Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Columbus Crew 2013 Playoff 4caster

*Last Updated 7/5/13 2:41PM Columbus Standard Time*

On this page, I will keep a running view of The Crew's playoff chances, who to root for in the coming week, when Toronto and DC will be eliminated from the playoffs and more.  

Look for big changes coming Sunday, July 7th... as I'll be moving the Crew Playoff 4caster to Massive Report!  I'm honored to be writing for MR, and look forward to connecting with a larger swath of Crew Nation.

After Montreal, MLS' Eastern Conference is currently very flat.  Last year, 52 points was only good enough for 6th place.  At 2013 trends, 52 would win the East!  This will help the Crew's playoff chances by pushing down the number of points needed for 5th place- currently projected at 46.

Here's a summary:
Projected Pts To Win Supporters Shield
Projected Pts To Win East
Projected Pts To Make Playoffs - East

Current Crew Points
Current Crew PPG
Crew Projected Points at Current PPG

Projected Remaining Points Crew Need To Earn To Make Playoffs
Typical Record Needed for 26 Pts in 16 games
Projected PPG Needed for remaining 16 games

After the Galaxy loss Thursday, the Crew return home to face Portland on Sunday looking for their first points in 4 games. With only 2 more games in July, even a win against the Timbers won't keep The Crew from looking up the standings most of the month.

Crew Opponents' PPG
Being the midway point in the season, the PPG for The Crew's past opponents (1.3) is starting to become less and less relevant.  Lots of opponents means the overall number pushes closer to the MLS average of about 1.4 PPG.  For this reason, I'm not going to include this figure in analysis any longer.

The Crew's future opponent PPG, on the other hand (1.4), is more and more important.  Teams are starting to separate themselves, and The Crew will have a better gauge of what they're up against by checking out the PPG of their upcoming foes.

The PPG of opponents that the Crew beat, lost to or tied is trickier to delve in to.  First, since there's 3 categories, the smaller data sets will give you numbers that could move around a lot.  Next, as the season moves along the schedule balances more and more; this provides a more accurate view of a teams' overall quality.

The real story here for Crew fans is that while the teams that beat and tie the Crew are about average, the quality of the opponents they can actually beat is so far... well... lacking.

Opponents' PPG - Games in the Past
Opponents' PPG - Games Yet To Play

Opponents' PPG - Crew Victories
Opponents' PPG - Crew Defeats
Opponents' PPG - Crew Ties

Who Do I Root For This Week?
One of the harshest indignities of chasing after the 5th and final playoff spot is having to root for other teams to help out your situation.  While technically The Crew control their own density... I mean... destiny, something tells me Crew fans better start cheering now.  To make matters worse, 2 of the The Crew's 3 fiercest rivals are abysmal this year.  While this provides fun popcorn time (see Schadenfreude Zentral, the section below), that also means that the educated Crew fan will often be rooting for their rivals as they compete against other Eastern Conference foes.  Barf.  This week, here's your guide:

Root For
San Jose @ New England
San Jose
Philly @ Houston
7/7SKC @ ChicagoSporting KC
7/7Chivas @ MontrealChivas

Schadenfreude Zentral
If there might be a saving grace to the 2013 season, it would be that both DC United and Toronto are awful.  Regardless of how Crew Cranky you might be, this section will bring a bit of spring back to the step of any Crew fan.

Toronto is once again going to miss the MLS Playoffs, as is tradition.  Speaking of TRADITION, DC United is the worst team in the league.

Fun Fact: Toronto FC has never once fired their coach in July or August.
Fun Fact, Part 2: After 12 games, Ryan Nelsen has the worst winning percentage in TFC history.

