Archive for June, 2013

USA-Jamaica Live Commentary: Stir It Up

Live from The Office in Kingston, is the US ready to go to work?

Get brutal...

Get brutal…

Starting line-ups shortly.

MLS: You Go Sit Down The Other End Of The Table…

...and there goes Chivas USA's season.

…and there goes Chivas USA’s season.

Steve Fenn (Twitter) does the spreadsheets … so that your MLS team may suffer. :>

Over the first couple months of any league season anywhere, reasonable supporters take a wait and see attitude.

Sometimes clubs charge out of the gates with abandon, but their luck comes crashing down to earth under larger sample size.

Only two months later the club has ill-translated press releases on the firing of their popular (though a bit odd) coach, denials of ownership chaos and indifference, the few remaing supporters are in revolt, and the league seems to be plotting the best time for Westeros-style takeover.

OK, Chivas USA is an extreme example and no one’s advocating that the DJ at the Vergara family’s next fiesta start spinning The Rains of Castamere and lock the doors (Editor’s note: Just found out this was a Game of Thrones reference, that’s your mulligan Steve), but the point is that the second citizen of the Home Depot Center and other early outliers have settled into more sustainable positions at this time.

MLS is in a somewhat familiar table arrangement, with a couple clubs ahead of a large, a hard-to-differentiate pack of playoff contenders nipping at each others’ heels, with also-rans and true stragglers after that.

Now is the time to start handicapping the race for clubs’ desired outcomes.

Today the focus is on the basics. How many points will it probably take to secure a playoff spot in either conference, or for the truly ambitious, to lift the Supporters Shield?

A recent collaboration between Zach Slaton (The Beautiful Numbers Game) and Martin Eastwood (Pena.lt/y blog) is very useful for goal-setting here. Martin’s EI model has performed well in predicting EPL results and Zach has been working with on and writing about the application of this model to MLS.

To help us find realistic point targets for MLS clubs, Zach looked through EI simulations for the rest of this season and found that the most likely point total for the Supporters Shield runner up is 61, meaning that a club will likely need at least 62 points to secure the title.

Similarly, EI simulations show the 6th place clubs in the East and West will probably finish with 44 and 46 points, respectively. So, the East playoff point target is set at 45 and the West at 47.

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Click here for interactive version (Editor’s note: totally worth the click) … which allows you to adjust point targets, and filter down to teams from just 1 conference. Shot data in supplemental tabs provided by American Soccer Analysis.

Here we have a visualization of the minimum points per game each club would need from this point on to be in contention for a playoff spot or the Supporters Shield. Each crest is sized based on playoff PPG needed minus their current PPG.

Any other Shield hopefuls need to both earn great results themselves, and Montreal and Dallas to both cool down considerably. Based on a shared penchant for close matches and uninspiring defensive records FCD and L’Impact may do so to some extent, but there’s a very respectable chance that one of them will emerge with the Shield.

The pack of 12 clubs after that are all in pretty good positions near each, giving neutrals hope of interesting playoff races a few months from now.

On the other end of the spectrum, DC United, Toronto, Chicago, Chivas USA, and San Jose all need a quick and consistent change of their fortunes to re-enter the playoff hunt. Luckily, the US Open Cup is still a possibility for all but TFC (obviously) and the Earthquakes (who still have the CONCACAF Champions League). Going beyond their slim playoff odds, all five of these clubs sadly have little more chance of winning the 2013 MLS Cup than do the New York Cosmos.

The biggest problem facing clubs already lagging behind their season goals at this point of the season is that it would be very challenging for them to maintain the pace that their circumstances require at this point. In 2011 and 2012, only 3 times did a club average 2.0 PPG or more over their last 20 matches. Interestingly, the Galaxy were two of those three examples.

What’s more, 18 of the 20 eventual playoff teams in 2011 and 2012 held one of the top 5 spots in their conference after 14 games. Fall is coming, the clubs have all taken significant steps toward their fate, and now it is up to them to change or maintain that course as needed.

