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Monday, October 26, 2009

MLS 2009 Attendance stats final week

Seven months. Fifteen teams. Eight playoff spots. Two conferences. One winner. As it stands, Columbus, Houston and LA are the teams to beat in the MLS playoffs. I'm not crazy about the system that's in place but I understand it and enjoy it all the same. This was a transition year. A transition because the Beckham experiment unraveled. Also because the Seattle Sounders showed the large support there is for the game in the Pacific Northwest (Portland and Vancouver are the expansion teams in 2011). And finally, it was a transition year because the biggest markets also had the worst attendance records.

I will let the figures on the right column speak for themselves, but I offer some final thoughts for this MLS attendance season.

The winners:
  • Seattle, Houston, Salt Lake, Toronto. Houston and Salt Lake City both saw small improvements in attendance relevant to last season. I could say the same for San Jose, but their numbers (and some other clubs as well) were lifted by doubleheaders with much more flair (Chivas Guadalajara at the Candlestick Park). Seattle has the attendance record in MLS with a whopping 30897. The others in this group made only small gains relative to 2008, but this highlights the stability of the fan base.
  • Columbus, Chivas USA, Kansas City and even FC Dallas didn't lose an appreciable amount of attendance, which suggests a stable fan base. All have respectable numbers as well, although much can be done about Dallas. Their doubleheader with a Mexico match upped their numbers considerably.

The losers:
  • LA, New York, DC, Chicago, New England, Colorado. It should jump out at first glance that the worst losses are in the four biggest markets. Indeed, LA saw a sharp decrease partly in response to Mr "Goldenballs" and his parade from LA to Milan and back again. He redeemed himself on the pitch, though. I give him that much.
  • New York was almost always slow this season, partly due to J.C. Osorio's management, and also partly due to the inhospitable Giants Stadium environment. With the Red Bull Arena to be operational by next March, we could see a resurgence in fan appreciation for the team and perhaps more inspired play by its stars.
  • DC United, on the other hand, saw above average attendance relative to the rest of the league but the fans were less than inspired by the players, the stadium, and international competition. Chicago seems to have leveled out now that the Cuauteminha isn't a fad anymore. New England, on the other hand, suffer from a terrible stadium situation, lousy management, and general lack of spark on the pitch. This reflected on the stands. As for Colorado, I'm not sure I have much to elaborate with.

A final look at the distribution of general attendance shows the clear winners in Toronto FC and Seattle, the strength (even though diminished) of big markets like DC and LA. Dallas and Colorado clearly need improvement... and don't let the stadium size factor fool you... just look at all the figures in terms of average, relative and median attendance.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

MLS international: The Champions League

No, not UEFA. We're not in Europe, even if our style and players are more suited to the European game. I'm speaking of the Concacaf Champions League or the Concachampions, whatever you want to call it. Christened last year as a substitute for the Concacaf Champions Cup in order for the conference to emulate other tournaments around the world that have a longer period of midweek play or perhaps to cash in on the new MLS designated player rule. Whatever the reason, it's been miserable for MLS. Last year only Houston made it to the quarterfinals and were booted off in their first game. Somehow USL's Puerto Rico Islanders made it to the semis.

This year, Columbus punched its ticket to the quarterfinals thanks to poor play from Costa Rica's Saprissa. The Crew has done exceptionally well, save for their game against Mexican foes. Houston, however, failed to win against Metapan, a Salvadoran team that was outscored 0-17 prior to last night's match. Somehow, though, they were able to score 3 goals on Houston, enough to win 3-2 and leave Houston out of the quarterfinals. DC United will be hoping that winless San Juan Jabloteh can beat or tie Marathon (Honduras) to get past the group stage.

It suffices to say that right now MLS just can't cut it internationally. Last year both Chivas and New England were booted off the competition by teams from Panama and Trinidad. I give full credit to those teams, but we have to look at this objectively. I don't know if it's lack of experience or lack of motivation for players with matches outside MLS (Quaranta was quoted at one point saying that he wasn't as interested in matches outside MLS but instead wanted to focus on playoffs).

