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MLS, players closer to CBA deal than you might think

Posted on 21 February 2010 by Nathaniel E. Baker

There’s been a lot of talk these last couple of days about how Major League Soccer players and the league are stuck at an impasse over a new collective bargaining agreement. Players have made noise, on Twitter and in the press, about an all but unbridgeable gap between the two sides. The latest extension to talks is set to expire Feb. 25 and players are talking strike.

Yet therein lies one reason for optimism. The league has backed off talk of a lockout and is in fact prepared to start the season with the current CBA in place. That means if there is a work stoppage, it will have to come from the union. And how prepared are MLS players really for this? “We’ve definitely talked about all possibilities,” Kansas City Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad told ESPN. “And if [a work stoppage] happens, then we’re unified on what we’re passionate about and what we think needs to change. We will stand by that until it does.”

Not exactly fighting words. And for good reason. MLS players really have little leverage, particularly if they need to resort to a strike. At that point it will be very difficult to maintain unity, not to mention higher ground in the court of public opinion.
Yet a strike is exactly what the players need if they are serious about accomplishing their ultimate goal of full free agency, according to The Philly Soccer Page:

Players in every American sports league won free agency by striking or winning lawsuits, but they didn’t play in young leagues in danger of collapse, like MLS. If MLS players strike, soccer fans have other TV options like the EPL, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, and Mexican league.

Some day, when MLS is more established as a major league sports franchise in this country, players can organize their efforts toward obtaining free agency and perhaps even ending the single-entity structure that is MLS. But that day is not now, and players know it. Even Conrad was careful to say they have limited their efforts “to propose things that are within the confines of the single-entity structure.”

Apparently, the league is ready to talk on this level, according to statements made by MLS President Mark Abbott to the Washington Post.

“We have made specific proposals on how to deal with that and in ways that you do not need free agency,” he said. “We may want to bargain with those proposals, but we have made them.”

Gone too is talk about raising the salary cap and increasing the minimum salary in MLS. I’m told the league has made concessions on both issues. Judging by the players’ silence on them, it would appear the union is at least somewhat satisfied.

That leaves guaranteed contracts. And here it appears the players might be overreaching a bit. While it is true that established sports leagues in the U.S. and Europe have guaranteed contracts, not all do. The National Football League does not. NFL players can be cut pretty much on the whim of a team, just like they can in MLS, with one fundamental difference: In the NFL, these players are free to sign with another team, while in MLS the team continues to hold that player’s rights.

But here too the league says it is willing to talk. “We have made a proposal that would guarantee not all, but a significant number of player contracts,” Abbott told the Post. “We have made a proposal limiting the number of unilateral options the league can have in player contracts. We have made proposals in several other areas as well.”

Sure, this could be a bold-faced lie, but so could a lot of things. At this point we have no choice but to take the league at its (public) word on the matter.

Where does that leave the union? Not looking very favorable, if you ask me. Or at the very least out of touch with reality in light of Pat Onstad’s argument that “we’d just be negotiating against ourselves” if players would return to the bargaining table.

Granted Onstad made this statement before Abbott made his. And who knows, maybe one prompted the other. But for all intents and purposes, there really isn’t that much separating the two sides anymore. Expect a deal to be made next week, and announced Friday right when the extended extended CBA is set to expire, for maximum dramatic effect. You heard it here first.

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Introducing new ASN podcasts

Posted on 18 February 2010 by ASN Staff

ASN is pleased to announce a trio of new podcasts to our lineup.

The first is a short (60 seconds or less) ASN’s Audio News Daily hosted by Jason Davis and Zach Woosley of The American Soccer Show. This daily audio news update will be posted to ASN’s home page by 7am each weekday morning. It will be available to subscribers but can separately be subscribed to as a stand-alone item.

The two other podcasts are specific to Major League Soccer teams:
The Midnight Ride’s Revolution Recap, covering the New England Revolution, is an existing franchise that dates to 2007. It is hosted by ASN’s new Revs editor, Hank Alexandre, and will be available via the Revs.AmericanSoccerNews.net page.

