soccer

Who Will be the Next Columbus Crew GM?

columbus crew mapfre stadium night.jpg

Now that it has been officially announced that the Crew will be staying put in their rightful home of Columbus, Ohio, the next order of business is filling the head coach and general manager positions. It is widely known, though not yet official, that former Portland Timbers head coach, Caleb Porter, will be manning the sidelines for the Crew this upcoming season. The Crew out offered western conference powerhouse, LA Galaxy, with a reported 5-year, $5 million deal. A big bold move by the Crew.

As for the general manager spot, three marquee names have reportedly been interviewed…

Bruce Arena
The first reported candidate was longtime LA Galaxy, DC United, and USMNT head coach, Bruce Arena. As to not rehash his litany of accomplishments, check out my article from earlier this month to read all about his exemplary career. While yes, Columbus and LA are on two distinctly different sides of the financial spectrum, few people know how to manage the ever-changing roster guidelines of MLS than “The Bruce”. The Galaxy are infamous for their high-profile signings (ever heard of David Beckham??) they also invested heavily in player development, which produced solid MLS players along the way. One of which just so happens to be on the current Columbus Crew roster, Gyasi Zardes.

As head coach and general manager of LA Galaxy from 2008 to 2016, Bruce built his second MLS dynasty (his first was with DC United). He is a proven winner and has the soccer acumen to precisely navigate the murky personnel waters of Major League Soccer. The superstars of his LA teams garnered the headlines, but the grunt work of players like, Juninho, Baggio Husidic, Stefan Ishizaki, Alan Gordon, Todd Dunivant, etc. are what made the teams complete and led them to winning 3 MLS Cups.

Ali Curtis
Infamous for “The Plan”, Ali Curtis took over the New York Red Bulls in 2014, complete with a 300-page document that outlined his long-term vision for building an MLS powerhouse. After taking over, he immediately replaced wildly popular head coach Mike Petke with Jesse Marsch. While such a move drew strong criticism from fans, he was vindicated in 2015 when the Red Bulls won the MLS Supporters Shield. Curtis has been out of the league since he and RBNY parted ways just prior to the 2017 season.

Contrary to popular belief, RBNY is not and has not been a “big money team” in several years, thus Columbus is more of a fit than people think. New York’s departure from the big market, big money spending can be directly tied to Curtis. His 300-page plan consisted of cutting the team payroll, instead focusing resources on developing the pipeline from the RBNY academy to the senior team. He also pushed to overhaul the team system and schematics, by implementing a high-pressure smothering defense and quick counter-attacking offense. This identity was successfully executed from the youth teams, all the way through to the first-division team.

He also implemented the club's reserve team, New York Red Bulls II (also known as “the Baby Bulls), which compete in United Soccer League. The Baby Bulls went on to win the USL title in 2016, with budding superstars, Tyler Adams, Aaron Long, Alex Muyl and Sean Davis, all whom developed through the academy system, before ascending to the first-team.

Tim Bezbatchenko
Tim Bezbatchenko (nicknamed Bez) is still young in age but possesses extensive experience. He has been serving in the league since 2010, where he spent three years as the league Senior Director of Player Relations & Competition. In that role, he negotiated and drafted player contracts and finalized loan and transfer agreements. Bez is a central Ohio native, who has shown well on the biggest stage in MLS. He is currently senior vice president and general manager of Toronto FC. According to The Columbus Dispatch, Bez is the current front runner to named GM of the Crew.

Since taking the reins in 2013, Bez has overseen the acquisition of essentially every player on the current TFC roster. From former MLS MVP, Sebastian Giovinco, to USMNT staples, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, to league stalwarts Drew Moor and Justin Morrow. Toronto has been a massive success on and off the field during his run. He was integral in building the team that made the MLS Cup final in 2016 and won the league in 2017. His pedigree is tremendous and local ties to the central Ohio area are peerless.

The Final Countdown
Any of the three aforementioned candidates being announced as general manager would be a big coup for the new ownership group, the fans, and the club. Each one has a history of success, all have a strong understanding of the leagues interworkings, yet each still have something left to prove. Of the three, which would work best with a tough-minded coach like Caleb Porter?

Arena and Porter had their jousts while in the heat of battle during their days of managing the LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers, respectively. Though I don’t fathom such feelings continue to linger today. Curtis is very stringent and particular with how he governs a club. I am not so sure Porter’s mentality gels well with such a managerial style. That is merely my opinion from afar, so take it with a grain of salt.

That leaves Bez! And if The Dispatch is accurate with it’s reporting, the Bez / Porter duo does sound quite appealing. I don’t know if it is just the excitement of two young guns potentially working together for the foreseeable future that gets me going, but I truly believe a Bez / Porter partnership could lead to a small market club making big ripples in the MLS pool. That is my hope, but truth be told, the Crew can’t go wrong with any of these three distinguished men. Only time will tell. Go Crew!

 

Rest in Peace, Sigi Schmid

You would be hard-pressed to find a more accomplished coach within the United States soccer-sphere than Sigi Schmid. Schmid began a successful 19-year run as head coach of the UCLA Bruins Men’s Soccer program in 1980. During that time, he led the Bruins to three national titles (1985, 1990, 1997). He was named national coach of the year following the 1997 championship. He accumulated a record of 322-63-33 in the college ranks.

Schmid went on to become Major League Soccer’s all-time winningest coach. Manning the sidelines for LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders, he led teams to two MLS Cup championships, five U.S. Open Cup titles and was named MLS Coach of the Year twice. Far too often, a term like “legend” is haphazardly thrown around, but in Schmid’s case, it was well earned. His resume was impeccable. Given his astonishing success, I had always hoped and rooted for Sigi to be granted the USMNT head coaching gig. He was tactically brilliant, detail oriented and highly regarded. My wonderment as to why it never seemed he garnered serious consideration for the position may never cease.

Like many within U.S. Soccer, I was shocked and saddened today by the news of his untimely passing at the ripe young age of 65. Reportedly, he was hospitalized three weeks ago awaiting a heart transplant. My hope and I am sure the hopes of many, was that the lack of news in recent weeks was good news. Regretfully for us all, that was not the case.

