Tag Archives: Alan Black

The Saved and the Doomed – Does MLS Need a Trapdoor

12 May

The final games of the European soccer season unfold this week. The polarizing emotions of promotion and relegation grip them. Ecstasy prevails as winning teams ascend to the higher divisions. Desperation plays out at league bottoms as trapdoors open and teams vanish to the lower class. Television images capture the rawness of fans going up and those going under. It defines club soccer.

No such system exists in Major League Soccer. MLS prefers a playoff structure mirroring other major league sports. “The conditions are not there,” says Nelson Rodriguez, MLS’s executive vice president. “It’s a complicated issue in North America because of the way our league originated, the way our clubs work. The monetary value required to purchase and operate a club is significant.”

The United States Soccer Federation governs US soccer. MLS is US soccer’s Division One. It berths nineteen teams. The second division is the North American Soccer League (NASL), composed of eight teams. “Let’s start with the fact that Division 2 has been a relatively unstable league,” says Rodriguez, “one that has had a lot of clubs in and out of it in the past few years.” The current NASL was configured in 2009. “At such a time when there is a viable and large enough second division, promotion and relegation may be something we can consider.”

MLS operates as a limited liability company in which club owners (investors) purchase a share of the whole enterprise. A Board of Governors comprised of the owners decides upon expenditures. Player contracts are signed with the League. MLS pays the salaries of all the players. In such a set up, accepting a relegation model would be like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving. Besides, a potential investor is highly unlikely to sink money into such an enterprise. The risk of lost millions incurred by the performance of something so fickle as the form of soccer players is certainly not appealing. “That could very well be an issue. Obviously a point that needs to be considered,” says Rodriguez.

Critics cry from the wilderness. Ted Westervelt of soccerreform.us draws controversy in soccer’s blogosphere. He pursues a relentless campaign to alter thinking on the current MLS set-up. He believes the fiduciary interest of MLS owners is holding back progress on moving to the escalating league model. “It gives them a self-destruct button. In my mind, the only real scenario in which promotion and relegation becomes a reality is via a US Soccer Federation sanction change.  Should our federation ever find the courage to make that call, MLS could literally threaten to blow up every one of their outlets. I hope this isn’t a veiled threat that keeps our federation in line – but perhaps it helps some MLS investors feel safer from ever having to face relegation.”

Westervelt favors a regional pyramid system with independent clubs in multi-league setups of eighteen teams. “I think the US market is simply too large for one soccer pyramid,” he says. The plan includes safeguards for current MLS teams. The leagues would have to be established to full compliment before the escalator runs up and down. MLS teams would have had plenty of time to build a playing legacy that could prove unsinkable once relegation and promotion takes hold, perhaps as long as two decades. Any expansion teams harboring weak business plans would be precluded from admittance to the leagues. Other benefits include travel distances being cut. Local rivalries would intensify, another key ingredient of the world’s game, and a developmental goal of MLS. It is essentially an argument for a free market. “It’s important to recognize that every US top-flight closed soccer league of unlimited clubs has failed. Indeed, I can’t find an example of a top-flight closed league anywhere in the world that has succeeded over the long term.”

Promotion and relegation pressure produces competitive play to the final whistle of every season. Lowly clubs topple successful ones in late-season clashes affecting outcomes at both ends of the table. This season in England, relegation candidates Wigan knocked off Manchester United and Newcastle, saving themselves from relegation and kicking life into the races for the champion’s mantle and the coveted places in next season’s European competitions. In the MLS system, teams eliminated from reaching the playoffs long before the end of the campaign could be forgiven for losing interest in getting results -without relegation to worry about, why bother? Competition suffers.

“I disagree,” says Nelson Rodriguez. “In sixteen years of our league we have had nine different champions. That speaks to an overall competitiveness, top to bottom, that is probably unrivaled by any other league in the world. If you look at the relative health of other leagues even from a competitive standpoint, in Italy, in Spain, in England, to name three, you have only a few teams that have a realistic chance of winning the league. That hampers competitiveness. “In the 2011 season, with two weeks left in the calendar, ten MLS teams were competing for seven playoff spots.