The Red Bulls podcast, Seeing Red: The New York Soccer Roundup is a new project that is the brainchild of Mark Fishkin, a MetroStars/Red Bulls season ticket holder since its inception and blogger at The Kin of Fish since 2005. Fishkin is joined by co-hosts Dave Martinez, senior editor at TheOffside.com and contributor to RedBulls.TheOffside.com, and Nathaniel E. Baker, ASN managing editor and contributor to rbny.AmericanSoccerNews.net.

Readers are encouraged to check out the podcasts and provide feedback. Visit the links above for more information or to access the latest recordings.

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ASN forms strategic partnership with The Midnight Ride

Posted on 11 February 2010 by ASN Staff

AmericanSoccerNews.net is pleased to announce a partnership with The Midnight Ride, whereby TMR’s sole proprietor, Hank Alexandre, will become managing editor of ASN’s New England Revolution page. In this role, Alexandre will oversee the creation and publication of all content on Revs.AmericanSoccerNews.net, and will continue to write his own stories that to date would have appeared on TMR. He will also serve as the point person for all business development in the New England region.

The Midnight Ride site will continue to serve as the home of all past and future recordings of its popular weekly podcast The Midnight Ride, which will now also be accessible via Revs.AmericanSoccerNews.net . The layout and design of Revs.AmericanSoccerNews.net will continue to follow ASN’s template and will remain part of the ASN brand.

“I’m very happy with this deal and thrilled to be working with Hank Alexandre, whose work with The Midnight Ride I have of course followed for some time,” said ASN Managing Editor Nathaniel E. Baker. “This is one of those ‘win-win’ situations and I expect both sides to benefit greatly as a result.”

“I am very much looking forward to working with Nathaniel and the American Soccer News network.” said Alexandre. “This partnership will give TMR the infrastructure to extend its podcast audience through ASN’s online presence, and also provide access to resources not generally available to the podcast media.”

Alexandre’s Internet broadcasting career started in 2006 as a weekly guest on CSRN’s MLS show, Around The League in 90 minutes, where he served as a correspondent covering the New England Revolution. In 2009, Alexandre launched The Midnight Ride Podcast, a Revolution focused podcast which runs weekly during the MLS season. Alexandre is joined on the broadcast by long-time Revolution reporters Sean Donahue and Brian O’Connell.

The Midnight Ride Podcast is the official podcast of The Midnight Riders (an independent New England Revolution supporter’s group). For more information on The Midnight Riders, visit their Website midnightriders.com.

American Soccer News.net is a collection of individuals devoted to beautiful game and dedicated to growing its presence in this country. We are an all volunteer force of soccer writers scattered throughout North America. You will find us in the press box at MLS stadia and everywhere the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams play their games.

Cyber Soccer Associates LLC is our legal name. Now in its 14th year, ASN was originally created to provide America Online (AOL) with MLS reporting during the league’s inaugural season. After two years on AOL and a year on our own independent Web site, ASN established a firm Web presence in 1999 when we became the major information supplier to the now-defunct SoccerSpot.com. The current site was relaunched in March 2008.

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What’s in a roof, anyway?

Posted on 08 February 2010 by Breton Bonnette

There has been some clamor about the “shrinking roof” on soon-to-be-finalized PPL Park, the Philadelphia Union’s new stadium in Chester, Pa., that is set to open in late June. In light of the (panicked, in some cases) talk about cutting costs and a shrinking roof, Union fans are invited to remember the long process the franchise has come through, the leadership Nick Sakiewicz and the ownership group has provided through the ups and downs, and ultimately where the team is now – standing five days from the first exhibition in the club’s short history.

ASN Philly has the story.

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Don’t be surprised if DC United are sold–and moved

Posted on 02 February 2010 by Nathaniel E. Baker

Yesterday’s report about D.C. United seeking new “investment partners” did not set off alarm bells among Major League Soccer fans in the nation’s capital. But it probably should have.

At first glance, the wording of the announcement looks benign. “D.C. United owner Will Chang has hired sports investment firm Inner Circle Sports and begun to search for local or strategic partners who would be interested in investing in the Major League Soccer club,” it says. The report goes on to state, reassuringly, that Chang “hopes to keep the group relatively small and…plans to remain the club’s majority owner.” Indeed, Chang reiterated his commitment to the club “despite mounting losses” in an interview with Steven Goff of the Washington Post.

