Soccer

What four players should be etched into Crew immortality?

As we near the kickoff of Columbus Crew SC’s 24th season, I thought a retrospect was in order to review and appreciate the most integral players in team history. With such a look back, we decided to anoint a Crew Mount Rushmore, consisting of the four players who most uniquely personify the embodiment of Columbus Crew soccer.

How does one gain status on the Crew Mount Rushmore, you ask? My criteria is a loose mix of on-field production, accomplishments away from the Crew that enhanced the team, off the field status, and overall lasting legacy. It was a tough process to dwindle it down to only four players, but after much pondering we came to a conclusion.

Before we unveil the fantastic four, how about if we reflect on the journey of Major League Soccer’s original franchise?

The Early Days
In 1996, the inaugural season, saw a rag-tag group of players take the pitch at Ohio Stadium. Future U.S. Men’s National Team superstar and first ever draft pick, Brian McBride, was the linchpin of the squad. Polish international, Robert Warzycha, also became a critical member for the team in the original campaign. His contributions continued with the club for nearly two decades as both a player and coach. Center back Mike Clark, was another foundational player of the teams early years. His solid, workman-like defending spearheaded the teams backline for nearly a decade.

Those late 1990’s seasons saw the rise of soon-to-be international goalkeeping extraordinaire, Brad Friedel. He reached double digit shutouts in a mere season and a half manning the Crew goal. His brief tenure with the club set the standard for goalkeeping in Columbus. Trinidad born striker, Stern John went on to score more than 50 goals in just two seasons with the the Black & Gold. Despite both players massive success, their contributions were too short-lived to earn Mount Rushmore status.

After Friedel embarked on a career in England, the Crew kept their stellar play between the pipes with unheralded goalkeeper, Mark Dougherty. He led the league in goals against average and even pitched a shutout in the first ever game at Crew Stadium in May of 1999. He was also the first MLS goalkeeper to reach 50 wins. Crew regular season goal scoring record holder, Jeff Cunningham joined the squad in 1998 but his ascension from super-sub to regular starter began in 1999. He went on to score 64 goals for the Crew, still a team record.

MLS Cup Champions
Remember when the MLS SuperDraft actually mattered? We do, and so does Chad Marshall. One of the league’s all-time great defenders was drafted by the Crew with the second overall pick in 2004. The 6-foot-4 stalwart became the leader of the Black & Gold defense for 10 seasons.

USMNT veteran, Frankie Hejduk joined the club in 2003 and captained the team for several seasons, leading the squad to its first and only MLS Cup victory in 2008. McBride left for Fulham after the 2003 season, leaving the Crew without a true attacking superstar until 2007, when Guillermo Barros Schelotto made his debut. The crafty Argentine was the motor of Columbus’ attack that won that aforementioned MLS Cup. His ability was wide ranging, as both a master creator and dead ball specialist. For those of you newer Crew fans, think Federico Higuain before Federico Higuain was a thing.

A couple of unsung heroes during the mid-2000’s Columbus teams were midfielder, Eddie Gaven and goalkeeper Will Hesmer. Gaven’s versatility earned him a championship ring and over 200 appearances with the club. Hesmer holds the club record for shutouts with 41 and he is the only starting ‘keeper in team history to bring home an MLS Cup.

The 2010’s
This last decade has seen the rise of homegrown product, Wil Trapp, the acquisition of Federico Higuain, and longtime winger, Justin Meram. Trapp is a local player that climbed the ladder from the Crew Academy program, to earning the armband as the senior team’s captain. Higuain picked up where Schelotto left off, becoming the team’s engine and offensive maestro. Meram possesses skill and ability, but his work along the sidelines as winger has garnered him top 10 accolades in both goals and appearances for the Black & Gold.

As mentioned previously, find just four players in the rich history of the club was difficult. Given the cavalcade of quality goalkeepers that have dawned the Crew shield over the years, one not finding their place on the mountain top was somewhat surprising. Ultimately, we decided on four field players that we believe are the pillars and foundation of Columbus Crew soccer. So, without further ado, here is the Massive Report Columbus Crew Mount Rushmore:

Brian McBride
The Crew’s first ever draft pick and USMNT superstar. McBride’s ability on the field and willingness to shoulder the brunt of the team’s marketing efforts during the early days were essential for the club to gain stability in the market. He is/was a class act on and off the field and recently returned to play in the Save The Crew match with other former players near Crew Stadium.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto
He lacked the longevity of the other players on this list, as GBS came to Columbus at the twilight of his career, but his achievements were second to none. He enhanced the teammates around him and made the small market club a big time winner.

Federico Higuain
Entering his eighth season in Columbus, Higuain continues to be the Crew’s engine on the field and its figurehead off of it. He is a phenom on dead balls and can create as well as score within the run of play. He may even take over the regular season goal scoring title from Jeff Cunningham by this seasons end.

Frankie Hejduk
Frankie is the team’s brand ambassador today and rightfully so. He was a star on the field with his energetic play and leadership capabilities. A member and team captain of the MLS Cup championship team, Frankie is a high-spirited and energetic person. Those traits were palpable watching him bomb up and down the wing, and continue to be in his current team role today.

Honorable Mention: Robert Warzycha, Jeff Cunningham, Chad Marshall

Well, there you go, Crew fans! What do you think of my Crew Mount Rushmore? Who would be on your Crew monument? What other players should be under consideration? Let us know your thoughts.

Roster versus Roster... How Caleb Porter's Crew may mimic the Timbers of Old

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When Caleb Porter took over the Portland Timbers in 2013, he implemented a high-press, possession-oriented system of play. The playing style and he became so synonymous with one another, it was dubbed "Porterball". The system created turnovers by utilizing a staunch pressing defense to minimize the oppositions time and space. The Timbers offense would then meticulously maintain possession using quick combination passing, and pacey transitions. Positive results followed.

Prior to manning the sidelines for Portland, Porter built an NCAA powerhouse at Akron University using the Porterball system. Given his success and accomplishments in the NCAA ranks, it only seemed natural that such a style could seamlessly transition to MLS. Though, Porter’s early success with the Timbers waned over time. Opposing clubs learned how to disrupt Porterball, and the high-risk / high-reward style wore on the Timbers players, so Porter had to adjust. His offensive oriented system slowly but surely started to lean more on defending his own goal and utilize a quick counterattack to tally goals. His willingness and ability to change and adapt was a good sign of growth for Porter. Many coaches will live and later die by their own stubbornness to change.

