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ASN goes ‘social media’

Posted on 02 December 2009 by ASN Staff

American Soccer News is going “social media.” In the first of what we hope will be a series of roll-outs for all team pages, we today added Web 2.0 functionality to the New York Red Bulls and U.S. Men’s National Team pages.

This is a massive experiment to bring the benefits of an entire ‘Web 2.0? community to the site. Its goal is simple: To establish a place where you, the reader, can interact with fellow fans. The features are stripped-down for now but we plan to add calendar functionality and other items in due course.

Obviously, community sites abound elsewhere on the Internet (BigSoccer? Hello?). This is in no way an attempt to replace, or indeed compete with, any of them (if it were it would be sure to fail–badly). Instead, we are looking to complement these sites but to do so in a way that offers all the “Web 2.0 functionality” we have grown accustomed to on Facebook and elsewhere. Except, unlike Facebook this will not be a place to reconnect with grade school classmates or stalk old flames; it will be about the U.S. Men’s National Team and the New York Red Bulls, respectively.

Intrigued? Good. Register here for the USMNT community and here for the New York Red Bulls one. We plan to use to community for gift give-aways and exclusive announcements, so you have some additional incentive. Thoughts? Concerns? Post them below.

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MLS TV numbers don’t lie, but they can certainly be taken out of context

Posted on 02 November 2009 by Nathaniel E. Baker

Fox Soccer Channel today put out a press release on the growth of its ratings numbers over the past year, its first as a Nielsen-rated channel.

Among reports of increases in Serie A and English Premiership viewers, the statement also points out that “Major League Soccer audiences are up 89%, averaging 51,000 viewers last month vs. 27,000 over the same period in 2008.”

Taken alone, this number is indeed impressive, as USA Today’s Beau Dure pointed out. What might even be more significant is that MLS’ growth on FSC has outpaced that of Serie A and EPL on a year-to-year basis: 89% (MLS) versus 69% (EPL) and 48% (Serie A).

So far, so good. But the numbers also need to be put into context:
On FSC, Premiership viewers still outnumber MLS viewers by a wide margin (142,000 vs. 51,000).
While it is true that the average MLS match now gets more average viewers than its Serie A counterpart on FSC this is by a negligible amount (51,000 vs. 49,000) and does not take into account the other TV channels that show Serie A matches live (RAI international comes to mind).

But MLS is also shown on other channels. So too is the English Premiership. How did those do? According to EPL Talk, ESPN2 averaged 257,000 viewers for its first 13 games, or more than five times what MLS games average on FSC.

Obviously a direct comparison is not fair because ESPN2 is available in far more households than FSC is (98 million vs. 35 million, according to the USA Today piece). But what are ESPN2’s numbers for MLS? According to the Sports Business Daily (subscription required), these are up to 290,000 this season, which is more than what ESPN2 has been drawing for the EPL!

Does this mean MLS is now outperforming the EPL on U.S. television, as MLS Talk argues? Not quite.

The numbers again need to be put into context. ESPN2’s MLS broadcasts are largely during prime time. Their EPL games? Six of the first 13 were broadcast at the ungodly hour of Saturday 7:30 am East Coast time. There might be East Coast viewers willing to get up at that hour to watch, say Wolves v. Aston Villa, but how many people on the West Coast are going to pull off getting (or staying) up until 4:30am on a Saturday? Four of the 13 ESPN2 Premiership games were at 3pm on a (non-holiday) Monday, which is not exactly prime time either. If you take the three ESPN2 Premiership broadcasts that kicked off at 10am on a Saturday, the average viewership number is 298,000, which is slightly more than ESPN2’s MLS games (which kicked off at or near primetime hours).

Obviously this too is incomplete because there are other factors that can and do affect viewership. For example, what were ESPN2’s MLS broadcasts competing against? Baseball? Basketball? American Idol? Jon and Kate? (No, that’s on on Monday night. I know this because, uh, my girlfriend watches it religiously. Honest!) At least the AM hours do not have anywhere near the same type of competition. (Then again, Saturday afternoon competes directly with college football). And what about people who DVR the soccer matches? Are they accounted for? If not, the real EPL numbers are probably going to be higher.

