Month – March 2014

The Dharma and the Gazelle: A Post of Prognostication, Lamentation, Transformation and Exhortation

I hate it when I am right.

Lots of sturm und drang this week. We lost a heartbreaker and we’re headed to Portland. I’m consoling myself with the fact that we’re off to a better start than last year. Plus you lose games sometimes, nobody wins them all. Perfection doesn’t guarantee a championship (ask the 2007 New England Patriots). Even the Seahawks lost a quarter of their games last year but that turned out fine. But to get done like that in extra time after a close call on the red card… that sucks. And Portland sucks.

We were winning up until the 60th minute. The red card/penalty changed the game, and Sigi always says, “goals change games.” We weathered the man deficit for half an hour and were resolute from the run of play for ninety minutes plus. We were “earning” the draw, until this happened. But did we “deserve” to lose? That is a tough question. Did we “deserve” to beat SKC? The dharma teaches us to divorce ourselves from the idea of deserve.

Overall, we played great. I’m not wringing my hands (like after the TFC debacle) saying, “gosh, X made a boneheaded mistake”, or “why we’d let Z happen.” We’ll learn from this. What will we learn? Don’t lose focus, and don’t make excuses. Our only real problem Saturday was not finishing in the first half. You’re not going to finish every shot. You’re not. But we need to do better. Neagle is beating himself up and I understand, anyone driven and competitive wants those goals. So many were thisclose. For some odd reason, we have a habit of making some keepers look good (hello Brad Knighton!). Tightening up our finishing is still a Seattle bugaboo. The Sounders are like a football team great between the twenties, but cursed with anemia in the red zone. It’s too bad there aren’t soccer field goals.

Andy Rose, unfortunately, didn’t play. His replacement, Michael Azira, looked competent, and, yes, I’m damning him with faint praise. Aside from some early game jitters, he wasn’t egregious in turnovers or bad decisions. He did engage in some crafty interplay with Oba, though he did often drift into others’ spaces in the midfield. In the balance, he just didn’t have a terribly significant impact on the game. During the sunny first half, I joked about practically playing a man down, what with Azira being a non-factor on the pitch. Har de har. None of this is fair to Azira. After Barrett’s wonder goal, Okoli’s flashy debut and Pineda’s stellar starts, he has quite the precedent to overcome.

On the sunny side, Cooper is a stud. My plus/minus study shows he is our biggest difference maker. Saturday, theory and practice worked in beautiful harmony. Cooper makes incredible runs, measured passes and booming shots. An absolute stud. My Portland friends warned me at his signing, “you’re not going to like Cooper. He plays small.” They are right, kind of. Despite his size, he is a poor target forward. Only an incompetent coach (Wherefore art though Spenny?) would force Cooper into positions where he wouldn’t succeed. Sigi found that Cooper is a stellar wide forward. Give him some space and he flourishes as the gazelle he thinks he is, and won’t flounder as the rhino others want him to be.

P.S. It’s Portland Week.

Columbus Crew at Seattle Sounders Preview

Team Rave Green is back at home to host the Columbus Crew. I don’t know much about the Crew. We stole Sigi and Evans back in 2009, and we beat them in their house down a man last year. Columbus look hot this season. They dismantled the new-look D.C. United (though Ben Olson might be to blame for that), and they played great against an improved Philly side. The Crew are tied for the Shield lead, and have the second-best goal differential on the young season.

This might be a trap game (or Trapp game, get it?). If I played on the Crew, I’d want revenge for last year’s embarrassment. I’d love to come out and show the league I’m for real by beating the mighty Sounders in their house. And maybe Seattle is coasting after a comfortable win, or looking ahead to Portland. Maybe we’re distracted by the upcoming USMNT call-ups, and we still lack Dempsey and the Captain.  I’d love to win, but I’m not comfortable predicting a win.

I’m also uncomfortable predicting a line-up. Will Sigi continue to spin the carousel of shape? I’d love to see more of the 4-3-3. Our charts and graphs back up having our goal-creation come from the wide forwards, not the midfield, but I’m terrified we’ll see Pappa tomorrow. Will Leo reclaim his left back position, and is he 100% recovered enough to replace the pace of Remick? Leo is a HUGE improvement as a defender, possibly one of the most underrated Sounders, but Remick is a real asset charging forward to join the attack. I’d like to think Leo’s late shot on goal against Montreal shows he’s game to get offensive.

Will players be rested due to the USMNT call-ups and the upcoming Cascadia clash down at Jeld-Wen Providence Park (which cracks me up. Portland’s jersey sponsor is a Seattle-based company and now their field’s is as well)? Evans’s injury and Dempsey’s suspension don’t complicate the matter, but DeAndre Yedlin’s call-up is problematic. Does Sigi want to rest Yedlin? Will Anibaba play right on Saturday to spell Yedlin? Can Anibaba join the attack from the right back position? He is one of the last All-New All-Different Sounders still waiting for a debut.