Fast forward to Porter’s MLS Cup championship winning team in 2015, the two most critical acquisitions for the Timbers were not attacking players, but surprisingly two centerbacks. Longtime MLS veteran, Nat Borchers, and England product, Liam Ridgewell were acquired post-Porterball, solidifying the team with their defensive prowess and remarkable leadership. The re-tooled backline was nearly impossible to penetrate.

A question that only time will be able to answer is, whether or not Porter has aspirations to play a similar system and style with the Crew? If yes, how congruent is the current Crew roster to that of the 2015 Timbers? Obviously, this current Crew roster is a work-in-progress, as the offseason is in full swing, and Porter only today was officially announced as head coach. Regardless, let's compare and contrast some of the key cogs from Porter’s MLS titlists to today’s Columbus Crew.

Goalkeepers
Adam Kwarasey v Zack Steffen & Joe Bendik
Steffen is far and away the creme de la creme of this group. Forget his 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award win, forget his pending transfer to the Manchester City group. As a goalkeeper, Steffen is just heads and shoulders above the others listed. He is a superior athlete, he is composed beyond his years, and as much as he says he despises penalty kick shootouts, Steffen is extremely effective in making the much-needed key save. Zack is also very capable at starting the Crew’s attack from the back via his distribution.

Kwarasey was athletic and a sound shot-stopper, as is very underrated recent acquisition, Joe Bendik. However, when Steffen leaves Columbus this summer, I honestly do not believe the Crew will be taking as much of a step back as overzealous fans would have you believe. Bendik is a phenomenal shot-stopper and above average with his distribution. He performed incredibly well on an atrocious Orlando City team over the last couple of seasons. So Crew fans, don’t sleep on Joe. The guy can hold it down between the posts. Porter is set in goal with Steffen today and Bendik tomorrow.
Advantage: Crew

Right Back
Alvas Powell v Harrison Afful
Afful is a vastly more experienced player than Powell was at this point in his career, though the two are similar in their roles. Powell has always relied on his pure athleticism to get by, which led to a myriad of mistakes his first few seasons in Portland. Afful is astute and sound in his game and more dangerous to provide service in the attacking third. He is also one of only two players to have played and started in every Crew game in 2018. Afful is most certainly a weapon Coach Porter can rely on, without the unnerving fear that Powell brought to the table.
Advantage: Crew.

Centerbacks
Nat Borchers & Liam Ridgewell v Jonathan Mensah / Lalas Abubakar / Gaston Sauro
The centerback duo is where we will see the biggest discrepancy. Mensah and Abubakar are both stout and capable centerbacks, but the resounding decrease in pedigree and experience is massive. Borchers was the consummate pro, the grizzled MLS vet who knew the league inside and out. And his beard was miraculous, which carried along with it a slogan… “Fear the Beard”. Ridgy brought the international derivation from soccer’s motherland. The two together were a damn near impenetrable wall.

Mensah is the more seasoned of the two current Columbus centerbacks. Abubakar has the emotion and youthful exuberance of a young player, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Ridgewell was very technically sound with the ball at his feet, and he provided a higher capability of build up play from the back. While Abubakar has improved in this area since being selected 5th overall by the Crew in the 2017 MLS Draft, he and Mensah are lightyears behind Ridgewell in that category. Is that a downfall Porter is willing to manage and seek to coach up? Or might he rate higher the likes of former Boca Juniors product, Gaston Sauro, and slot him in that role? Might he look elsewhere? I would bet so.
Advantage: Timbers

Left Back
Jorge Villafaña v Milton Valenzuela
Young Designated Player, Milton Valenzuela is a player I believe Porter will cherish. The pacey outside back is the exact type of player Porter sought out in Villafana when he was acquired in 2014. While Villafana had his up and down moments, he blossomed into a steady and accountable left back for the Timbers. He eventually earned time with the U.S. Men’s National Team as well. Valenzuela is projecting a higher ceiling than Villafana ever did at the ripe young age of 20. Milton is someone I believe Porter will lean on and push to another level.
Advantage: Crew

Central Midfield
Darlington Nagbe / Diego Chará / Diego Valeri v Federico Higuain / Wil Trapp / Artur
Ah yes, the central midfield is/was the bread and butter of Porter’s most successful team. Valeri and Higuain are near mirror replicas of one another in a variety of ways. Both are Argentinian, both won MLS Newcomer of the Year awards during their first years in the league (Valeri in 2013 & Higuain in 2012), both are dynamic and visionary, with the ability to create and score. Both are the prototypical # 10’s. While Higuain may not have the stamina and motor that Valeri did, the strengths and abilities are indistinguishable.

Not unlike Darlington Nagbe, Crew captain Wil Trapp also played for Porter at University of Akron. While Trapp is more of a connector on the field, as his job is to link the backline to the midfield, Nagbe was more of a swiss army knife. It took several seasons under Porter before he found his niche within the center mid. Porter tried him at winger, in the attack, and all throughout the center midfield. He seemed to roam, while Trapp holds steady in front of his defense.

Diego Chara was the engine for the Timbers. He had bite in his tackles, bulldozed his way through opposing players, and earned a record number of fouls and cards. On the other hand, Artur, is steadier and even keeled. He is undoubtedly an unsung hero for the Crew. Where Chara may be the loud diesel engine that roars in a Dodge Ram pickup truck, Artur is the quieter and more efficient electric motor of a Tesla.

The current crop of center mids of this Crew roster are perfectly suited for Porter style soccer (and I don’t necessarily mean Porterball). The aforementioned three are a fantastic blend of skill and determination. More finesses than power, but not particularly lacking in either department. Coach Porter can easily plug and play with this current group from day one, though I do think the Timbers had the better overall core.
Advantage: Timbers

Wingers
Lucas Melano & Rodney Wallace v Justin Meram & Pedro Santos
Melano was a massive disappointment under Porter in Portland. He was such an unmitigated disaster, he was loaned off for a year and a half, in hopes that he would play his way out of town. Melano didn’t perform at a high enough level while on loan, and he was reluctantly brought back to the Timbers last summer.