But as anybody with any experience in the investment banking or private equity arenas knows, the news means only one thing: Chang is seeking a buyer for the club. He may be satisfied divesting a minority stake, but the firm he hired does not traditionally engineer deals of this type. In fact, some of the biggest recent takeovers in the world of professional soccer involved the New York investment bank; Ellis Short’s acquisition of Sunderland FC in 2008, Liverpool FC’s 2007 sale to Tom Hicks and George Gillett among them. Inner Circle’s Web site has some of the other deals advised by the firm, very few of which were for minority ownership.

Who might buy DC United? And where, if anywhere, would they move the team? Anybody’s guess for now, though there are a few clues. One is the Maryland Stadium Authority’s recently-announced study to explore the viability of building a professional soccer stadium in Baltimore. The study will cost $100,000 and surely has nothing at all to do with yesterday’s announcement. There are ownership groups in Montreal and Miami (among others) who could bid for the franchise as well. Don’t be surprised if an investor from Asia becomes involved in some capacity. According to a recent BBC story, Inner Circle has been busy trying to develop investor ties in China.

Of course, nothing could come of this. Investment banks are hired all the time to shop companies without a sale ever coming to fruition. Or the ownership group could indeed grow by a few names, as Chang insists (on the record at least). But make no mistake: DC United is for sale and is being shopped by one of the most powerful investment banks in the field. DCU fans might want to take note of this.

What are your thoughts on this story? Comment below and make your views count by signing up for ASN’s commenter contest!

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Time to scrap the MLS draft

Posted on 25 January 2010 by Nicholas Gkionis

Major League Soccer’s player allocation model is stuck in purgatory. On the one hand it tries to emulate the European/international model of player development, where clubs own the rights to players developed by their youth systems. On the other, it wants to emulate other U.S. professional sports, with the college development/draft allocation model. It clearly wants to have the best of both worlds, with the excitement and fairness of Major League Soccer’s SuperDraft and a system that allows clubs to keep a few select the players they develop in house.

Personally, I would like MLS clubs to bring kids up through their academies and eventually sign them to their first team if they are good enough. It makes no sense to develop a kid and then hope you get the chance to draft him. I know more MLS clubs are starting up their own academies and I know from my experience that the New York Red Bulls have a pretty good set-up. The league should reward, not penalize, these developments.

For the U.S. to truly take over the soccer world, players will have to start being introduced to the professional game at ages 17-18. Personally, the most fun I had playing soccer was in college, but that doesn’t mean it was the best for my development. At this point, college stunts the best players’ growth. Look at the best soccer countries in the world: all the players are being introduced to professional environments at young ages. By 22 they are seasoned professionals, when most American kids are just getting their start in the pro game.

If the NCAA changed its rules and players were allowed to train as much as they want any time of year with their MLS team maybe it would be different. But that’s surely a non starter as it would jeopardize their “amateur” status. Better then for MLS to revamp its model.

Player development begins and ends with the academies and clubs need incentives to develop their youth players. The first thing would be to grant rights to the clubs of all players who have stayed in their academies for a certain amount of years. I think we should just get rid of the SuperDraft, even though I love it for other sports. It’s just not useful at this point because the level of talent in the MLS draft and that of an NBA or NFL draft is miles apart.

MLS would need to change of a lot of its structure for this to happen, specifically the idea that all clubs are subject to the league authority for player allocation.

I believe it’s time for MLS to become a free market where there is no salary cap and where if someone wants to come in and buy a team and pour millions into it, then all the power to them. But I would also implement a rule that there has to be a certain number of players from a club’s academy on its first team squad. All MLS would need is a few billionaires to come in (which would happen) pump a ton of money into the youth set-up of the club, buy big time players, and turn a few MLS teams into big time clubs. These teams would challenge the best in Mexico and South America through the Copa Libertadores and Sudamericana. Everyone would benefit: the level of play would be better, the league would be more respected at home and abroad. MLS teams would be obligated to field players from their academies and of course if someone is spending a lot of money on the team they would make sure the youth set-up is right.