With regards to the ESPN2 numbers we also need to remember that the sample size of 13 EPL games is significantly smaller than what FSC has to go by. Also, these are early days in the Premiership season. Come next spring, its viewership numbers will undoubtedly increase once the title chase goes down to the wire. Meanwhile, how much has David Beckham inflated MLS’ numbers on ESPN2? The USA Today piece says the network averages 409,000 viewers for Beckham’s games. What does this say about the games not featuring Beckham? How low must they be?

So really, comparing ESPN2’s viewership numbers for MLS and EPL is a tangled web. It probably makes a lot more sense to view FSC’s numbers as the more reliable (though still flawed) comparison tool. And these indicate MLS has a long way to go before it catches up to the EPL.

None of this should undermine MLS’ growth as reflected in the FSC report. So let’s also accept that MLS numbers are up across the board, which is undoubtedly a good thing for the sport’s growth in this country.

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Atrocious officiating cost the Sounders dearly

Posted on 30 October 2009 by Kyle Alm

The Referee:
? enforces the Laws of the Game
? controls the match in cooperation with the assistant referees and, where applicable, with the fourth official
? ensures that any player bleeding from a wound leaves the field of play. The player may only return on receiving a signal from the referee, who must be satisfied that the bleeding has stopped
? allows play to continue when the team against which an offence has been committed will benefit from such an advantage and penalises the original offence if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at that time
etc. etc…..

Ljungberg has some words with the referee after the match

Three out of four isn’t all that bad. But we aren’t talking baseball here. Soccer is a game of absolutes. A game governed by “laws” (a few more than listed here) as opposed to mere “rules” that regulate common games.

Ever compare the baseball rulebook to the FIFA rules? One is elegant, simple, and even has pictures. The other looks like it was written by Congress.

There isn’t another game where perfection is more necessary than soccer. You can be successful one out of three times in baseball and be a Hall of Famer on the first ballot. In soccer a moment’s lapse can cost you precious points or knock you out of the competition. A moment of brilliance can make you a legend. I can remember an own goal for the Colombian National Team against the USA in World Cup ‘94 that eventually ended with murder. Sure Bill Buckner received death threats, but he is still alive.

Nate Jacqua had his moment of legend tonight. A moment that will live on in the memory of Sounders fans for all of the wrong reasons. The referee blew the call. Blew it. Mt. St. Helens blew it. Monica Lewinsky blew it. Hurricane Katrina blew it. Any referee, at any level, anywhere should realize that free kick is not advantage compared to ten yards ahead of the foul, let alone a chance to score. Not to mention that Jacqua buried the ball. For someone who has been criticized for his lack of a finishing touch Jacqua was certainly in form against Houston. He was beaten up by Dynamo defenders (again) and robbed by the referee.

I hate harping on the referee. But he was atrocious tonight. You could tell that he was losing control when there was a scuffle. It looked like the entire Houston team was standing over Fredy Montero before the referee booked Onstad and Montero. AND MONTERO?! Why?

If the MLS wants to be a top league it needs to have quality top to bottom: players, officials, and management. The league knows the only thing that will draw fans is top talent. How many big name talents want to come to MLS and be the foul magnet that Ljungberg has been (most fouls suffered in MLS this season and he missed several matches due to injury) for half the pay they are used to? It doesn’t add up.

There were numerous scoring opportunities that could/should have been finished and the onus is clearly on the paid professional players to fulfill their roles, but when the rules don’t apply equally it is never much of a game. Referees are supposed to be professionals too.

The return leg in Houston should provide plenty of entertainment. Expect a physical game, the over/under on yellow cards is six (the number issued in Seattle). Keller and Onstad were both sharp, they will both be difficult to score on, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends in another 0-0 draw with a shootout to decide the winner.

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How do we love the Sounders? Let us count the ways

Posted on 28 October 2009 by Kyle Alm

Although enthusiasm for the Sounders has never been higher, it is important to remember where this season began. I can recall several conversations with fans around Pioneer Square at the inaugural game. The general sentiment at the time was that fans were just happy to be there; happy to be a part of Major League Soccer finally coming to Seattle after being passed over several times for expansion, happy to have the opportunity to see the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Kasey Keller, Landon Donovan, Blanco and even David Beckham. The goal was maybe not get blown out by the league runners-up from the previous season. That night the Sounders sent a message that they were not an ordinary expansion team by drubbing the Red Bulls.