This is more or less the polar opposite of Justin Meram’s time with Columbus. From 2011 to 2017, Meram was one of the Crew’s most prolific scorers. He ended his 2017 season with 13 goals, finishing second on the team. However, in the offseason he requested a trade from central Ohio and was shipped away to a dreadful Orlando City team. While playing in the purple kits, Meram managed a measly one goal and one assist. He eventually found his way back to Columbus with the hope now he will be comfortable again and able to play to his previous standards.

Rodney Wallace was an integral member of the Timbers title team. His left-foot provided goals and pinpoint crosses. His pace and grit up-and-down the wing was unmatched. I was astonished the Timbers allowed him to walk after that season. He outplayed his contract and rightfully demanded more money, but the Timbers balked, and off Wallace went to Europe. He eventually found his way back to MLS with NYC FC. Too bad he didn’t join Coach Porter in the black and gold.

Remember that grit and pace I babbled on about Wallace earlier? Well, that is not quite the same vernacular I would use to describe Crew winger, Pedro Santos. While talented and crafty on paper, he spends far too much of his actual game minutes flopping and/or being knocked off the ball too easily. He is averaging exactly one-half (.5) of a goal per season, during his stint in Columbus. Porter should look to upgrade here, pronto.
Advantage: None

Center Forward
Fanendo Adi v Gyasi Zardes
Like many strikers, Fanendo Adi is a very streaky goalscorer. I swear it seemed as if he scored either two goals per game or none. If you look up “brace” in the soccer dictionary, I am certain you will see Adi’s picture. The 6’4 long and rangy #9 was the proverbial bull in a china shop while roaming the 18-yard box. Adi netted 54 goals over five MLS seasons with the Timbers.

Zardes reemerged as one of the leagues premier goal producers in 2018, his first season with the Crew. After lighting the league on fire in 2014 with LA Galaxy when he accumulated 16 goals, he crashed back down to earth from 2015 to 2017, where he combined for a sparse 14 goals over three seasons. He was dealt to Columbus prior to last year and found the back of the net a staggering 19 times. Barring a Crew sophomore slump, Zardes is the type of player Porter can count on in the right system. While I am not so certain Caleb will garner another 19-goal output from Zardes or any one player for that matter, as Porter teams generally tend to score by committee (minus Valeri’s 21 goal spree in 2017), I do foresee Zardes being a consistent goal manufacturer again.
Advantage: Timbers

Depth
Will Johnson / Jack Jewsbury / Maximiliano Urruti v Josh Williams & Nico Hansen
One area in which the current Crew roster is lacking in comparison to the Timbers of old, is depth and veteran leadership. The Timbers had the likes of Will Johnson and Jack Jewsbury. Both of which were MLS stalwarts and who had long-lasting fruitful careers within the league.

Even Maxi Urruti was a forward who could be counted on to score in a pinch. At one point, he and Adi seemed to be juggling between the starting lineup, as Porter only played with one striker. The depth was critical to the team’s championship run.

I am quite certain the lack of veteran depth today will refrain from being an issue once Porter and new general manager, Tim Bezbatchenko start moving and shaking. Do not be surprised to see battle tested Jewsbury / Johnson type players into the fold sooner rather than later.
Advantage: Timbers

The Future is Bright
All and all, I think this Porter led Crew team is setup for immediate success. Furthermore, the squad has enough young building blocks to sustain that success for a lengthy run. A young roster, two young guns in charge (Porter and Bez), a new energized ownership group, a reinvigorated fan base, and soon enough a brand spanking new stadium, Columbus will be a formidable foe in MLS for years to come.
Advantage: Crew

Timbers versus Crew at Crew Stadium from my vantage point during the 2015 MLS Cup.

Timbers versus Crew at Crew Stadium from my vantage point during the 2015 MLS Cup.

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.

Thank you, Anthony Precourt

Having experienced a roller coaster ride of emotions since the news broke that Anthony Precourt was exploring the possibility of moving the Crew to Austin, Texas, the last 14 months have been a long and tumultuous ride for central Ohio soccer fans. A year of uncertainty has only recently become much more clear and temperate.

Nearly a year to the day that it seemed all but inevitable that the Crew would be stolen from the market, some favorable news was delivered. Cleveland Browns owner, Jimmy Haslam, proclaimed in October of this year, his intentions to purchase the Crew and permanently keep them in Columbus. While nothing was official at the time, and still no formal announcement has yet been made, for all intents and purposes the purchase is a done deal. Behind the scenes a great deal of financial T’s are being crossed and business I’s are being dotted. An official proclamation is expected in the coming days.

A little more than a month after that declaration, it was announced that once a new downtown stadium is assembled in 2021, current Crew Stadium (I’ll never refer to it as MAPFRE Stadium) will be re-purposed to be a community sports park. The sports park will feature indoor basketball courts, a full-size indoor soccer field, numerous outdoor sports grounds, two MLS practice fields and additional green space. The park will also house the Crew's new training facility.

A mere 24 hours after the re-purposing announcement, the exact locale of the future Crew Stadium was reported. Mister Haslam and local investors teamed up to design a new state-of-the-art $230 million soccer stadium, to be erected in a new developing downtown district called Confluence Village. The district will consist of a 20,000-seat soccer stadium, a community greenspace and new commercial/residential units. The overall estimated cost is pushing $650 million, which includes purchasing the rights of the Crew franchise, constructing the new stadium and developing the surrounding area.

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To further solidify that the Crew would remain in central Ohio, earlier this week Major League Soccer announced the dates of each clubs 2019 home opener. What seemed like an improbability just a mere year ago, was now a guarantee. The Crew will kickoff the 2019 season versus longtime Eastern Conference foe, New York Red Bulls on March 2nd. Yes, the Columbus Crew are here to stay!

With the array of grand news and given that today is Christmas Eve, it only makes sense to say thanks to those deserving of such sentiment. I would like to extend a heartfelt 'Thank you' to anyone and everyone who kept the #SaveTheCrew dream alive.

Thank you to Jimmy Haslam and family for stepping up financially, securing the Crews future.

Thank you to the leaders of the #SaveTheCrew movement. Your never say die attitude rallied the community.

Thank you, fellow MLS supporters, for coming together and supporting the #SaveTheCrew movement from afar.

Thank you to Alex Fischer for pushing the #SaveTheCrew initiative within the business sector.

