Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Special One

This week's episode of World Soccer Wrap: Serie A will focus on The Special One.  Here's some videos to get you in the mood as well as links to the news articles I relied on in putting this week's show together.

Jose Mourinho: MLS teams should have two major European players; Inter starts new era with US tour

Inter Milan's Jose Mourinho branded 'pathetic' by Serie A rival managers

Calcio Debate: Has Jose Mourinho Been Good For Serie A?

Mourinho wants to sell players to win Champions League

Mourinho is Not a President's Man

Mourinho unveils plans to rejuvenate Inter

Jose Mourinho's Coach Jibes Cause A Heated Reaction

Mancini close to return to work

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dynamo Stadium Developments

Lots of news coming out about the soccer specific stadium for the Houston Dynamo, and it seems to be good news. The projected cost of the stadium is $80 million, and the Dynamo will fund $60 million of that price tag. Looks like the financing of that private funding has been achieved thanks to BBVA/Compass.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Commish - If I ran the MLS

A couple weeks ago I was a guest on Mad About Futbol and the hosts asked me what I would do if I were the commissioner of the MLS. I kept my answer short and only touched on a couple topics, but in the back of my head was a longer laundry list. So without out further adieu, if the MLS hires me to run the league, here are 8 issues/topics that would be the focus of my reign.

1. Raise the Salary Cap

Please notice that I said, “Raise the salary cap,” I did not say, “Abolish the salary cap.” One of the reasons that the MLS has managed to survive for over 12 years is the fact that it has adopted a salary cap that prevented teams from spending wildly and out of control. The stringent cap has done its job, but now, with the demise of the Reserves League and the inclusion of more MLS teams in other competitions, the current salary cap limits the potential of MLS sides. The L.A. Galaxy are the prime example of a team that has been hamstrung by the current salary cap. Last season, despite the 20 goals garnered by Landon Donovan and David Beckham’s 5 goals and 10 assists, not to mention Edson Buddle’s 15 goals, the Galaxy failed to make it into the 2008 MLS Playoffs because the salary cap resulted in the Galaxy fielding a porous back line that contributed to the team giving up 62 goals.

While a one plan fits all salary cap creates a nice bright line rule, I dislike “one plan fits all” and “bright line rule” solutions, not enough flexibility or creativity. What I have long proposed is that instead of setting the MLS salary cap at a certain dollar amount, the salary cap should be a set a percentage of gross income. Since I am not an accountant or MBA holder, I would let the number crunchers, using sound accounting practices, determine the proper percentage of gross income that should go towards player salaries. Additionally, I would set a salary floor like the NBA, which would prevent teams from skimping on salaries and fielding a poor product, and it would give some leeway for teams that have lagging gross incomes.

The main reason that I favor a salary cap based on gross income is that it would encourage teams to expand their marketing and revenue streams. The teams that take the time and the effort to market their brand and product would be duly rewarded because the income increase would increase the teams’ ability to increase salaries and attract high quality players.

2. Fix the Dysfunctional Schedule

There has been much debate about the fact that unlike the top leagues in Western Europe, the MLS runs on a Spring-Summer-Fall schedule. Living in Houston where the bulk of that period is marked by high temperatures and high humidity, not to mention the occasional disruption due to hurricanes and tropical storms, I have some sympathy for adopting the Western European season, but I have also lived in central Wisconsin and know what a hard winter is like. In light of the extreme weather conditions that affect our northern and southern climates, I think the Apertura/Clausura system should be seriously considered.

The real issue with MLS scheduling that annoys me to no end is the MLS’s unwillingness to abide by FIFA International Breaks, a shortcoming that glares brightly at the start of this 2009 season, which has been poorly planned by the league. After making the brilliant decision to hold opening weekend at the same time the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is starting, the second weekend of fixtures falls on a FIFA International Break that includes the USMNT travelling to El Salvador for a World Cup Qualifier. Not exactly the best way to encourage the early season development of team chemistry and cohesiveness.