Looking back at the season now it has been an incredible journey. How many fans bought season tickets all those many months ago without a thought that we were going to be in the running for a conference title? Or that we would get to see Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi, Frank Lampard, John Terry and their respective teams take the pitch at Qwest?

Conversations about the Sounders usually start around the terrific support the team has received from its fan base

The Sounders have put together a wonderful organization that has redefined what it means to be an expansion team in the MLS. Philadelphia, Vancouver and Portland will try to emulate the excitement this team has generated and keep the league rolling. There are several reasons why the Sounders were such a draw for Seattle sports fans: After years of poorly managed Seattle teams, the Sounders spent wisely on Keller and Ljungberg. Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, and Leo Gonzalez were amazing signings (because it is so unbelievable that no other team in MLS thought to sign them).

Seattle sports fans have a chip on their shoulder over several perceived slights that run the gamut from East Coast bias that cost the UW Huskies a National Championship in ‘91. Odd penalty calls against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. The Mariners (in a general sense). And the largest slap in the face, the CEO of Starbucks sold the Sonics to Oklahoma. Losing the Seahawks to Los Angeles is more like losing your wife to Brad Pitt, Sonics to OKC is like finding out your girlfriend has been two-timing you with Steve Buscemi. You can understand the ‘why’ of Brad Pitt, but Buscemi? Seattle was ready to pop. Ready for something new. Ready for Major League Soccer.

We won a trophy. We set the MLS attendance record and are the first soccer team in the U.S. to rank in the top 50 in average attendance. We have the MLS all-time wins leader as our coach. We don’t waste time or play ugly soccer. Our fans have a real sense of ownership with the power to replace the general manager (and choosing the name Sounders FC in a write-in campaign over three choices promoted by the team management). The Sounders were one of three teams to finish this season with a .500 road record. Seattle and the Houston Dynamo both finished with less than a goal allowed per game. Only five teams before have accomplished this feat in the history of MLS. Only one other expansion team made the playoffs, and they lifted the Cup in 1998.

What isn’t to like about this team? In a season filled with superlatives we can only hope that the best is yet to come.

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How do we love the Sounders? Let us count the ways

Posted on 28 October 2009 by Kyle Alm

One of ASN’s beat writers praises the Sounders’ impact on the local sports scene and hopes the best is yet to come.

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‘The Damned United’ is good fun, just don’t expect much of a story

Posted on 09 October 2009 by Nathaniel E. Baker

Tom Hopper’s The Damned United is a fun British sports drama based on David Pearce’s novel of the same name. Starring Michael Sheen as Brian Clough, the film opens in select U.S. theaters today (it already ran in the U.K. and Ireland). It tells the story of Clough’s tumultuous 44 days in charge of Leeds United in 1974.

Or does it?

We can’t really be sure exactly what (or whose) story the film tells and therein lies the first problem. The novel upon which it is based is apparently fraught with inaccuracies–to the point that Clough’s family said it essentially created a purely fictional character from scratch and attached Brian Clough’s name to it. Johnny Giles, the “Irishman” from the film, even went as far as to successfully sue the publishers over how he was portrayed in the book.

Giles is largely spared in the film. Not so the other protagonists. Don Revie (played by Colm Meanie), Clough’s predecessor at Leeds United and his nemesis in the film, comes across as a scowling villain who encourages cheating and dirty play. Billy Bremner (Stephen Graham), the team’s Scottish captain and centerback, is a thug in Revie’s image who undermines Clough and all but leads a mutiny against him. Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent), the chairman of Derby County (Clough’s employer before he was hired by Leeds), a bottom line-obsessed businessman who refuses to give Clough the rope or respect he needs and forces his ouster.

Clough himself is portrayed as an arrogant, foul-mouthed bully with no respect for authority, a “my way or the highway” approach to coaching and a penchant for one-liners. Apparently, not all of these are all that far from the truth, according to some who remember Clough, though Clough’s family apparently took issue with the cursing bit. (They have in fact boycotted both the book and the film. No word on whether they passed up any of the royalties). The others? Who knows for sure, but it is somewhat telling that Revie, Bremner, Longson and Peter Taylor (Clough’s assistant) are dead and thus unable to claim libel. (As any journalism student knows, you cannot libel the dead).

Okay, so there are inaccuracies. Big deal. This is a movie after all. Hopefully we all know not to take these things at face value, even (especially?) when they are “based on true events.”