Thank you, Dr. Pete Edwards for being the figurehead and ongoing team connection.

Thank you, Alejandro Moreno for being a prominent and boisterous soccer pundit who kept pushing the #SaveTheCrew narrative at every chance.

Thank you to Crew alumni’s, Kyle Martino and Dante Washington for spearheading the Crew Legends Reunion game back in October.

Thank you, Austin soccer fans. Thank you for taking that wolf in sheeps clothing off our hands.

And last but certainly not least, thank you, Anthony Precourt. Inadvertently or not, your shameful business tactics brought Columbus soccer fans, local businesses, and city leadership together. You made our soccer community more bonded, stronger, and cohesive. Maybe as a soccer market we became a bit complacent. Perhaps we took the Crew for granted. Often in life, we fail to appreciate a person, place or thing until it is gone. Unfortunately, there are times where hitting rock bottom is ideal and needed. Thank you for bringing us back together by attempting to tear us apart. Thank you for putting the spotlight back on our market, allowing Columbus to once again shine bright within the U.S. Soccer sphere. Maybe, just maybe you are the best-worst thing to have ever happened to our fine city. Thank you, Anthony!

Let’s go Crew!

Bruce Arena for Crew GM?? Yes, please! Crew fans should rejoice!

In my 34 years of life on this planet, you would think my astonishment of idiocy within sports fandom would have been long dismantled. When they are at their best, sports fan can be passionate, knowledgeable and logical. Though at their worst, they can be emotional, fickle, reactionary and at times just plain old dumb. Want a perfect example of this? Take the breaking news from today of Bruce Arena potentially being the next Columbus Crew general manager. There are actually a contingent of Crew fans out there that have the gall and audacity to speak negatively of this potential hire. Clearly, those are the ‘plain old dumb’ ones I referenced previously!

The vocal minority of sport fans never cease to amaze me with their ill informed, uneducated and emphatic opinions. We have all heard it before, whether at a sports bar, a stadium, or even at a gathering with friends watching a sporting event at home. The guy who states the most moronic opinion with such gusto, where all we can do is scratch our heads in bewilderment. Plain and simple, any Crew fans not losing their minds in excitement over this potential move just simply do not get it.

Unfortunately, the manner in which a significant chunk of U.S. Soccer fans overreacted and now dismiss this mans mountain of accomplishments, due to one fateful night in Trinidad is surreal. Did Arena fail as USMNT coach in that game? Of course! He is at fault, as are the players who strolled into that game feeling entitled and guaranteed of a positive result. In the 11th hour of World Cup qualifying, Arena was handed a pile of crap by Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer, and was asked to turn it into some sort of gold. U.S. Soccer failed, and Arena will forever unceremoniously go down as the face of that embarrassing failure.

Regardless, he could retire today and his career would truly be legendary. And I don’t use that term haphazardly. I am adamant that within U.S. Soccer circles, it doesn’t get much more legendary than Bruce Arena. Don’t believe me? Here is a snapshot of his coaching accomplishments, spanning from the college ranks to the international level:

University of Virginia
College Cup (5): 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994
ACC Men's Soccer Tournament (6): 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995

D.C. United
MLS Cup (2): 1996, 1997
MLS Supporters' Shield: 1997
MLS Eastern Conference (3): 1996, 1997, 1998
U.S. Open Cup: 1996
CONCACAF Champions' Cup: 1998
Interamerican Cup: 1998

LA Galaxy
MLS Cup (3): 2011, 2012, 2014
MLS Supporters' Shield (2): 2010, 2011
MLS Western Conference (4): 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014

MLS Coach of the Year: 1997, 2009, 2011

USMNT
CONCACAF Gold Cup (3): 2002, 2005, 2017
World Cup Quarterfinal 2002
Most USMNT wins
Highest winning percentage in USMNT history

Yes, those are accomplishments as a head coach, not a general manager. I get that 100%, but Bruce was also the GM for LA Galaxy. Yes, the Galaxy do have gobs of finances and resources to build a championship caliber roster, I understand that completely. But he is a proven winner and someone who understands how to navigate the murky personnel waters of Major League Soccer.

When the news first leaked on Monday afternoon that a GM with “strong ties to MLS and U.S. Soccer” was being considered, naturally my initial thought was Bruce Arena. I was being just as facetious as I was serious. Not thinking that a man as accomplished and with the clout of Bruce Arena would be interested in taking charge of the Columbus Crew. His accomplishments are wide-ranging and a mile deep. One blip, no matter how mammoth, should take away from that. Columbus Crew fans should be ecstatic at the possibility of Arena in this role. With much emphasis and gusto, I say, bring on The Bruce!

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Why Berhalter is the Correct Choice for USMNT Coach

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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.

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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.   

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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

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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.  

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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!



 

Captain America Roots For Mexico?

I would be remiss if I didn’t share a few words about this whole Landon Donovan rooting for Mexico controversy. Let’s start from the top… If you didn’t see it over the weekend, former USMNT team captain Landon Donovan shared on Twitter a picture of him holding up a Mexico soccer scarf that read “Mexico Is My Other Team” and his tweet stated: 

"The tournament is here! USA fans, our team may not be in Russia, but our neighbors to the south are. So join me and their proud #sponsor @WellsFargo to cheer on our other team, Mexico @miseleccionmxEN. ¡Vamos México!"

Ok, we have so much to unpack here. First, Landon Donovan isn’t just any average USMNT player. He has been the face of U.S. Soccer for nearly 20 years. In retirement he is still one of the most recognizable U.S. players to the casual American soccer fan. He shouldered the burden of Major League Soccer for his entire career. He is a pillar in U.S. Soccer and a member of the U.S. Mount Rushmore. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but for him to sell his soccer soul and publically support our federations biggest rival is unfathomable. Landon essentially is/was U.S. Soccer! 

Could an American sports fan imagine Derek Jeter wearing a Boston Red Sox hat and saying “Go Red Sox”? Or how about Patrick Roy donning a Detroit Red Wings jersey and encouraging the Red Wings to win Lord Stanley’s Cup? Would it not be sacrilege for Aaron Rodgers to wear a Brian Urlacher jersey and cheer for the Bears to bring home the Vince Lombardi trophy to the Windy City? As preposterous as all that sounds, times it by 100 and you start to understand the magnitude of such a move.  