Andy Rose played great in his maiden voyage of 2014. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but Rose was impressive on Sunday. He is one of those players for whom it clicked. Caskey and he used to be interchangeable in my mind: two young try-hard pluggers in the midfield. I had hoped Caskey would eventually turn the corner, Rose has. He is a solid MLS starter. He may not have boatloads of quality, but he produces. Both he and Pineda were solid playing box-to-box. An Ozzie/Gonzo/Rose midfield would be formidable for any opponent. Let’s just hope they’re too much for the Crew tomorrow.

The Seattle Sounders Dynamic Formations and the Plus/Minus

Happy Thursday Raving Readers and welcome to the newest feature of the site: the Plus/Minus page. See the button above this post next to “Contact”? On this page you’ll find the constantly update spreadsheet of the plus/minus statistical study I’ll be conducting this season.

I stumbled upon the idea of using this stat after the Toronto game and seeing how much of an impact Marco Pappa made on the game. This study is in the spirit of science. I am not claiming to have a revolutionary stat to unlock the true meaning of soccer. I just want to keep a record of this data. Hopefully, if we keep track of this, maybe, like science, we can extrapolate something by year’s end.

Here is how I am working it. Currently, I don’t keep track of minutes played. I just credit a player with what happened while they were on the pitch. If a player was completely unused in a game, I give them a simple n/a. For example, Evans gets a -2 from the TFC game because Defoe scored both of his goals while Evans was in the lineup. Pineda gets a +1 from the same game because when he subbed in for Brad, we scored our goal.

This is a problem. Statistically, it looks like Pineda outplayed Evans. A bad scientist could extrapolate that if Pineda had started in Evans’s stead, the Sounders would have beat TFC. I am not saying that. I am not even saying the numbers are saying that. Hopefully this the static will decrease as the sample size grows.

The limitations of this amateurish study are many. As I said before, this is originally a hockey stat. The frequent shift switching in hockey, and smaller lineup creates a more tangible correlation of players to goals for and against. In soccer, this stat may be too simple. I could do a better job factoring in minutes played per player.

Acknowledging the problems of the study aside, let’s dig into the data.

Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 TOTAL
Stefan Frei 1 -1 2 2
DeAndre Yedlin 1 -1 2 2
Chad Marshall 1 -1 2 2
Djimi Traore 1 -1 2 2
Dylan Remick 1 -1 2 2
Leo Gonzalez n/a n/a 0 0
Lamar Neagle 0 -1 2 1
Osvaldo Alonso 1 -1 2 2
Brad Evans 1 -2 n/a -1
Marco Pappa 0 -2 n/a -2
Sean Okoli 1 n/a n/a 1
Clint Dempsey 1 -1 n/a 0
Gonzo Pineda n/a 1 2 3
Michael Azira n/a n/a 0 0
Andy Rose n/a n/a 2 2
Cam Weaver n/a n/a 0 0
Chad Barrett 1 0 n/a 1
Kenny Cooper 0 1 2 3
Obafemi Martins 1 -1 2 2
TEAM GD 1 -1 2 2

The team goal differential is +2, so anyone deviating from that is worth noting. The first names that pop out are Kenny Cooper, Gonzalo Pineda and Marco Pappa. Cooper is killing it with a goal above the differential, and he has played in all three games. Is Cooper our MVP after 3 games? Potentially. Pineda is also at +3, having played just over a game and a half. Is he doing more than Cooper considering his limited time? Maybe. There is some survivor correlation static. If you play every minute of every game, Ozzie for example, you are at the team differential.

Marco Pappa’s play is the most jarring. His -2 is four significant figures off the team’s differential. Maybe Sigi took this into account when deciding to play the 4-3-3 last week, that is, get Cooper on the pitch and Pappa off. I am curious to see how much Pappa plays going forward. Is his defensive indifference too much of a liability? Does he contribute too much “goals against” versus his potential to create “goals for.”

Formations have been dynamic this season, as Sigi’s trotted out a new shape for each opponent. Say what you will about his coaching liabilities, but one of Sigi’s strengths is flexibility. The man is not hidebound. Cooper’s signing confused me when the 4-2-3-1 appeared to be our formation. But Cooper rocked on Sunday. Potentially Cooper and Pineda’s play, and Pappa’s, predicted the shift to the 4-3-3. Sigi must be having fun with our deep and disparate roster: Two midfielders unavailable (Evans and Dempsey) and one playing poorly? Ha! Let’s stack the middle with three CDMs and play multiple forwards. It must be refreshing for Sigi to be able to roll out a new formation and lineup every week.