I did not have the privilege of personally knowing Coach Schmid, having only met the gentleman for one brief moment. But for me, it was a moment I will never forget. The United Soccer Coaches convention in 2017 took place in Los Angeles. Naturally, a soccer nerd like myself was in full geek out mode the entire weekend. With a myriad of events throughout the 5 days, the schedule was daunting, but a chalk talk with Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid was a given. Attendance for such an occurrence was non-negotiable, everything else in my world was thrown to the wayside.

As an aspiring coach, I had studied Sigi for a decade and a half. I had rooted for him at every stop in his MLS career. How could someone root against such a phenomenal coach and person? Bruce and Sigi have been two pillars within my “Coaching Holy Trinity” (the other being Caleb Porter) for years, so seeing this spectacle on the agenda, I became the proverbial kid in a candy store with his mom’s credit card. Life couldn’t have been better!

I’ll skip all of the minutiae of the talk, other than to mention that Bruce and Sigi both gracefully and astutely answered my question about the U.S.’s chances of hosting the World Cup in the near future. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to shake Sigi’s hand and thanked him for his time. That was it! My encounter was minuscule and Coach Schmid probably forgot about it before he even left the venue. But to me, it was a moment in time I will forever cherish.

It was a mere four months ago that he was on the sidelines guiding the Galaxy, so it is unfathomable to think that his physical being has left us. However, a man as talented, respected and adored as Sigi, will live in all of our spirits for a lifetime. The positive impact he made on so many people will carry itself forward to the next generation of players, coaches and fans. Coach Schmid left a legacy at every stop during his long coaching journey. He elevated players, he inspired fellow coaches, and he enhanced our sport. Simply put, he made the world around him a better place. In the grand scheme of things, I would say that is the lasting impact we could all hope for in life. RIP, Coach Schmid!

Coach Schmid with the MLS Cup after leading the Columbus Crew to victory in 2008.

Coach Schmid with the MLS Cup after leading the Columbus Crew to victory in 2008.

Why Berhalter is the Correct Choice for USMNT Coach

schoen.PNG

The above tweet from longtime soccer broadcaster, Phil Schoen, is a very legitimate question. On the surface, Gregg Berhlater isn’t a slam dunk, runaway candidate to be named the new coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team. However, with a brief dive into Coach Berhalter’s philosophy and understanding what U.S. Soccer is looking for, Berhalter is the logical choice. His hire is not a sexy selection, but it is pragmatic and logical.

The USMNT is Under Heavy Construction
The USMNT needs to rebuild its foundation. Under Klinsmann, the team was the proverbial house of cards. The morale and culture need to be mended, not only in the intermediate time period, but more so for the long-haul. U.S. Soccer general manager, Earnie Stewart was adamant that the next USMNT coach fit a certain profile. Stating “We’re a country that [is] aggressive in the right sense of the word. We’re a little bit in your face. There’s a way that that could be implemented in a system, in a formation, by a coach.” Stewart also made it clear that while familiarity with Major League Soccer, the U.S. player pool, and the CONCACAF region are ideal, they are not steadfast requirements. He did insist that the new coach live in Chicago and work out of the U.S. Soccer headquarters and be fluent in English. Berhalter check marks all of those boxes.

Who is Gregg Berhalter
Let’s back track for those who may not be overly familiar with Gregg Berhalter’s soccer career. His playing days were distinguished, though not spectacular. He made 44 appearances for the USMNT between 1994-2006, which included playing in both the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cup tournaments. His club career spanned the globe, having competed in Holland, England, Germany, before concluding in Major League Soccer. His final year as a player included a player-coach role on the L.A. Galaxy MLS Cup champion team in 2011.

After his retirement, Gregg immediately transitioned to the sidelines, as he took over the head coaching reins at Swedish club Hammarby IF in 2012. He became the first American club manager within a top-ranked European federation. Berhalter posted a modest, but not eye-popping record of 18-11-16 during his 18 months at the helm. He was dismissed during the second season, due to his club’s lack of attacking prowess. Hammarby chairman, Kent Hertzell stated, "Gregg has brought order to our defensive game and has good discipline in the squad, but unfortunately we have not seen good enough dividends in the offense. Therefore, we chose to terminate cooperation with Gregg. We believe that we need to get a new force and new voice on the team."

Berhalter wouldn’t have to wait long for his next gig. He found himself back in Major League Soccer, being named head coach of Columbus Crew in 2013. Since taking over, he has tallied a respectable record of 74-69-50, including an MLS Cup final appearance in 2015. The Crew have made the playoffs in all but one season during his tenure. His bare trophy case is cause for alarm by many U.S. Soccer pundits and fans. What has he accomplished on the sidelines that has garnered selection for the top job in all of U.S. Soccer, you ask? For me, it is less about what he has done, and more about what he will do.

Why Berhalter
First and foremost, he will bring an identity back to this rudderless squad. Throughout most of Jurgen Klinsmann time as manager the team looked discombobulated and confused. Arena and Sarachan did a fine job to try and right the ship but given their circumstances that was an impossible task.

Secondly, Berhalter will implement an actual system, one that the USMNT pool will buy into. He is notorious for his tactical approach to the game. He emphasizes building from the back and pressuring the opponent into troublesome situations while in possession. Under Klinsmann the USMNT changed formations and schemes on a day to day basis. It was well publicized that the players often had little to no idea who would start from game to game or what positions they would be playing. The dysfunction was rampant. To the contrary, during both stints as head coach, Berhalter has proven that his style of play and messaging are well received by players. He is a coach who can precisely communicate what he wants, which is ideal for this crop of young U.S. players.

Gregg is held under high regard within U.S Soccer coaching circles. He is bright, astute, and a true student of the game. His aptitude for the game is uncanny. The plausibility of his system and structure transitioning from the club side of things to the international side is the real question mark. With a national team, you are only afforded a finite amount of time with your players, as opposed to club where training time is fruitful. Can he ramp up the learning curve? Only time will tell. While this hire may lack creativity and allure, it is sensible and rational. After 14 months of much debate, wonder and rumors, we have our coach. Moving forward, let’s proudly and emphatically support him and our boys representing the stars and stripes. Good luck, Gregg!   