Let's get to the numbers, shall we?
DC United's Projected 2013 Points
Toronto FC's Projected 2013 Points
Projected Date DC United Eliminated From Playoffs
8/24 vs Toronto
Projected Date Toronto FC Eliminated From Playoffs
9/14 @NYRB
Date Toronto FC Fires Coach

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Everyone loves an underdog.  But is that the Columbus Crew's marketing strategy?  That's quite a change from just a couple months ago, when Crew President & GM Mark McCullers was selling fans and even MLS Commissioner Don Garber on the idea that they had a championship calibre team in 2013.  In a 2/27/13 article in The Columbus Dispatch, McCullers said that there was no doubt in his mind that, "...this team can contend for MLS Cup."  Yet, today at The Greater Columbus Sports Commission's Morning Sports Report, he was quoted as saying, "We're 17 games in, and we're only 5 points out of 2nd place. We're great at being underdogs!"

It's true that the Crew are 5 points out of 2nd place.  It's also true that on a points-per-game (PPG) basis, about halfway through the season they are 13th out of 19 teams with a 1.25 average.  In MLS, 10 of the 19 teams enter the playoffs.  If McCullers' use of the word "contending" is interpreted as the Crew merely making the playoffs, that is certainly still possible.  From that point, it is true that anything can happen.  But based on where the team is halfway through the year, selling this team as championship quality is more and more of a stretch.  When one drills down into the quality of competition that the Crew have played and have yet to play, the situation looks even more bleak.

Points Per Game of Crew Opponents, Grouped by Result
Even though McCullers said 17, The Crew have actually played 16 matches in the 2013 MLS season.  They have won 5 of those matches.  4 of those 5 wins were against the 3 teams with the worst records in the league. (Curiously, the other win was against the team with the best record.)  On average, the teams the Crew beat have a PPG of .94.  The PPG for teams they have tied is 1.51, and for teams that have beaten the Crew the figure is 1.62.  So far this year, the Crew struggle against quality opponents.

Points Per Game of Crew Opponents, Grouped by Schedule
The Crew's struggles against tougher opponents does not bode well, as the rest of their 2013 schedule will stiffen.  In the first 16 matches, the Crew's opponent's overall PPG was 1.27.  In the last 18 matches, the current records of Crew opponents jumps to 1.44.

Points Per Game Needed to Qualify for MLS Playoffs
Over the last 5 years of MLS Cup play, the minimum PPG to qualify averages to 1.42.  The current 5th place Eastern Conference team, Kansas City, is sitting at 1.44 PPG.  Extrapolating through the end of the season, this would mean the expected minimum number of points earned to qualify for the playoffs is about 49.

Extrapolating Crew Results Based on Quality of Opponent
The Crew have earned 20 points so far, and have 18 matches to go.  29 more points over those 18 matches would be a PPG pace of 1.61.  However, as I mentioned earlier the Crew's schedule is going to become more difficult.  If one overlays their current PPG to the games through the rest of 2013 based on quality of opponent, it's not pretty for Crew fans.  Based on beating teams with an average of .94 PPG, tying those around 1.51 and losing to those averaging 1.62, I projected that the Crew's final record would be 8-14-12, landing on 36 points.  If that was the case, the Crew would be out of playoff contention by mid to late September.  Even a middling 6-6-6 would only get the Crew to 44 points, which will not be enough to qualify.  8-5-5 would earn the magic 29 points, but that would mean 5 wins against teams not named Chicago or Toronto. 


All told, if the Crew are to "contend for the MLS Cup" by eking into the 5th playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, they will have to get significantly better results (1.61 PPG vs current 1.25 PPG pace) against significantly better opponents (1.44 PPG vs previously played opponents with 1.27 PPG).

As a Crew fan, I hope McCullers is right, and that the Crew are great at being underdogs.  They will likely have a lot of practice at that this year.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Your MLS Ref Cheat Sheet, or My Lengthy Apology to Mark Geiger

Mr. Geiger, I'm sorry.  I hope that this article will start to mend our one-way relationship, which heretofore has been pretty rocky.  For the past few years I've gone around dogging you as a red card-heavy, PK-heavy, in-over-his-head ref who always inserts yourself into the match somehow.  I said these things because I believed them, and I believed them because of the matches I have seen you work.  But I had no data to test this hunch... until now.  While I may not liked some of your calls, the idea in my head that you were a statistical outlier in those categories was untrue.