One question comes to mind: if we use the 4-3-3 going forward, where does Deuce play?

MLS: How Edgy Jerseys Work

The Sounders want to be an international brand. This is no secret. As Joe, Adrian et al. have proudly thumped their chests on this account. The recent decision to split business operations with the Seahawks is another step forward in establishing SSFC’s global identity. As GM Adrian Hanauer said, “we’ve have taken off the training wheels.”

Mike Gastineau, in his excellent Authentic Masterpiece, details the business decisions discussed by ownership at the advent of this iteration of the Sounders. Seattle Sounders FC very much want a unique identity. They want anyone, anywhere, to be able to recognize the Sounders when they play. That is why ownership chose an original aesthetic, so no casual fan sees a game in a crowded bar and asks, Is that Chelsea? is that Barca? Say what you will about the aesthetics of Seattle’s bright, out of the box, jersey. But Rave Green is unique among professional soccer clubs. And the Sounders have always doubled-down on bright with their third kits, that is until Pitch Black.

The unique jerseys are a marketing catalyst. They give Seattle a recruiting edge. Think of Boise’s blue field or Oregon’s space-age jerseys, the Sounders are looking for a similar recruiting edge

Quality in MLS, like college football, depends on recruiting. If you are a talented high school football player you have a multiplicity of options, 242 NCAA Division 1 football teams from Notre Dame to Northern Colorado. So many teams and such a complicated hierarchy: FBS is better than FCS, and the (former) BCS conferences are better than the mid-majors, and the SEC is, supposedly, better than the Big 10, etc. etc. College football programs are not fungible. Of course the very best recruits want to go to the big boys: USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State, etc. Though all the other programs still fight for the attention of those blue chippers.

How do the smaller fish compete with the bigs? Boise State University was a mid-major laboring away in the obscurity of southern Idaho until it hired a quality coach and committed to bettering the infrastructure of the program. Then they built a blue field, and the “smurf turf” skyrocketed that team. It was an obvious marketing ploy, almost a joke. But it got the program noticed. Every West Coast recruit rejected by UW or USC, knew that blue turf got you seen on ESPN. The turf, and its exposure and memorability, gave Boise State the ability to punch above its weight and leverage to target the same recruits as WSU or Oregon State.

Oregon was a solid Pac-10 team, slowly improving. Phil Knight threw money at the school, and the team unveiled their space age uniforms. Who didn’t want to wear those jerseys with neon razor blade wings, and high-tech helmets? Eugene became a football destination and the Ducks took off. Granted they had Mike Bellotti and Autzen, then Chip Kelly, but their branding tool, the uniforms, gave Oregon their recruiting edge. Talented soccer players face a much trickier pickle.

Remember Miguel Cubero? The Panamanian player the Sounders allegedly were signing back in preseason? Rumors flew that Cubero was deciding between MLS and the Eredivisie (the Dutch league). At the time, Panamanians and Herediano fans were disappointed that he was “only signing” with MLS. Roberto Chen was another young player we liked, but he chose Liga MX (Malaga) over MLS (the Sounders). Seattle, all of MLS frankly, needs every recruiting advantage possible. If you’re a young and talented soccer player in the Western Hemisphere you want to go to Europe, maybe Mexico or Brazil. MLS is lower on the byzantine hierarchy of world soccer clubs, than Americans are used to. Our best teams still stumble in CONCACAF Champions League. We have to fight both our perception and the status quo. MLS is improving, but it is just now emerging from the bush leagues.

Make no mistake, Seattle is a mid-major. Seattle doesn’t have the beaches or metropolitan cachet like L.A. or N.Y., but we got those bright jerseys. A brand recognized on even the shakiest bootleg feed. As long as we continue to play pretty soccer, dominant soccer, they will come. The Aziras, and Fredys and Parsemains.

The Pitch Black kit is great, a complete reversal from Electricity and Super Cyan, but still eye-catching. Do I want an awesome old Sounders blue and white throwback from the NASL or A-League days? Hells yeah. But will a jersey that appeals to nostalgic Seattleites, be recognized in Martinique or Columbia? I want the Sounders to be the destination for every soccer aspirant in the Western Hemisphere (I know getting a little imperialist here). I want every kid in Bogotá or Havana who wants to be the next Fredy or Ozzie, to recognize that the Sounders are that American team who wears bright colors, and wins.

 

MLS: Lucky Jerseys

*Sorry for the late post Raving Readers. Crazy technical difficulties with my web hosting service. They promise me it will never happen again!”

The Sounders wore the Pitch Black kit while handling Montreal. I love the new jerseys, they are such a sharp look. But if the Sounders had lost in their inaugural unveiling, the vibe would’ve soured.