 

#SAVEDTHECREW

Hallelujah! The COLUMBUS Crew are one giant step closer to staying in their rightful home of Central Ohio. It has been almost a full calendar year since Crew fans were shocked at the news of a potential relocation of the franchise to Austin, Texas. Now we have some phenomenal news to celebrate. Cleveland Browns owner, Jimmy Haslam along with a Columbus-based ownership group, are said to be in negotiations with Major League Soccer to purchase the team from current owner/operator, Anthony Precourt. He would then be able to pursue his dream of having a franchise in Austin, which was clearly his plan from the moment he purchased the Crew in 2013.

While nothing is certain or set in stone, this news comes as a big-time move for supporters of the #SaveTheCrew movement. A variety of statements regarding the Crew possibly nearing a deal to stay in Columbus came out today. “We are optimistic about our recent conversations with MLS regarding the potential sale of the operating rights of the Columbus Crew,” stated Columbus Partnership President, Alex Fisher. “While there are many details to be worked out, our alliance is working diligently and collaboratively with the League to keep the Crew in its community. We are very excited about the quiet but deliberate progress that has been made to date and will keep the community updated as the process moves forward.”

A follow up statement from Browns owner, Jimmy Haslam shared that same sentiment:
“We value and appreciate the benefits a professional sports franchise can bring to a community and are hopeful to be a part of the solution to keep the Crew in Columbus. We would invest in a strong infrastructure within the Crew organization so that we can continue our focus and commitment to building a winning Cleveland Browns football team in Northeast Ohio. We look forward to seeing how this process evolves.”

The potential for a new downtown stadium was also mentioned, but no concrete plans are yet in motion. Precourt Sports Ventures, the company name in which Precourt operates, also released a statement but neglected to even mention the Crew potentially staying in Columbus. Making it even more apparent that he had zero interest in the Crew ever staying in Central Ohio. Good riddance to that clown! And good luck Austin dealing with his shenanigans.

According to The Columbus Dispatch, the most likely scenario for the Crew is the Haslam buyer group purchases the MLS rights of Columbus from Major League Soccer, then Precourt transfers his equity in the league to the Austin market. Austin FC would be on the shelf until 2021, which gives them ample time to build a stadium and construct a team from the ground up. In turn, the current players under contract with the Crew would stay in Columbus. Yay, Will Trapp!

COLUMBUS Crew wish list…
- Dump the Crew “SC” moniker and just stick with the tried and true “Columbus Crew”.
- Build a downtown-ish stadium, either near Huntington Park or the current plot of land at Berliner Park.
- Once Greg Berhalter takes over the US Men’s National Team or LA Galaxy, hire either Caleb Porter or former Crew legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto to be head coach.

Now let’s celebrate the goodness that is the COLUMBUS Crew staying in Central Ohio! Get your season tickets, buy your gear, support the team, and keep pushing #SaveTheCrew until it is official that we have #SavedTheCrew.

Save-the-crew-Rally.jpg

Time to Enact Some Rule Changes in Our Lovely Sport of Soccer

Being the target of endless ridicule, questioning, and incompetence are generally not a way of life for most sane and rational human beings. Then there are professional soccer referees. The desire to voluntarily subject oneself to the trials and tribulations of being a professional soccer referee is just not an existence I can grasp. While I do not envy them, I do not pity them either as it is a path of life they have chosen.

For us soccer fans, the greatest of game experiences are when we barely notice the referee is on the field. When refs end up becoming as integral to a match as the players themselves, that is problematic. Which brings me to the question of the day… How can we make their jobs easier? What rules and regulations can we enact to see to it that controversial and questionable calls are minimalized? How about we enact some new guidelines to give referees a fighting chance on the field? Below are a few rule modifications that I believe will not only aid in making the refs life easier, but also enhance the flow of the game for players, coaches and fans.

Proposed Rule Change # 1: Diving/Flopping/Embellishment
 I wrote an article about the subject very recently, so click the link below for my thoughts on that rule modification.
Soccer... The Time Has Come For A Zero Tolerance Diving Policy

Proposed Rule Change # 2: Purposefully stopping a goal with your hand
How / Why Would Impact Games: In certain situations a player (Luis Suarez) will blatantly use their hands to stop a guaranteed goal. Goals are already difficult to come by, so why allow scumbag players like Luis Suarez pull such shenanigans? For those who are not aware, in their 2010 World Cup quarter-final match against Ghana, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez purposefully handled the ball to prevent a last minute Ghana goal. He essentially made himself a goalkeeper, as you can clearly see in the picture below. Suarez was shown a red card and Ghana's Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty kick. Ghana subsequently lost the match, 4–2, in the penalty shootout. Ghana were CLEARLY 100% going to score the game-winning goal, had it not been for such blatant rule breaking shenanigans by that toothy soccer villain. 
Implementation: Easy, any field player who blatantly uses their hands to prevent a goal from being scored is essentially just giving themselves an automatic red card, with no advantage to be gained whatsoever, as the goal will count regardless. 
Positive Aftermath of Change: No more cheap desperation goalkeeping from field players. Clear and obvious goals would now count on the scoreboard regardless of if it actually hits the back of the net or not. 

Proposed Rule Change # 3: Adjust what is considered “offside”.
How / Why Would Impact Games: Keep the flow of the game moving and allow for more fluid attacks. While I certainly don’t want the outdoor version to become indoor soccer-esque with 9-8 score lines, I do think providing more opportunities for attacking players to do what they do would be more ideal. Does anyone else think it is ridiculous that offensive opportunities are negated because the players toe is over a perceived imaginary line the defenders make? Let’s give attackers a full step of freedom.
Implementation: Another easy rule change to implement, let’s allow the offensive player to have one step on a defender. Just one! Do you really think the player in the picture below should be considered offside? Really? This the perfect example of "one step" when it comes to modifying this rule.   

offside 2.png

Positive Aftermath of Change: More attacking opportunities, which will lead to more shots, more saves, and more goals. Where is the downfall?