Hey look, I get it, Donovan has embraced Mexican culture from a young age, given his adolescence being spent playing on the soccer fields in Southern California. He speaks fluent Spanish, he recently came out of retirement (again) to play in the Mexican professional league. Even with all of that, openly supporting your biggest rival in a tournament your national team failed to qualify for is surreal to a fan like myself. 

One more caveat here, Donovan is essentially being a corporate shill for Wells Fargo. You know, the company that was fined $1 billion and fired thousands of employees for opening fake accounts, double charging customers and committing a myriad of other shady business practices. Wells Fargo has been in crisis mode since this information became public and is in the midst of a massive public relations crusade. As if Donovan’s “Yay Mexico” message wasn’t tumultuous enough, throw in the poorly timed Wells Fargo partnership and it becomes easy to see how thoughtless LD was in entering into this paid promotion. 

Support Mexico if you want. Some soccer fans may enjoy their style of play, the attacking prowess, the speed and creativity, etc. all of that could be considered reasonable. Others may hate the Mexican national team and what it represents. To many, the U.S. / Mexico rivalry is much more than just a soccer game, it transcends into a cultural battle that bleeds into a political fight. That doesn’t mean you hate or wish ill will towards Mexicans- as Landon implied with his responses to the backlash- it simply means you unabashedly champion the United States above all else. 

No matter what side you support, for the figurehead of U.S. Soccer to expect nothing but kittens and rainbows in response to such a public display of support for the federations most brutal rival is shortsighted. Landon, many of us looked up to you growing up. We revered your tenacity and for embodying the traditional American spirit on the field. We rooted for you when the “other side” spat and hurled explicit rhetoric at you. I can only hope the tainted legacy and repercussions were worth the few bucks Wells Fargo paid. 
 

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? 

MLS Top 10 Villains

Every good story needs an antagonist and protagonist. This has been the case since the days of Shakespeare and continues to ring true today. This is even the case in the world of professional sports. We all have players that we love to hate. Though, if the hated player found their way to your favorite team, would you then support them? I guess that depends just on how intense ones level of disdain is. Today, we are going to shine the spotlight on Major League Soccer's biggest and baddest villains. The players you love to hate but would do anything to have them on your team. 

10.) Robbie Keane (F) - The guy scores goals, wins, scores goals, constantly complains to teammates, scores goals, and oh yeah, he scores goals. He puts so many goals in the back of the net, if you aren't an LA Galaxy fan, it is bound that one or more of those goals will come against your favorite club. Keane is living the life many of us dudes can only dream of. He is living the life of luxury in the city of luxury, his wife is gorgeous, he has money, fame, is an internationally admired player, and he wins, baby! Jealousy is often times the precursor to loathing. We can loathe Mr. Keane all we want but in all honesty, we'd all LOVE to have him on our team.

9.) Kyle Beckerman (M) – The dread head wonder, Kyle Beckerman is an absolute nightmare to battle against. He scraps for every loose ball, he is never one to turn down a shoving match, and is quick to step in for a downed teammate. How could you not want a guy like that on your team? A few years ago, Beckerman likely would have found himself higher on this list but his recent success on the US Men’s National Team has catapulted him to a respectable level. 

8.) Aurélien Collin (D) - Collin is the prototypical machismo center back. He is big, strong, tackles early and often, is aggressive, and his bald head helps too. Imagine him with a Graham Zusi head of hair… Yea, the intimidation factor would be minimal. He is a royal pain in the keister to  play against, and opposing fans despise his play. And I'm sure league forwards must loathe getting a beating each and every time they match up against him. He accumulates cards and gives bruises, that is bound to make a few enemies. 

7.) Dom Dwyer (F) – Dom Dwyer sure does annoy a lot of MLS fans (or at least that is what Twitter has told me). I am not sure if it is due to his accent or the fact that he made a super soccer baby with Sydney Leroux. Perhaps it is in-part due to him being a handsome young fellow that tallies lot of goals. He is a thorn in the side of defenders and opposing fans. But let's be honest, if your team picked him up, you'd buy a Dwyer jersey tomorrow. 

6.) Clint Dempsey (M) – Mr. America, Clint Dempsey is an enigma. He is supremely talented, yet many of his detractors will tell you he picks and chooses when to maximize that talent. He is often called "lazy" or "uninterested" when the ball isn’t at his feet. Some even say he fails to show up for a full 90 minutes. Not maximizing the God given talents can be enraging for fans but then wow's us with a GOLAZO or mesmerizes us with a flash of technical brilliance that reels us all back in. Fans love to hate Dempsey. Personally, I am hot and cold with him. He drives me bonkers a lot of times but I thoroughly enjoy the spectacle when he is banging on all cylinders.

5.) Will Johnson (M) – Johnson is the prototypical “hate to play against him, love to have him on my team” player. He is hard-nosed, has the ability to score game changing goals, and is a field general in every sense of the phrase. The very same reasons RSL, Portland, and TFC fans have loved him over the years are why every other MLS fan base can’t stand him. Sounds like he epitomizes this list. 

4.) Fabian Espindola (F) –  Espindola is a talented player, no doubt about it but his theatrics negatively detract from his game. Hating to play against a guy but loving to have him on your team, is kind of a badge of honor to many players and the theme of this list but Espindola I’d hate to play against, of course but in all honesty would never want him on my team either. No way, no how! I find his flopping, whining, and hot-head mentality to be a detriment.  How about you?  

3.) Blas Perez (F) – If we conducted a poll where we asked defenders to list the forwards they loathe the most, Blas Perez would have to be at the top of the list. I personally am repulsed by his play so I can only imagine how opposing defenders feel. His constant flopping, incessant complaining about no-calls when he flops, his dirty antics, and the fact that he scores big goals has to drive defenders mad. Often times, I will turn games off that he is playing in because I can't take his shenanigans. Anyone else feel this way or am I flying solo on that one?