This summer MLS sides will have to deal with players being called up for the Confederations Cup, the Gold Cup, and other competitions around the world. Next summer is the World Cup finals. It seems an Apertura/Clausura schedule is sounding better and better.

3. Allow Teams to Own their Players’ Rights and Kit Deals

The MLS has been slowly moving away from the single entity structure and has been slowly attracting higher profile investors with deep pockets. The complications caused by the fact that the League owns the rights and contracts to the non-DP players is going to frustrate the wealthier team owners sooner rather then latter. Same thing goes for the fact that in 2004 the League locked in one company, Adidas, as the sole kit supplier for ten years. Of all the professional team sports, soccer probably has the biggest number of companies competing to supply kits to teams. Locking in an entire league to one supplier for ten years does not make much sense.

Both these steps will have to be taken in order for teams to take some of the marketing steps necessary to increase their gross income. By owning the rights to their players, especially developing players, teams could increase their revenue with transfer fees. Additionally, one of the biggest problems with obtaining young talent from other leagues is MLS’s dislike of having to pay transfer fees. By bringing in the money from transfers, individual teams could turn around and use that money to pay for the transfer fees that the League would have balked at paying. Meanwhile, MLS clubs could take advantage of their individual circumstances when signing kit deals and getting the best deals possible. In light of the fanfare of Thursday night’s opener in Seattle, one can only image how much money the new Portland side will lose since they cannot sign a deal with Portland based Nike. Heck, even Umbro might be interested in leaping into the MLS market, reviving the nostalgia for the Umbro shorts craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s . . . on second thought that might not be the best example.

4. Officiating Development

Soccer officiating and referees are bemoaned the world over, and I am not in the mood to get into a discussion of which country has the worst officiating and where the MLS ranks in the table of bad officiating. Instead of casting stones, if I was MLS Commissioner I would push for the creation of one of the best officiating crews in the world, a push that might result in full-time salaried referees. Continuing education courses would be put under the microscope and revamped to ensure the best quality teaching possible, including psychology instruction. Referee exchange programs would be utilized to their fullest potential so as to create the most educational experiences possible. Finally, I would be willing to experiment with some changes designed to ensure that the right call is made without delaying matches. This could include the use of the Hawkeye technology, extra assistant referees on the pitch, and/or an assistant referee in the press box area who the referee can rely on for a second opinion.

5. No Artificial Turf

While I am that rare breed of soccer fan who can watch a match on a field with gridiron lines chalked on it, I cannot abide by artificial turf. My only complaint about Thursday night’s match was having to see it played out on that turf. As Commish, I would require the use of natural grass by all clubs.

6. Make it Easier for Clubs to Sign Academy Players

Earlier this year when the Houston Dynamo signed Taylor Deric as the club’s third goalkeeper, the signing made such a splash because it was only the second time that an MLS side had signed one of its academy players. The Byzantine rules used by the MLS regarding the signing of academy players needs to be thrown out the window. Instead of making it difficult to sign academy players, the MLS should encourage its clubs in developing local youth talent and reward the teams that do the best job by allowing those players to migrate from the academy to the senior squad.

7. Hold ESPN and FSC Accountable

The relationship between ESPN and FSC has been much analyzed and discussed since last summer, and one thing is clear – both networks need to do a better job of promoting the MLS and the MLS matches aired on their respective networks. Instead of being meek and mild, just happy to have the contracts at all, the MLS needs to put pressure on both networks to promote and market the MLS. While ESPN and FSC might pout at first, if the end result is increased viewership, then they have no reason for complaint.

8. Focus Outreach on Inner City and Low Income Areas

The youth soccer boom in America has been primarily, though not solely, felt in the more affluent neighborhoods and regions of this country. While MLS clubs should continue to work with the local AYSO programs, the teams need to focus extra attention on performing outreach on their local inner city and low income areas, especially neighborhoods where many of the children are first generation Americans.

