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Monday, May 30, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Game Week 12

Two months and 12 game weeks in, 2011 is just barely over 2010 in terms of overall attendance. Columbus is mostly the driving factor with over 3000 less seats filled in average during the present season compared to last year. Add to this the delay in home play for Kansas City and the numbers brought in by sellouts in Cascadia do not change the overall figures that much.

At this point we can also start playing with other numbers such as the median. If we look at the Eastern conference alone, we see that the mean for Houston, for example is much higher (>2000) than the median. DC also exhibits similar numbers, albeit smaller than Houston's. Conversely, New England seems to have slightly higher median attendance numbers than the mean suggests. This is mostly due to one or two dates with numbers far below 10,000.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Portland Timbers vs DC United: the live experience

Fandom. That's the best way to describe a Portland Timbers match. The stadium, the people, the atmosphere is just amazing. Today we experienced the first Timbers game in MLS action versus a depleted, yet still consistent, DC United squad. The score was a negative 2-3 for a game that should have been a tie. But the experience is what really counts at this point in the club's early MLS career.

In terms of the game, I'd have to say that the second half was much better. DC United looked more lively in the first half and Perry Kitchen kicked off the scoring through a carefully choreographed corner (either by the DC offense or the Portland defense). Meanwhile, Portland struggled as Perlaza and Cooper lacked quality in their attempts and Jewsbury seemed absent. Can we blame this on the mid-week friendly versus storied Ajax Amsterdam? Hardly. I think the referee had more of an influence in this game.

Indeed, the second half was more entertaining, both goal-wise and on-field action. After a phantom offside call on Cooper's goal came a series of 4 penalties. Two missed, three by the Timbers and one by DCU. It was really just one PK for Portland that was repeated twice after Hamid stepped off his line (or DC players invaded the area?). We won't ever know for sure, I don't think. As for the PKs, Cooper hesitated twice and Hamid stopped it twice, regardless of whether it was legitimate. Jewsbury then stepped up the third time around and scored. A PK for DC a bit later returned the scoreline in favor of DC. Josh Wolff finished it off just 6 minutes before the end. Even though Perlaza scored again for Portland, it was too little too late.

The Portland Timbers now lie at a crossroads. They have lost their first game at home and what was usually a sure 3 points on home turf now means they must reacquire points away from the Columbia Gorge. For DC, however, things are starting to click. Add to this the fact that they will have nearly their entire team (injuries aside) to work with during the Gold Cup and the top echelon of the Eastern Conference looks more accessible.

Soccer aside for a moment. Cheers to the Timbers fans. The intimacy of the stadium and the incessant chants by the Timbers Army are enough to get most fans of the sport riled up. The stadium is as beautiful as it is historic and its lower capacity makes for a better experience both inside and outside. We were back on the road driving south into the Willamette Valley after just 15 minutes.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Champions of Europe: Barcelona and the Messiverse

Photo credit: Reuters

It's Messi's world. In European club soccer there is no better player. FC Barcelona prevailed over Manchester United FC at the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final thanks to its number 10. The Catalan team proved to be too much for Manchester United, robbing them of the ball and playing their futbol dance throughout the match.

This was a rematch of the 2009 final when Cristiano Ronaldo faced off against Messi for world dominance. That match would end 2-0. Today's 3-1 is the same general score. Dominance and distance. The game started much like the 2009 final: possession, aggression and a resolve to keep the ball away from Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. Vidic, Evra, Valencia and Park constantly broke up plays by the spaniards well inside the Iberian half of the field. And just like in 2009, as the 10th minute came around, Barcelona stole the ball. They would never give it back except for Rooney's goal.

The victory was complete because the three attacking aces scored for Barca: Pedro, Messi and Villa. Pedro's strike was magic on the pitch after subtle passes gave way to a final touch worthy of replays. Rooney would strike back seven minutes later. But that would be all from United. The second half started with a more balanced and composed Manchester United. Until Messi found a goal through a rare Van der Saar error. Villa's strike with a curling ball to the upper 90 was further prove of his completeness as a striker.

There was distance between the two teams because Barcelona found channels through the English defense with short passes and midfield incursions. The Catalan team opened up the usually-stout group that Ferguson developed from some of the best defenders in the world: Ferdinand, Evra, Vidic, Fabio. There was distance also in the score: two goals. No way for United to return fire when Villa was subbed off at the 85th minute. The game stats said it all: 24 shots, 70% possession.

And even though this is the Messiverse, no one player is complete without his team. And this supporting cast happens to be the best in the world--quite literally. Indeed, if Villa, Pedro, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pique and Puyol sound familiar it's because they form the spine of the World Cup Champion: Spain. Not to mention that 7 of these players came up through the Barca ranks. This is the difference: a team built from the ground up, growing together and adding the best player in the world.