2.) Nigel de Jong (M) – Wherever Mr. de Jong goes, his unruly and dangerous reputation is sure to follow. Prior to signing with LA Galaxy, he was best known in the U.S. of A. for fracturing the leg of American international, Stuart Holden. He is synonymous for bone-crushing tackles, persistent fouls, and overall buzzsaw type of play. He was nicknamed "The Lawnmower" at one pint in his career, if that surmises anything for you. His first 4 months of MLS action certainly haven’t minimized his sullied reputation. De Jong has been red carded once due to a dirty tackle on Blas Perez (oh shucks!), and was also suspended 3 games by the league for a heinous tackle on Timbers star, Darlighton Nagbe. His preceding reputation and actions thus far in season one in MLS have rightfully earned him a top spot on this list.

1.) Steven Lenhart (F) – When you take into consideration MLS players, fans, and pundits the consensus number one villainous player in MLS has to be none other than, Steven Lenhart. Nobody wants to see an athletes career cut short due to injuries, but I get the feeling their aren’t too many folks in the MLS sphere that are broken up that Lenhart has been MIA the last season and a half. Whether it is bull in a china shop type of forward play, his ability to get in opposing players heads, his diving, or his horrendous goal dances, he isn’t a loved man outside of the Bay Area. To me, he has earned the designation as Major League Soccer’s Most Villainous Player! Congrats, Stevie!

Who is the MLS All-Time Villain?
Carlos Ruiz – Without a doubt the most abominable and least likable player in the history of our wonderful MLS has got to be, Carlos Ruiz. I can’t imagine anyone being able to argue otherwise. His antics and play speak for itself. He scored Cup winning goals, he flopped incessantly, he would roll around the field in pain (but not really be in pain), he would scream at refs, the guy is a God among crybabies. With all that in mind, if you do not think Ruiz is worthy of the all-time numero uno designation, I would love to hear why.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to bash me on Twitter: @mikecrosky  

Ranking the Rivalries

RIVALMLS.jpg

We are in the midst of “MLS Rivalry Week” so what better time to rank the best rivalries in the league? What makes a rivalry anyway? Is it the proximity? Could it be the fan bases? How about circumstances? Perhaps it is a bit of all of the above? Let's see, shall we?

Though, before we dive into the best rivalries of Major League Soccer, let’s take a peek at a few “rivalries” that haven’t quite blossomed like many fans and MLS executives would like…

New York Red Bulls vs New York City FC – Hudson River Derby
In only its second season, the battle of New York is slowly starting to show itself as one of the league's premier match-ups. This weekend’s match will air on Fox and is expected to see a raucous and near-capacity crowd at the new Yankee Stadium. I think it is safe to say that in coming seasons we will see this bloom into a truly riveting rivalry. 

Toronto FC vs Montreal Impact – 401 Derby
Toronto FC was Major League Soccer’s first dip into Canada and while the on-field performance has been lackluster, the fandom has been a success. The city of Montreal came to the MLS party a few years later, thus the 401 Derby was born. The 401 Derby gets its name from the highway that connects the two cities. Toronto and Montreal have had heat prior to either of these two teams entering MLS. The Maple Leafs and Canadians of the NHL have deep seeded hatred going back decades. One of these days the Impact and TFC will have a similar rivalry but it isn’t there yet.  

New York vs Los Angeles
Like the rap game of the 90’s, the east coast versus west coast gimmick always brings spice to whatever realm or industry is in play. During the years of Beckham and Donovan in LA and Juan Pablo Angel and Rafa Marquez in New York (New Jersey) I had hoped the two MLS powers would have battled in an MLS Cup but no such luck. Now with both markets having two franchises (and a lot of money to spend) maybe one of these days the league executives and broadcast partners will see the Cup Final they have dreamed of.


Rest in Peace
Chivas USA vs LA Galaxy – Super Clasico
The Super Clasico is no more. It went down with the ship when Chivas USA closed up shop. During its run it did have a slew of memorable battles. Who could forget the Jesse Marsch karate kick on David Beckham? The series was a one-sided affair though; when the Super Clasico was laid to rest, the Galaxy accumulated 22 wins against a mere 4 losses with 8 draws versus Chivas. In the mid to late 2000’s it was the best rivalry in the western conference.


And the Winner is… 
Enough hullabaloo with these coulda beens and shoulda beens, let’s get to the biggest and baddest rivalries in Major League Soccer…

6.)    LA Galaxy vs Seattle Sounders
This isn’t your typical MLS rivalry matchup predicated on proximity. No, this is more of an organic (and likely short lived) heated rivalry thanks to these two franchises battling in the playoffs over consecutive seasons. The Sounders even knocked LA Galaxy off the Supporters Shield mountain top in 2014. Both teams have big time star players and very passionate fan bases. I hope this feud continues for several more seasons.

5.)    FC Dallas vs Houston Dynamo – Texas Derby
The Winner of the “Texas Derby” takes home “El Capitán”, a replica mountain howitzer cannon. You can’t get much cooler than that! While Houston claimed 5 of the first 7 season series, FC Dallas has captured the last 3. The Texas Derby has even found itself during US Open Cup play.
Fun Trivia: Houston Dynamo or FC Dallas was an MLS Cup Final participant in 5 of the 7 finals from 2006 to 2012.

4.)    Colorado Rapids vs Real Salt Lake – Rocky Mountain Cup
The Rocky Mountain Cup is the epitome of grassroots soccer. The series and trophy were conjured up by fans from both clubs before RSL even stepped onto the field for the first time. During RSL’s Jason Kreis heyday, Salt Lake won the Rocky Mountain Cup every year from 2007 to 2012. Colorado has turned the tables in recent years however. The two have yet to meet in a playoff series but their regular season matchups have historically been fantastic. The most infamous moment occurred in 2006, when current head coach, Pablo Mastroeni removed his shirt, stuffed it down his pants and gestured towards the RSL fans. How can you not love that?

3.)    LA Galaxy vs San Jose Earthquakes – California Clasico
The California Clasico has produced some of the most memorable MLS battles in both the regular season and playoffs. It doesn’t hurt that both have collected quite a bit of hardware along the way too. LA Galaxy actually played the Earthquakes in the MLS Cup in 2001. Who else remembers the PK shootout for the US Open Cup way back in 2001? The two were even combatants during the 2012 playoffs.
Side note: One of the greatest free kicks in MLS history came from Dwayne DeRosario while playing for the Quakes against the Galaxy (Google it).