My first appreciation of the beautiful game came courtesy of the “Boat People” from Southeast Asia. In the days following Hurricane Ike, the lack of working stop lights had me taking off the beaten path routes through certain neighborhoods, and every day I saw numerous kids out kicking the ball around. How many of these kids get the chance to play in organized leagues or go to an MLS match? I suspect there is a mother lode of untapped soccer talent in this country, and increased outreach by the MLS just might uncover that talent.

Those are the top eight issues I would tackle if given the opportunity to run the MLS, but I am not holding my breath waiting for their call.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Opening Day - Round Up

Well, we're just minutes away from the start of the 2009 MLS Season, perfect time for me to do a quick soccer round up.

As promised on the last episode of World Soccer Wrap: Serie A, the DB32 ESPN interview:

Speaking of Europe, Marcus Tracy played for Aalborg in today's UEFA Cup match against Manchester City. City advances on penalty kicks.

U.S. Soccer has put forth a survey for fans to take.

ESPN is losing its UEFA Champions League rights in the U.S., that's what they get for delaying coverage of Sounders v. Red Bull. Another story on the UEFA tv rights issue.

Don Garber . . . uh, I mean MLS has issued a code of conduct for fans. What now what????

Milan, Chelsea, Club America, and Inter . . .oh my . . touring the U.S. this summer.

Real Salt Lake is flying the friendly skys with new sponsor JetBlue.

All right, that does it for now. I'm gonna get my popcorn ready and enjoy this match.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

DeRo - The Right Trade at the Right Time

In 2046, when the history of the first 50 years of the MLS is published, I have no doubt that Dwayne De Rosario will be highlighted as one of the top players of the league’s first 20 years of existence.

After spending time with the Toronto Lynx, FSV Zwickau, and the Richmond Kickers, in 2001 De Rosario was brought to the San Jose Earthquakes by Coach Frankie Yallop, which is not surprising since, with his ties to Canada, Yallop had to be aware of the talent level of this young Canadian of Guyanese descent. In his first year in MLS, De Rosario started 11 games, played in 21 matches, scored 5 goals, and picked up 4 assists, and he was the MVP of the 2001 MLS Cup, which the Quakes won. Over the next few years, De Rosario proved a steady role player for the Quakes, including his recovery from an ACL injury in 2003, but he was always in the shadow of the team’s star player, Landon Donovan.

Donovan parted ways with the Quakes after the 2004 MLS season, opening the door for De Rosario to become a leader in San Jose’s midfield. The 2005 season proved to be a stand out year for De Rosario who scored 9 goals and had 13 assists in 28 matches. Despite winning the Supporters Shield in 2005, the Quakes made an early exit from the MLS playoffs and then learned that they were moving to Houston, Texas for the 2006 season.

The disappointments of the 2005 season and the move from San Jose to Houston apparently had no impact on De Rosario, who had a better season in 2006 then he did in 2005. With 29 game starts and 30 games played, De Rosario picked up 11 goals and 5 assists in the Dynamo’s inaugural season. Additionally, he not only played the entire All-Star game against Chelsea, but he scored the game winning goal for the US side. Finally, he was integral part of the Houston Dynamo victory over the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup, bringing the City of Houston it’s first championship since the Houston Comets won 4 championships between 1997 and 2000.

The 2007 season saw a drop in De Rosario’s stats as he only scored 6 goals and picked up 4 assists. Despite the drop in numbers, De Rosario scored the winning goal for the Dynamo in the 2007 MLS Cup, again beating the Revolution, and become the first MLS player to pick up two MLS Cup MVP honors.

The Dynamo’s 2008 season opened with very high expectations, would the Houston franchise become a dynasty by winning three MLS Cups in a row? In the end, De Rosario managed 7 goals and only 2 assists, while the Dynamo were knocked out of the MLS Play-Offs in the first round by Red Bull New York.

For 8 seasons, Dwayne De Rosario was an integral part of the San Jose Earthquakes/Houston Dynamo franchise. In that time he picked up 4 MLS Cups and two MLS Cup MVP honors. As recently as this past summer, some commentators stated that De Rosario was the best player in the MLS. And as the 2008 season gave way to the post season, Houston Dynamo fans could sleep well at night knowing that De Rosario was on their team.