I like the idea of keeping it competitive, as ensured by the current system of parity. But name another soccer league in the world that is competitive top to bottom. The same teams win every year in England, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, just to name a few, and judging by the levels of interest in those countries they seem to be doing just fine with it.

This is just an idea maybe and of course it’s easier said than done–especially the second part. But the sport needs academies for it to reach the next level of competitiveness and teams should be rewarded for developing their own talent. Right now that simply is not the case.

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Troy Perkins deal could be bittersweet for DC United

Posted on 15 January 2010 by Zach Johnson

Troy Perkins. Photo source: Wikipedia

Curt Onalfo’s first move in charge was to bring back former fan favorite Troy Perkins. The move looks great on paper and D.C. United needed a goalkeeper badly, but the acquisition could be bittersweet if Perkins leaves for national team duty this summer. The team still has other glaring holes and did little to address these in today’s MLS SuperDraft.

Read on at ASN’s DC United page.

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Choice of de los Cobos a bold move for Chicago Fire owner

Posted on 11 January 2010 by gmixdorf

Carlos de los Cobos

Chicago Fire owner Andrew Hauptman could have gone the safe route and hired Tom Soehn to be the team’s new coach. Fans surely would not have many complaints with a former player coaching their team. But Hauptman went the exact opposite route:. Carlos de los Cobos is not a coach that is going to be controlled by his owner. The choice of de los Cobos is a bold move. But as with all bold moves, it could backfire.

ASN’s new man in Chicago sounds off on the hire.

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A business model for American (specifically MLS) soccer news

Posted on 07 December 2009 by ASN Staff

The immediate catalyst for this editorial was a post last month by A More Splendid Life, but really this topic has captivated us for some time.

As anybody in or near the media industry knows, there simply does not appear to be any way of making money as a provider of original (print) content. The Web has changed that. Advertising models have changed that and now the recession has hammered the final nail into its coffin. One’s best bet is to turn to recommending products or doing other things that “have little or nothing to do with the sort of long-form journalism and first person reporting we’ve come to take for granted from print media,” as AMSL puts it.

However, this conclusion assumes two things, both false:
1. That people are not willing to pay for content and
2. That there is no way to charge them in a way that is fair and effective and does not encourage piracy.

The first item should be a no-brainer, as human beings continue to pay money for books, newspapers and magazines. True, the latter two may not last much longer if current patterns hold. But that does not change the fact that paying for print content is deeply entrenched in the consumer psyche. The idea of receiving print content completely scott free is, by contrast, brand spanking new, having only emerged over the last 10-15 years.

The second assumption is admittedly more difficult, but it is only a matter of time before it, too, is disproved. Just last week there were reports that an “itunes model” for print publications is in the works. In fact, an announcement on its release may be imminent.

It’s about time. So how exactly would a soccer news business model work?

The idea is to have dedicated coverage for each Major League Soccer team. This is an area that has historically been underserved (at best) or completely ignored (at worst) by local newspapers. And yet the demand for news is certainly there. Just take the Philadelphia Union, the newest MLS team to begin play next season. The team has already sold 6,000 season tickets (as of six months ago!) yet does not have a single dedicated beat reporter from a major newspaper or wire service. That’s at least 6,000 individuals who are left wanting for news about their team.

Of course, if it’s going to attract paid subscriptions, such a news service has to be of the highest quality. The reports themselves have to be well written and will need to adhere to a simple, consistent style. More importantly, they will have to offer compelling content–exclusive stories, ideally–on a daily basis.

To accomplish this, a full-time beat reporter will be paid to follow the team, to attend its practices and road trips, to hound its players and coaches for interviews, to develop sources in the front office. This reporter will not only need to be experienced, but will also need to be equipped (and skilled in) the latest multimedia tools: a laptop to file stories, a Blackberry or iphone from which to send Tweets or shoot photographs; a mini camcorder to film videos. Estimated annual cost, including salary: $100,000 per team.