Superstition and sport go hand in hand. From the players to the fans everyone has an obsession they just know will see them through. For the fans, the intersection of superstition and aesthetics collides with “lucky” jerseys. I truly believe in lucky jerseys. I’m really into the aesthetics of professional sports uniforms, from the NFL and NBA to all ball caps and jerseys in general. But MLS is messing with me. I don’t feel the need to get a new Eagles jersey every season. However, I feel like a guileless victim of marketing with Seattle’s kits. I want a new Sounders jersey EVERY year. Last year’s Cascade Shale was sick, and Pitch Black is talking to me. I am gonna have to face it, I am addicted to kits. But the kits are only worth it if they bring the team good fortune on the pitch.

Super Cyan and me shared an emotional roller coaster. I found an authentic Super Cyan jersey at Marshall’s last year for $30. Authentic for $30! But it’s Super Cyan, I hate Super Cyan. I bought it as a joke to show my wife (intended to return it). But damn if I didn’t fall in love with that jersey. Maybe it was the collar (I like collared kits), or the cyan (I finally noticed it after always being distracted by the garish neon yellow). I even fell in love the yellow. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely HATED that jersey. I hated whenever we’d wear it, especially in all the poor results against the Timbers (that game in 2012, we lost 2-1 at Portland, when Boyd got all up in Fredy’s grill, that was atrocious).

I had somehow divorced my memories and initial reaction from the actual Super Cyan jersey. I couldn’t get enough of that jersey. I wore it often, but a funny thing happened on the way to the stadium. Whenever I wore that jersey the Sounders tanked. I wore it at the Kekutah Manneh coming out party last year against Vancouver. I wore it when they wore at Portland last October (Dempsey’s broken collarbone, Ozzie losing his head, Zakuani hitting the crossbar!!!). But I didn’t blame the jersey. The last straw was two weeks ago against TFC. I was rocking Super Cyan in the first half, but switched to a long-sleeved Cascade Shale in the second half (we won the second half 1-0). I will forever blame Super Cyan.

Now I need a new lucky kit to go along with my classic Rave Green and Cascade Shale. Pitch Black is still out of my price range, and I always thought Electricity was vomit inducing, if still available. I’m an open-minded guy (or desperate), if I ever saw Electricity at Marshalls for $30, I wouldn’t hesitate. Or maybe I need to save my pennies for Pitch Black. Hey baby, undefeated in those kits!

Life for the Seattle Sounders Post-Alex Caskey

Great win yesterday. Oba opened his account, Pappa rode the pine and Neagle got his groove back. To top it all off, the Pitch Black kit was hot. There are a lot of angles from this game to discuss: the new formation, the multiple goals, the resurgence of Andy Rose, and our incredible depth.

Our team is so much better than last year’s. Our roster is deep and varied, and the new pieces added to Team Rave Green are all contributing. Like a public relations coup for the front office, each game has given us glimpses of the new players: first Okoli, than Pineda, and now Michael Azira.

I make no claims of being a premier soccer analyst. I am still learning the ins and outs of the game. With football or baseball, I feel like Neo. I can see all the little green squiggles in slow motion and decode the action. With soccer, I am still very much in the Matrix. I do not understand all the varied qualities of the new Sounders and what exactly they can and can’t bring to the team. But I sure am excited by our depth. Okoli was great against SKC, Pineda stellar against TFC, and Azira was solid on Sunday.

Last year, if we had to travel without Dempsey and Evans, Alex Caskey would’ve played. It is a testament to our depth that we could afford to trade Caskey. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Caskey. I was always pulling for him, he was feisty and covered ground (I know, I know, the universal traits of an easy-to-like grinder). I was at the Santos game last year and he acquitted himself well. Thing is, when we had to start Caskey or bring him in for significant minutes, I was never excited. Always hopeful, but never excited. I wanted to see his game click. It never did.

This league used to belong to the Caskeys of the world. MLS 2004 was full of them. Today, why carry a young player like that on your roster if you don’t have to? Caskey is a good enough player. He should have a job for the foreseeable future. He has talent, but the better MLS teams don’t need a Caskey. Not when you can roster veteran savvy (Pineda) or potential (Okoli).  Being able to trade Caskey makes our roster stronger on paper. Playing Pineda, Azira and Cooper proves it on the pitch.

Montreal Impact Preview and the Curious Case of Clint Dempsey

*Update: Dempsey has formally been suspended for two games for “violent conduct.” No other player from last Saturday’s TFC-Sounders game received retroactive discipline.*

Saturday the Sounders continue their Tour of the Eastern Conference (the lesser conference) against Montreal. Montreal is not a good team. Granted we’ve never beaten them (0-2-0), but that’s a short history. Montreal’s backline is decimated by injuries and 2013 leading scorer Marco Di Vaio is still serving a suspension for being downright nasty in the Impact-Dynamo playoff tie.