But then reality set in and the Houston Dynamo announced that they were sending De Rosario back to his homeland to play for Toronto FC, who joined the MLS in 2007. In a sense this was a surprise move, at the end of the 2008 season nobody expected to see De Rosario leave Houston before the 2009 season. But, on the other hand, this was not a surprise move because De Rosario, who grew up in a suburb of Toronto, had expressed a strong interest in playing for Toronto FC.

In light of the Dynamo’s lackluster performance against Atlante in the CONCACAF Champions League, there has been some hand wringing and teeth gnashing about whether the Dynamo should have traded De Rosario to Toronto. Not to be contrarian or anything, but it seems to me that the De Rosario trade was the right trade at the right time for the Dynamo.

As indicated by the discussion above, it appears that De Rosario may have reached his scoring peak in the MLS. The numbers indicate that De Rosario will be a less then 10 goal per season player for here on out. Despite the leadership skills he brings to the pitch, is it in the Dynamo’s best interest to pay over $300,000.00 a year to a player that scores less then 10 goals a season and has suffered a big drop off in assists?

Speaking of De Rosario’s contract, it was set to expire in 2010, so the time was right for the Dynamo to trade De Rosario to Toronto while they could still get some value for him. In the trade, the Dynamo picked up young defender Julius James and some allocation money. James, who seems to have some good skill sets, has had a rough start with the Dynamo, but so did Bobby Boswell who has turned out to be an integral part of the Dynamo defense.

More importantly, it appears that the Dynamo are seriously interested in acquiring a designated player, something that could not be achieved with De Rosario’s contract on the books. As discussed here previously, the Dynamo made a serious effort to sign Omar Bravo. While that effort failed, I expect that the Dynamo will move quietly and patiently in their search for a designated player and such a signing will occur before the 2009 season is over.

Finally, the trade made sense because the Dynamo sent De Rosario to an Eastern squad that plays on artificial turf. Of all the teams in the MLS, Toronto is a club that the Dynamo do not need to consider a serious threat. Finally, the Dynamo could breathe easy because the heir apparent to De Rosario is Stuart Holden, a native of Scotland who grew up in the Sugar Land suburb of Houston.

The transition from the De Rosario era to the non-De Rosario era might not be the smoothest or easiest for the Dynamo. But the Houston Dynamo have shown an ability to ride the waves of change, and it’s unlikely that the departure of De Rosario will have a major impact on the Dynamo’s performance in the 2009 MLS Season.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

This weekend I put together a video promoting the World Soccer Wrap podcast and its coverage of Soccer American Style:

Also, on Friday night I spent some time as a guest on the latest episode of the Mad About Futbol Show.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dynamo Keep Looking South for their DP

Last Saturday morning, while he was in town to promote the fights taking place that evening at Houston’s Toyota Center, Oscar de la Hoya stopped by Estadio Robertson to chat with reporters while watching his Houston Dynamo host the Montreal Impact in a 70 minute practice match. While most of the de la Hoya press conference focused on the impending fights, Houston’s own Juan “The Baby Bull” Diaz, and de la Hoya’s future as a boxer, de la Hoya did discuss the team that his Golden Boy Promotions bought an interest in just over a year ago. In addition to expressing his opinion that a stadium deal among the Dynamo, the City of Houston, and Harris County was going to be finalized soon, de la Hoya also indicated his desire that the Dynamo sign a big name player from Mexico; however, he did not commit to a time from for such a signing and he did not indicate that he had any particular player in mind.

Little did we in the press know that the Houston Dynamo had already set their sights on Omar Bravo and were actively courting the Mexican striker. Bravo made his debut with Club Deportivo Guadalajara on August 20, 2001, and went on to score 101 goals over 258 appearances for Chivas. The only Chivas player with more goals then Bravo is Salvador Reyes who scored 122 goals. This past summer, Bravo parted ways with Chivas and signed with La Liga’s Deportivo La Coruña, where he made 9 appearances and scored his only goal against Málaga CF.