Another point is the lack of a reserve league when these games happen near the end of the MLS regular season. There just aren't enough players for all these tournaments. I think that until the reserve league is reinstated (no hurry with the economy as it is) then we can expect more international failures. No qualms. We just don't have the arguments at this point. The MLS - Mexican league matchups left us with an 0-6 record. The league should, at this point, continue to concentrate on building its fan base here in the States, build more stadiums, and solidify their teams. At some point, though, true fans of the game will want international success. It's part of club soccer around the world and it brings prestige to the league, not to mention a degree of accreditation that MLS lacks right now.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Giants falling: Barcelona and Liverpool lose at home

It's still early, yes. But could we be seeing a reversal in superclub fates? I watched most of the Barcelona - Rubin Kazan and Liverpool - Lyon games and I have to say it was entertaining to watch multimillion dollar players get frustrated against more modest (by European standards) teams. Until I read a couple of post-game stories, I thought both Rubin and Lyon had won at home... and rightfully so. But then, as I read the game recounts and other scores, I saw that the games had been at Anfield and Camp Nou. What?!

That's right. Not Ibrahimovic, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Marquez, Pique and company could tackle the Russian champs in their own house. Ibrahimovic's goal was pure magic but the icing on the cake never came and Barca are now in a bit of a predicament, if only for a while. Could both Inter and Barca be left out of the competition in the group stages? Don't count on it. Rubin Kazan will need to secure all home points and a tie vs Inter isn't helping much at this point. Inter, however, needs to start winning some games.

And what about Liverpool? The Anfield side has much more to worry about with Fiorentina also being in this group. Benayoun and Torres weren't big enough deterrents to keep the eternal-favorites French club, Olympique Lyonnais, from causing damage through Argentine Delgado late in the game. Yes, no Benzema included.

Could this be a backlash of modest teams versus superclubs and their super-expensive players (e.g. Real, Barca, Man U)? Too early to tell, but the possibilities and the ensuing matches are anything short of dramatic.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

MLS 2009 Attendance stats week 30

Back to club business. MLS has seen its share of ups and downs lately. From DCU's inability to win important wins at home, to an FC Dallas that suddenly has a last playoff berth in sight with the aid of the resurging Cunningham. In the stands, Chivas has lost its momentum while Salt Lake, Dallas, New England have seen important gains that bring them at least level with last year's numbers. With the closing of the season next week, it looks like some of the numbers we have will stand as they are.

A closer examination with the aid of the figure 2009-2007 we can see the pre-post Beckham effect. His influence felt late in 2007 and died down in 2009 after the AC Milan soap opera. This year, it's Seattle and Toronto that make the difference. Indeed, dropping Seattle and Toronto from the average places the average season attendance to 14411 from 15895. Plenty of things to consider before 2010 and Philadelphia's introduction. Will we see more of the same? Will Seattle's attendance tumble out of the honeymoon phase? Only time will tell. Again, all stats are derived from MLS official numbers and the graphics are in the right column of this page.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The World is not enough: USA tops Concacaf

The USA cemented its place atop Concacaf today with a well-earned tie full of emotions that reverberated all the way to San Salvador. There, upon learning that Costa Rica had tied, Honduras was assured that their goal differential would mark the difference and that they would go on to qualify as 3rd in Concacaf.

Back home it was personal for Altidore, as seen with early scuffles in the game that earned him a yellow card. It was also personal for coach Bradley and his son. Bradley Sr wanted to finish at the top of the conference to have a better chance at being first-seeded in the World Cup group draw. Bradley Jr wanted to respond to critics of his game. He did so with a goal. The same goes for Bornstein, the much-maligned left back, who delivered a stellar performance that was capped with a C.Ronaldoesque surprise-header that sealed the tie in the final seconds. Mexico's tie with Trinidad & Tobago meant the US would remain first in the table.

