Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Major League Soccer Manifesto



I often wonder how sports were created. The imagination, the meticulous attention to the ebb and flow of fine-tuning a new game, the revolutionary ideas of people who saw an empty peach box as a possibility, make me yearn to understand the
why behind games themselves. Why the hell can a bishop only move diagonally in chess? Why the hell is a three-point line 23.9 feet away from a basketball hoop? Why the hell did the guitar shop I go to have a Hannah Montana guitar on sale for $49 and why the hell didn’t I buy it? … I’m getting sidetracked …

New sports come and go, many invented by children to entertain themselves on a rainy day (roshambo?), but many remain, and have remained, for hundreds and hundreds of years. Like football … American “soccer,” whatever you want to call it … it’s called football and it will remain football regardless of the cross-Atlantic reasons behind a shifty-eyed name change (still trying to pour salt in that Revolutionary War wound, eh America?). Football
teams have been around for hundreds of years, let alone the sport itself. Rivalries exist in Europe that started only a few years after the American Civil War ended. History, baby.

And you’d think, with over a century’s worth of history, a century’s worth of learning and modifying to make football the beautiful game it is today, that the clumsy American, let’s call him Alan I. Rothenberg, World Cup 1994 Chairman and CEO, could’ve figured out how build Major League Soccer the right way.

MLS started in 1993 as a way to guarantee the World Cup would be hosted in America in 1994 (Baggio!). Rothenberg unveiled the league logo (great work over there, Costner, build the league logo first … the rest will just fall into place) and three years later, the league officially launched. It’s been 13 years since the inaugural season, 13 years since nationalism defeated common sense and shootouts were implemented as a way to resolve all regular season draws, 13 years since 31,683 fans showed up for the first MLS game in history, 13 years since the MLS Management Committee decided it knew how to run a centuries-old sport better than anyone else.

Simply put, the league desperately needs to “speed up its history” if we want to have another 13 years of Major League Soccer. And guess what? I know how to do it …

A GATHERING OF THE NAMING COMMITTEE … WHO IRONICALLY DON’T HAVE A CREATIVE NAME

The Kansas City Wizards. The San Jose Earthquakes. Real Salt Lake.

Just sit with those names for a second. Study them. Soak in them like they’re exotic bath oils and you’re a pretty lady sipping wine by candlelight, soaking in a sensual … getting sidetracked again.

When I was a kid, my favorite part about sports video games was the “Create a team!” mode. You would craft your franchise from the ground up: Colors, mascot, nickname …
everything. It was digital heaven. Yes, I would like my team to wear yellow and black. Yes, I would like to name them the Hornets. Yes, I would like a jolly insect to be my mascot. Why? Because I was 12 years old.

As I got older, my team names started changing to match my mind. I went for sarcastic names, names that were funny to hear the announcer say over and over again, names with power, vigor, history,
meaning. I went for political names, “socially-unconscious” names, names born of the city itself. And sometimes, I’d engulf my team in social commentary, scathing with innuendo and political doublespeak, living out my J.D. Salinger-esque intentions in 64-bit fantasy. The Seattle Legislators traded away all of their players for cash considerations, used the money on unnecessary and idiotic overheads (yes, I’d like to upgrade my stadium … no, I don’t care that we average 236 fans per game), and charged their dwindling fan-base ridiculous ticket prices to support their drunken whimsy.

Now, I know in America we like to come up with cute names for our teams so we can appeal to a larger and generally-uninterested demographic. Teams create cute mascots to keep kids interested, develop corporate logos to appease the businessmen and women running the organizations, and ensure the family-friendly environment we all apparently crave when going to a stadium by having free teddy-bear giveaways or whatever. But what we have with MLS naming conventions is a Michael Bay-movie disaster of epic “drilling-into-an-asteroid-with-non-astronaut-crew-who-easily-survive-the-rigors-of-space-travel-and-constantly-defy-gravity-to-save-the-world-while-Steven-Tyler-creepily-wails-away-about-love-in-a-movie-where-his-daughter-makes-out-and-pouts-a-lot” proportions.

Are there Wizards in Kansas City? Are there a lot of Spaniards in Salt Lake City? And Earthquakes? Really?

Simultaneously naming teams based on ridiculous American custom (Kansas City Wizards), European custom (D.C. United), and local custom (Seattle Sounders FC) creates CHAOS. Yes, chaos. It’s embarrassing for the league and, frankly, our country. Teams all across the world named their teams after the city itself or an important historical part of the city. Manchester United … are from MANCHESTER. Liverpool … are from LIVERPOOL! The local fans will, over time, give the team a nickname. It becomes part of the culture of the club. The fans take ownership, and when fans take ownership, that’s a
very good thing.

So take the dirty Q-Tip of teams whose names are too awkward to even mention and start fresh. Real Salt Lake? Guess what … you are not Real Madrid. You’re not in Spain, from Spain, or really affiliated with Spain in any way. Your land was stolen from the Shoshone tribe by crazy white people and turned into a Mormon coven. So, ignoring the … vibrant history of the city to save a little face, we’re changing your damn name so I don’t have to put masking tape over it throughout a broadcast. You are now Salt Lake FC. Or if you’re really obsessed with having that Euro-twinge that’s so prevalent in Utah, Salt Lake United. You like that? You like United? Yeah, I thought you would.