Proposed Rule Change # 4: 3 Consecutive Yellow Cards Equals Suspension
How / Why Would Impact Games: As we are all fans of the game, the last thing we want to see are the best players unable to compete due to silly yellow cards. The range of infractions that lead to yellow cards is drastic. Not all yellow cards are created equal. We witnessed it firsthand during the most recent World Cup, where several players received two yellow cards over the course of the group stage and missed a game. In fact, had Portugal advanced to the quarterfinals, Cristiano Ronaldo would have missed that critical match. And for what? Two silly yellow cards in two separate games. Seems absolutely idiotic to me. 
Implementation: Another easy fix, make it to where a player will be suspended if they accumulate 3 yellow cards in 3 consecutive matches. Call it the "3 strikes and you're out rule". 
Positive Aftermath of Change: Silly fouls and questionable yellow cards will not prevent players from missing games. Simple as that! 

Just Because Europe Does it, Doesn't Mean U.S. Soccer Should

twellman.PNG

The above tweet from U.S. Soccer pundit, Taylor Twellman, provoked me to tackle a couple of subjects that often come up within U.S. Soccer circles- Promotion / Relegation and the "international calendar" which is the league schedule played by the Big 4 leagues in Europe (England, Spain, Germany, Italy). Both of these hot button topics tend to rear their ugly heads whenever an event like the Euro Championships or World Cup are in session.

Let's start with the "international calendar" that so many people clamor for. Let's be clear here, this is in actuality a "European calendar." Many leagues throughout the world are on different league calendars, contrary to that of the Big 4 Euro leagues. Oh, but that's right, the Eurosnobs here in the U.S. of A. live in their own little European bubble, where soccer begins and ends with whatever Europe does. Thus, they refuse to take into consideration a multitude of important factors that go into operating any league throughout the world. You know, minor business metrics such as attendance, TV exposure, sponsorship, competition within the sports landscape, etc. Those wacky little minor intricacies that don't actually coincide with the success of any business operation, right!?  

Attendance
I know when I ponder attending a soccer game, nothing gets me more riled up than the thought of sitting outside for 2.5 hours in January in cities such as: Boston, Chicago, Columbus, DC, Denver, Kansas City, Minnesota, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake, and Toronto. I would bet a large pile of cash that many MLS fans would not attend games if they played during the winter. I am a massive soccer fan, but you will not catch me freezing my ass off at a game in one of those cities in January or February. No way, Jose. I know that I am not alone here. Attendance across the league would plummet! 

TV Exposure and Competition Within the Sports Landscape
Does MLS really want to try to compete with the juggernaut that is American football? Given the current MLS calendar, MLS has the spotlight almost completely to itself for most of the season. Furthermore, with the Big 4 European leagues being off during the summer, MLS is able to attract more soccer eyeballs for themselves during its peak time. MLS should want to take advantage of that summer window where they only compete with Major League Baseball. More TV time slot availability is also a big coup. Plus, starting the season in August, MLS would get swallowed up by start of NFL and college football. And as the season progresses, the other Big 4 here in America (NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA) will be in full-swing, making exposure for MLS even more complicated. 

Can someone, anyone please explain why so many soccer folks are just dying to have MLS sync up with the Euro calendar? Because, I assure you that just because Europe does it, doesn't mean it is correct! 

Promotion / Relegation
As far as I can comprehend, the promotion / relegation gimmick is just not realistically ever going to become a reality. There is no way in holy hell that the business owners who have paid exorbitant expansion fees to the tune of tens and hundreds of millions of dollars are going to take the chance of their franchise being relegated to a "second-tier" status. No way, no how! Sorry! And could you blame them? 

Secondly, the current second-tier in the U.S. Soccer pyramid is the United Soccer League (USL), which consists of 33 teams across the United States and Canada. Over half of the teams in the league today are affiliated with MLS franchises. For instance, the New York Red Bulls have the "Baby Bulls" as they are nicknamed, in the league, which is a squad of young developing players within the New York Red Bulls system.

Allow me to throw out a potential, yet realistic possibility that could come about in a U.S. Soccer promotion / relegation situation... The "Baby Bulls" win the USL championship and are promoted to Major League Soccer. That same season, the New York Red Bulls fall flat and finish dead last in MLS, thus they get relegated to the USL. Do you actually think that the Red Bulls would go for such a "trade" for lack of a better term? The same situation could come about for the Timbers & Timbers 2, Sounders & Sounders 2,  Toronto FC & Toronto FC 2, Philadelphia Union & Bethlehem Steel, the list goes on and on. 

My question is this... Why is promotion / relegation so critical to the success of Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer? The only slightly reasonable response I have heard over the years, is that it would incentivize potential lame duck owners to "win or else" (I'm looking at you Stan Kroenke and the Colorado Rapids), which I grasp on the surface how that seems reasonable, but in all actuality I simply do not believe any MLS owner would be so uninterested in being competitive that they would sabotage their team to make an extra penny or two. 

Ultimately, each markets fan base has the power to not attend games, which leads to a dip in revenue. No owner is so chintzy that they would operate their business for any extensive length of time in such a manner. If the fans don't show, sponsors will not invest. When sponsors pull advertising, revenue drops. When revenue drops the bank account feels it. The vicious cycle goes on and on from there. Every owner is well aware of this.

And let's be honest here, the fellas running professional sports franchises are generally Type A personalities, so they don't tend to do things half-assed. They have egos, pride, and bravado. They want to win! It just so happens that some ownership groups are more apt to succeed and win than others. Even the aforementioned Colorado Rapids have tried and tried to change things up within the front office and on the field, but to no avail in recent years.

I am certainly open to hearing the soccer worlds thoughts on this subject. I am open to having my mind changed, if someone out there can present a realistic case. Until that argument comes about, can we cut it out with the "promotion / relegation" talk, please?    

#SaveTheCrew

As was the case a few years ago when DC United faced a move to Baltimore, another founding member of Major League Soccer is in jeopardy of being pilfered from its rightful home. Current Columbus Crew owner, Anthony Precourt is lobbying to move the original MLS franchise to Austin, Texas, citing poor business metrics and an uncertain financial future for the club in Central Ohio. The way the league has handled this debacle has been downright shameful. Commissioner Don Garber has preached for years that MLS wants to “build a soccer nation” in the United States. Well in my humble opinion, it is difficult to accomplish such feats by yanking one of the original pillars of the league out from the foundation. 

It could be argued that I am biased in favor of Columbus, given that I was born and raised in Central Ohio. Sure, but the reality is Columbus helped establish that foundation for Major League Soccer and its goal to become a soccer nation. Without a market like Columbus being a strong pillar during the leagues lean years, MLS would likely cease to exist today.