It is true that our players had Charlie Davies in mind today. So did an entire nation of fans and followers of the game throughout the world. Our national team players wanted to make him proud. The Americans never gave up. That is what separates this country from other footballing nations. It is our sheer will to continue fighting the game until the very end. Scanning through the Mexican soccer media I repeatedly came across these phrases: "Typical United States come back," "they are resilient," "a cohesive team like no other," "the concept of group is integral for success." Indeed, an important recognition of the American style of the game.

Losing Onyewu to an unfortunate injury in his left patella tendon (knee) will create important competition for the starting spot alongside Bocanegra. Marshall, Goodson and Conrad are great options, as are Califf and Parkhurst. These are all very technical, capable players. Still, a healthy Onyewu marks the difference in this team. Charlie Davies' absence will force Bradley to rethink the offense, one that was performing remarkably well with the speedy forward. Still, we must consider that Casey, Cooper, and Ching are great options with Altidore. And if that were not enough, we have both Donovan and Dempsey able to shift into striking roles. This is the depth of the US at this point in its history. This is why just getting to the World Cup is not enough. The US can penetrate deep into the tournament. They have the character and the players to do it.

M. Bradley...6.5
Subs: Rogers (6), Torres (6.5)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Charlie Davies: American Hero

It suffices to say that by now the American soccer community is aware of Charlie Davies' medical struggle. "Chuck D" suffered a car accident during the early hours of October 13th that included an unfortunate fatality. He underwent six hours of surgery for fractured bones in his right leg, left elbow and cheek bones, added to a lacerated bladder. US Soccer staff and the doctors involved were unable to project a timeline for recovery and if and when Davies would get back on the pitch.

This story has really hit home for me on a very personal level. I too was involved in a catastrophic accident and pulled out of it through sheer act of will and help from family and friends. My injuries were neurological and thus less efficiently treated. I can only hope that Charlie's injuries remain musculoskeletal in nature. He is an athlete and is more than capable of fighting through injury. Added to this is the significant amount of rehab he has access to as a professional soccer player. And friends and family and fans in America, Sweden, France, the world will be with Charlie.

We will miss him on the pitch in South Africa. We will miss his happiness with the ball, his fighting spirit, his lighting pace, his resilient nature, his patented smirk, his one-two punch with Jozy, his stanky leg. But he will return, rest assured. We will see him play in Brazil in 2014. He will score the goals that will get us there. He will be our stallion on the field. He will be our American hero.

Monday, October 12, 2009

To win away from home

It's tough. No doubt about it. And Wednesday's matches for the last chance to be in South Africa presents must win situations away from home for a plethora of teams. Most important, and with interesting consequences, are the Conmebol games involving Ecuador, Uruguay and Argentina. The latter two play in Montevideo in a game that could result on either one missing out on next year's tournament. This, along with Ecuador's game versus Chile, will decide the fourth and fifth places for South America. A win by Ecuador in Santiago would push the loser of the first contest out of South Africa. A tie between Ecuador and Chile means that a draw between Uruguay and Argentina is enough for them to qualify. A loss by Ecuador has the same consequences regardless of the outcome of the Argentina game. Further, both teams are looking for the direct route to the African continent by bypassing the playoff with Concacaf (Costa Rica or Honduras).

The story does not stop there. For Honduras and Costa Rica, winning away from home in hostile environments will decide the final Concacaf spot and could pair the lower seed against mighty Argentina in order to book their ticket to the World Cup. Honduras is headed to El Salvador (unbeaten at home but already eliminated) and Costa Rica makes the trip to our nation's capital to take on an already-qualified USA. El Salvador will not escape the opportunity to end the tournament on a high note after having had memorable games (and wins) in the Estadio Cuscatlan. The US, on the other hand, are looking to win the Concacaf group and claim the title of the region's top team.

But this predicament is not isolated to the American continent. In Africa, for example, a duel between Algeria and Egypt will decide one of the final spots for the African region. Algeria can clinch its first appearance in a World Cup with a draw in Cairo. Egypt is looking to return to the tournament after a 20 year absence. Elsewhere in Africa, both Cameroon and Gabon need wins at Morocco and Togo in order to qualify.