Don’t underestimate the importance of names. In a recent BBC article, teachers in England were polled on which students they thought would be more likely to act out in class based solely on a list of names. The 3,000 teachers found more than one in three expected pupils with certain names to be more disruptive in class. Right or wrong, the perception of a name can’t be overlooked. If a name sounds intimidating, it can have the same impact as a tribal dance before a rugby match or a helmet-visor that hides an NFL running back’s eyes. A name can also belittle the team and embarrass the players and fans.

Names matter. Chad Ochocinco. ‘Nuff said.

SALARY CAPS, OWNERSHIP, & THE BUSINESS OF FOOTBALL GONE MAD

In yet another well-conceived twist to Americanize the sport, Major League Soccer was developed with an NFL-style salary cap implemented (with “star exemptions” so each team can buy any player they want without a cap hit), where ownership has to build a team based on an equal financial footing as the rest of the league. Instead of the free market system used throughout the world, MLS opted for damage mitigation and complete control over parity. It’s much easier to keep struggling teams afloat if you force successful teams into revenue sharing and offloading or simply releasing their best players when they end up costing too much money. Free agency killed modern sports, but that’s for another day.

And while the global free-market transfer system currently in place is
deeply, deeply flawed (see: Ronaldo, Cristiano), a salary-cap system actually waters down the league internationally and lowers the quality of players – and teams – in Major League Soccer. It’s stunning to see smart, successful businessmen take over a sports franchise or league and use strategically counter-intuitive rules to try to save themselves from drowning. Business shows that companies that succeed, consistently produce, and never settle for mediocre talent or products will blow the competition away. And companies who fail, mismanage personnel, and always choose the bottom line over improvement will fall by the wayside and either file for bankruptcy or be forced to sell their company to a successful one.

So why, in something like sports where teams are competing for a championship, do the rules suddenly change? Is it because businessmen and women who previously thought they were invincible can’t handle losing so they just change the rules? In elementary school gym class, we finished up the obstacle course section of the class and started playing a real sport: Basketball. Our gym teacher, Mr. Henry (who ended up getting fired for telling a class of Kindergarteners that Santa Claus wasn’t real), decided to split the class into two basketball teams that would play each other every day in class. He kept track of the results on a big piece of butcher paper. Reputations were on the line. Elementary school pride was at stake.

Mr. Henry picked two captains, an athlete and a kid who prayed for rain so he could draw pictures of axes and play chess. Guess who got picked first overall by the axe-wielding chess wizard? That’s right. The athlete ended up stocking his team full of other athletic kids, while Harry Potter kept his friends close and his enemies … on the other team.

But when the games began, we kept winning. I spent the majority of the time calling for the ball and shooting up threes to try to keep up with the other team. Sure enough, we were winning.

Then one day, we came into class and a certain kid in our class who shall remain nameless was already in the gym, sitting on the floor, sniffling and wiping tears from his eyes. Trouble. Mr. Henry stood in front of the class and said, “We’re going to have a new rule. Some of your classmates are feeling left out of the game, so now every player on the court has to touch the ball twice before you can shoot the basketball.”

We never won another game.

A salary cap is the “Elementary Inclusion Rule.” Bad teams, who are bad because they’re mismanaged financially and personnel-wise, get to touch the ball two times before anyone gets to shoot. It’s the same theory with the NBA Draft Lottery and all American sports drafts. But MLS one-upped the other sports because they missed the reason
why international football leagues don’t have salary caps:

Promotions and relegations.

With multiple levels of football leagues in England, starting with the Non-League Blue Square Premier League going all the way up to the world-renowned English Premier League, a total of five separate leagues, all under the same governing body, play in a massive game of cat and mouse. The top-three teams from the Coca-Cola Championship (the league just below the Premier League) are promoted into the Premier League at the end of the season, and the three bottom teams from the Premier League are sent down to the Coca-Cola Championship. That type of oscillation happens between all five leagues. With a salary cap and the “Elementary Inclusion Rule,” that type of dynamic competition wouldn’t exist. Teams
must maintain a high-level of football. If they don’t, like Newcastle United last season, who had been in the Premier League for the last 16 years, they are relegated. Bad business decisions, bad financial and personnel management, and a bad on-field product shouldn’t be supported. Newcastle didn’t deserve a chance to add the best player in the world in some American-style draft, they deserved relegation. They also deserve a chance to right the ship in a lower league and return back to their former Premier League glory, and they’ll get that chance now that their piss-poor owner has put the team up for sale (a cool £100m price tag), they’ve streamlined their wage budget, and offloaded unhappy players. Newcastle is now leading the Coca-Cola Championship and looks to be on track to return to the Premier League next season. Failure motivated them to reinvent the team.

So how does that apply to MLS? We only have 15 teams as it is, and American owners buy sports franchises the way most children buy action figures: They certainly don’t leave them in the box to appreciate value.

