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Saturday, March 31, 2012

MLS Attendance Statistics 2012 Week 3

Welcome to the new MLS attendance statistics graphics for the 2012 season. To complement the changes made by MLS in terms of unbalanced schedules, the weekly format of some of the plots (percent attendance, total attendance per week) have been removed and will no longer appear. Instead, more intuitive plots will be shown like the relative attendance median (a measure of the percentage of the stadium filled on any given week) along with the median and mean attendance values. There will be some sporadic supplemental plots in high-definition via the quasi-weekly updates.

To start 2012, only Chivas seems to be having trouble from the start. Perhaps this is another sign that the club needs to change the way it's managed, change the structure, or move the team. San Diego seemed to be interested when I last checked. The Goats trail far behind their season average for 2011 and this should be the relative peak of the season for some of the more established teams. It's true that the novelty eventually wears off but the expansion markets seem to be doing pretty well even after a few years have passed: Houston, Salt Lake, Toronto, Seattle.

The totals as seen on the plot above are bolstered by Montreal's record-setting opening day (58,912) at the Olympic Stadium. Their regular home at Saputo Stadium has a max capacity of around 20,000. San Jose also chose to play outside of their Santa Clara home for their match versus Houston and their attendance reflects that when looking at the relative values. Also this season are Houston's stadium (22,000), the expanded attendance at Seattle (38,500) and Portland (20,000).

Compared to 2010, the initial 2012 numbers look even more impressive. As the season goes on this difference should subside somewhat but attendance should have another record year this season.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Loss of a generation: US U-23 out of the Olympics

Photo credit: Getty Images

If there were words for tonight's last match for the US team in Olympic qualifying it would definitely be disbelief. How could such a talented team not even make it out of the group stage after losing to Canada and surrendering a lead at the last second to El Salvador? Was the team really not that good? Had the team peaked too early? Was Caleb Porter too young to be the coach? Would Agudelo have made a difference? The answer is, probably, all of the above.

Although it was a dream start in the first minute with a sublime strike by Borussia Dortmund forward Terrence Boyd, the Salvadorans pressed and got two goals in quick succession against an ailing Bill Hamid. The US did come back from 1-2 down thanks to great goals from Boyd and Corona. Unfortunately, a lack of concentration in the final seconds allowed for a sublime shot from the Salvadoran player that went past Sean Johnson and qualified the Salvadorans to the semifinals. And yes, there should have been a clear penalty in the USA's favor that could have sent the score to 4-2 and may have won the game for the Americans.

The sad truth after today is the loss of a generation of players. Agudelo, Diskerud, Shea, Corona, Boyd and Gyau, arguably the best of the bunch, will not see the light of the Olympics to catapult them further in their careers. Gone is also perhaps the last chance for Freddy Adu to finally silence his critics with a stellar international tournament. No, not fair at all.

What does this mean for US Soccer? A major setback for sure. Not only did the U-20s miss the last World Cup of that division, but now the older U-23s will also lose the opportunity to compete against top international teams.

The frustration behind this sore loss for US Soccer reverberates all the way to the top. Porter was clearly Klinsmann's choice for this group of players. The full national team is seeing a revival of late, however, with impressive wins at Slovenia and Italy. But what happens when Dempsey and Donovan aren't around? Do Shea, Corona and Agudelo make up for it? How does missing the Olympics prepare them for the future?

There are some interesting facts after today's loss: 1.) Concacaf competition is getting increasingly better, 2.) Terrence Boyd and Joe Corona had breakthrough performances, 3.) Mexico did not qualify for Olympics 2008.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Old Firm in the USA

Photo credit: MLS

Yesterday we were treated to a rare event: The Old Firm match between the two Scottish superclubs Rangers and Celtic. What a game and what an atmosphere. And it's great to finally be able to see matches like these in the US, especially considering that Rangers has three American players in their squad. They are indeed the American Glasgow Rangers.

The match took place with all the flair that comes along with a true derby. Raw emotions, interesting undercurrents with Rangers' financial woes, a title on the line for Celtic, and plenty of goals, fouls and red cards. Aluko's opening goal was particularly impressive with his cutting move and quick finish. Wallace's game-winner was a vintage 2-man advantage type goal and one worth celebrating.

As far as our American legion playing for Rangers, Bocanegra was impressive until the point he was sent off for a foul in the penalty area. Captain America still has it, however, winning balls left and right and taking part in the attack when summoned by inspiration and reflex. Maurice Edu had a quiet yet constant game. He settled the midfield and provided some key passes. It's clear that both of these players should remain top options for Klinsmann's national team. Unfortunately, Alejandro Bedoya didn't make it onto the pitch, although he was on the bench for Rangers.

Perhaps the most important part of this game for the US fans was the very fact that it was on TV. Suddenly, a couple of days before the match there were advertisements for it and we were quick to set up the DVR. It's also a part of a very encouraging trend in soccer coverage in the United States. From MLS getting a contract with the newly formed NBC Sports to the expanded coverage of the UEFA Champions League on the various FOX networks, more and more futbol can be watched on television. Add to this the recent purchase by FOX of the World Cup rights for 2018 and 2022 and suddenly it's not just ESPN with soccer.