On Tuesday I found heaps of data that tracks referees' performances at:  Let me immediately and formally thank TransferMarkt UK (@TMuk_news); this article would not be possible without their free and easy to use site.  Armed with new info, I was able to do something that I've wanted to do for a long time- compare stats of MLS referees. (Nerd alert!) My ground rules:
  • To ensure there was a valid sample size for any given ref, I needed to set a minimum number of matches worked.  34, an entire MLS season's worth, felt like a good number.  (Note: MLS refs don't work each week.  Even the busiest ones work only around 20 games/year).
  • Only MLS regular season games would be in the analysis.  [Disclaimer: Use of the word "experience" below refers only to MLS games worked.  Other leagues/tournament matches that the MLS officials may have conducted were not factored into this study]
  • I'd review cards issued and PKs awarded, all on a per match basis.
  • All data is current as of 5/1/13
This left me with 10 MLS refs and 1021 games in the study.  I couldn't wait to see the results.

Yellows/Match - 3.3
The most benign of the stats to compare was yellow cards.  The overall average was 3.3 cards/match.  Among the refs, 3 of the 4 highest rates on this list were 3 of the 4 refs with the least MLS games under their belt.  Are yellows thrown around willy-nilly by newer refs?  Is it like being a parent, where you freak out at everything at first, but learn to go with the flow by the 3rd kid?  Maybe.  However, the least experienced ref in the study, Chris Penso, had the lowest of all ten with only 2.8/match.
Straight Reds/Match - .16
1st, some trivia - we learn that a straight red in MLS is 20 times less likely in a match than a yellow.  I never really thought about where that number would lie, but there it is.

As with yellow cards, experience seems to be a factor in how likely a ref is to issue a straight red (SR).  Is it such that, when considering the heavy consequences that come with a red card, the most experienced referees are more likely to have the confidence to send a player off?  The 3 least likely refs to issue a straight red were also the 3 with the least experience in MLS.  It's worthwhile to note that SRs are infrequent, but I still found it a little disconcerting that there would be so much of a difference between those most and least likely to issue one.

Total Reds/Match - .24 
Next, I made up a term called "Total Reds" (TRs).  TRs sums the red cards delivered both by 2nd yellows and by straight red cards.  I debated how to treat 2nd yellows, as technically they're supposed to be fouls of the same danger/caliber as any other yellow.  In real life, though, referees carefully deliberate before re-carding a player and sending him off.  Out of this study was born another new term, the "Naughty List".  I'll get to that in a minute, but first...

Leading the pack here is Baldomero Toledo.  In his matches, one way or another, someone gets tossed in nearly 1 of 3 matches.  Yes, there are 2 or even 3 red cards issues in some games, but for the most part only 1 red is ever given in a match.  At .32 TRs/match, that's about 7 guys a year that Toledo tosses.  In contrast, the relatively new Edvin Juresevic sees red in only 1 of 14 matches.  While I would normally be tempted to throw in disclaimer about how data can be interpreted many ways... wow.  That's just way different.
When looking at the relationship between yellows issued and 2nd yellows issued, I wondered if certain refs were more likely to card a player a second time than other refs.  As mechanical as you may try to act as an official, you're human after all.  Indeed, some refs are clearly more likely to show you red if you've already made it to the "Naughty List".

Use of Naughty List - 2.3%  In MLS, if you've already picked up a yellow card you've only got about a 1 in 44 chance of getting tossed.  Now, of course most players alter their behavior after being carded in order to avoid a second.  Also, coaching strategies may tilt towards pulling players holding cards off the field.  Still, there is the question: Once you have a yellow card, are you more likely to eventually get thrown out by certain officials more than others?  Even if unintentional, the data seems to indicate yes. 

