home to their lives. There weren’t ubiquitous replica jerseys, there wasn’t sports talk radio—football was simple. It occurred to me that this argument could probably be transplanted to any sport: are over-analysis, constant blogging and re-tweeting, and four hour NFL pregame shows taking us away from the elemental joy of being a sports fan?

For me, my life as a sports fan began as a child on the couch with my dad: falling asleep in the late innings of Tuesday night Red Sox games was as much a part of my childhood as school or birthdays. This suggests inheritance and reinforcement, nature and nurture—the slow drying of the wet cement of personality.

In this way, sports are as simple and deeply-ingrained as a love for diner coffee or a mistrust of cats. Watching sports is just something I like to do.

The problem is this: just to get back to that point, that basic truth, a sports fan must strip away countless hours of media saturation, all the prejudicial notions about fans of certain teams from certain cities, every piece of Danny Woodhead trivia locked away for a bar bet. A sports fan must look past everything that, as a sports fan, they are subjected to on a daily basis.

To use myself as an example again: on Transfer Deadline Day for the English Premier League, I literally comb through every internet message board I can find, every CoverIt Live Clockwatch, just to see who Chelsea might be in the market for. I draw up formations, consider personnel changes, how new acquisitions would match up against rivals. But when I look back on the August 31 of every year, which should—in theory—be automatically one of the most exciting days of the football calendar, did I ever enjoy it? No, not really.

My fondest memories as a Chelsea fan are days when I drag myself out of bed for the early game, 8:15 a.m. kickoffs on Sunday mornings, and quietly watch a relatively unimportant match against Wigan or Blackburn with a cup of coffee. Moments I remember where I wasn’t analyzing anything—I was just watching the team that I support play the game that I love.

Ultimately, I don’t know if it’s possible to reduce our sports consumption back to its most basic form. Our reality is that these shows, these websites, these bloggers exist because we keep going back. And why wouldn’t we? If the joy we experience watching the Patriots play for three hours once a week can be replicated and reproduced daily, hourly, then of course we will be there. Hell yes.

But maybe, if we could practice some degree of moderation, the simple pleasure would be that much more tangible. Maybe we could treat our favorite teams, our favorite sports, like our favorite dish at a restaurant. Don’t order it every night, because sooner or later it starts to lose flavor.