At any point during the week, anyone with expanded cable or satellite coverage is treated to soccer from around the world. Even basic cable and regular television in areas with Spanish network or Fox itself will showcase MLS, Mexican Primera and English Premier League matches.

So yes, thank you to the Old Firm for a great match. And thank you FOX for this treat. To all the TV soccer networks: please keep it coming.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Canada wins, no Olympics for USA?

What a difference can be seen in two matches separated by two days. The US U-23 team, with Olympic aspirations looked paltry versus Canada and this showed in the scoreline as the Maple Leaf team defeated the US by the score of 2-0. Really? Yes, the game versus Cuba two days ago doesn't count today.

There was an unfortunate absence in today's match for the US: Juan Agudelo. The New York Red Bulls striker will be out for 3 weeks with a torn meniscus. Would he have made a difference? Hard to say, but Agudelo was more likely to put some of those balls away where Teal Bunbury failed to connect. Caleb Porter pulled a weird one in this match also when he subbed Joe Corona out for Joe Gyau. It didn't pay off and the hat trick hero from the Cuba match had to settle for watching the game from the bench.

Canada's first goal came from a glaring error by DC United goalkeeper Bill Hamid. The goalie was left in no man's land as he got beaten by the Canadian ahead of a corner kick ball. The US defense looked restless and out of sorts with little understanding between Opara and Kitchen.

What happens now? With the US at 3 points and El Salvador and Canada both with 4 points, a win is a must for the US, which will likely settle for a second place finish at best. This would mean potentially facing Mexico in the tournament's semifinal. Only the finalists make it to the Olympics. So yes, at this point it is hard to imagine the US making it to London playing the way they did today.

Caleb Porter will need to think hard on how to settle his defense and may need to turn to Sean Johnson to see how he does in front of goal. It's also clear that Bunbury is no substitute for Agudelo and that Boyd or Tony Taylor will need to come up big against the Salvadorans. For Canada, a win versus Cuba should give them first place in the group and may let them skip a match versus Mexico. Mix Diskerud and Freddy Adu didn't connect today and they will need to link up with Corona quickly if the US is even able to advance out of the group stage. Sad day for soccer in America.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Corona hat trick: USA U-23 vs Cuba

Photo credit: AP

The Olympic qualifiers are underway and the US U-23 crew has started off on the right foot with a resounding 6-0 victory over Cuba. Granted, this is Cuba and the island nation's defender was ejected in the 19th minute. Still, plenty of offensive firepower, control of the ball and great skills were displayed.

The Olympic squad as an U-23 team is the last step in player development for national teams. Last time around we were treated to Stuart Holden, Sacha Kljestan, Maurice Edu and Charlie Davies. Advancing to the finals of the Concacaf tournament means passage to the summer Olympics in London. Once there all bets are off for Caleb Porter's crew.

Caleb Porter is an up-and-coming collegiate coach that took Akron to its first ever win in a sports tournament for any discipline. He was offered the DC United post but declined it in favor of continuing with Akron. He has described himself as a possession-oriented, attack-minded strategist. A great column on this coach is available here.

The players to watch in this tournament are as exciting as last time around. In fact, most of these players already take part in MLS squads, Mexican Primera and Europe. Some, like Mixx Diskerud, are highly regarded by most in the soccer media. Also in the mix is Joe Gyau of Hoffenheim, who has shown promise for the Bundesliga team and will likely take part in league games sometime soon.

MLS stars abound in this squad: Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Juan Agudelo, Freddy Adu, Ike Opara, Kofi Sarkodie, Zarek Valentin, Brek Shea. None was more impressive tonight than Brek Shea and is further testament to this young player's bright future.

A secret weapon on this team is Joe Corona. The Tijuana Xolo exploded onto the scene in the Mexican Primera and, after toying with representing Mexico internationally, had a change of heart and decided to play for USA. His hat trick tonight was sure to send shockwaves among soccer media and fans of Team USA.

Both Corona and Diskerud were particularly impressive. Diskerud's quick passing and cheeky moves were enough to distract the Cuban players and his back and forth with Adu and Corona made for some fun soccer to watch. And yes, Adu still has it. A great long distance shot reminded us of that fact.

The USA U-23 still have two more games in the group phase against Canada and El Salvador. Both are much more demanding opponents than Cuba but it looks like this American team has what counts to make it deep into the tournament. They did, after all, defeat the other powerhouse--Mexico--in a friendly in February by the score of 2-0.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

MLS struggles in the Champions League

Photo credit: Getty Images

When Toronto, LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders completed their group phase with passage to the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals, there was hope in the air that perhaps this year might be the year MLS wins the tournament. Santos Laguna quickly brought Seattle down to earth with a pummeling of 6-1. And as for the all-MLS tilt, Toronto going through may not be optimal as a candidate.

For all of Seattle's considerable prowess at home, their away form still lags far behind. And although Sigi Shmid made a few moves this winter it wasn't quite enough to bring the Sounders up to a higher level of competitiveness. Indeed, Seattle's defensive end requires further development either in tactics or personnel. But this is MLS, and there are limits.

