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.

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