Congratulations, Barcelona. And thank you for making us believe in fantasy again.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The US Gold Cup team: Missed opportunities?

Photo credit: Sports Illustrated

On Monday of this week we learned the names of the players chosen by Bob Bradley to represent the United States at the Concacaf Gold Cup. There were certain omissions and also some surprising additions. Out: Timmy Chandler, Alejandro Bedoya, Mixx Diskerud, Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies, George John, Herculez Gomez. In: Robbie Rogers, Jonathan Bornstein, Freddy Adu, Chris Wondolowski, Oguchi Onyewu, Juan Agudelo.

Bob Bradley gave several reasons/reasoning for his choices: (a) Chandler is too exhausted from his first season as a starter for top-flight German team Nurmberg. (b) Rogers is a better fit than Bedoya for the team on the flanks at this point. (c) Adu has shown progress with Rizespor this season and merits a call-up. (d) Dempsey can cover as a second striker next to Altidore. (e) Onyewu is a stalwart with the team and is recovering from an injury perhaps in time for the tournament.

These are all very real and valid responses. Perhaps the most glaring one is the inclusion of Rogers over Bedoya when the latter has had a stellar season for Orebro of Sweden. The former has had an average start of the season with the Crew and was a bit disgruntled with the team early on.

Another important absence is that of Timmy Chandler. He is a two-way, multi-faceted player that can be shifted from defense to midfield at a mid-game notice. He was perhaps the best player during the last two games versus top opposition from Argentina and Paraguay. His ability to unravel the opponent's attack and his significant pace to get around players was a welcome sight for the American squad. While we may understand the reasoning behind his absence, a player of his caliber should welcome the advantage of being in a top-tier international tournament. His break-out season would be complete with another standout performance at the Gold Cup. Why not have him as a substitute at least?

The American attack should be concerned not just with the absence of a resurging Davies but with the production of top-striker Altidore. We all love him and believe in him but our forwards should be in top form. This leaves Dempsey as our top candidate to be our go-to scorer. Not a bad choice, but the midfield suffers as a result. This, compounded by the absence of Holden due to injury and Bedoya's exclusion, should leave us reason to worry. Will we see goals only from our midfield as we did at the World Cup?

Perhaps more important is the state of our defense. No DeMerrit and struggling Onyewu leaves two voids at center back. Yes, we can include Bocanegra alongside Goodson or Tim Ream. And left back? Bornstein? Bocanegra? Right back could be covered by Cherundolo/Spector/Lichaj. The latter two could play left back but aren't naturally left-footed. How do we defend against the fantasy of Chicharito Hernandez or the speed and abilities of Andres Guardado?

And this is where we end today. It will be up to Edu, Jones, Bradley to decompose the Mexican attack, and to Bocanegra and Ream or Goodson to counter the Manchester United ace. Chicharito is the X-factor in this tournament. Can this team overcome his magic as it did against Argentina? Or will we fall apart and be frustrated as we did versus Ghana (World Cup) and Paraguay (friendly)?

The players:

GOALKEEPERS (3): Marcus Hahnemann (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (8): Carlos Bocanegra (Saint-Etienne), Jonathan Bornstein (UANL Tigres), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Eric Lichaj (Leeds), Oguchi Onyewu (FC Twente), Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United)
MIDFIELDERS (9): Freddy Adu (Rizespor), Michael Bradley (Aston Villa), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Benny Feilhaber (New England Revolution), Jermaine Jones (Blackburn Rovers), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew)
FORWARDS (3): Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Jozy Altidore (Bursaspor), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Staying alive: relegation in the Premier League

Photo Credit: Yahoo
What a Sunday. In the course of two hours, five teams faced relegation from soccer's most prestigious tournament: England's Barclay's Premier League. With West Ham out as of the past couple of weeks, two places remained remained in danger of dropping to the second-tier Championship. It would be Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Blackpool. Three would survive.

The day started grim for Blackpool, going down on the scoreboard to Manchester United at Old Trafford (champions since last week). This put them in the drop zone along with Wigan, who was tying Stoke City at the time. Blackburn started off fast by scoring on Wolves early in the game. They would score two more goals in the first half. Wigan was tied at Stoke City. Birmingham was alive due to goal differential.

Luckily for our American compatriot Jermaine Jones, his team would not relinquish its lead and remained in England's top flight. Blackpool had the lead for precious moments at Old Trafford but Man. United returned fire and ended its championship in style by the score of 4-2. Blackpool would return to the second division. At the same time, Birmingham went down 1-0 to Tottenham but tied the match 1-1 to put them back in the Premier League. This was until Wolves scored two goals to level them in goal differential with Birmingham. They had scored more goals, however, so this meant the Blues would have to score another goal. This never occurred. Instead, Roman Pavliuchenko would score again and would win the game for the Spurs. The day ended with more heroics when Martinez's Wigan scored a winner thanks to Rodallega to keep the team in England's top flight.