Take the case of Chris Penso.  At .08 straight red cards/match, he has issued the 3rd least Straight Reds/Match in the study.  However, when it comes to Total Reds, he's in the middle of the pack.  That's because he issues a higher amount of 2nd yellow cards than anyone else.  In fact, it's not even close.  MLS players, be warned; don't get on Penso's bad side.  At the other end of the spectrum is "Cool Eddie" Juresevic, who barely ever issues a second yellow; he has done so only once in 194 cases.
PKs/Match - .22
Now let's address the most divisive issue a referee faces - awarding a penalty.  About 75% of awarded PKs are scored, so the decision couldn't be more critical to the outcome of a match.

Once again, experience comes into play.  Similar to issuing red cards, the more experienced referees were more likely to award PKs, while less experienced refs were not.  The 4 officials that awarded PKs most frequently were 4 of the 5 with the most games under their belts; only Kevin Stott did not appear in that group.  Does that mean that there is a crisis of confidence with those less experienced, or does it signal a move by MLS or PRO to reduce the overall occurrences, which would skew the stats downward for the newer folks?  Specifically, we can see Ricardo Salazar has reduced his rate each of the last 4 seasons, from a 2009 high of .5/Match to 2012's rate of only .12/Match.  Whatever the reasons are, the data tells us that the 3 refs who award the most PKs are 2.7 times more likely to do so than the 3 who are least likely.  Again, that strikes me as a significant difference.
So, is that normal?  And what is normal, anyway?  Is there a worldwide standard to which MLS refs could be compared? If there is one, I don't know where it exists.  So, I made it.

The Electrifying Conclusion - To see how MLS ref stats fared against those from leagues around the world, I picked 10 officials from 9 different leagues and performed the same analysis.  The first ref I chose was Howard Webb, who oversaw the 2010 World Cup final.  From there, I picked one more BPL referee, plus 8 more officials from various other leagues.  This resulted in an even bigger pool of games to review (1700+), which would only bolster my confidence in the figures.

Again, I started with yellow cards.  At 3.7 yellows/match, the World group looked more likely to dish out warnings than their MLS counterparts.  Interestingly, though, they were also less likely to issue straight reds.  The lesson I get out of that is this: More early cards controls violent behavior, which is responsible for most red cards.  Then something really, really freakin' cool happened...

As I finished the calculations for Total Reds/Match and PKs/Match, I saw both figures unite.  The TRs/Match were so close together that I pushed the decimal point out to the thousandths point, only to see that it was just barely far enough.  The difference in Total Reds/Match was 1 one thousandth of a point.  In the next column, the frequency of PKs/Match were also damn near identical; only 1 one hundredth of a point separated the two groups.  Over a total of 2731 matches analyzed, when comparing MLS referees to those around the world, there were no differences in frequency of players getting red carded during a match or penalties being awarded.

To be sure, officials should be measured mostly on the accuracy of their work, not on stats.
However, I do believe in the power of big numbers, and that lists such as these can identify outliers.
To me, this data drives home two messages.  One is that MLS does not have a group of referees that conducts matches wildly different than in other countries.  The other is that differences between officials are not due to anything other than the fact that they're people.  Some refs are going to be more likely to yellow card you, but they're probably not going to dish out any reds.  Others may never award PKs.  These differences may appear inconsistent, but just like a bumpy pitch, inconsistency is a part of the game.

So where Mr. Geiger may tend to give more yellows than the mean, and he may be 3rd most likely MLS ref on this list to award a PK, he was right down the middle on red cards.  Nothing I found indicates that he calls a match wildly differently than anyone else.

I cherish and appreciate referees for the service they provide to my soccer-playing country.  Much like coaches, they give of themselves so that current and future generations can enjoy the beautiful game.  When a referee is on the field, I play with a different urgency.  They make it real.  They are, in fact, a critical piece of the soccer landscape.  I should more often remember what my high school coach taught me to do after matches, which is to thank the refs.  Thanks, guys.