We have problems of our own though. With no Dempsey (he didn’t travel, but no formal suspension has yet been announced), and maybe no Evans and Marshall, our eleven might look… creative. Sigi said Pineda can’t go more than 60, so maybe we’ll see Andy Rose. Whoever makes the eighteen, I want it to be enough to earn more than a point. I want to win in snowy Arcadia.

My focus for this match is Obafemi Martins. Without Dempsey, I want Oba really involved. I love Obafemi Martins. I was stoked when we signed him. Robbie Keane flipped the script in 2011 when he joined Los Angeles. Every team wanted to go get a Keane. Joe and Adrian got Oba. The man is too good. Oba is the type of player who makes the difference between Open Cups and MLS Cups.

How long will Oba be a Sounder?  I don’t know what drives the man. He has a fascinating sense of interior design and a passion for guns, but he has jumped from team to team. He was certainly eying Turkey this offseason and that bothers me. I don’t want him to unplug or transfer. He works hard and seems to have fun playing in Seattle. I just want to see that translate to goals and stats because I want to keep him here and happy.

We need Oba more involved. In the final third, he’s resorted to waiting for service. But crosses from the flank aren’t going to find his noggin atop that 5’7’’ frame. When he isn’t getting service, too often he drops into the midfield and takes himself out of the play. We need him plugged in more to the run of play. Oba and Dempsey had some fine, fancy interchanges against Toronto. I was really excited he got the assist on Deuce’s goal. It was great to watch them celebrate together. Shockingly, they have now played more minutes together in two games this season than all of last season combined. Of course, that partnership will be on hold for the foreseeable future because…

Clint Dempsey is not-yet-announced-but-probably-because-he-didn’t-travel-with-the-team  suspended. The nut hit, the kick outs, his general brattiness. The Soundersphere is very worked up about this, with some folks rampantly defending Dempsey and others condemning his antics.

The logic being, we don’t pay Dempsey millions, as the face of the franchise, to be a brat. He needs to sell the wholesome and superlative image of “The American Soccer Player.” Thing is… Dempsey don’t play that. Yes, he has a lot of sizzle in his game, but he is a scrapper, a fighter and a chip-on-his-shoulder-holder par excellence. He has a lot of gristle in his game. Some great players play happy, others lazy or driven, Dempsey plays angry. The man is plain pissed out there. He wants to backhand the world.

Considering the blockbuster salary and media reception he received, does he need to be part athlete/part ambassador? Sounders FC Inc. expects that, I’m sure. But everyone who stands in the rain boomboom-clapping just wants goals scored, with a reasonable amount of tact and class. No one wants to cheer for douchebags (which is why I am surprised there are so many Timbers fans), but I don’t want to cheer for the church choir either.

I want to see grit and hustle and heart. I want to see give a shit. Dempsey clearly gives a shit. Which is a relief. One of the many concerns when he returned to MLS was whether he’d lose his famous edge. Dempsey’s edge is still razor sharp, and people are getting tetchy about it.

I am not going to defend his actions, but I do think the context shouldn’t be ignored. Dempsey takes a lot of punishment. The man was fouled six times Saturday (called fouls, there were others). Six fouls suffered by one player is the second most in the league since Dempsey joined last season. He is the most fouled player in MLS.

Jurgen Klinsmann, coach of the USMNT, wants his captain protected, and expressed concern over Dempsey’s treatment in MLS. On one hand Klinsmann is a soccer lifer, stud player and accomplished coach, he knows how the game should be played. He also has a cynical interest in protecting his players. There is a spectrum of truths here, from Deuce being a thug to Deuce getting thugged. MLS needs to do something. 

I am not advocating MLS go all NBA and put force fields around the stars. I hated watching Michael Jordan get away with everything (and, yes, Bryon Russell that was a push off). I do want a beautiful game of soccer however. To achieve that, MLS must better protect all their players equally, from Dempsey to Mark Bloom.

Yes nut hits are bad. But fifty fouls suffered by one team in two weeks?! Dempsey’s suspension reinforces the unpleasant truth that MLS’s style of play is part soccer/part football. It is one thing for the refs (replacement refs at that), to let an overly chippy game develop on the pitch. But with days to parse the action, the league bureaucracy chose to cement MLS’s goon ethos by not retroactively disciplining Jackson or Alvary Rey? Teams like Seattle which try to play soccer (Defoe was fouled exactly once), not kick and tackle, make life much harder on themselves. MLS encourages teams to play like San Jose or SKC.