TSG’s Official USA vs. Jamaica Preview: Don’t Fear The Reefer

Will Jozy Altidore being rockin' the Usain Bolt celebration Friday? Read on....

Will Jozy Altidore being rockin’ the Usain Bolt celebration Friday? Read on….

It’s down to The Office–formally known as Independence Park in Kingston, Jamaica–for a chance to be three more points to the good and ever so closer to removing the refundable clause on a trip to Rio for the USMNT.

The US settled into their opponent Jamaica’s haunts on Tuesday of this week, looking to acclimatize to the surroundings and hoping to secure their first victory against a major CONCACAF opponent on the road during the Klinsmann era.

Jamaica’s team on the otherhand has probably been well haloed in medicinal marijuana since its capitulation on Tuesday at that very same Office. The Reggae Boyz dropped an “as-close-to-a-must-have” decision to Mexico, 1-0 in rather droll fashion.

It’s punch, kick, scratch, claw and grab the jewels time for the Jamaican team–their backs up against a chute that leads directly to “The Road to 2018″ planning. Jamaicans know that it’s their last opportunity here to merely loosen the vice grip the US has on that Rio ticket much less challenge for it.

Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview.

It goes:

About the opponent: Jamaica

TSG What We’re Looking For

11 At the Whistle

Mexico rattles it saber at Jamaica’s butter knife, Tuesday night. 1-0 visitors.

About the Opponent: Jamaica

By now the US–like two basketball teams slugging it over two weeks–is all too familiar with the Reggae Boyz.

After Friday, three of the Yanks’ last eight qualifiers will have been contested against the Jamaicans. Tack on a Gold Cup victory in 2011 and the US will have played Jamaica more than any other team over the past two years–a right usually honorably and financially reserved for El Tri, the Reggae Boyz’s victorious foil this week.

Tuesday’s match itself providing the US coaching staff with critical intelligence on who and where to ask the questions on Friday evening.

In that skirmish,the first 45′ saw Mexico and Jamaica looking to nick a goal only if it didn’t compromise their rearguard–Mexico was clearly wary of the Jamaicans speed while Jamaica wary of perhaps getting caught out and falling prey to one of El Tri’s symphonic attack.

In the second half, Mexico cocked a fist and jabbed aggressively at Jamaica’s right rib cage–where 18-year-old protege Alvas Powell was making his first WCQ start–and collapsed their weaker flank with great interplay from the wily vet pairing of Carlos Salcido (now at LB for El Tri) and Andres Guardado. One goal turned out to be all that was needed.

There’s four things the US can count on as they head down Kingston way: 1) a bumpy pitch, in fact the Jamaican fans revel in it.

The Reggae Boyz don’t often try to play triangles in possession, they play slingshots.

Hold it up, drop a back pass to support, shoot it up the field to an overlapping winger or streaking forward–picture an inchworm after two lines of cocaine.

Slingshots.

2) Speed. Bad things happen when Jamaica puts some coal in the engine and steams out on the break. Defenders find themselves trailing and a stretched defense can be had with less passing accuracy than the desired compact one,

3) Box crashing. No counter and it’s to the skies in the 18′ yard box for the yellow & green. That’s pretty much a guarantee. And…

4) Jamaican coach Tappa Whitmore will crinkle and wrinkle up the game plan.

Jamaica coach Tappa Whitmore had his first player cap for the Reggae Boyz back in November 1993 ... against the States ... a

Jamaica coach Tappa Whitmore had his first player cap for the Reggae Boyz back in November 1993 … against the States … and played his final Reggae Boyz game in November 2004 … agains the States.

In the 2011 Gold Cup group stage match mentioned earlier, Whitmore rolled out in a 4-3-3 (after having played frequently beforehand with a 3-man backline) and former skipper Bob Bradley overloaded the midfield with one extra center man–Sacha Kljestan. Jamaica had three forward outfield players who might as well grabbed themselves some hot dogs and beer because they had the best seats in the house.

In the US loss last September, Whitmore this time had the upper hand.