Unfortunately, the film has other issues as well. It lacks a coherent plot, for example. There is none of the traditional buildup, climax and denouement. The viewer feels as if he has tuned into a the middle of a series without having seen the first episodes. Just as he feels he is getting used to this reality, the film starts to jump around chronologically. A (somewhat) clearer picture eventually begins to emerge but again, there is no real narrative. This may work for British audiences familiar (many intimately) with Clough’s story and for continental viewers used to a plodding storyline, but in the U.S. it could spell trouble at the box office.

What we are left with is a film that captures a time (the late 1960s and early 70s) and place (Northern England) that was one of the sport’s golden ages. For U.S. soccer fans, who perhaps have not been following the game for very long, this is great stuff. Did these teams really play in rickety wooden stadiums packed into working-class neighborhoods, as Derby County do in the film? Did players really smoke and eat oranges at halftime? Were the matches really full-tilt battles fought (sometimes quite literally) on muddy, rain-soaked fields without proper drainage? Yes, yes and yes. English football really has come this far, this fast, going from little more than local bloodsport to corporate mainstream in less than a generation’s time. For U.S. audiences, this is hard to believe. Our professional athletes were millionaires with TV commercials and traveling entourages by 1974, Even then they plied their trade in massive stadiums with every modern amenity, as well as on live TV (something that didn’t come to Europe until the late 1980s). The Damned United brings to life an era that is part of living memory in Britain and Europe, but which hasn’t figured into the North American Zeitgeist since, well, before any of our lifetimes. For this reason, U.S. soccer fans need to see it. Everybody else can safely stay away.

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Two small steps in the right direction for MLS

Posted on 16 September 2009 by Nathaniel E. Baker

The Soccer Don

Major League Soccer displayed an uncharacteristic sense of levelheadedness with its announcement to break for the 2010 World Cup and move next season’s schedule to a balanced, home-and-home structure. With any other professional soccer league in the world, these moves would not have even registered. But this being MLS, they were met with widespread applause from the blog- and twittersphere.

This will give outsiders an idea of just how far MLS has come and much pent up demand there is for the league to “reinforce its place among the global family of soccer nations,” as the New York Times so eloquently put it. But really, these moves are beyond obvious.

First, the World Cup is soccer’s signature event and one that takes place only every four years. For MLS to play through it (as it has historically) is an affront to the game, its fans, traditions and culture, etc. It showed not only lack of respect but worse, just how out of touch the league authorities were when it came to the realities of the sport. Don Garber and Co. now finally appear to appreciate the magnitude of the world’s most-watched sporting event. Or maybe they just realized nobody would pay attention to the games MLS played during the tournament. Either way, it’s a no-brainer.

The balanced schedule is long overdue as well. MLS is simply not big enough to require separate divisions in the first place (more on that in a bit), much less some goofy arrangement where certain teams play each other more often than others. The home-and-home thing is simple: all teams play each other twice, once in both stadiums. It’s also a lot fairer if each team only has to play once on Gillette Stadium’s horrific fieldturf, for example.

Kudos for MLS for finally showing some common sense, but more will be needed if it is going to be taken seriously. Here are just a few initiatives we would like to see as soon as possible:

  • Stop play for all international match dates, not just the World Cup (and it’s not even the entire World Cup but just the first forthnight. Better than nothing, but still…)
  • Get rid of the divisions and switch to a single table.
  • Cut the playoffs to a single game: The MLS Cup, pitting the top two teams from the regular season, played at the first-placed club’s home ground. This will a) make the regular season (far) more meaningful and b) increase the incentive for finishing first. Are you really making that much money from the other playoff games? We didn’t think so.
  • Get rid of the SuperLiga, once and for all.
  • Allow clubs to keep all players who come up through their developmental academy and (wait for it!) count only a fraction of their salaries against the salary cap. This will reward clubs for investing in their academies and spreading the game locally.
  • Increase the size of the rosters and/or allow clubs to play academy players on the senior roster if needed.
  • Increase the salary cap and minimum wage for individual players.
  • In most parts of the country, summers are too hot and winters too cold to expect grown men to play soccer outdoors for 90 minutes. Make the necessary adjustments to the league schedule.