Columbus was the first MLS franchise, built the first soccer-specific stadium, and was even tops in season tickets when the league first launched. Commissioner Garber & Company have forgotten that, instead becoming pathetically infatuated with the fresh new shiny toy that crossed their path in Austin. Mind you, this isn’t to bash on Austin as a potential MLS market. In fact, I have lobbied for several years that MLS would be foolish to not push for Austin to have a franchise. However, it never dawned on me that it would mean losing the Columbus Crew along the way.

We live in a world where everyone and everything has become disposable. We block, ignore, and swipe left anyone and anything that doesn't meet our instant gratification desires. We have forgotten what humanity is in life and in sports. Business is business, yes, but the foundation of any business endeavor is the people behind it. The Crew isn't merely a black & yellow badge. No, the Crew is Columbus. The people of Columbus are intertwined and woven into the crest, jersey, and stadium. Furthermore, the Columbus Crew is intertwined and woven into the fabric of U.S. Soccer. To rip the Crew from Columbus would be a massive and ugly blemish within the federation of the sport we all love.  

columbus-crew-lawsuit-breakdown.jpg

This should be a wake-up call to all MLS teams, especially any of the originals. If the Columbus Crew of all teams could be thrown to the wayside, then who is to say your team won't be next when it behooves the league to do so? Your ongoing support isn't worth a damn if something newer, shinier, and with more bells and whistles comes calling. The Columbus market supported the league when nobody else did, and this how MLS reciprocates? That is shameful. 

Having worked for multiple professional sports teams (including two within MLS), I am acutely aware that often-times team owners are given far too much grief by uninformed and uneducated fan bases. Having said that, I can boastfully say that any owner who assists in pushing this Columbus to Ausitn movement forward should be met with harsh criticism and labeled as greedy. Arthur Blank, you are better than this. Merritt Paulson, you are better than this. Phil Anschutz, you are better than this. Phil Rawlins, you are better than this. Robb Heineman, you are better than this. Clark Hunt, you are better than this and you of all people know this is wrong. Don Garber, you are better than this. 

In the end, the solution is a somewhat simple for MLS; Pressure Precourt to sell the team back to the local community, while promising an expansion opportunity in Austin. If MLS is sincere about building a soccer nation, they need to invest when business metrics aren't at their prime in a market. The solution is to not just rip the roots out when a proven commodity is in a slump. Columbus can certainly still be a viable market; we have seen it over the years. Now it is up to Columbus city officials, its citizens and MLS to re-invest in the team. Can anyone that is emotionally, mentally, or financially invested in the league imagine an MLS without the Columbus Crew? I sure can’t and I hope that day never comes to fruition. #SaveTheCrew
 

The Jaelene Hinkle Controversy Continues

Last week the U.S. Women’s National Team released their roster for the upcoming Tournament of Nations, which is a four-team friendly competition kicking off today in Kansas City. The USWNT will battle against Brazil, Japan, and Australia in a group-play style format over an 8-day span.

One of the biggest story lines to come out was the inclusion of outside back Jaelene Hinkle. For those not aware of why her invite to the team was controversial, in June of 2017 the North Carolina Courage defender was named to the USWNT’s training camp, but refused the call-up, citing “personal reasons.” In an interview released just last month, the devout Christian explained that her decision in 2017 was motivated by her desire not to wear the USWNT’s special LGBTQ Pride Month jersey. Naturally, that created a firestorm of manufactured outrage by the professional victims within the soccer world.

The push back was loud and forceful. Fans at opposing team’s stadiums have been boisterous, indignant, and harsh towards Jaelene. Even mocking her “personal reasons” decision with signs and chants. These fans professed that Hinkle should not have the honor of wearing the U.S. kit ever again because she is "intolerant" and "not inclusive" of gays. As far as I am concerned, these so-called fans of the USWNT allow blatant hypocrisy to infringe on the betterment of the team.

Take Stephanie Yang of The Athletic and StarsandStripesFC.com, for instance. Her recent piece entitled “Jaelene Hinkle got called up to the USWNT. Now what?” which included a sub-headline of “So there’s a homophobe on your team.” was inciting and provocative.  Miss Yang seems pretty tolerant and inclusive with such a stance, doesn't she?!

As I stated in my original article about Jaelene, I do not care one iota about what a person’s sexual preference is or isn’t. Be straight, be gay, be bi-sexual, whatever you damn well please. What I find to be utterly ridiculous regarding this whole manufactured “controversy” is that Jaelene did nothing egregious or malicious by refusing the USWNT call-up last summer. She didn’t grandstand, she refused to make a spectacle of herself or U.S. Soccer, she simply declined a call up due to not wishing to represent a political agenda forced upon her by a national federation. I applaud her for that. 

Personally, I was thrilled for Jaelene to be called into this most recent camp. Unfortunately, she was released just a few days into training and will not be representing the USWNT at this tournament. Her release was met with outward joy and cheer from supposed USWNT fans. My initial assumption was this was a shaming tactic. Hinkle being called into camp and subsequently released was a way for USWNT management to publicly embarrass her. It was a power move to make a point. Maybe I am wrong with that feeling. I sure do hope I am incorrect. But given the political division within our country, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a ploy to show up Hinkle in front of the soccer world.

It was a no brainer that a player of her caliber be included on this squad. Anyone with even an average soccer IQ acknowledges she is one of the best (if not the best) outside back in the country. Her current club manager, Courage head coach Paul Riley, can’t understand why USWNT coach, Jill Ellis didn't keep Hinkle on the roster. “She’s been the best left back in the league this year, of that there’s absolutely no question,” Riley explained.

Yang herself even admits that Hinkle is the cream of the crop…
Hinkle has undoubtedly been one of the best left backs in the league, becoming a key part of the North Carolina Courage’s starting XI. But Hinkle is also someone who has very publicly professed homophobic views, so it should be little wonder that some USWNT fans are upset about the decision to invite her back to the team. A known homophobe is playing for a team that just last month proudly touted its support for the LGBTQ community and features an openly gay player and an openly gay coach. What now, if you’re a queer USWNT fan?”

What now, you ask? I’ll tell you what now… You appreciate her inclusion, you tolerate her ability and you root for Hinkle and the entire USWNT.