MLS is designed to grow slowly. MLS Commissioner Don Garber insists on a plan that keeps growth relative to sustainable markets and encourages the building of soccer specific stadiums to establish the anchoring concept of “home.” The artifices of promotion and relegation are not at the top of his immediate agenda. His goal is to make MLS one of the world’s top leagues. Garber says, “We set that goal, knowing that we had to improve the quality of play, ensure that we had the right marketing and promotion, and very importantly be sure that we had the right economic system because it wasn’t just about having a handful of really popular clubs but to ensure that our whole league would be viable economically.”

There lies the rub.

Read Alan Black’s soccer column in the San Francisco Chronicle, every Friday





Manchester Derby – An Ideological Battle

27 Apr


Manchester United coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, is hard. Before welding soccer teams together he worked in the shipyards on the river Clyde in Glasgow. Tough town. Tough men. They call it the city of the stare. Glaswegians have been known to use head butting as a management solution for conflict.

Ferguson is famous for his wrath. Players speak of “the hairdryer’ effect when he bawls in their faces. Mad as hell, he kicked a cleat at David Beckham, direct hit between the eyes. He created Eric Cantona, the famously brilliant French maverick possessed with so much elan that he entered the stands and karate kicked a fan in the head for jeering at him. Fergie understood. He made Cantona his captain.

The Glasgow native is the most successful British coach ever. Forty-eight trophies are on the mantelpiece including two European Cups. Now seventy, observers scan for signs of weakness in his mettle. They find nothing. No softening of his will for winning and no weakness in his brass for the fight. He’s Clyde built. This Monday he faces a battle royal in the 162nd Manchester derby.

United’s cross-town rivals, Manchester City are snapping at the heels of their more famous neighbors. City is stoked with world-class players. Drill that to the Mid East oil money that owns them. They have sunk over a billion dollars on the project to break United’s grip on success. 43 years have passed since City last won the league.

Ferguson had socialism hammered into him in the shipyards of Red Clydeside. It dominates his thinking.  He is the father of the team collective and he requires that consciousness in his players. They are his apprentices. Developing youth is his way. By contrast, City’s guild is all about moneyed individuals, and some would say, mercenaries. Monday’s final whistle will likely decide which side of Manchester becomes this year’s English champion, and which ideology ascends.

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter.

Barcelona – All the Possessions, Get Robbed

19 Apr

Barcelona have all the possessions. 75% of the play, hundreds of passes, gold ingots embossed with Messi and his ilk. All that treasure waiting to be robbed. It’s a perfect plot for some good old London gangsters to exploit. Today, Chelsea burgled the Catalans, stealing the goal in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final in England’s capital. As the cockney villains said in the classic London gangster flick, Sexy Beast, “Where there’s a will…and there is a fu***** will…there’s a way.”

Didier Drogba, the great cat burglar of English football, bagged the prize goal and bolted. Barcelona vainly chased – stop thief! But Chelsea secured their bounty behind their defensive wall. Barca at a loss – who cares about their dominant passing game? Goals are the only coin that matters.

The old English rhyme, Rain, Rain Go To Spain. Chelsea hope the downpour during today’s game will flood to good fortune in the second leg of the tie in Barcelona. The Blaugrana tidal wave will be coming at them. And Barca shows no mercy. Chelsea may be burglars. Barca are killers. They throttle the opponent’s neck with an asphyxiating grip. Expect Chelsea to fight to the last breath. And beware, Barca! Give Chelsea an inch – and methinks, me old son – they may take you for a mile. The spoils will be settled next Tuesday on the field of Nou Camp in restive Catalonia.

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Relegation – Not Only The Titanic Sinks

13 Apr

MLS coaches go to bed nightly without fearing relegation. Most world soccer leagues operate on a system where the worst teams over a season fall into a lower league, replaced by the best coming up from below. Apply the word disaster to the relegated. Those going down lose revenues, a fire sale of their best players likely follows. Woe betide! Fans are stricken. Relegation can mean the wilderness. Some teams never return from the depths.

Think Titanic. The English Premier League season is coming to a close. Five teams are locked in a death struggle at the bottom of the table. Every point gained, every goal scored, every goal conceded could make all the difference. The players are desperate. They throw every ounce of effort into hope. An animal threatened can be dangerous. So it is with failing soccer teams. Teams at the top of the table competing for honors do not relish facing those sides staring at oblivion. Survival is the greatest motivator. See the proof in relegation threatened Wigan’s shock victory over defending champions Manchester United on Wednesday. History is filled with great escapes. On the last day of the season some teams will survive the drop, while others go under. It is pure emotion.