Until Don Garber realizes that the goon image of the league stunts its international growth, the Sounders will continue to get fouled. Until Dempsey starts popping Paxil, he will continue to get pissed and react. Maybe Sigi needs to scrap his tactics and rebrand the team the Brougham Way Bullies, sign some enforcers to protect Deuce and Oba and let’er rip.

 

MLS Soccernomics Part 2: Static in the Cap

Yesterday’s discussion of soccernomics was on the overpriced community known as the American footballer. Today’s post is about the salary cap and the growth model for MLS.

Kuper and Szymanski (authors of Soccernomics) prove that, at least in the European leagues, the higher a team’s payroll the more successful the team. I would argue this doesn’t apply in MLS. Our league is a very different animal. MLS, like most American sports, has a salary cap.

There are two types of salary cap, the hard cap and the soft cap. The NFL has a hard cap. The amount of money spent per team is firm, and all teams are kept on an equal financial level. Teams must rely on solid coaching and smart GM’ing, not money, to find an edge and win. Major League Baseball and the NBA have soft caps via luxury taxes. In short, if a team overspends the cap, they must pay a tax, a percentage of the amount overspent, to the league. Yes this incentivizes staying under the cap, but money still makes a difference. It’s why the Lakers and Yankees, as long as they are always willing to overspend, stay relevant and successful, while the A’s and Royals have to hustle hard.

The MLS salary cap for the 2014 season is $3.1 million. MLS has an incredibly low cap. Imagine having only $3.1 million to split between an entire baseball or football team. However it gets more complicated, as MLS has neither a soft nor hard cap. Major League Soccer is a very different animal, not only from other soccer leagues, but also from other American sports. The $3.1 million is a hard ceiling, like the NFL, but certain types of players do not count against it. Players signed to a Designated Player, Home Grown Player or Generation Adidas contract do not count against the cap. Further rules limit how many players can have such contracts. I’ve already explained HGPs and GAs in a previous post and I assume most of you know about the three DP limit (if not, a DP is a player who’s salary can be anything the team is willing to pay, i.e. Clint Dempsey makes $5 million a year, and each team is allowed only three (unless they are LA (or Toronto))).

To make a long story short, MLS is complicated. But money spent still doesn’t equal results. Yes, the Galaxy won two years straight with top talent and a hefty payroll, but look at SKC’s payroll. Below is the total team payroll from 2013 (so TFC hasn’t jumped up into the top tier yet).

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 11.46.44 PM

NYRB, SSFC and LAG did well last year. But so did SKC, Houston, RSL, Portland and Colorado. I am not an economist and cannot begin to analyze why this is exactly. For example, the Sounders had underpaid assets last year in Ozzie, EJ and Neagle, but that didn’t combine with salaried stars like Oba and Dempsey into a smashing success.

All the aforementioned tweaks to the cap have resulted in unexpected consequences that is putting static in the system. The team that best figures how to take advantage of these tweaks and static, inefficiencies, wins.

A winning team must be built on inefficiencies. You have to break new wood. The Moneyball Oakland A’s are the most famous example of exploiting baseball’s market inefficiencies. In the NFL, teams like Green Bay and Pittsburgh traditionally eschew free agency, and roster build through the draft. This has paid dividends for them. The early 2000s Eagles were built to win every year (just not championships) with progressive and inventive deals signed by tricky Joe Banner. John Schneider is either very good or very lucky. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl with underpaid stars in Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman. We’ll see if the Hawks can sustain success in light of their recent salary purge; Red Bryant, Golden Tate, and Brandon Browner all sought paydays elsewhere.

One day I imagine MLS will greatly relax the salary cap. They’ll need to if Don Garber really wants to be an elite league. They’ll never abandon it completely. Enough data supports caps help teams and leagues in the long run (think NASL, Italy).

The best model for MLS growth is Major League Baseball. Both have tiered system of the majors and minors (not guaranteeing we’ll have promotion or relegation), a long summer season, and an international pool of players.

Currently MLB is the EPL. Japanese and Venezuelan star ballplayers want to get time in the Bigs, but will settle for the Nippon Professional Baseball or other such leagues. If MLS can get a soft cap like MLB, our league will be in business. Does this doom the Columbus Crew to the fate of the Kansas City Royals? Maybe. But not necessarily, consider at two recent MLS Cup winners.

Does SKC or RSL have some secret algorithm they use to roster build on the cheap? With the realities of the cap, an incentive exists in MLS to find a unique model for success. For example, the Sounders are doing a good job of finding good, young Western Hemisphere players. I think this is a great inefficiency to exploit. Players from Europe and select South American countries, Brazil and Argentina, are just brand names. You pay luxury prices for them.