Ultimately, I am dumbfounded as to why U.S. Soccer deems it necessary to promulgate such a potentially divisive campaign. And why just focus on Pride Month? The United States has a slew of other cause dedicated months to choose from- Black History Month, Irish-American Heritage Month, ALS Awareness Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Movember, etc. I have a simple solution for U.S. Soccer… Quit asking players to wear pride shirts.  U.S. Soccer is wrong to have rainbow colors, or any other color that promotes political issues. Just play soccer! The only allowable colors on the U.S. kits are red, white and blue. Why? Because, any player representing the stars and stripes on our nations flag is a-ok in my book. No matter what their political or religious affiliation may be, we should be all inclusive. I think we can all tolerate that. 

Lionel Messi is NOT the GOAT

Not the GOAT
Lionel Messi is NOT the greatest soccer player of all-time. I know in the days and weeks ahead it will become all the rage to verbally beat this man while he is down. Jumping onto that dog pile is not my intentions at all. These are sentiments I have felt for several years now. And I want to be clear, that I do not claim to be a Lionel Messi expert. You will not catch me sitting around the house or at a soccer bar watching La Liga games every weekend. But from what I have seen of Messi over the years, my conclusion is that he is overrated. For the sake of clarity, “overrated” is often erroneously confused with “bad”, which is absolutely not my perspective. Certainly, Messi is an elite player today and would be in any other era. He is undoubtedly one of the best players of all-time. 

However, what negates me from going along with this anointment of Messi as the GOAT, is that I don't even find him to be the best of his own generation. I won't delve too far into the ongoing Messi versus Ronaldo saga, as it has been rehashed ad nauseam by plenty of other folks, but I will present a brief argument as to why I feel CR7 is the better player. Moreover, those who emphatically state that Messi has overtaken Pele are showing natural favoritism to the present, while likely only possessing minimal knowledge and perspective of Pele's remarkable career.  I wasn’t lucky enough to see Pele play live, but I think innately we are quick to dismiss the past and focus only on today, which is detrimental in this debate.

The Case Against Being the GOAT... The Trophy Case is Bare
Messi is the best player on what would easily considered a club all-star team with Barcelona. The La Liga is not a very deep league, with generally only the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and occasionally Atletico Madrid competing for the league crown. In turn, Messi often plays against relatively inferior talent, which inflates his league statistics to the obscene levels we see season after season. Again, this is not to diminish the mans ability and league accomplishments, I am merely putting them into the proper context.

Messi is a highlight machine. He is extremely capable of brilliant moments. But it cannot be glossed over that he has yet to win a single trophy with the senior Argentine national team (the Olympic gold medal from 2008 is not senior level international play). With that in mind, I fail to see how someone could be considered the GOAT without winning a single major trophy internationally. The international level is the pinnacle of our sport. It is where legends are made. And while yes I do understand that soccer is a team sport of course, thus Argentina’s failure to win on the grand stage isn’t all Messi's fault, it cannot be dismissed so haphazardly.

Statistics generally can provide the foundation for any argument, but one area of his game I find to be lacking that doesn't show up on the stat sheet is that Messi seems mentally weak. He reminds me of Lebron James early in his basketball career. Both are amazing frontrunners and ride the momentum of success to its maximum potential, but when the cards are stacked up against Messi, he often crumbles. He consistently wears a look of dejection on his face when his teams are down. True leaders, the true greats carry themselves accordingly no matter what the situation. Messi does not and that propensity for glumness cannot be ignored. How many penalty kicks has he missed on the grandest of stages? He “retired” after the COPA America tournament in 2016 because Argentina once again came up short in a final and he couldn’t handle the aftermath.  To me, all of those are signs of mental weakness, and as far as I am concerned whoever you label the GOAT cannot be lacking in mental fortitude. 

World Cup 2018
While both Ronaldo and Messi were bounced prematurely from this years World Cup, there is no doubt Ronaldo showed far better than his legendary counterpart. Messi was invisible throughout large segments of this tournament. CR7 was ruthless in every game. Even when he wasn’t scoring, he was involving himself in the play. He was attacking the ball. He wanted the ball. He would throw his body at aerial chances. Messi on the other hand was too dejected to involve himself often enough to make an impact. If the soccer gods were compassionate and just, one tournament probably wouldn't make or break a career. But I think this World Cup was poor for Messi. The perch in which the GOAT sits is extremely flimsy. If at some juncture Messi truly did overthrow Pele as the GOAT, then I think this World Cup saw the Brazilian legend ascend back to the top spot. 

CR7 Is Better
In my humble opinion, after this tournament Cristiano Ronaldo went on to dethrone Messi from the top spot of their respective generation. That battle has been neck and neck for a decade now, but when you look at both of their careers, CR7 gets the nod for a multitude of reasons. Ronaldo has been successful in both the EPL and the La Liga. The EPL collectively has more more talent and depth, making regular season accomplishments more significant. Ronaldo also led Portugal to the UEFA European championship in 2016. When you throw this World Cup into the mix, to me CR7 takes the cake. Messi still has plenty of time left in his career to fully and unarguably attain the number one position. But as of today, right now he isn’t even the best player of his generation. How could the runner-up of a generation be the king of all kings?
 

Soccer... The Time Has Come For A Zero-Tolerance 'No Diving' Policy!!!

“Diving has become a real problem in soccer worldwide. It is a form of cheating. But if the opponent dives and gains an advantage by drawing a penalty kick or a free kick, our player would feel he is letting our team down if he doesn’t try to gain that same advantage. So the answer is better refereeing. But the real answer is video review after games and punishing the divers to eliminate it from the game.” 
– LA Galaxy Head Coach, Sigi Schmid (October 2009)


As the title suggests, my goal with this article is to see that the global soccer community backs the implementation of a zero-tolerance NO DIVING policy. 

What Is Diving?
Diving is an attempt by a player to gain an unfair advantage, by falling to the ground and feigning an injury or to appear as if a foul has been committed in a situation in which one did not occur. Diving is an embarrassing and deceitful act that must be eradicated from our sport. It spits in the face of the integrity of soccer. Diving is cheating. It is lying. It is stealing from the game. 