The full tables, sorted by PKs/Match:

Monday, April 29, 2013

This Is 2020

Expansion is back. Major League Soccer and expansion go together like pretzels and mustard, and although it was nice as a Crew fan not to see rosters cherry-picked for a couple years in a row I’m glad to know more teams are on the way. With news that New York City might be landing a team in Queens, I started wondering how new teams might affect the travel schedule of the existing teams. My hypothesis was that yet another team on the eastern seaboard would reduce overall travel for all Eastern Conference teams, making life easier for the players and operations more profitable for owners. Looking farther down the road, would that same principle hold true when more teams joined? How would these extra teams affect regular season scheduling and playoffs? What might MLS look like in 2020?

24: The Magic Number
The first thing I decided was how many clubs would be around in 7 years. With a 20th team inevitable, 24 seemed like a feasible number from which to start. 5 additional teams over 7 years would be a more measured rate than MLS’ expansion drive from 2005-2012, which added 9 teams. From a competition standpoint, further expansion will have less and less of a talent dilution effect; each new team will make up a smaller percentage of the overall talent pool. Additionally, the maturity of the MLS academy programs, richer owners and growing TV exposure will buoy a feared drop in overall talent or quality of play. This will increase the total number of matches in an MLS season from 323 to 408, a 26% rise.

There are scheduling niceties that come with 24 teams as well. With 24 teams in the league, some might push for multiple divisions or at least more than 2 conferences. I kept the Eastern and Western Conferences for a couple reasons. One is that as a fan, I’d like the chance to see as many different teams come through my home stadium as possible every year. While I find it disrespectful to the home squad when opposing players are marketed to fans, I do think it’s a nice selling point for a potential season ticket buyer or corporate suite owner to know that they’re going to be able to see every team in the league come through. My proposal would guarantee that every team would appear in every stadium at least once every 2 years. Secondly, keeping 12 teams in each conference will continue and extend the “table” method of standings.

Finally, 24 teams this allows for the unique opportunity to balance within the conference and not increase number of games from what is currently played (34). Each other team within conference is played home & away (22 matches), while each team from the opposite conference is played once (12 matches; 6 home, 6 away). With this methodology, the home and away matches for opposite conference teams are toggled each year.

Gimme 5
My next steps were to pick 5, then do the travel and schedule math. Along with NY2, I’ve added four more clubs that currently are in either NASL or USL-PRO:
• Orlando City Stars
• Atlanta Silverbacks
• San Antonio Scorpions
• Phoenix FC

If your expansion squad isn’t on my map, don’t freak; this isn’t all about which clubs should/could be next on Don’s list. Orlando is making a big push and may have a stadium deal, Atlanta is a huge TV market and would represent a move by MLS into the heart of the South, San Antonio could help to provide a great Texan rivalry and Phoenix has a very large Latino population as well as fantastic event infrastructure and great weather early and late in the MLS season. I also was a fan of MLS’ decision to award MLS Cup to the team in the finals with the best regular season record; an increase in teams located in the south will improve chances of staging a late November/early December cup final in decent weather. With all teams being reasonably viable, we move on to conference alignment…

If you’ve read previous articles of mine or follow my tweets, you’ll know that I’m a proponent of a future Texan Cup. Moving Houston back into the Western Conference and adding in San Antonio would allow for 6 matches a year to take place that would determine this annual prize. Fans from Dallas, Houston and San Antonio would all have the opportunity to make 2 reasonable away trips a year, and a bit of the travel burden on these somewhat geographically isolated MLS clubs would be mitigated.

After adding Phoenix, San Antonio and Houston to the West, Atlanta, NY2 and Orlando rounded out the 12 in the East. I then built a mock season matrix, which allowed me to calculate the estimated miles traveled. Unlike 2012’s schedule, I wasn’t able to account for “twofers”, when a club might play two away matches on the same road swing. Based on 2012’s data, those trips shaved about 6% of the miles traveled off the final tally; I used the same 6% discount to the 2020 estimates.

The Results
I’m not allowed to be disappointed if a hypothesis doesn’t work out, only surprised. So, I’m surprised.