How many Brazilians, Argentines, Germans or Spaniards are on the Sounders? Or in MLS? Not many (other than the Timbers who looove Argentines). Why are there so few manufacturing jobs in the States? Americans demand better pay and working conditions. Why are there so few Brazilian and Spanish footballers in MLS? These countries expect to play in European or South American leagues with the accompanying salaries and international cachet. Players from Chile, Martinique and Costa Rica, for example, don’t demand the same cachet. An MLS team can sign a rising star from those countries for far cheaper than a Brazilian would seek. It’s better to dig through the bargain bin, than blow your cap on overpriced commodities.

We know the league is ambitious. Don Garber wants MLS to be elite, and it’s possible with America’s wealth and influence.

We need an MLS Manifest Destiny or Monroe Doctrine. That is we need to set “our house” in order before we try to conquer across the pond. MLS needs to become the premier league in the Western Hemisphere.We have to surpass Liga MX and Brazil’s CBF. And yeah… that hasn’t happened yet. Xolos made The Galaxy look minor league, SKC was pooped on by Cruz Azul. At least San Jose kept it close (I am not, ever, pull for San Jose, but man they deserved to beta Toluca). I realize I am arguing for imperialism, and I am trying to be comfortable with that.

We want all the talented players from Patagonia to Barrow to want to play in MLS.

MLS Soccernomics Part 1: An Overpriced Commodity

Welcome Raving Readers to our first serial post!

I forgot where I read it, but one of the many postgame articles from Saturday’s loss referenced Soccernomics. The article cited the book’s simple correlation between team payroll and results, as evidenced by Toronto’s success. For those who haven’t read Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefani Szymanski, it is worth your time. It is not the Moneyball of soccer. However it’s an informative book, dry and not gripping, but full of interesting perspectives on the intersection of soccer and economics (as the title successfully portmanteaus).

Kuper and Szymanski discuss how the better teams spend the most money, and that most clubs lose money. However they are mostly analyzing European leagues. MLS is a very different animal, and I’ll discuss the values of a salary cap in tomorrow’s post. Today, I want to talk about an overpriced commodity, the American soccer player.

MLS is in a transition. Saturday’s game was proof. The hype around the Seattle-Toronto game was rampant with all the international quality talent on the field: Bradley, Dempsey, Defoe, Oba, Julio Cesar, even Evans. I don’t know if it’s a tipping point, but it is indicative of a trend in MLS. Other than just the acquisition of world-class players (Henry, Keane, Defoe), which has been happening since the Beckham acquisition, teams are now paying a premium for USMNT players. Bradley’s salary skyrocketed coming to MLS. Dempsey got a raise, Eddie finally got his wish and got paid, and even Omar Gonzalez got a DP contract.

Are these players worth their salary on the pitch? Sure, but teams are paying for exposure, especially in a World Cup year. Among the owners’ suites, you have a lotta dudes in suits salivating as the US soccer market again blooms. With the World Cup cycle, owners want a big name American attached to their club. When the causal fan tunes in this summer, he/she will see that Dempsey plays in Seattle and think, cool, I’ll check that out. Teams are betting on growing fan interest and thereby investing in Dempsey, Bradley et al., pure and simple.

How do the economics of the World Cup and a growing States-side soccer market affect the game? Soccer’s growth here has been slow. Beckham and Henry moving to MLS was the first spurt in MLS’s evolution. International superstars retiring in MLS caught fans’ attention. Dempsey coming home was another major press release. Dempsey is north of 30 and, arguably, his return is consistent with Beckham’s and Henry’s.  But Dempsey is an American, and that changes the equation, as he got paid more than any native son in MLS history. Bradley coming back, at only 26, was another evolution. Did Beckham and Henry treating the league as a retirement home hurt the game? Will Dempsey and Bradley plying their trade here hurt the game? I can’t say. I’m being analytical here, just looking at angles.

As I explored earlier, soccer is growing exponentially in this country. A downside to this growth is fan access to the game, as ticket prices are rising. One of the many charms of MLS is fan access, both to teams/players but also at the gates. Tickets to Sounders game are affordable, and people how up. Games aren’t prohibitively priced like the NFL. Some owners are trying to cash in on their product prematurely.

Merritt Paulson and Dave Kazan, of Portland and San Jose respectively, are betting fans will pay more their product. These greedy owners are trying to price out the plebes and ruffians who make soccer soccer. The ECS is taking a stand and boycotting this year’s game in San Jose. I fully commend them on standing up now for what will surely be a problem later. It’s a pity, but as the league grows and gets more competitive, prices will rise. An interesting feedback loop exists. Interest grows because the product is accessible. As interest grows, prices rise and the product becomes less accessible. Does interest wan?