At least one full time editor will be needed as well. This editor’s duties will include assigning and editing stories (duh) and posting them to the Web site and filling in with reporting and writing duties where appropriate. He or she will also be expected to lend direction and management to the cause and should of course be able to edit videos as well as Webmaster the site where necessary. Estimated annual cost, including salary: $100,000 (total).

With 16 MLS teams, the cost would quickly skyrocket well into seven figures. Nobody, least of all nowadays, is going to want to put up this sum of money for a news media venture. Better to start with one team and have the editor double as a publisher, with a portion of the second $100,000 dedicated to marketing.

That’s still $200,000 for year one. What types of revenues might be expected? How much can/should such a site charge anyway?

A monthly fee somewhere in the $5-10 range should be realistic keeping in mind the cost of an individual magazine purchased from the newsstand. At the low portion of the range, an average of 3,334 subscriptions would need to be paid each month to break even at the end of the first year. That’s significantly less than the amount of people who put down season ticket deposits for the Philadelphia Union.

Obviously the math can and will change depending on the types of subscription packages that are sold. Readers could be encouraged to sign up for the whole year for a cost of 10 or 11 months, say. Various partners could get involved selling subscriptions in various capacities, in exchange for a portion of revenues.

The site would probably need to be ad-free if people are going to pay for it. But readers could be offered coupons for certain products (a pint of beer at the local tavern for the team’s next away game? Discounts on team merchandise from an online outlet?) that would result in more revenue for the site.

Does this sound like fantasy? Or might it be a realistic news model for the future? More importantly, would you, the fan, pay for such a service? Why or why not? Post your thoughts on the matter below. If you happen to have $200,000 burning a hole in your pocket, send it our way. Or tell us why you would not throw money at this cause.

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Why U.S. soccer fans should not fear the World Cup draw

Posted on 04 December 2009 by Nathaniel E. Baker

After all the mock draws and speculation (and more mock draws) it is finally time for the real thing. At noon EST today, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) will stage the draw that will determine the U.S. Men’s National Team’s three first round opponents at next June’s World Cup in South Africa. Nobody, with the possible exception of FIFA itself, knows how the draw will play out.

With the unknown, naturally, comes fear. Conspiracy theories abound and at least one pundit has told U.S. soccer fans to “prepare for the disastrous.”

Nonsense. Instead, U.S. soccer fans’ motto should be “go ahead, make our day.” The USMNT has shown before it can deal with the toughest opponents. Just look at this year’s Confederations Cup. Or look at the 2002 World Cup, where the U.S. was placed in a “group of death” with Euro 2004 runners-up Portugal (seen by some as the best team coming into the tournament), hosts South Korea and Poland. We weren’t supposed to have a prayer against Portugal but beat them 3-2 on our way to advancing to the quarterfinals. Or go further back, to 1994, when the U.S. drew Colombia (tipped by none other than Pele as favorites that year), Romania (with Hagi) and Switzerland, but still advanced.

Sure, there was also 1998 (Germany, Yugoslavia, Iran) and 2006 (Italy, Czech Republic, Ghana) that did not go well at all. But here’s the thing about those World Cups: both took place on European soil.

This time, the World Cup will be held on a continent where it has been before. If the 2002 and 1994 tournaments are any guide, strange “unscripted” things tend to happen when FIFA’s signature event enters new continents. For whatever reason (climate? conditions?) the geography tends to upset the delicate balance of European teams in particular. Perhaps because it views itself as a European country, Argentina tends to suffer the same consequences as it did in ’94 and ’02 when it didn’t make it out of the group stage.

Other factors can turn the strength of a World Cup group on its head. In 2002, defending champions France lost their best player to injury for the first two games and fell apart, failing to score a single goal before exiting after the first round. We all know how Colombia imploded in ’94. There are numerous other examples.

No sooner were the pots announced this week that “group of death” scenarios began to haunt the imagination. The U.S. could draw Argentina, Ivory Coast and France! Brazil, Ghana and Portugal! Spain, Paraguay and Serbia! Of the pot four teams, two (Denmark and Slovakia) beat the U.S. in friendlies last month!

Guess what: Chances are the U.S. will be drawn into a so-called “group of death.” It’s happened before. It will happen again. I say bring it on.

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