It turns out that based on where I set the expansion teams and how I built the schedule, there was actually an increase in miles traveled. My thought was that if the travel burden could be reduced, it would make for a schedule that’s easier on players' bodies, easier for away fans to attend and more likely to be profitable. However, Atlanta and Orlando are significantly farther south than any other Eastern Conference team not in Texas. Montreal’s trip to Orlando, for instance, is the same distance as Dallas’ flight to LA. While San Antonio would immediately gain 2 in-state rivals in Dallas and Houston, the overall effect on the Western Conference is 9 more trips to Texas (plus 6 Eastern conference teams).  Another factor is that by setting up a schedule that guarantees 6 out of conference away matches, I was pushing away matches farther from home.  In 2012, teams averaged 4.7 matches/year at an out of conference opponent.  For instance, FC Dallas traveled to the Eastern conference only 5 times (Chicago, Columbus, DC, Houston, Sporting KC).  Most clubs had 5 such trips, but some had 4.  I'd say the guarantee of every club at every stadium within 2 years as well as the schedule balancing trumps this extra travel, but it is good to note that it comes at a cost.

As far as OOTZ games, my theory there is that I’m more likely to watch a match on TV if it’s in my time zone. For Eastern Conference teams, OOTZ decreased just 2%. OOTZ for Western conference teams actually went up 3%. Neither of these results would make a noticeable difference even the most avid fan. The details:

So, all that work for naught? Maybe not. There are certainly many factors to consider when evaluating expansion locations, and logistics is an important one. While putting MLS clubs in either Orlando or Atlanta may “fill out the map”, we can see that it would put Orlando at a much greater travel disadvantage. Supporters of either team would be looking at airline flights to attend any away matches; the closest current club to Atlanta is the Columbus Crew at about 8 hours away. If Orlando and Atlanta entered at the same time, they’re still 6 hours away from each other. This isn’t to say that they’re poor candidates, simply that there are unique logistical issues with each potential team.

Playoff Impact
With a different take on scheduling, I thought it was worthwhile to take a look at how the playoffs are handled. For me, there is nothing more anti-climactic than the end of the first match of a 2-leg aggregate series. The whistle blows, and so what? I understand the arguments of fairness in a home and home series, but to me a reasonably balanced regular season is a more important consideration.

I say let’s reward regular season performance by tilting the playoffs even heavier in the favor of the team with the better record. I would keep the number of playoff teams at 5 per conference, with a mid-week Wild Card round of the #4 seed hosting the #5 seed. From there, the winning squad goes straight to the home of the #1 seed to play in the Conference Semi-Finals that weekend. The #3 seed would travel to the #2 seed, and all 4 matches are played as elimination games. Winners advance to the conference finals, with the higher seeds hosting the one-match eliminators. MLS Cup would then be hosted by the highest remaining seed, just as it is today. This way, poorly attended mid-week games are nearly eliminated, and teams are given ample time to rest going into the most crucial matches of the year. Given the reduced amount of matches, the entire operation could end with MLS Cup being hosted the Friday after Thanksgiving – a marquee afternoon for a nationally televised event.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Counting Stars

It was recently decreed that prior to every MLS season starting next year, each club will unveil at least one new uniform top during Jersey Week. My first reaction to this was cynical; it sounded like a money-grab. Even with 3 kits per team, this means the average jersey life would be only 3 years. Then I thought to myself, “Self, did you just say ‘money-grab’? We’re lucky to live in a time in which this notion would even be economically viable. If it makes MLS money and doesn’t cheapen the product, all’s good.” Jersey sponsorships don’t often last more than 5 years, so I decided that maybe this wasn’t even such a big change. It will certainly inspire creativity amongst talented soccerphiles, which is not a bad thing. In the trust that if a club did happen to stumble upon an iconic kit that they would be allowed to keep it, I saw this Jersey Week in a more positive light. After taking in a few of the new kits this week, I’m even more in favor of it.