2.)    New York Red Bulls vs DC United – Atlantic Cup
The Red Bulls and DC United battle for the “Atlantic Cup” in what has transpired into one of the most heated rivalries in the league. The origin of this rivalry tends to stem from the cities proximity to one another and the frequency in which the two clubs have played versus each other in playoff series and even US Open Cup matches. The Alecko Eskandarian drink and spit of a can of Red Bull in 2008 only added fuel to the fire to what was already a heck of rivalry. While historically, DC United has the upper hand in the rivalry with a 41-24-10 record, the heavy tilt hasn’t cooled down the hostility over the years. DCU was the league’s original golden child. The Red Bull / Metrostars have had many of the leagues brightest stars and recently won some hardware, this is a story with many heated chapters left to write. 

1.)     Portland Timbers vs Seattle Sounders – Cascadia Cup
Having previously lived in Portland and travelled numerous times to Seattle, I can assure you that this rivalry was born from the two cities truly not liking one another. Portland has a “little brother” complex compared to Seattle, while the Emerald City isn’t pleased about coming up short in its quest to win an MLS Cup. While this rivalry hasn’t been around in MLS as long as many of the others mentioned, it has to be considered the most ardent in the league. I know that many fans of the longstanding rivalry matchups listed above will poo-poo this ranking but the proof is in the pudding. The massive travelling supporters groups make attending one of these duels a must for any MLS fan.

What are your thoughts? How would you rank the various MLS rivalries? Let me know in the comments below.

@mikecrosky

MLS Expansion Update - May 2016

Fourteen months ago we discussed the pros and cons on a variety of potential Major League Soccer expansion locations so I thought revisiting the topic was due.  In American sports, few properties seem to be more in demand than a Major League Soccer franchise. Considering the plethora of cities, government officials, and investment groups lobbying for their place at the table, clearly the interest has only increased since our first expansion update.

Before we expound on potential markets, we should reflect on what Major League Soccer is seeking in a prospective location.

The league has three primary focal points:

  1. Committed local ownership with deep financial resources.
  2. Stadium plan where the ownership group has venue control.
  3. A history of strong support for soccer and other sports that attract sponsors and TV partners.


The Case for Expansion
Money - Cash is king! Continued expansion provides MLS a larger national footprint, making it more valuable to broadcast partners. The current TV deal ends after the 2022 season, and MLS owners will undoubtedly want to cash in. This likely uptick in funds should (in theory) lead to higher wages for players. And for a league that still struggles to pay bottom tier players, this isn’t be a bad thing.

Exposure - A larger national footprint will also help increase the exposure of MLS and soccer in general in America. It will also lead to the development of more youth academies, which in turn should lead to a larger talent pool for the US Men’s National Team.

The Case Against Expansion
Those against MLS expansion insist that additional teams will dilute the talent pool. Many soccer purists (and some soccer hipsters) also rag on MLS for exceeding the amount of teams in most first division Euro leagues.


Revisiting March 2015 Expansion Update
The markets included in the original expansion update were:
Austin TX, Charlotte NC, Indianapolis IN, Las Vegas NV, Nashville TN, New York City NY, Oklahoma City OK, Pittsburgh PA, Raleigh NC, Rochester NY, Sacramento CA, Saint Louis MO, San Antonio TX, San Diego CA.

Where do those markets stand today? 

Austin, TX – The Austin Aztex of the United Soccer League have taken a one-year hiatus from the league while they try to finance and build a stadium. Despite that there does seem to be mutual interest between the league and the Aztex franchise. The biggest point of contention is that the club doesn’t have a stadium project in place or a deep pocketed local investor group. Working in its favor, the city council is advocating for an MLS team, even funding research on the viability of a team in the market. That is at least one hurdle cleared but plenty more lay ahead.  
Current Expansion Status: Maybe someday but not anytime soon.

Charlotte, NC – North Carolina is one of the country's soccer hotbeds, with its top level youth teams, a slew of perennial college programs, and strong support for the sport as a whole, yet it is often overlooked. The USL’s Charlotte Independence has pulled no punches about their intentions to ascend to Major League Soccer. A renovation to the city’s Municipal Stadium is in being considered and studies are ongoing to establish if the city can support an additional professional sports team. To me, it is a no-brainer. The city’s downtown has a thriving financial district and an ever growing populous. I emphatically stated this before and I’ll say it again… The Carolinas should have an MLS team.
Current Expansion Status: Looking more and more unlikely.

Indianapolis, IN – In March of 2015, Indianapolis seemed to be a strong contender for landing one of the coveted expansion spots. Peter Wilt, the soccer executive who built the original Chicago Fire club, was in charge, the team had 7,000 season tickets sold, and the renderings of a downtown stadium were immaculate. Fast forward 13 months later and Indy Eleven are destined to stay in the minor leagues of American soccer. The stadium was shot down, the fandom has cooled off, and Peter Wilt skipped town. Indy Eleven’s shot at MLS expansion is now a distant memory.
Current Expansion Status: Zero, zilch, nada, not happening.

Las Vegas, NV – Many major American sports leagues have kicked around the idea of expanding to Sin City but none have yet to take the plunge. MLS was one of the first to really consider the idea. In the 2000’s a Las Vegas investment group was rumored to have offered to buy the Columbus Crew with the plan of moving them to the desert, though the move never materialized. MLS executives have talked openly about their interest in the city but a legitimate ownership group has yet to step forth. The market seems destined to land a major league sports franchise. Just last week a group was pitching the possibility of an NFL franchise. The NBA and NHL have also waffled back and forth. MLS could be the innovators and capture the heart of an unsaturated market.
Current Expansion Status: 50/50

Nashville, TN – Ahh, yes, the allure of Music City, USA. I absolutely love this market for a variety of reasons. The supporter-owned NPSL team, Nashville FC is not only a great story but captures the love of soccer in the market. Nashville FC is truly a grassroots franchise started by local soccer enthusists. Until recently the southeastern region had zero MLS franchises. The League has made it a point to reverse that trend, opting to place franchises in Atlanta, Orlando, and likely Miami. Nashville would be another step in the right direction to cover this still relatively untapped region.
Current Expansion Status: If I was a billionaire this is the market I’d go to but since I am not, don’t count on MLS anytime soon.