Promotion/relegation, while a nice idea, is not realistic at this point. No owner will ever agree to it and for good reason: the risks are simply too great. But it isn’t necessary either. With the above bullet points, the league can finally move toward the real time. And join the global family of soccer nations.

Addendum: There may have been another reason for MLS’ decision to shut down during the World Cup. According to World Football Insider, the move is expected to boost U.S. chances of capturing the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. Especially, as the same article points out, now that Australia’s bid is hit with funding issues.

Your thoughts, U.S. soccer fans (and anybody else who wants to opine)?

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U.S. professional soccer at the crossroads (again)

Posted on 02 September 2009 by Nathaniel E. Baker

First came talk of labor unrest when Major League Soccer’s collective bargaining agreement expires next year. Then a corporate shake up at United Soccer Leagues. Now a report that a new professional soccer league might be formed to compete with USL and MLS alike next season. These developments, all within the last few months, threaten to shake U.S. professional soccer to its core.

We’ve been here before. The history of professional soccer in this country has been dogged by infighting and mismanagement. The North American Soccer League famously went defunct in 1984, but it was not the first U.S. pro league to do so. Disputes with the U.S. Soccer Federation are said to have caused the demise of the first American Soccer League in 1929, ending a first “golden era” for the sport in this country.

On the surface, all is still well with MLS. By all reports, the league is on solid financial footing. A report by last year found that while MLS was not yet profitable, several teams were in the black with healthy revenue streams league-wide. The cash crunch that nearly doomed MLS early this decade is a distant memory.

But the league is far from in the clear. TV viewership and attendance have gone nowhere the last three years, according to Sports Business Journal. Interestingly enough, this development comes as Americans’ interest in soccer is at an all-time high, as evidenced by Nielsen ratings for World Cup qualifiers and English Premier League games. MLS’ two-year old contract with ESPN doesn’t expire until 2014, but its deal with Fox Soccer Channel ends after 2010–the same year as its collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union.

The CBA expires Jan. 31, to be precise. Negotiations are said to be in the preliminary stage. It is unclear how much leverage, if any, the players have at this juncture. But the new league, should it happen, could give them an intriguing option should there be a work stoppage.

For MLS to survive and prosper, changes are necessary. First off, it needs to pay its players a living wage. The $34,000 minimum salary for senior roster spots is bad enough, but many MLS rosters (indeed, starting lineups) are occupied by developmental players earning $1,175 per month. This dichotomy was well-illustrated in The Beckham Experiment, the recent book by Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl (reviewed here). MLS squads compare to third world social economies (tiny, all-dominant upper class, sizeable lower class, no middle class to speak of). Many players are essentially semi-pros, forced to hold down second jobs and keep roommates. The youth academy system needs to change as well; MLS teams develop players they then risk losing to other squads for little or no compensation.

MLS’ single ownership structure, where all teams are controlled by the league, has created a system of parity that essentially gives each club an equal shot at winning championships. But it also prevents any real dynasty from developing. One could argue that a big market villain archetype is exactly what MLS needs to raise awareness with an apathetic U.S. market and to capture more television eyeballs. Without it, MLS matchups lack any of the good guy vs. bad guy narratives of other sports leagues. There are no real favorites in MLS matches–and no real underdogs. Home field advantage and other factors might increase the chances for one side or the other, but mostly every game (and playoff match-up) is a blank slate.

It is perhaps in part for these reasons that a dissident group of owners is threatening to split away from USL, the de-facto “minor league” that grew out of a regional indoor league two decades ago. On Aug. 27, Nike Inc., which inherited the USL structure when it acquired Umbro in 2007, sold the league to NuRock Soccer Holdings LLC. The new owners, no doubt married to the MLS-style single-entity structure that also governed USL, were met with opposition from owners of eight teams wishing to switch to individual team control. Billing themselves the Team Owners Association, the group includes the Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, Miami FC, Minnesota Thunder, Montreal Impact, St. Louis Soccer United, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Vancouver Whitecaps. Their Aug. 31 statement reads in part:

The TOA believes that this [single entity] ownership structure has stunted the growth and recognition of both the league and its teams during USL’s nearly 25-year existence. Consequently, over the past several years, the TOA has engaged in discussions with the owners of USL to restructure USL and is therefore extremely disappointed with Nike’s decision to sell USL to a non-USL-1 team owner. Accordingly, the TOA now reconfirms its commitment to achieving a team-owner controlled league and will pursue all avenues to do so.