I do, however, have two simple hopes for MLS jerseys in the near future. To explain them, I first need to distinguish between the two styles of official MLS jerseys for sale. One is called “Authentic”, and the other is what I’ll refer to as “Standard”. (Previously known as “Replica” jerseys, in 2013 the delineation on is now “Authentic soccer jersey” and “soccer jersey”). I apologize if this is insulting your soccer shopping intelligence, but this distinction is crucial to my argument– please bear with me.
Authentic jerseys are the top-of-the-line model, featuring contours and materials identical to the field-worn kits. With Standard jerseys, all the essential elements of the kit are there– the jersey sponsor (if it exists), MLS and Adidas logos and the team’s crest. Standard jerseys run for $84.99, and Authentic jerseys are $35 more at $119.99. For example, here are the Houston Dynamo’s home jerseys for 2013 (pre-order prices from displayed):
AUTHENTIC ($119.99)

STANDARD ($84.99)
If you’re like me, seeing nearly-but-not identical pictures of two items like the ones above invokes an involuntary Photo Hunt reaction. Above, you’ll see the Texas flag on the Authentic jersey, while it’s not on the Standard. You’ll also see that the Standard is missing 3 more items: The US flag, a white strip on the left shoulder that reads “FOREVER ORANGE” and two stars above the Dynamo crest.
To be clear: I have no problem whatsoever with different tiers of jerseys. The market has spoken over the last 5 or so years and both products seem to have their niche. But two items on the Authentic jerseys give me taco neck, and here’s what I would like to see:
  1. Add the Stars to the Standard Jersey
Championship seasons create dear memories. Soccer’s time-honored tradition of adding a star near (or to) the club’s crest after each championship is an elegant way for players, club staff and supporters to pay homage to those magical years. Unfortunately, currently not all supporters in MLS get to enjoy this tradition; stars are only added to the Authentic jerseys.

It makes perfect sense that certain features only be available on the Authentic jersey. After all, it’s a premium product and should offer more for its audience. However, keeping the stars off the Standard jerseys is counter to the spirit of economic equality in club culture. Additionally, the lack of stars on the Standard jersey displays a lack of consistency in the presentation of a critical club image – its crest.
   2.  Drop the National Flags on the Authentic Jerseys

I respect all nations’ flags. But they don’t belong everywhere, and for the life of me I can’t come up with one good reason why national flags belong on a club kits. Here are three reasons why they don’t:
  • From a style perspective, a national flag strikes me as a feature that takes away from other, more creative jersey features.  Said differently, clutter.  It also acts as a required item that inevitably reduces space options for kit designers. 
  • It needlessly introduces nationalism and patriotism into a stateless world. A country’s colors stir up intense emotion and imagery which I believe should be reserved for national team matches. City or State imagery has the power to work exceptionally well on club kits, if used thoughtfully.  I was impressed by the Colorado-flag themed kit from The Rapids, and it reminded me of the wildly popular redesign of the Columbus Blue Jackets' main sweater from 2008-present.
  • They force proud citizens of many non-North American countries to wear the national colors of their employer’s city. Read that again. I wonder how Jay DeMerit feels when he looks over at that Canadian flag each week. I wonder how DeRo feels about wearing his United States flag. I’m sure each of these pros and others take it all in stride, but this to me is an unnecessary thing to ask of them. I enjoyed working in Germany for nine months, and I love the German people, but if I had to wear the German flag on my jacket each day to work it would have felt forced and awkward.  This also raises the question: Will Chivas USA petition to wear the Mexican flag this year?
What do you think?  Should all MLS gear of clubs with MLS Cups display their stars?  Do we need United States and Canadian flags on our kits?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Soccer Rising: From Columbus To Phoenix

Three years ago today, I was driving from Memphis to Oklahoma City.  It was the second of a four day journey from Columbus to Phoenix, where I would start a new role at work and a new chapter in my life.  I was leaving behind, at least physically, a city in which I was mainlining soccer.  The Crew were quickly rising to top-of-mind status for the casual central Ohio sports fan, aided by the club's 2008 MLS Cup victory and flourishing development program.  (How smart is it to outfit hundreds of local youth players in replica jerseys, by the way?  The impact of seeing nine-year-olds all of the sudden wearing Crew gear at the grocery store = priceless.)  Add my participation in club and country supporters culture to my coaching role in the Crew Juniors development program, and you start to see how pervasive soccer was to my day to day life in Columbus.