Will US domestic soccer ever have a relegation/promotion system? Not in the near future. “The conditions are not there,” says Nelson Rodriguez, an executive at MLS, “…it’s a complicated issue.” Where to begin? The US soccer market is not stable or big enough to sustain such a system. Lower leagues like the NASL are volatile. Teams come and go. MLS owners are invested in a franchise system that pays to play. Try selling relegation to potential investors. Your millions could be sunk by the poor performance of temperamental employees on a soccer field.  Methinks not.

Critics abound. US soccer without an up and down escalator undermines the development of talent. Teams and players with little to play for are not motivated. There is no fire under their butts. No fear. It does not bring out the best. And competitiveness suffers. “ I disagree,” says Rodriguez, “In sixteen years of our league, we have had nine different champions. That speaks to an overall competitiveness, top to bottom, that is probably unrivaled by any other league in the world.” MLS’s preferred option for motivation is a play-off system like other US sports. Last year, with two weeks left in the season, ten teams were still competing for seven playoff spots. Competitive? Yes; but certainly not relegation’s drama of life and death.

Kick Alan Black on Twitter and read his soccer column every Friday in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Captain Klinsmann on the Amazon Bound

6 Apr

USA national team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, is engaging. His voice has a laid back feel. He has lived in California for a while. And from there he stares out across a continent of differences, and beyond that, over the sea to Americans playing soccer in foreign lands. From this acreage he picks the ingredients that must safeguard the American settlement in world soccer. Consider the weight of responsibility. It befits the German national to have a relieving chuckle now and again as he picks the cargo that will carry America to the samba party at the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil. The qualifying sails will be raised in June.

Last week’s Olympics elimination fiasco for the USA was noted not just for the result. Many people, without knowing the game’s structures, assumed the senior team were carrying the can of humiliation. Even though the U-23 squad coached by Caleb Porter was the real loser, the focus turned on Klinsmann and his vision for the future. The US Soccer Federation acted fast. Klinsmann would now be available to the press on a regular basis to discuss everything. Perhaps the men in blazers feared panic creep before Klinsmann’s ship, let’s call it the Amazon Bound, leaves the harbor.

In taking over the helm in 2011 from the stern Bob Bradley, Klinsmann insisted on a root and branch reform of the US game. The current US colony on Planet Soccer was established through hunger, a bite that proved to the old masters of the game that Americans could compete and win against them. They laughed at the Yanks to begin with but underestimated the fire of players like Brain McBride and Landon Donovan among others, players happy being tough underdogs. Chewing on the bones of bigger beasts was most satisfying. But the USA is no longer considered an underdog in most of its match ups. So where will the feed for the long term Klinsmann project come from?

Here are some bones from yesterday’s press conference call with Jurgen Klinsmann.

The melting pot crew–

“I have to adjust to the different soccer landscape in this country, adjust to the fact that 75 to 80 percent of the players are overseas, some in Mexico, so they’re all over the place. They come in from all different backgrounds, so that’s a bit of a different challenge. I just take things the way they are, and then I look for solutions and I look for ways to communicate with them in their own ways. Maybe I have to adjust and use Twitter and Facebook to get hooked to them and get a message out to them, which I hadn’t done before. So as a coach, it’s important that you kind of analyze your environment and say OK, based on what you’ve seen now, this is what you have to do and you have to change the way of doing things. It’s important to get the messages out to the players and that they understand why we do certain things, why we want to encourage them to look at things a little bit different. Every one of them has lived their daily lives in a very different way, and so we have to figure out how we get things across to them and hopefully make them step-by-step a little bit better in everything that they’re doing.”

The seeds for tomorrow –

“How can we help our youngsters and our kids to develop to the highest level possible? What structures can we give them? The introduction of a 10-month season is just one of these pieces. It’s crucial that we adjust to the global game. It’s crucial that we understand that soccer is not a seasonal sport. Soccer is a sport that is played 12 months of the year. In most of the soccer nations, it’s really played 11, 11 and a half months out of the year. How can we compete with those nations? Whatever it takes in the discussion and what is ideal for 10- to 14-year-olds and further up, what is ideal for all these kids, then you should adjust. We need to find a tier-driven environment because we need to give a lot of the younger players the opportunity to get enough games per year. If you look at the players between 18 and 22 years of age and you summarize all the amount of games they really have and see if they are part of an MLS system, then maybe simply it’s not enough. It’s really worth it to get everybody at the same table sooner or later and discuss all those topics. It’s not me coming in and saying this is what we need, it’s really everybody involved that needs to come together and say, ‘This is how we need our players to grow more effectively, to grow more continuously and not drop off in a couple of months here and a couple of months there as often was the case.’ But this is a huge topic.”