For anyone that knows soccer beyond the World Cup and MLS, this is what the sport is about. Surviving is not just for making the playoffs or continuing to the final. Surviving is the necessity and requirement for any and all teams to remain in the top league. We know that a losing season is more than just a "rebuilding year" or a "better luck next year." How would it be to have minor league baseball teams attain entry into the major leagues? And weaker teams to play for their lives so they don't lost their place in the league?

In the end it is also about money. Teams in the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, receive financial incentives and also profit from the presence of the most profitable players in the world. Smaller teams benefit from having the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Robinho visit their stadiums.

No, we know the MLS won't have this capability. Not for the next 20 or so years. And other American sports? It's not in the cards. Not when even the BCS is still in place. So, for now, let's enjoy how the rest of the world plays. A fight to the finish. A fight to stay on top. Survival. To remain alive.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Game Weeks 10 & 11

In response to comments from our readers, I've elected to show some numbers this week. No in-depth analysis for the sake of brevity. DC United remains strong in its attendance average but its last few games have been below 13,000. FC Dallas is also riding high on a couple of strong dates. I will do an analysis of median vs mean next week. For now, here are the magic numbers:

Team Average Relative Median
DC 16344 67 15276

NE 10893 54 11587
COL 10199 50 10306
TOR 19557 85 20086
CHI 13628 68 12315
NYRB 17191 68 16366
PHI 18045 98 18591
HOU 14954 55 14191
LA 24496 91 24998
CHV 14648 54 13722
DAL 14258 70 12185
SJ 9879 94 10276
CRD 13243 73 12987
RSL 16672 83 15907
SEA 36350 102 36287
POR 18627 100 18627
VAN 19987 91 20664

Sporting Kansas City still hasn't played at home, hence the missing numbers.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Cascadia Clasico

Photo credit: AP

Welcome to MLS, Portland. And welcome back, Seattle. Tonight we saw a new incarnation of the Northwest Derby, the Cascadia Derby, the rivalry game that defines a sport. Yankees - Red Sox, Packers - Bears, Ohio State - Michigan, North Carolina - Duke, FC Barcelona - Real Madrid, Inter Milan - AC Milan, Emelec - Barcelona SC, America - Chivas. These are the games we wait to see every season, and every time we see it something special happens.

For MLS it's been more difficult to establish: DC vs New York? Houston vs Dallas? Real Salt Lake vs Colorado? The Superclasico Galaxy vs Chivas USA? Great approximations, even LA - New York is a good match between marquee players. But something else was missing, a little history, a more personal touch, some sibling rivalry.

And this is what the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers bring to MLS. An established derby dating back to the 1970s and the old NASL (North American Soccer League). It reestablished itself in the WSL and the USL divisions. The teams nourished the competitiveness between fans in both cities and players alike. Case in point: Roger Levesque, detested by the Timbers fans for consistently scoring on their team.

Tonight we saw a new brand of soccer in MLS. A different passion. Not just to win, but to beat the other side at every level of the game. It wasn't about points or even goals. It was about showing your passion for the jersey, the city, and picking your side.

On the pitch we saw Seattle at its best when Fernandez scored the first tally of the night. The Sounders pressed on the Timbers defense constantly at the start of the second half after an underwhelming first 45. You could feel the loss of Zakuani in their movement and the lack of a true creative force in their midfield. Portland started slow, allowed for Seattle's attack and answered with quick counters thanks to Nagbe, Cooper, Perlaza, Chara and Jewsbury. True to fashion, Jewsbury delivered a perfect free kick pass to "Futty" Danso and he headed the ball backwards above a stretching Keller.

One - one. All tied up in Seattle and now comes the cauldron at Jeld-Wen Field. Can the Sounders break down the boisterous crowd in Portland? Seattle fans are touch to match, especially their numbers. But Portland doesn't need a large stadium to show their dominance. All they need is their fans and the extra edge that comes along with any and every Clasico, derby, rivalry game.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Bad challenges in MLS

The MLS season has just started and some of its biggest stars are out for the rest of the year: Steve Zakuani (Seattle Sounders), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), David Ferreira (FC Dallas). Both Morales and Ferreira are MVPs for their teams--and the league--and means severe headaches for the coaches and the game in general. For Morales and Zakuani, additional punishment was dealt to their aggressors: a fine and 10-game ban for Brian Mullan and 4-game ban for Mondaini. But why the disparity?

It could be that Mullan's challenge was not only "malicious" but also unnecessarily early. Zakuani was injured just three minutes into the match. It was a seriously damaging and disturbing challenge and warrants punishment. The ill-timed, unprovoked tackle was reminiscent of one inflicted on Arsenal's Eduardo a few years back by a Birmingham City player.