Let's not forget Europe. Israel (vs Switzerland) and Ukraine (vs Andorra) and Croatia (Kazakhstan) all need results away from home to advance into the tournament. Finally there's lowly Bahrain taking on New Zealand for the last Asian/Oceania spot.

Winning away from home requires discipline, an ability to ignore and silence the crowd, the poise to withstand the onslaught of the home team, the courage to withstand the psychology of the rival squad, and always, always, always... a bit of luck.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A triumph: USA qualifies for South Africa

It was a triumph on the pitch in San Pedro Sula tonight. A triumph because it meant reaching the World Cup with a game to spare. A triumph because they showed why they share the top of Concacaf with Mexico. A triumph because they won a game away from home to a team that had not lost at home. A triumph because the boys played smart, attractive soccer and chose not to hunker down in front of an enemy hungry for goals. A triumph because we chose to watch the game at a bar or cinema or a computer screen once the American media failed to secure rights to the Honduras game. A triumph because we didn't resort to a "savior coach" as Mexico and Argentina did. A triumph because Bob Bradley can once again silence his critics. A triumph because Altidore, Davies, Holden and Bradley Jr will see playing time on the biggest soccer stage there is. A triumph because we got lucky and Pavon had a bad night. A triumph because Donovan showed up once more with a screamer of a free kick. A triumph because there weren't more yellow cards aside from Bornstein. A triumph because Holden stood in remarkably well for Dempsey. A triumph because Conor Casey proved us all wrong by scoring two of the most important goals in the history of this qualifying cycle. A triumph because the US back line stood together and frustrated the Honduran attack. A trumph because they remembered how to win against the odds. A triumph because they remembered how to play.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ecuador vs Uruguay: Time's up

History is tough to swallow sometimes. Historically, Uruguay has always been better than Ecuador. Better leagues, better players, and better world cups. The "charruas" won two of the first four editions of the ecumenical tournament, and although they have been inconsistent this time around, a win in Quito was just what they needed.

Inconsistency is the key word during these qualifiers. Ecuador and Uruguay define it. How else does one go from losing to Peru in Lima to winning in Quito? And how else does one go from beating Argentina to losing at home in Quito the way Ecuador did today?

It's saddening for a nation that has become accustomed to being a player on the big stage for the past 9 years. Maybe it's the wake-up call they need. Vizuete did a good job as coach but somehow I think a seasoned Argentine would make things more interesting for the Tricolores. Time will only tell. Now they have 2011 Copa America to look forward to, a tournament in which they have continuously failed ever since 1993. It's also sad for up-and-coming players like Chirstian Benitez and Joao Rojas, as well as for experienced world stars like Valencia, Mendez and Castillo.

So, take a bow, Ecuador. It's time to leave the number 5 spot to a better team... and today that team was Uruguay.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Every journey has a first step: The October qualifiers

It ends on the 14th. Sort of. World Cup qualifying will, for the most part, end next Wednesday as all conferences play their final games. All that will remain after the epic contests of Saturday and Wednesday will be the play-in games: one between Concacaf-Conmebol and the other as a play-off between second-placed UEFA sides. It is well known in the soccer communities that at least five of the biggest names in soccer may not be present in South Africa next summer. Included in this list is Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Ibrahimovic, Eto'o and Adebayor. Most blatantly obvious is the fate of CR9 (Portugal) and Ibra (Sweden) as they are both in the same group, which is dominated by Denmark. Messi may have the least to worry about since Argentina host bottom-dwellers Peru on Saturday. Adebayor (Togo) and Eto'o (Cameroon) are both in the same group... and only one can remain. Oh, and try to catch the Oceania-Asia playoff, Bahrain - New Zealand. Should be entertaining, no?