Undermining this struggle is some bad blood between MLS and USL, born of MLS’ nascent habit of expanding into cities where USL has successfully grown roots. In Seattle and Portland, MLS is effectively taking an existing fanbase and infrastructure (and often team name and colors) and converting these to Major League Soccer franchises. No surprise then, that the TOA includes clubs in cities without an MLS presence (Vancouver will join MLS in 2011 and the existing ownership appears determined to not let its identity be usurped by an expansion franchise). And no surprise, either, that TOA spokesman, Carolina Railhawks majority owner Selby Welman, also identified the USL-2 New York City franchise as a club he would like to have on board. MLS has famously not made many inroads in the country’s largest market.

Whatever its form, it appears a team-controlled professional league is only a matter of time. Whether the new owners agree to turn USL into the structure the TOA is pursuing, or if the dissident teams decide to go it on their own, we can expect to see some form of individual team ownership soon, probably as early as 2010. What happens then is anybody’s guess. If there is a work stoppage in MLS, this league could quickly gain traction. With international investors (big-name European clubs are all but chomping at the bit to buy into U.S. soccer franchises) pumping in cash, it could finally put U.S. club soccer on the map. Or the whole thing could collapse under its own weight (see NASL). Or any number of myriad possibilities. But don’t be surprised if one year from now the professional soccer landscape in the U.S. is completely different from the one we have today.

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As big as the Azteca game is, it may not matter much in the grand scheme of things…

Posted on 11 August 2009 by ASN Staff

…unless of course the U.S. win the game.

As we all know by now, the U.S. Men’s National Team has never won at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, a 19-game streak that dates back to the stadium’s opening in 1966. It may not happen on attempt number 20, either. It may never happen. The task of winning at Azteca is Herculean, for reasons outlined by former USMNT head coach Bruce Arena (whose teams lost both their games at the Mexico City grounds). In the 43-year history of the stadium, the Mexican senior national team has lost just once, in a 2001 World Cup qualifier to Costa Rica.

But here’s the thing: The Yanks don’t need a victory. Sure, they’ll take it–and you can absolutely expect them to give their all Wednesday afternoon–but three points are not vital to the U.S. qualification effort given their standings in the Hex. Bob Bradley’s side sit second, with 10 points from five games (three victories, one loss and a draw), two points behind Costa Rica. After Wednesday, the U.S. have just one game they might reasonably expect to lose, at Honduras on Oct. 10, the penultimate match day. The team’s only other road game is at Trinidad and Tobago, the last-placed team in the Hex. Even if they lose the Azteca game, the U.S. will likely need no more than four or five points (a win and two draws) from their remaining four games to qualify.

Obviously nobody wants it to be that close. As the best team in the region, the U.S. really should win the group. But that too can easily happen even if they lose Wednesday. First-placed Costa Rica play at Honduras tomorrow, where the Catrachos are unbeaten in the Hex thus far. Costa Rica also faces a potentially tough trip to El Salvador (where the U.S. stumbled and nearly lost) and closes out the Hex schedule at RFK Stadium, Oct. 14. We do not expect Costa Rica to win the rest of their games, especially when they host an either resurgent or destitute (depending on the outcome of Wednesday’s match) Mexican side on the next matchday, Sept. 5.

So much for the Yanks. But what about Mexico? The country would not only face national humiliation and potential economic fallout in case of a loss Wednesday. Its chances of winning the Hex would essentially be torpedoed and it would face a tough road to qualify for the World Cup automatically (though it would still have a good chance of finishing fourth and playing a CONMEBOL team for a spot in South Africa).

Make no mistake: Losing Wednesday’s game would be nothing short of a national catastrophe for Mexico. Which is one reason why we don’t expect it to happen (others include the notorious altitude and smog, as previously noted). Javier Aguirre’s side may not win–indeed a draw might just be the most likely outcome, according to some prediction methods–but El Tri are probably too strong to be beaten at Azteca, especially in light of last month’s Gold Cup triumph.

Any outcome other than a U.S. victory is unlikely to have much of an effect. Both teams would remain alive for first place in the group (though Mexico would admittedly need a lot of help to pull it off) and neither would face any acute danger of missing out on automatic qualification. So enjoy the hype and hoopla while it lasts. Once it ends with the final whistle Wednesday, you can expect soccer to once again be placed on the backburner of U.S. sports media coverage. But probably only for a little while.