But why the serious difference in punishment? Because Mondaini is an international player? Because it was later in the match? Because it was "more warranted"? No, it should be no different. And who's in the MLS disciplinary committee anyway?

Soccer is about handling the ball with your feet and being smart in passes and tackles. One should always go for the ball, not the player. Sometimes, however, our feelings get in the way and our competitive nature betrays our sportsmanship. I was injured once while trying to tackle someone for a mistake I made. I could have injured him but instead twisted my knee, sidelining me for months. I never played again competitively due to other reasons, but I remember what it's like to be a competitor.

The moral of this story is about fairness. Rash tackles deserve punishment, equal punishment to all that inflict them. Everyone gets hurt once in a while but this should not come from malicious, unprofessional challenges. These athletes are payed to entertain and have fun doing it, not for playing street soccer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Game Week 9

The MLS stats may be getting a bit lost amongst all the European (and Mexican) season closure craziness. But we still wonder about our own league and our version of the sport. This week's post is brief, but I'd like to mention (or reiterate) the importance of the Pacific Northwest. If the season ended right now, the average attendance would be 17266. That's up 550 from last year. If we take away Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, it drops down to 15553. Taking Seattle out alone for last year brings that total to 15397. Above is a pie chart of the Western conference total attendance by percentage. The Cascadia teams alone rack up 48% of the 9-team conference. And yes, Seattle's numbers are always above 36,000. All the more reason to include its influence.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Once in a generation: Manchester United 2011

Photo credit: Belfast Telegraph

We all watched today as Manchester United all but sealed its win as Premier League champions with a 2-1 win over bitter-rivals Chelsea. They need just one point in the next two matches to formally clinch the trophy. Manchester United, as a club, isn't exactly the winningest (Real Madrid has 31 titles), nor are they supreme in the world--that has yet to be seen when they face Barcelona. What United has is a keen sense for locating and developing some of the world's best players.

Much of this success is due to Sir Alex Ferguson's incredible vision in the sport. His team is also significantly diverse: Korea, France, Mexico, Ecuador, Bulgaria, Serbia, Wales, Netherlands, Norway, Brazil, Portugal, Ireland, England, Denmark, Poland. And out of those countries, Ferguson has spotted the best players in their generation: Valencia (Ecuador), Ji-Sung Park (South Korea), Berbatov (Bulgaria), Wayne Rooney (England), and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez.

Each player brings a different style to the team and they perform beautifully in concert under the tutelage of Ferguson. Other teams such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Arsenal also contain a wide variety of players, but recent years have shown that the Manchester squad captures a wider range of individuals that can make instant impact.

In the wake of the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferguson brought in two young stars: Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez. Valencia has blossomed into a fierce threat as a winger and Chicharito is, without a doubt, Mexico's best export since Hugo Sanchez. The young Mexican star was also a steal in the market (according to teammates and media). Valencia can also be considered the best Ecuador player of his generation given his track record. Add to this Rooney, Ji-Sung Park, Vidic and you already have something special.

This year will probably bring at least one more title to Manchester United: the Premier League. Barcelona is waiting to battle against them for the title of European Champion. But we can't deny that United's brilliant scouting and the love and knowledge of the game that Sir Alex Ferguson, means the team is a "once in a generation squad." Maybe not of the squad as a whole, but definitely of its players.

Monday, May 2, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Game Weeks 7 & 8

It has dawned on me that although this may be the seventh actual week of MLS play, it really is game week 9. As thus, I'm renaming the statistics series of posts "game week" instead of "week."
With that aside, I'd like to provide another important caveat: although Philadelphia looks to have lost in the attendance difference from 2010, the reality is different. Initially, the Union played a couple of games at Lincoln Financial Field (home of the Eagles). Those games were over 30,000 and 20,000, far more than the 18500 seats available at PPL Park. Their average right now is ~17,000, very close to last year's when you factor out the games at the football stadium. We are likely to see the same process (although opposite effect) when Sporting Kansas City starts playing at Livestrong Field, which has twice as much space as Community America Ballpark.

Okay, back to the stats. Columbus and New England continue to struggle whilst Dallas is the biggest winner (aside from the Galaxy). Indeed, Dallas had a sellout, albeit very wet, outing against the Galaxy. Even better, the crowds were payed back through a clutch win versus the West Coast giants. No need to get too worried about the New York, Houston and Chicago markets, as they are likely to stabilize and remain close to last year's numbers.

As promised, above is a plot showing the relationship between relative attendance and actual average attendance for teams in the Eastern Conference. Notice that Philly has attendance near the 100% relative mark but is smaller next to DCU and Toronto given those teams' larger capacity stadiums. Columbus and New England are at the other end of the spectrum. Both are well below the other teams both in average attendance and relative. As far as actual numbers, New England is presently half full (49%) whilst Columbus is slightly higher than that (54%).