Perhaps one of the juiciest contests is Germany-Russia in Moscow. A win would probably book a trip to the cup for either team. Germany needs a draw to be in, assuming both teams win the subsequent games. Sweden needs travels to Copenhagen in search of a win. Portugal has it easier hosting both Hungary and Malta. France will have only itself to blame if it can't produce a result at home versus Austria and Faroe Islands. Kudos to Bosnia for being on the verge of their first World Cup. The Italian champs are also near the finish line. A draw versus Ireland will suffice (note that the Irish have a knack for beating the Italians in important games.... think back to 1994). The match is in Dublin.

Back to Amerigo Vespucci's continent we come: Mexico and the US can both seal their ticket to South Africa with wins on Saturday. Mexico has it easier in a game versus almost-eliminated El Salvador. The US has to visit San Pedro Sula to take on Honduras (8-0-0 at home this round of qualifiers[no TV for this game]). With Dempsey out injured, DeMerrit sidelined with a freak eye injury, and a weak left back option (no Castillo due to injury), it will be difficult to avoid a loss, if not a catastrophic result by a three goal margin. Things are bleak indeed. Look for Holden to get the nod in place of Dempsey and Bornstein to suit up at left back. Added to the calamities are the possibilities of yellow card accumulation for the following match against Costa Rica for just aboud everyone in the team. Yes, it could all come down to RFK stadium on Wednesday 14th of October. A win at home versus T&T will put Costa Rica at 15 points, 1 less than the US. This means the winner of the contest on Wednesday would get the automatic spot in South Africa... and the loser? Argentina? Sort of...

Down south we travel. Somehow, Maradona, the savior, did not have the "hand of God" as coach and the "albiceleste" is in 5th place behind Ecuador for the playoff spot versus Concacaf 4th . With a mix of results, they may breathe easier by Sunday morning if they are able to take care of Peru. Chile is looking for its first appearance in a World Cup since 1998. A tie will suffice for at least the playoff spot. They are facing a hungry Colombia in Bogota that require all three points to stay alive., although a tie and a mix of results keeps their chances on mathematical life-support. As for Ecuador, their fate is in their hands. Twice it has come down to this contest against Uruguay at home in Quito. Twice they drew level and were propelled to the World Cup. A tie won't quite be enough this time, however. Things will still come down to Wednesday when they travel to Chile. Cheering for the "Araucanos" when they take on the "Cafeteros."

There you have it, boys and girls. The end is in the beginning and the next five days will decide the fate of many in the soccer world. From 200+ countries when this started 18 months ago to just 32 in next year's contest. Surely the biggest spectacle on Planet Earth.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

More of the same: MLS vs Mexican teams

Wow. Now that's 0-6 for three separate MLS squads versus their Mexican counterparts. All three teams, DCU, Columbus and Houston have failed to score a victory or even a tie against their Mexican rivals. Why is this so? Clear dominance. Bad luck. No reserve league. Call it whatever you want but the sad truth is MLS just cannot cut it against their Concacaf rivals these days.

Our two sentinels, Houston and Columbus Crew, both with impressive home records and en route to a possible MLS cup final, were outscored by a combined 0-10. Columbus, our current champs, were thumped 5-0 by Cruz Azul in Mexico and went down 0-2 in Columbus (the home field for the American national team). I wouldn't feel so bad if it weren't for other teams in Concacaf like Arabe Unido (Panama) and Marathon (Honduras) winning their respective home matches against Mexican teams. Both have put DCU and Houston in very precarious positions. Houston might have a better chance assuming Pachuca can take care of business at home versus a Panamanian side that spanked them 4-1 earlier in the tournament. For DC United, despite their impressive multi-goal wins against Jabloteh and Marathon, need a result whilst visiting mighty Toluca.

That's my rant for today. No real answers and too many questions. There are more important questions and problems with MLS, yes. Team pride, credibility for the league, and international recognition are just as important as marketing and big stars in world football. Perhaps this is what upsets so many fans. Then again, could it be that there are American fans that don't care about their team's games outside of MLS? An interesting question .