New York City, NY – I do not actually believe MLS would place 3 franchises in one market. My thought with another NYC area team was that I am and was absolutely baffled by the New York Cosmos. They operate as if they are already at the top of the US soccer pyramid, and I can only fathom them doing so for one of two reasons: They simply want to be the biggest fish in the small NASL pond. Or they envision MLS eventually having promotion / relegation and they’d be positioned for promotion from the start. I don’t know what is going on there but if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put a cent on the Cosmos ever leaping to MLS.
Current Expansion Status: Not happening.

Oklahoma City, OK - OKC has Energy FC playing in the USL and Rayo OKC in the NASL. OKC officials are looking to establish the market as a truly “major league” city and with only one major sports team (Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA) an MLS franchise would be a step in that direction. The owners of USL side OKC Energy FC have a long-term vision, to make their club a future candidate for MLS expansion. They want to prove that Oklahoma City is a viable market and one that can support a Major League Soccer team. OKC is the 45th largest media market in the country, which isn’t overly appealing and without much buzz or a deep pocketed ownership group, my guess is OKC will not be an MLS city any time soon or ever.
Current Expansion Status: No dice!

Pittsburgh, PA – In 2013, the USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds announced the lofty goal of joining MLS by 2023. I personally love the market and think it is one of the better sports towns in the country. It’s also a top 25 media market which should be enticing for the league, but the Steel City seems as if it is far behind a slew of other cities. Without the necessary financially strong ownership group or an MLS sized stadium, Pittsburgh’s MLS dream will never become a reality.
Current Expansion Status: More of a personal wish of mine than a legit possibility.

Raleigh, NC - The Carolina Railhawks are one of the premiere teams in the NASL. They have a beautiful soccer specific stadium with a capacity of around 10,000. A move up to MLS sounds great on paper, and while I believe the Carolinas deserve a team, I’d give the nod to Charlotte first and foremost.
Current Expansion Status: Keep dreaming.

Rochester, NY – Rochester was once a formidable candidate for MLS expansion due to the success of the Rochester Rhinos. The Rhinos averaged over 10,000 fans per game in the early 2000’s, leading Don Garber to state "At some point we want to find a way we can have an MLS team in Rochester." Rochester was more of a pipe-dream in my own mind than an actual viable market for MLS expansion. For the sake of the underdogs out there I wanted to toss the name into the conversation.
Current Expansion Status: Hell will freeze over before this comes to fruition.

Sacramento, CA - In Sacramento, the prospective ownership group is prepared to spend $100+ million on expansion fees and another $200+ million on a soccer-specific stadium. Garber has publicly stated that Sacramento is MLS ready. With Sacramento Republic FC having nearly 10K season tickets and a stadium project well on its way, Sacramento is a slam dunk.
Current Expansion Status: It’s unofficially a done deal.

Saint Louis, MO - St. Louis has been a candidate for an MLS team since the league was founded. The city even launched a task force to seek out the viability for a stadium and team. Many soccer pundits consider Saint Louis to be the unofficial soccer capital of America. With a rich soccer history, and a bevy of talent that permeates the United States Men’s National Team and MLS, having a team in the market should be a given but the magical deep pocketed ownership group that is needed has been lacking. Since the NFL’s St.Louis Rams packed their bags for Los Angeles, MLS has become a real priority for the city, and the city has become a priority for the league. Finally!!
Current Expansion Status: Bet your first born child on it.

San Antonio, TX - San Antonio is home of San Antonio FC of the USL. The franchise already has support from city and county officials, an 8,500-seat soccer-specific stadium that is capable of expanding to the MLS desired 20,000, and the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs as owners. They cities demographics have “MLS fan” written all over them and it is an unsaturated sports market with only one other major league team in town. Now it becomes about dotting some I’s and crossing some T’s, and San Antonio will be an MLS market in due time.
Current Expansion Status: You could probably bet your step child on this one and still be ok.

San Diego, CA –On paper, San Diego seems perfectly logical for an MLS franchise. With its rich soccer history, beautiful weather, a heavy Hispanic populous, and massive youth soccer system it seems like a no brainer. But much like Austin, an ownership group has never materialized.  Even when a potential ownership group rumored to include, USMNT legend, Landon Donovan the buzz was minimal. Lastly, with LA Galaxy, LAFC, San Jose Earthquakes already in the fold and Sacramento well on their way I can’t imagine one state (even as large as California) having 5 teams.
Current Expansion Status: Nope!


New Markets Materialize
While I attempted to be as comprehensive as I could in my original piece new markets were bound to come up over the last 14 months. As of today, the two most prominent are in the heartland of the country, the Midwestern cities of Cincinnati and Detroit.

Cincinnati, OH – One must appreciate the ambition of Cincinnati FC but I do believe them catapulting their city into the mix after two whole weeks of success in the stands is a bit premature. Being the 36th largest media market in the country Cincinnati is a moderately sized location for broadcast partners to consider. I was born in raised in Ohio so I want nothing but great things for the state's soccer scene but Cincinnati doesn’t strike me as a locale that should be of heavy interest for MLS.
Current Expansion Status: Too soon to say.

Detroit, MI – Detroit, come on down… You are the next contestant on The Price is Right!!  Talk about coming out of left-field! The motor city went from not even a possibility when we released the first MLS Expansion piece, to being a front runner today. Major League Soccer recently announced that league executives met with an investor group representing the Michigan city. You can thank the two billionaire NBA owners- the Pistons' Tom Gores and Cavs’ Dan Gilbert- for such a hasty move to the top. Personally, I don’t get this one at all. Detroit is a city on the decline from an economic and populous standpoint. The current minor league squad in town, Detroit City FC, helped muster up some buzz for soccer in the city but their fans do not seem too enthralled with the thought of MLS expansion in the market. 
Current Expansion Status: Out of left field but this one seems very likely.

My Two Cents
When asked during an interview last week to rank the league's expansion candidate cities, MLS commissioner Don Garber named his top seven markets:

  1. St. Louis
  2. Sacramento
  3. Detroit
  4. San Diego
  5. San Antonio
  6. Austin
  7. Cincinnati

When not asked during an interview at any point and time, MLS fan Mike Crosky announced his top seven markets:

  1. St. Louis
  2. Sacramento
  3. Charlotte
  4. Nashville
  5. Pittsburgh
  6. San Antonio
  7. Las Vegas

Only time will tell which markets will come to the forefront. What are your thoughts? Which markets would you like MLS to expand to and why? Let me know on Twitter @mikecrosky.