Why Is Diving So Prevalent? 
Unfortunately, the issue at hand is that most of the soccer playing world do not see diving as problematic. In contrast to the traditional "American way" of soccer, which is preaching to play tough, keep working, battle for your position, etc. much of the rest of the world (I am looking at you Italy, South America, Central America, Western Europe) views the act as a legitimate segment of the game. A dive in their eyes is no different than passing, dribbling, heading etc.

It Is Just Part Of The Game
It is unfathomable to me how often diving is justified by folks who declare “it is just part of the game”. Excuse me!? For the love of everything holy please clue me in on how and why diving magically just became part of the 90 minute package. If diving is allowed to continue simply due to the old adage “it is just part of the game” then we are complicit in destroying the very thing we love. And for a sport that prides itself on being progressive and cutting edge in all aspects, both on and off the field, I find that excuse to be lazy and hypocritical. 

A Zero-Tolerance 'No Diving' Policy
To combat this lunacy, I propose we launch an all-out assault on diving. Let's create a fancy attention grabbing hashtag. Something that will kick off a global movement to eliminate this circus. Let's make so much noise that the soccer muckety mucks within FIFA become aware of it and clue them in that the soccer world wants change. Whatever it takes to obliterate this ugliness from the beautiful game. PLEASE! I submit an action of zero-tolerance. No wiggle room. No mercy on divers. 

Implementation
Implementing a radical change like this may seem drastic and nearly impossible to some of you, but I respectfully disagree. If referees make it a point to dole out cards for diving, followed up by league disciplinary committees retroactively and aggressively fining and suspending players for diving, the ramifications would be swift. Taking it a step further, players with numerous infractions over the course of a season will see their TEAM also be punished via hefty fines and sanctions. Once actual teams and franchises start being fined, you can bet that diving will disintegrate in no time. Owners will not tolerate losing finances over this buffoonery.  

Positive Aftermath of Change
This is a win-win-win all across the board. Fans win because we get to see some of the finest athletes in the world actually play soccer unencumbered. Attacking players will be more inclined to play through hard challenges because now they don’t have a cheap call to bail them out. And defensive players will be able to actually defend and not shy away from challenges. Furthermore, the referees job will become easier, as officials will no longer have to decipher between a bona fide foul and those that are fabricated.

I have now pled my case to eliminate diving. If after reviewing this article you still feel diving should stay part of our sport, please let me know your reasoning. I am open to discussion. However, at this juncture I wholeheartedly believe that diving is detrimental. I challenge you to change my mind!



 

Where oh where is Caleb Porter?

 

It has been seven months since the shocking and perplexing resignation of Caleb Porter from the Portland Timbers. And in that amount of time, outside of the banal platitudes from Caleb thanking the city of Portland and Timbers management for the time, we have yet to hear anything of substance from the man. Timbers owner, Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson have also been fairly mum on the situation. My assumption was that they were as caught off guard by the move as the rest of us.

Even more surprising, we have yet to hear any rumblings from people behind the scenes. My assumption was that one of the various soccer news breakers would have a story in the following months about what led to the departure. Taylor Twellman, Grant Wahl, Brian Straus, Alexi Lalas, none of these guys have said one iota about it.

Plenty of thoughts and conspiracies were kicked around at the time. One hypothesis was Caleb wanted to have more player personnel involvement and was rebuffed by management. If true, it would be a fair request given his success at the club. Another was that Porter was unhappy with not being able to bring on his own handpicked assistants. The majority of the staff under him were holdovers from previous coach, John Spencer. One would presume that after five years of working in tandem with this group, a rapport was established and a working relationship was in full order.

A third rumor floating around was that Porter had his eyes on the FC Cincinnati gig, given their move from the USL to MLS was all but assured. Presumably, Porter and his family had the urge to be back in Ohio, where he had a successful collegiate career. Undoubtedly, he would have the red carpet rolled out for him in Cincinnati, being able to build his own staff and essentially build the roster from scratch. While the prospect is enticing, I am not so sure that is the case either.

Perhaps Porter would have interest, but who is to say FC Cincy would be so quick to cut ties with current head coach, Alan Koch? FCC had a remarkably successful U.S. Open Cup run last year with Koch leading the way, advancing to the semi-finals and only narrowly losing 3-2 to the New York Red Bulls. Would FCC be so inclined to ditch their up and coming coach for Porter? Maybe. Would Porter have any interest in such a move? Who knows? That is the quandary here, none of us have heard a peep from him to know one way or the other.   

I would gladly welcome Caleb Porter manning a sideline in Major League Soccer again. Yes, he has plenty of supporters and detractors, but love him or hate him the man knows X’s and O’s and his subtle candor is an aspect of Porter I embrace. An MLS with Caleb Porter is a better MLS for all. So Caleb, where are you? What is next for you? Come on out and say hello! You are sorely missed!

 

Return from a Soccer Sabbatical… Why I left and Why I Came Back

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the summer of 1994 was a crossroads of sorts in my life. The United Sates hosting World Cup 94 was my first formal introduction to the sport of soccer. A mere month after the World Cup Final I found myself playing on my first organized team. From that day forward soccer has been a pillar in my life.

Whether as a player, coach, scout, writer or as a rabid hooligan, the sport has been my go-to for nearly a quarter century. I have even been blessed enough to make a living through soccer. First as a member of the sales staff for multiple Major League Soccer teams, to coaching at a variety of levels, and also through scouting. Furthermore, my closest friends in life have all been due to bonding through soccer.

Given the positive impact soccer has been for me, it was concerning when I hit a point of contention in 2017 as I began to loathe the beautiful game. I bring this up not to sound melancholy or whiny, but because this was a massive paradigm shift in my life. I have always been known by friends, family, and acquaintances as the “soccer guy” so to completely swing the other way and have zero interest in soccer was perplexing.

What caused such a swing in feelings? Well, it was the proverbial “three strikes and you’re out” cliché…

Strike 1: The USMNT not qualifying for the World Cup
Obviously, this was a calamity for all of us! No doubt about it. The fallout and irrational response by many fans afterwards also added to my despondence. The Bruce Arena hatred, the MLS abuse, etc. As if losing out on playing in the World Cup wasn’t bad enough, the aftermath within the U.S. Soccer community was nauseating.