The case for LA is a bit more complicated. Clearly the best MLS team in 2011, this season they are hardly convincing. Arena kept his player spine intact with Beckham, Keane, Donovan, and Juninho all returning. But the loss of their anchor, Omar Gonzales, may be catching up to them. Then again, it could also be the fact that only 7500 people were allowed to attend this match. Would matters have been different with all 27,000 in attendance?

Where does Toronto FC fall in all of this? Will it be the MLS game changer? Historically, Toronto has been one of the weakest teams in the league. But perhaps this season they have something better to offer. With Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermars in their second season from the start, the additions of Silva and Johnson, as well as the presence of Plata and De Guzman, Toronto could be peaking at the right time. But would they be able to beat teams like Monterrey and Santos?

There is another variable in the MLS Champions League equation: the length and timing of the season. While most MLS clubs end their season at the end of October and do not restart until mid-March, Mexican and Central American leagues are still in action. They have their winter breaks, yes, but not for 5 months.

It is now in the hands of Toronto FC to carry the MLS torch into the depths of the Champions League. Aaron Winter will need to come up with defensive answers swiftly if his team is to weather and outlast Santos Laguna's considerable offensive power. MLS has made some steady progress in this competition but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

MLS 2012

Photo credit: Houston Dynamo

Not a doomsday year for MLS. Not by a long shot. Indeed, 2012 is building up to be one of the biggest years for the American soccer league. There are three MLS teams in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals, a new set of designated players, a new stadium in Houston, a longer season and a new franchise in the Montreal Impact.

Success for MLS transcends the game and shows its impact in the makeup of a city. For Portland, the Timbers mean a solid franchise with a stable fan base. Where the Trailblazers may fail, the Timbers supersede expectations by nearly reaching the playoffs in their first year and by selling out every single match at Jeld-Wen Field.

The Pacific Northwest is the mecca of soccer in this country now, and with Vancouver, the regional rivalries grow in fervor and it brings Canada closer to its potential as a soccer nation. Cross-country and regional rivalries within the maple leaf country are further heightened with the entrance of the Montreal Impact, a team that gained a "promotion" of sorts from the lower divisions of North America.

Internationally, the MLS presence in the Champions League has grown by one team from last season. Toronto FC is facing LA Galaxy for one of the matchups while the Seattle Sounders are facing Santos of Mexico. LA is arguably the best team in MLS even if tonight's match versus Real Salt Lake was a 1-3 loss. They are the most complete team and replete with star power in Donovan, Keane, Buddle and Beckham, and unsung heroes like Mike Magee, Juninho, De la Garza and Saunders. A ticket to the final for LA or even a championship in this tournament isn't out of the question. It would also bring the team and the league to its first FIFA Club World Cup later this year.

Aside from the current slate of designated players is a new batch, highlighted by the Timbers' Kris Boyd, the leading scorer for the Glasgow Rangers at 101 goals. The updated "Beckham rule" now includes the ability to recruit younger players like Diego Chara and Fabian Castillo and more teams are likely to follow this paradigm.

As the league grows, one of the most important economic aspects is the need for a soccer specific stadium. There are now 12 teams with such stadiums and 2012 marks the inauguration of the BBVA Compass Stadium for the Houston Dynamo, a futuristic-looking edifice worthy of the Space City.

Major League Soccer is undoubtedly one of the most competitive leagues in the world. This argument has its basis in the salary cap and the redistribution of players through drafts, as well as the playoff-style finale to the season. This is how we arrive at Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids as champions. But legacies can also be forged: the Galaxy and DC United have storied pasts in the league with 7 titles among them. The American version of the superclub is alive in New York and LA. We cheer for underdogs, superstars and the emotion of each game. This is why we love Major League Soccer.

Friday, March 9, 2012

No respect for soccer: LA caps CCL match at 7500 attendance

The LA Galaxy has been forced to reduce attendance for next week's return leg of the quarterfinal in Concacaf Champions League versus Toronto match to 7,500 due to a attendance agreement with Cal-State Dominguez Hills over the usage of the university's parking lots during the school year. We see the point, but for the sake of the sport, the team and the fans, the response should be: erroneous and unfair, Silly and surprising.

If the LA Galaxy is indeed to be a nationwide and worldwide team, then this sort of thing will need to be remedied. There are plenty of universities out there that have basketball or football games in their grounds and there isn't ever any problem with attendance. People make way. It's just the way it is.

But there is still a lack of respect for the game here in the United States. That much is obvious with this latest insult. The LA Galaxy is a worldwide brand. They have world class players in David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. The Galaxy are also the defending champions of Major League Soccer and reside in a heavily-international American city.

Perhaps the most telling feature in this dilemma is the fact that the first leg of the quarterfinal drew a record 47,658 fans to the Rogers Centre. The Galaxy's Home Depot Center holds 27,000 and won't be even a third full. Major League Soccer, please assert your priorities or at least listen to your players if your fans and critics go unnoticed. Said Danny Koevermars of Toronto about the projected LA attendance: "That is stupid, that is stupid, LA Galaxy is a big club in LA and they showed it because they have three big name players."