Every American wishes the fair winds blow the Amazon Bound to a solid trade in goals. Klinsmann may also benefit from the wisdom of Goethe. Carve this on the mast – Der Worte sind genug gewechselt, lasst mich auch endlich Taten sehn! (Enough words have been exchanged; now at last let me see some deeds!)

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of the memoir, Kick the Balls – An Offensive Suburban Odyssey, and The Glorious World Cup. (Penguin USA).

US Soccer Needs New Hunger Games

28 Mar


If you don’t replace the foundation, the building might fall down. This applies to the national team. The upper floors of international US soccer have been furnished over the last decade with consecutive World Cup appearances and thrilling moments. We can hang the portraits of the heroes Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard on the walls and admire their commitment to the colors. But age wears the frame. Replacing this older generation of quality with a new molding of winners is proving difficult. The U-23 team’s elimination from the Olympic Games qualifying tournament, in Nashville yesterday, is more than disappointing – it is a warning for the future of the national team.

The generation of Donovan, Dempsey, Brian McBride and their ilk originally had something to prove to the world. The U.S. came to games as the no-hope brigade, arrogantly dismissed by the world’s elites – what do they know about soccer? stick to your game with bats and balls! This made the US team hungry. The underdog salivates at the chance to chew up bigger bones and spit them out. And they did. But this has led to rising expectations and it may now be working against the prospects for the future. The US is expected to achieve. So how do you make a new generation of players hungry?

Expansion of the game’s popularity through television demands winning. Who can forget the explosion of joy across the country when Donovan delivered the last minute goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup Finals? People said, we can go all the way, and the nation laid down its bats and balls for a moment and paid attention. But it is a dangerous fixture to hang all the lights on. Failure at the international level could strip the wiring under the carefully manufactured growth of MLS. Soccer is an integrated circuit here. Perhaps the humiliation of Olympics failure can flip the switch to hunger mode, a chance for the younger players to redeem themselves by being aggressive about playing for the colors next time out. And let’s remind ourselves – the big boys of the world are far better than us.  And we need to demolish the weak to get a chance at fighting them. The U-23 team forgot that.

Chelsea’s Cold Dagger

6 Mar

Is this a Dagger which I see before me? – English club Chelsea sack their latest coach. The Stamford Bridge club’s owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, slayed Andres Villas-Boas after less than a year in charge of the first team. Poor results and a players’ locker room rebellion burned the young Portuguese manager. He was hailed at the start of the season as the coach hired to oversee the replacement of the aging Chelsea squad. But the ancien regime were quick to the poison. Chelsea old guard, including Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, were stirring unpleasantness against the new Villas-Boas approach depicted as a technical nerd devoid of Chelsea color. During some games, the old boys looked as if they had swallowed lethargy inducing drugs with side-effects of disinterested abandon and confusion. Villas-Boas stood helplessly on the sideline, the team ignoring his whistle to step it up.

Abramovich hand-picked Villas-Boas for the job. No wonder he blames the rebels for the club’s dismal season. Worryingly for the insurrectionists, Roman’s largess is short on forgiveness. The former governor of a Russian province in Siberia, Abramovich knows all about freezing out. A new coach will come to the club over the summer charged with the same mission – bring Roman the preciousness he covets most – Chelsea as Champions of Europe. Should the new man fail to deliver the Holy Grail, he too can expect the Siberian winter with Lampard, Terry, Cole and the other old boys perishing in the freeze.

Under these shivers – six head coaches have come and gone under Abramovich since 2003 – who would take that job? Jose Mourinho is the bookmakers favorite. It would be his second stint at the club but the “Special One” may well be second on Abramovich’s wish list – Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola, could be shown the jewels first. If he accepts the governorship in Roman’s Empire, who is to say his progeny in Barcelona will not be looking for property in the affluent suburbs of London. Lionel Messi with a “cockney accent” anyone? Photographed with warm ale in hand, holding a Chelsea uniform, quoting Shakespeare – “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

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