He pushed his team up the field in a 4-3-3 (after having went 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 previously in qualifiers) and the USMNT played into that upper hand with a narrow 4-4-2 diamond formation that attempted to connect passes in small spaces out of the back. That in turn, led to turnovers near goal and the wrong result. More on that later..

It says here–we’ll have a crazy go at it–that Whitmore will likely go with the 4-4-1-1 that he employed on the road against Mexico in a 1-1 draw in February.

Whitmore knows the US will be prepping to improve their midfield play; he also knows that his victory last time saw a threesome of Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu attempt to will the ball up the field on the floor. The US will have Michael Bradley in this one combining with Jones and Dempsey–much more formidable on the interior.

Whitmore pushed his young fullbacks high up the pitch and split his centerbacks wide for cover with a sweeper to attempt to slow El Tri’s corner play–he won’t need the protection deep and wide as the US only get forward on the left through DaMarcus Beasley build-up these days and when pushing high on the right it’s typically results in a Graham Zusi service or cutback centrally not barreling-down-on-goal attack.

In short, if the US wants to get keep in the corners on the run that will only help stretch the States defense and play in to the Jamaican counterattack strategy.

Finally, as he did against Mexico, Whitmore will likely sit a speedy ball carrier right behind a target forward. He’ll use that player slightly to the right of center where they can come back and help defensively or link-up or make a diagonal run in behind DaMarcus Beasley when the US has gone forward.

(Note: This is just a bit of surmising here by TSG).

TSG (wild) guess on Jamaica's rollout Friday.

TSG (wild) guess on Jamaica’s rollout Friday.

That said, while all of this strategy is nice the reality is Jamaica just can’t seem to put the ball in the goal. A shocking miss by Jermaine Beckford last night was just another addition to a litany of other misses (Luton Shelton, Jobi McAnuff) that could have this Jamaican team staring at a different fate. Put the easy balls in the hole–that’s the first tactic.

To the rollout, the US will probably only see 2 or 3 starters consistent from its last trip to The Office.

Jamaica will start with MLS veteran Donovan Ricketts between the sticks. Ricketts can make the wow saves, but too often he draws “wows” for saves because of his slow reaction time.

He makes the ordinary, extraordinary. The US can beat Ricketts to his top right corner and lower right corner as the gangly keeper has now been fighting a chronic right shoulder problem over the past two years. (Note: Amazed that more teams in MLS don’t test Ricketts to this side.)

Hoping to keep Rickett’s clean will be a back four Adrian Mariappa and Daniel Gordon (a German!) in the middle, flanked by Powell on the right and O’Brian Woodbine on the left. Only Mariappa started against the States last time at home and first choice back of Demar Phillips and Jermaine Taylor didn’t respond to the magic spray. Powell got lit up by Mexico early in the second half Tuesday and will be looking to bounceback while, aside from poor marking on the Mexico goal, Woodbine had a good one.

The Reggae Boyz will show five in the middle like they did against El Tri. Anchoring the crew may be Rodolpho Austin, a card-carrying member of the Michael Essien Bison CDM club, who was THE man against the Yanks on the last visit. Austin made it through 90 minutes against El Tri but carried a groin strain into the game and hadn’t played competitively since April. Many gave him poor marks, but TSG thought he held up well.

The front five is a toss-up.

Ahead of him will be Hoops man Je-Vaughn Watson, the guess being he will tuck inside after attempting to be the wide midfield protection for Powell against Mexico; Marvin Elliott is the guess to be sacrificed.

At winger are two Reading men, Gareth McClary will flip back to the right after accommodating Watson against El Tri and TSG fave Jobi McAnuff–out for personal reasons and returning to the squad–will likely get the call on the left. McAnuff is getting long in the tooth, had an awful season at Reading (in fact rated one of the worst midfielders) and missed a critical sitter in the first Mexico match but he’s a veteran presence who’s comfortable with the ball and makes sharp offball runs. (Update: McAnuff has been ruled out through the birth of his child–it’s a good question who starts on the left–or right–money is on Whitmore)

The top combination is just as puzzling. Falling back on Jamaica’s February El Tri configuration, we’ll go with brooding -and-bruising Portland Timbers forward Ryan Johnson whose has looked more than solid in Caleb Porter’s system up on Burnside this year and put in an effective if ultimately fruitless shift on Tuesday. There’s the possibility that Jermaine Beckford gets the start instead of Johnson, but it’s a low probability.