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MLS refs need to stop hack-a-Freddie/Fredy tactics

Posted on 27 July 2009 by Kyle Alm

Freddie Ljungberg is fourth in MLS in fouls suffered with 38 fouls suffered in 14 matches. Fredy Montero has the suffered the second highest number of total fouls in Major League Soccer, with 42 in 16 matches. Despite the high number of calls the Swede does get, the Sounders captain is known to voice his opinion in the referee’s ear every match about the calls that don’t go his way.

The general strategy against the Sounders seems to be to hack at Montero and Ljungberg persistently and expect that the referee can’t or won’t make every call.

Ljungberg may be deserving of more calls. Like the Dynamo, Chicago Fire put a lot of physical pressure on the Sounders early. There were some early retaliatory fouls and a lot of playing through the backs of players that wasn’t called. The physical play continued to escalate throughout the match and most of it was allowed.

I disagree with people who say that calling too many fouls slow the match down. I tend to place the blame on the fouls themselves. Fouls need to be called and if correct call is made consistently fouling should decline. The beautiful simplicity of the match is that if you make an attempt to play the ball you are most likely in the clear. If you attempt to play the player, it’s a foul. Refs need to call fouls and give cards before players begin to retaliate against each other.

These are professional players who have played their entire lives and they know when they get fouled, and they have a pretty good idea of when a play is malicious, honest, or ‘professional.’

The dive is another matter. There is altogether too much diving in soccer at every level and it needs to stop. Giving a yellow card is appropriate punishment.

Freddie Ljungberg went mad after being called for a dive just outside of the Chicago Fire’s penalty area. He could not believe it. Upon the replay it was clear that Ljungberg was barely impeded outside of the box and tried to play the referee for another call. The Swede received his second yellow for petulance. The Sounders relinquished their man advantage over the Fire merely five minutes after John Thorrington was sent off for his second yellow.

Sigi Schmid later said that he knew it was coming as soon as Thorrington was sent off.

Referees really get tired of complaining. Ljungberg lost his composure completely in a match where he had been hacked at persistently. A critical advantage for a crucial three points would have leveled Seattle and first place Houston on the table were lost on Ljungberg’s outburst.

But what does it take to get called for a dive? Is it persistence? With the advantage of hindsight the referee should have let it go as a no-call as a mere embellishment. There were easily three other instances of Fire players going to the turf as easily as Ljungberg had. It was certainly embellished, I won’t say that it was a dive, but Ljungberg went to turf easily, but there were more incriminating instances of diving than that play. You need only mention the name ‘Blanco.’

The Sounders FC and their fans should expect more from the designated player than that. Ljungberg needed to keep his cool and try and win his club three points especially since he would be missing the next match because of his accumulated yellow cards now totaled five.

Aside from the shear spectacle of the Brougham End’s and their protest of Qwest Field Security, the amount of cards handed out, near misses and drama of a match with another league leader, it was quite a memorable nil-nil draw. The posts were lucky to be standing by the end of that match. After both players had been sent off there was still plenty of action. Montero nearly had the winner and a share the league’s goal lead with a strike that rocketed past Jon Busch and of the corner of the frame in the 80th minute. And a similar response from the Fire’s Prideaux who responded with a header off that bounced back into play off of Kasey Keller’s frame.

Not to mention Jacqua’s inability to finish a goal. He had no less than three wonderful opportunities to score point blank that all went begging.

Instead all anyone wants to talk about is why one situation gets called and not the other. The true problem isn’t one of diving but with the consistency of officiating in MLS. If one gets called and similar situation gets let go it’s still in the best interest of players to foul. Officiating has let the last couple of matches get out of hand because of the tactics employed. There needs to be more calls and earlier cautions (I hate seeing referee’s give continual warnings, a caution is a warning) before retaliation between players. Otherwise they might as well let the players settle the match themselves without the referees.

If the MLS wants to attract players of quality we need to have a league that is quality. We need officiating that is consistent. The players MLS wants to bring over, that will attract more fans and more advertising revenue, won’t sign on to be the league’s tackling dummy. Just like the fans don’t want to see a million dollar dive and rolling around on the turf until a whistle gets blown.

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