Late last month news emerged that Bravo would be returning to Mexico on a 4 month loan to UANL Tigres - a loan deal that could turn into a permanent transfer. But the news had emerged before a deal was finalized and the Houston Dynamo quietly expressed their interest in obtaining Bravo’s services and signing him as the club’s first designated player.

In his blog on on Friday morning, Dynamo COO, Chris Canetti, finally addressed the Dynamo’s close but failed effort to sign Bravo. Dynamo Coach Dominic Kinnear, who is well acquainted with Mexican soccer and Omar Bravo, was very interested in adding Bravo to his team’s offense, giving it that extra offensive firepower that so many fear was lost with the departure of Dwayne De Rosario.

The Dynamo have not provided detailed information on the course and status of the Bravo negotiations, but the Dynamo believed they had a serious shot at landing Bravo and are uncertain as to why he chose to go to Tigres instead of Houston. In the end, Tigres is pay $500,000.00 for the loan and then could acquire Bravo by paying a $4.3 million transfer fee this summer. In light of these figures, it is possible that the MLS front office balked at coughing up the necessary money to bring Bravo to the Dynamo, but the team contends that the league was in full support of the Dynamo’s efforts to bring Bravo to the MLS. More likely, it had to do with Bravo concluding that his best shot at securing a starting spot with El Tri would be playing in Mexico.

After the failed effort to sign Luis Angel Landin earlier in this MLS off-season, it is not surprising that the Dynamo kept their efforts to sign Bravo quiet. What is clear is that the Dynamo, a team that has won two MLS Cups without relying on the designated player rule, is seriously open to signing a designated player and the team has seemingly set its sights on offensive talent from our southern neighbor. That being said, Canetti is still making it clear that the team is weighing several factors in determining who they go after, factors that include age, position, ability, talent, contract status, style, attitude, salary requirements, and, yes, marketability.

Had the Dynamo signed Bravo, who just turned 29 this week, it would have marked the biggest signing going into the 2009 MLS season. Not only did Bravo make a name for himself by playing at and being the poster boy for one of Mexico’s most popular, and hated, clubs, but he has 55 caps and 14 goals for the Mexican National Team, including a brace in Mexico’s match against Iran in the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals, the Dynamo would have legitimized the club in the eyes of football fans in Mexico. That’s not meant as a knock against the Dynamo, who already have a good reputation in Mexico, but Dynamo jersey sales would have shot up south of the border in the same manner that Blanco’s time at Real Valladolid Club de Fútbol legitimized that Spanish side in Mexico and had football fans in Mexico wearing the purple and white kits in public.

One of the interesting points made to me by my colleague Rey Gallegos is that not only have the Dynamo been eyeing soccer players in Mexico, but the club has been pursuing Mexican players who are equipped to handle the physical play of the MLS. Landin stands about 6 feet and has the physicality to handle the rough play of the MLS, while Bravo was an amateur boxer who knows how to employ the physical traits of that sport while on the soccer pitch.

It is the patient yet persistent approach that the Dynamo have shown on the pitch these past few years, resulting in the team becoming on of the top clubs currently in the MLS, that the club appears to be employing in its efforts to sign a designated player. The question is not if the Dynamo will sign a DP, it is when and who will it be? Based on the team’s recent efforts, the answers are likely to be soon and someone who will contribute positively both on and off the pitch.

- Special thanks to Rey Gallegos for his insight on Bravo and the Beautiful Game in Mexico.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Shameful! Dynamo lose to Atlante, 3-0

Photo by Katy Umana

In contemplating the Houston Dynamo’s performance on Tuesday night in Cancun, the only thing that pops into my head is Dusty Rhodes saying "Shameful!". The Dynamo were the only MLS squad to make it out of the CONCACAF Champions League group-stage and into the quarter-finals. After giving up a 1-0 lead in the 82nd minute last Tuesday during the first leg of this tie, the Dynamo went down to Mexico needing a 1-0 win or a 2-2 draw, at the very least, in order to advance to the CCL semi-finals.