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Is Greed Good?, Part II: Hey MLS Corporate, Ante Up!

MLS Players: Taking it on the chin on the field, but much more so off.

MLS Players: Taking it on the chin on the field, but much more so off.

In Part II of II, Alex Olshansky (Twitter) explains how MLS corporate is shooting itself in the foot, but its the players feeling the pain. (Part I)

Fans of North American soccer, by and large, are an insecure group.

It makes sense.

Many of the older generation remember the NASL flameout.

The younger generation may be imbued with more confidence in the sport’s future, but they also understand that MLS still exists on the fringe of the mainstream American sports landscape.

It is why they obsessively tabulate MLS attendance, engage in constant comment-section debates on the usage of “soccer” vs. “football,” and tweet every MLS golazo at Sportscenter.  The league is in a constant competition for exposure and respect.

However, this competition is not with the American cultural mainstays NFL, NBA, and MLB.  MLS is competing against international soccer (EPL, Liga MX, UEFA CL).  And right now it is losing.  In the United States there are many more fans of international soccer than MLS.  This is indisputable.  Yet, this current state is not immutable.

The EPL "problem"

The EPL “problem”

MLS, 180-lbs league gorilla slayer? It’s possible.

As was pointed out in Part I of this analysis, the main problem facing MLS teams is the lack of TV money being generated.

The comparison to the EPL is stark.

There’s probably some sort of penalty jar in the MLS offices for anytime someone utters the phrase “TV ratings” in the presence of Don Garber.

You thought the Cosmos made his skin feel prickly.

But how can the league boost TV revenues (estimated at a paltry $36 million league-wide)?

TV revenues are low because people are not watching. The league has put up these numbers on ESPN2 so far this year:

No bueno...

No bueno…

Those numbers are not wanting; they’re simply not good.

By comparison, regular season college basketball averages 515k viewers and college football between 1.5 and 2.0 million viewers on ESPN2.  The EPL averages around 320k viewers during much poorer time slots than MLS. Without better ratings the league will never get the TV money that they crave. (Editor’s note: That is a … fact.)

The most obvious answer to boost ratings is to improve the product.  The most recent release of MLS salaries, nicely visualized by Steve Fenn, underscores just how little MLS pays their players vs. other leagues.

Here’s the EPL.  They spend lavishly on talent.

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These are the Top 20 Global teams.

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There is, of course, the MLS murmuring undercurrent to, “pursue the Bundesliga’s more restrained approach to spending.”

Compared to other leagues in Europe the Germans appear to be more prudent.  According to this report Bundesliga teams spend approximately 38% of their revenues on player wages, which is far under the approximately 64% the rest of the UEFA top flight spends.

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USA 4 – Germany 3: Ten Things We Didn’t Learn On Sunday

Jozy had a ball today ... and a good blast too.

Jozy had a ball today … and a good blast too.

The US finished up its friendly tune-up series with a braggadocious first half performance followed by a “just-good-enough” second half against Euro powerhouse* Germany.

The Germans, of course, were missing much of their first string troops. Names like Ozil, Muller, Lahm, Gomez and Neuer weren’t pressed on the shoulder blades of any of the eleven on the field Sunday, on a sweltering day in the nation’s capital.

The States got up early on Jogi Low’s men through some calculated high pressure and abudant forward space for attacking man Clint Dempsey who profited off lax German defending. Dempsey drew a crowd in the 16th minute–three would-be defenders to be exact–and dished on the break to Graham Zusi–who continues to be a Swiss Army knife for the Yanks, filling in with whatever skill set is deemed necessary.

Zusi ran-on to the lead pass and drove a cross on a rope to Jozy Altidore who brought back a year’s worth of frustrations for Arsenal fans by slipping beyond a confused Emirates’ defender Per Mertesacker and knocking a one-time volley just inside the near stick.