The impact of soccer in my destination city, however, was unknown.  I had a serious soccer habit to maintain, and there was much working against me in Phoenix.  First, there was no stable professional club, let alone an MLS team.  In a climate in which high temperatures of over 100 degrees are the norm from June - Sept, grass was only to be found on golf courses or the many spring training ballparks that dot the valley.  Further complicating things, my new work role would prevent me from coaching.  I'd also soon find that there were zero soccer-friendly pubs in my new 'hood, which I detailed in a blog post here.  It was a dark time for the rebellion.

However, there were signs of hope.  I quickly learned that the Crew were visiting Phoenix for their 2010 preseason training.  Attending these preseason matches was a treat; it was so quiet, you could hear all the players' on-field communication.  Clearly the soccer gods knew that I was going to deeply miss supporting my team in the Nordecke, and they threw me a frickin' bone to keep my spirits up.  I even met a few local Crew supporters at the preseason games, which helped to build my new Crew family in the desert. 

Cut to 2013, and you find Arizona busting with soccer news at both the country and club levels.  Last year's hosting of the USA-Venezuela friendly saw 22,000 witness Ricardo Clark's later-than-Klinsy's-roster-announcements 97th minute game-winner.  Last week's Mexico-Denmark friendly drew 43,000.  On the club side, since 2010 a Cactus League culture has firmly established itself in Arizona.  Between the Desert Friendlies and the Desert Diamond Cup, more than half of the 19 MLS clubs will spend time in Tucson this February.  Plus, plans have been revealed for $2MM of venue enhancements in Tucson for 2014.  With its warm February weather, its facilities and the current critical mass of MLS teams participating, a meaningful and lucrative MLS spring training tradition is Arizona's to lose.

Most importantly for soccer's future in the desert, professional clubs have been established in both Tucson and Phoenix.  FC Tucson started their PDL campaign in 2010, and Phoenix FC, the valley's new USL PRO team, will host its first match on March 30.  Phoenix FC is also affiliated with MLS' Real Salt Lake, which will visit the desert in June as part of a home and away series.  It's quite a trip to witness a club's borning cry, but that's exactly what is happening right now in Phoenix.  Its home will be Arizona State's soccer stadium, with its capacity being expanded to over hold over 5000 fans.  Some players have been named, and soon the squad will be complete.  A supporters group named La Furia Roja has formed, and soon they will be singing at matches.  Supporters' scarves have been produced, and soon there will be PFC gear.  Announcement by announcement, tweet by tweet, history is being made.  

With all this progress, there are still setbacks.  Local soccer supporters are currently mourning the loss of the town's best (only?) soccer pub, 16th St Sports Bar.  It was perfect in so many ways, I often wondered what I did with my other two wishes.  Their friendly staff would accommodate your every footie desire by opening no matter how early (EPL matches often start at 7am), acquiring every soccer channel possible, showing your match including the sound and ensuring that the entire experience was washed down with cheap drinks and tasty food.  I especially weep for the loss of my first girlfriend in town, their Torta Cubana; Te amo siempre, tortita!  I'm sure a new home base will soon be found, perhaps near Phoenix FC's stadium in Tempe, but 16SSB will always be remembered and adored.

Taking into account the stillness of the soccer scene three years ago, the current buzz in Arizona is remarkable.  I feel lucky to bear witness to it, just as I feel lucky to witness the ascendency of soccer in the United States in my lifetime.  Similar to when I moved to Columbus in 1996, living in Phoenix since 2010 has given me another chance to witness the beautiful game's cultural maturity in a part of the United States.  I'm excited to see what another three years will bring.