Hopefully the league can secure a better TV contract, this could keep ticket prices stable. TV is a visual medium. The league knows this, all their commercials have images of boisterous supporters from the Cauldron, Timbers Army, and, of course, the ECS.  Your product isn’t just sports Mr. Paulson and Kazan, it is entertainment. You need to sell an image of excitement, so you need asses in seats. Not khaki corporate asses, but jumping, singing supporter asses.

Marco Pappa and the Plus/Minus

Pappa’s Pluses and Minuses

Saturday was rough, almost inexcusable for Marco Pappa. I’m not giving up on him yet. I’d love to see him settle down and get with the program. He is talented and what he brings, creativity and vision, are really needed in the midfield. But I’m starting to fear that Marco Pappa is fulfilling the Jhon Kennedy Hurtado archetype: the talented player who isn’t 100% focused. JKH was too damn talented not to play, but he was a liability on the pitch. He just wasn’t trustworthy. JKH is a former MLS Best XI defender. He has all the talent and tools and when he was on, he could SHUT DOWN Robbie Keane. When he was off… he was a welcome mat to the back of the net. Every time I saw him in the eleven I was nervous. Now I’m afraid Pappa could turn out the same way.

I was (and am) excited to see Pappa play. He is creative and he has good vision. In the preseason he looked like a younger, goofy-footed Mauro Rosales. But in the last two games he has shown little interest in defense and has been terribly sloppy with the ball.

We brought him in for his creativity and potential contributions to the offense. But one of my problems with his game is his propensity for the long volley. He loves the rocket. He took three shots from 30 yards out in the first thirty minutes Saturday. Sure, one of his volleys took a mean deflection and forced Julio Cesar to make a save, but he is still forcing the issue.

Granted, sometimes you have to pull the trigger. The 2013 Sounders had a fear of commitment, as too few players were willing to just take an exploratory swing. The old saw rings true, you don’t score goals unless you take shots. However there is a lot of attacking talent on this year’s squad. Be patient and build up to a quality shot, involve your teammates, Pappa. You have Oba, Dempsey, Cooper and Neagle, all proven goal scorers, around you. Trying those selfish volleys just takes a lot of money and talent out of the play.

In early February, the Sounders were perched atop the Allocation Order, considering Pappa when Sounder@Heart released a scouting report from his days with Chicago: he forces long-range shots, worries about his own highlights at the expanse of the team, gets sloppy… etc. We rolled the dice when we acquired Pappa. We knew the man had weaknesses. I was hoping we were getting a more mature player, one who was humbled in the Eredivise (the Dutch league). But we’re two games into his Rave Green career and we’re seeing a tour de force of all his bad, bad habits.

Sigi is backing Pappa. In a recent interview he cited Pappa’s lack of playing time in the Netherlands as cause for his disjointed play. I want to believe that after a year of barely playing Pappa is just not in the flow of the game, and that the speed and high stakes are overwhelming him. I want him to be one helluva creative midfielder.

Best case scenario, Sigi coaches Pappa up. He is the new Mauro and he connects the midfield to the forwards and the offense blossoms.

Worst case scenario, Pappa proves to be too much of a liability. If we can’t trust him to be in the eleven, what are the potential lineups? Will Pineda join Ozzie behind Neagle, Dempsey and Evans in a 4-2-3-1? But Neagle hasn’t been playing so hot. Does he need to be a forward, and if so, will he ever get time over Oba or Cooper? Can Cooper play as a wide mid? I sure don’t see him as a box-to-box type. I worry that if Pappa doesn’t work out, setting the lineup gets tricky. The pessimist in me worries we have all the pieces to the wrong puzzle (and I am not waiting for a magical midseason replacement to set everything right). In this scenario, I’d be tempted to see If Chicago is still interested. Maybe we can get some deep-dish pizza and a stick of Wrigley’s for him?

 

Pappa’s Plus/Minua

Thinking of Pappa and his contributions to the Sounders 2014 fortunes, I noticed that he was off the pitch when we created both our goals (Barrett’s against SKC and Dempsey’s Saturday), and on the pitch for both goals we took (and 100% responsible for one of them). The plus/minus stat in hockey is used to measure a player’s impact on the difference between their team’s total scoring versus their opponent’s. The frequent shift switching in hockey, and smaller lineup creates a more tangible correlation of players to goals for and against.

Checkout this plus/minus chart of the team. I’ll update this throughout the season.

Plus/Minus

What does this all mean? The Sounders are at a cumulative 0 goal differential. A player like Chad Marshall who has played every minute of both games has a 0 +/-. That is the mean. Anyone higher or lower is off the team mean. Instant analysis? Should Okoli should play more? Barrett too? That Neagle and Pappa should play less? All of these cocnlusions are too soon and too easy. Hopefully if we keep track of this, maybe, like science, we can extrapolate something by year’s end.

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