The Yanks went up 1-0 and despite plenty of uneven play outlasted Die Mannschaft for the skinny victory, 4-3.

Here’s ten things we didn’t learn on Sunday.

10» Just how bright the future is for the German national team

The weather is and was a thankful excuse for Jogi’s Low team Sunday as its seems the Ecuadorian Party Flu bit the Germans in their friendly match in Florida against the CONMEBOL side Wednesday.

The Germans looked disinterested and uninspired through much of the ninety minutes and only seemed to muster any pace and initiative when the scoreline crept up the embarrassment scale.

You still have to make the plays, but the American certainly benefited from a German team that saw:

a) Hall-of-fame striker Miroslav Klose lolly-gagging offsides for a bulk of the first twenty minutes. Go back and look and the tape and this isn’t Klose testing the backline–though he did do that on a few occasions–this is Klose 3-to-5 yards offsides numerous times. However, that’s a veteran after a long campaign; there was much more.

b) 24-year-old Dortmund protege Sven Bender and Stefan Reinhart were downright negligent in taking space, making runs or making themselves available in the central midfield. Had either, especially Bender, played like they’re capable of the US could’ve found himself looking at a Belgium result after the first 45 minutes. (Bender was lifted at halftime for Max Kruse who had immediate impact.)

c) The back four of Jansen, Howedes, Mertesacker, Bender (Lars) offered a nice and roomy warehouse of space ahead of them for the US to (take their time and) find space or move on the ball.

The cushion given especially in the center by Howedes and Mertesacker was downright scandalous. Mertesacker was mercifully sacrificed at the break before his transfer value crept any lower.

d) And finally there was keeper Andre ter Stegen who looked like he was a third string and on loan from Toronto FC. Ter Stegen had a shocker.

This was a German team that didn’t want to be there with only a handful of players, Julian Draxler and Max Kruse, showing any of the class that precedes them on YouTube.

9» Tim Howard has trouble with the long ball.

Today it was Kruse off a pretty Draxler feed that was the culprit. Michael Bradley failed to apply enough pressure to Draxler who slotted to an incutting Kruse who left Omar Gonzalez in his wake. Kruse fired a precise–like German precise–strike inside the left post.

Howard was beat. Was it an above average strike? Yes. Did Howard fail to cover his right post effectively? Yes. Was it another example of shot from outside the box slipping by Timmy? Yes.

Then again, that German keeper had a howler of a day and it was really hot out there.

8» Clint Dempsey can score.

You have to imagine that Clint Dempsey playing today was akin to how O’Doyle felt playing dodgeball in Billy Madison. Either Dempsey was supreme to the counterpart attempting to mark him or he was met with blase defensive effort from one of the best strikers in German history.

The latter referencing Dempsey’s practice-field bender that curled passed the German keeper deputy after Lukas Podolski had went for soccer equivalent of the pump fake.

The key today of course is that with the US finally doing some work wide–especially on the right–and with Jozy Altidore making himself available. Dempsey had … space … and time and was asked to attack more than create.

That’s where the Spurs’ man is at his best.

Bradley Ray Evans, not singing a somber country tune today.

Bradley Ray Evans, not singing a somber country tune today.

7» Brad Evans is smart.

Commentating on ESPN, Taylor Twellman continuously praised the work from Evans at rightback. Evans had shown up playing the position with the first team in practice Saturday and was expected to give Geoff Cameron a respite there the following day.

The Sounder’s captain may have earned himself more serious consideration. In a game where it was tough to judge any collective or individual performance, Evans nevertheless showed well.

Evans has long been considered by fellow players–teammates and opponents–one of the smartest and most underrated players in the national team pool. And today, didn’t signal anything different.

Within the first five minutes, Evans had already knocked two perfectly weighted over-the-top balls to a galloping Jozy Altidore. It was Evans steady play and threat for that pass that in turn opened up Graham Zusi to do some work ahead of him. His play was very similar to that of Michael Parkhurst when he plays on the right, only Evans has arguably better handles and easily better wheels than the former Revs man.

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