Strike 2: Major League Soccer and Anthony Precourt hijacking the Crew from Columbus
With little to no discernible warning the Columbus Crew were said to be all but packed up and set to relocate to Austin, Texas. The shock and dismay I felt when reading that headline for the first time was a surreal moment for me. While World Cup 94 was the spark of my love affair for soccer, the Columbus Crew were the gas that set things ablaze.

Born and raised in Columbus, the Crew were a massive part of my adolescence. Counting through my ticket stubs, I have attended upwards of 100 home Crew games from 1998 to 2011 (I moved out of Ohio in 2011). Yes, over the years I began following other teams more closely, but the Crew still held a special place in my heart. To witness MLS and a slime ball new owner band together to pry the inaugural MLS franchise from Central Ohio was deceitful and stomach churning.

Maybe it was my own fault for being so naive to think that “my league” wouldn’t architect such a move. The league that I supported, worked for and loved for two decades was stabbing me and all of Central Ohio in the back. The new shiny toy of Austin was all the rage, while the pillar of U.S. soccer that is Columbus was being left in the rear view mirror. Many might say “such is life” to such action, but a nostalgic like myself doesn’t condone that type of conduct.

Strike 3: Corruption running rampant in soccer
FIFA being FIFA… Again, more naivety from me, but after such a public shit storm with the bribery scandals and with the appointment of a new FIFA president, I had hoped Qatar would be stripped of their World Cup hosting duties in 2022. Why reward a country with the honor of hosting the biggest sporting event in the world after such reprehensible and audacious actions? And don’t get me started on the slave labor they are invoking to build the entire infrastructure necessary to host the global phenomena. It is absurd this sham is still moving forward.

Then when all the rumors were circulating that North America may not be awarded the 2026 World Cup due to President Trumps “Muslim ban” irked me. Would FIFA actually take the risk of hosting the event in Morocco over North America due to political skirmishes? Unbelievable and unacceptable!

My reluctant return
My return to following the game again after a seven month layoff is still relatively new and conceivably I have plenty of catching up to do. I have become aware that MLS expansion is trudging on with Nashville and Cincinnati, the Timbers are on fire, Alan Gordon is doing Alan Gordon type things, the USMNT is young and spry, and the World Cup is in play, all of which are positive aspects to focus on.

The onus is on me to ignore the political games within the sport and instead focus on the features I love about MLS and U.S. Soccer. What are some of those features, you ask? Here goes…  First Kick, Mike Petke, Bruce Arena, Caleb Porter, Sigi Schmid, Bob Bradley. Crew Stadium, Red Bull Arena, Alan Gordon, Diego Valeri, Providence Park, MLS parity, Alan Kelly, the ginger ninja Dax McCarty, Geoff Cameron, Kyle Martino, Eric Wynalda, Brian Dunseth, Dwight Burgess, John Strong, MLS expansion, the goals, the saves, community comradery, Tim Howard, Zlatan, Dempsey face, the list could go on and on.

I’ll let the business and politics be handled by the suits in New York. Isn’t that why we love competition and sport? Because it provides a reprieve from the business shenanigans that we all loathe? I missed the sport. Despite all of the hullabaloo it’s good to be back!
 

The Old ‘Politics in Sports’ Battle Rages On

It seems preposterous to me that I feel the need to even throw out any type of disclaimer, but in this ultra-sensitive world we seem to reside in nowadays, I will disclaim away… I do not care one iota about what a person’s sexual preference is or isn’t. Be straight, be gay, be bi-sexual, whatever you damn well please.  HOWEVER… I do have an issue when politics enter the realm of sport. I also find it curious that whether someone is gay or straight or somewhere in between is somehow a political issue to begin with, but clearly that is the reality. 

Take the recent hullabaloo of USWNT player, Jaelene Hinkle for example. In June of 2017, the North Carolina Courage defender was named to the USWNT’s roster, but refused the call-up, citing “personal reasons.” In a recent interview, the devout Christian explained that her decision was motivated by her desire not to wear the USWNT’s special LGBTQ Pride Month jersey. Naturally, that created a one hell of a kerfuffle within the niche world of women’s soccer.

At a recent National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) match in Portland, Oregon, Hinkle was ridiculed, booed incessantly and mocked by the home crowds most ardent fans. A banner set to mock Hinkle, spelled “Personal Reasons” in all rainbow letters and was displayed prominently throughout the contest. Amusingly enough, a mere few feet away from the “Personal Reasons” banner was a sign that declaimed “Rose City Welcomes All”. Oh, the irony! 

To reiterate, Hinkle made this decision a year ago and didn’t make any announcement about her motivations. Even in discussing it with the 700 Club, she presented this information in passing while discussing her lifelong faith and entire soccer career. It wasn’t Hinkle who made the jersey snub the focal point of the interview. Her conviction was paramount to her personally and she did not plead for others to follow suit, as many other athletes have in recent times. 

I find the commingling of sports and politics to be exhausting. Yet, for whatever the reason the world of soccer (whoever and whatever that may incorporate) seems dedicated to jumbling the two commodities. In fact, Major League Soccer is amid a marketing campaign known as “Soccer for All”, which according to mlssoccer.com “…signifies that everyone is welcome to MLS, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.” Apparently, someone forgot that “religion” does include Christianity.

The absurdity of soccer jerseys being thrust into the political domain is downright idiotic. Even more absurd is the paradox between the “Soccer for All” campaign and the backlash being thrust upon Jaelene Hinkle. It appears that in this politically divisive soccer world, you will wear the jersey celebrating gay pride or you will be cast aside. Hinkle elected to stay steadfast in her beliefs, and to her credit she has refrained from engaging in Colin Kaepernick or Abby Wambach-level grandstanding. Instead, she sought to live her life by her own terms, a trait I find commendable. 

Soccer would be much more satisfying if it kept the competition and sport at the forefront, rather than using the sport as a vehicle to push political agendas. I love the X’s and O’s of the sport, I cherish the goals, the saves, the combination play, the fan reaction to play, etc. Isn’t that why we found ourselves enthralled with the sport to begin with? How and why did we allow our great sport to morph into this conduit of political boasting? I earnestly beg you to join me in putting the action within the white lines, on the green grass first and keeping this political showboating in the rear-view mirror. What do you say?