On Saturday, the Dynamo held a 70 minute practice game against the Montreal Impact, a match that was intense and aggressive on both sides of the ball. So intense that in the second half, while protesting the issuing of a red card to Roberto Brown, Montreal coach John Limniatis shoved Corey Ashe, causing both benches to clear. Order was restored and the Dynamo won the game 3-2. Brian Ching picked up a brace for the Dynamo and expressed his confidence going into the second leg of their tie with Atlante.

The concept of making history was on the minds of Dynamo fans as they anticipated Tuesday night’s match in Cancun. No MLS team has ever beaten an FMF team in a competitive match in Mexico. Last year the Houston Dynamo made history by getting a draw in Mexico City when they tied Pumas, 4-4. A victory in Cancun against Atlante, especially in light of the Dynamo performance in Mexico City, seemed within grasp. Atlante are newcomers to Cancun and their following, in an area of Mexico where baseball is more popular than soccer (as evidenced by the baseball style organ employed during Tuesday’s match), is small. Cancun is at sea level, easily accessible to American tourists, and lacking in the pollution that plagues Mexico City. Additionally, Atlante have been struggling in the 2009 Clausura and Tuesday’s CCL match marked Atlante’s 5th match since February 14th.

Unfortunately, the Houston Dynamo’s pre-season form was spotlighted on Tuesday as the collapsed offensively and defensively, limping away from Cancun without scoring a goal while giving up three goals. It was reminiscent of the Dynamo defeat at the hands of Red Bull New York in the first round of last year’s MLS playoffs, or more accurately, it was reminiscent of last year’s 6-1 defeat at the hands of Gamba Osaka in the 2008 Pan-Pacific Championship.

With Bobby Boswell being sidelined with flu like symptoms and Eddie Robinson out due to a knee injury, the Dynamo went into the match with a defensive handicap. Julius James, acquired in the trade that sent Dwayne de Rosario to Toronto late last year, will likely become an important part of the Dynamo defense, but like Bobby Boswell in last year’s PPC, James is still learning to mesh and communicate with his new backline, and Atlante exploited the resulting miscues to great effect.

For the past few weeks, it has been clear that the Houston Dynamo have to add some more offensive depth, but as they approach the start of the 2009 MLS season they find themselves in the unfortunate position of needing to shore up their defense. The left knee injury that kept Eddie Robinson out of Tuesday’s match was severe enough that Robinson underwent knee surgery on Wednesday and is out indefinitely.

The Dynamo went into half time with a 2 goal deficit thanks to goals by Fernando Navarro in the 23rd minute and Rafael Marquez Lugo in the 36th minute. Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear wanted his team to get more aggressive, so going into the second half he put Geoff Cameron and Corey Ashe on as substitutes. While these Dynamo substitutes played well, they were not able to sufficiently ignite the Dynamo offense. A goal from Giancarlo Maldonado at the end of the match just added insult to injury for a Dynamo side that was outplayed and outclassed, by an FMF side that is in mid-season form and took advantage of their opponent’s pre-season form.

During the CCL group stage, due to fixture congestion, the Dynamo took several gambles by fielding primarily reserve squads, and these gambles paid off as the Dynamo advanced into the CCL quarter-finals. During the group stage, Coach Kinnear was not afraid to hide his distaste for the tactics of several of the teams his side faced, and expressed his preference for SuperLiga. But going into Tuesday’s match, it was clear that Kinnear, who hates to lose, wanted the victory and wanted to move on to the semi-finals. Having seen and interacted with Dominic Kinnear after his Dynamo have lost important matches, I would hate to be one of the Dynamo players after Tuesday’s loss.

With the current CCL behind them, the Dynamo now focus their attention on hosting 2008 MLS Champions Columbus Crew on Saturday March 21st. Before that happens though, do not be surprised if the Dynamo step up efforts to sign Canadian defender Andre Hanait. The Dynamo’s offensive depth issues will likely be dealt with later this Spring, a common theme in Houston.