The answer is exceptionally easy. Recruit the lower leagues that
already exist in our country, the USL First and Second Divisions, pub leagues, who cares! The key is that “minor-league” football already exists in America. So MLS management, from the very top of the pyramid, needs to work with existing owners to gather the top-five professional football leagues under one overarching body, and destroy the salary cap. Pay teams who are promoted a lump “promotion sum” in order to give them a fighting chance to stay competitive at the top flight, and send the worst three teams down to the league below. If ownership starts hemorrhaging money, send their team down to a lower league and promote a second-tier team that’s got its checkbooks balanced. If a lower league team manages its money better and ends up having the cash to buy more and better players, let them! That team should have a fighting chance to get into MLS and compete, that team should replace the New York Red Bulls (sweet nickname, guys); that team should be celebrated for its management, ownership, and vision.

There have to be regulations on spending, sure, otherwise we end up with the disasters that are Real Madrid and Manchester City, but let owners who have money, manage their money, spend their money wisely
do so. If one team wins 10-straight MLS Cups … how is that a bad thing? Shouldn’t that inspire some of the other teams to open up the checkbook or build better youth academies and devote more resources to cultivating players internally in order to compete? Shouldn’t owners revel in those types of challenges, the same types of challenges they faced in business, and conquered in business, that led to the team-buying wealth they have today? If an ownership group can’t keep up and are unwilling to keep up, shouldn’t they be forced to sell their team to an owner who cares or go down to the lower leagues and start rebuilding with a long-term strategy in mind?

I don’t want to pass the ball anymore, Mr. Henry.

THE MOST VALUABLE RESOURCE, THE BEST HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Ah, college. Higher education never knew what hit it.

Before the start of a new MLS season, the league holds the strangely-named “SuperDraft,” where teams can draft from a host of young, supple college stars. This past season, Seattle Sounders FC drafted Steve Zakuani, an Arsenal-trained player turned Akron Zip goalscorer, with the first overall pick in the “SuperDraft.” Zakuani has been a revelation this season for the Sounders playing on the left wing, using his blazing speed and superior technical skills to weave in and out of traffic and torment opposing defenses. But Zakuani failed internationally. He never made it out of the tough Arsenal academy, which has produced some of the finest players in the world (I swear, I’m not biased toward the greatest football club in the history of athletics …). So he ended up in Akron, Ohio where he was suddenly the best player on the field in every match and the consensus first pick in the MLS draft. What’s wrong with that picture?

Zakuani was successful in college and is successful in MLS because he was trained elsewhere. It’s the equivalent to foreign tennis players coming to America to train with the best professionals and academies in the world, only to end up killing American tennis players on the international stage. If Zakuani had spent his whole life in American youth soccer academies, with no criticism to the men and women who run the current youth soccer programs in our country, he would’ve ended up with an unnatural affinity for Capri-Sun and orange slices.

And if he had gone straight from youth soccer to into college, he would’ve spent most of his time, and I’m speaking from experience covering the men’s and women’s soccer teams at Loyola University Chicago back in my younger days, drinking and arguing tactics and team selection with prima-donna coaches who had never even played football before. In European academies, you have some of the greatest footballers in the history of the world who end up, when their careers are over, training the future superstars of the world at prestigious club and unaffiliated academies. Football is far more than a hobby in other countries, it is a way of life and they encourage youngsters to adopt that way of life. Does that mean higher education should be put on hold? Not at all. But most college athletes are, sadly, not at school to get a higher education. They’re at school to
play sports and the school is simply a menagerie maintained to make money without scrutiny. We encourage college basketball players to leave early if they’ve got a first round guarantee (also known as a guaranteed contract). We encourage American football players to leave early if they won the Heisman and have nothing else to prove (also known as a guaranteed contract). I support higher education, I think it needs to be the main focus of our politics and financial investment as a society, but if a star athlete has the ability and drive and desire to turn “professional” early, why are we saying no, when we simultaneously say yes to baseball players going into the minor leagues out of high school, plumbers and mechanics apprenticing directly with a master at a young age, and young men and women who leave school to run the family business?

The logical incongruity is too great to overlook.

When Jeremy Tyler, the high school junior basketball star, declared that he was going to be leaving high school and traveling to Europe to play professional basketball in Israel for two years before entering the NBA Draft, I applauded his decision. Not necessarily because of the practicality, and partly because it was sticking it to David Stern (the devil) for his ridiculous “one-and-done” rule he implemented in the NBA, but mostly, I was thrilled that an American athlete who had the physical and mental tools to play professional sports was “doing it the Euro way” (don’t read that out of context). Tyler will come back to America in two years a unique force. Just like NBA Champion Tony Parker came into the league at 19 years old after playing in the French professional leagues since his early teens, Tyler will now have the advantage of experience and superior training. Is it the answer for everyone? Certainly not. Many players actually benefit more from becoming better people than from becoming better athletes. But the point is that American sports, especially Major League Soccer, need to invest
heavily in youth academies. Each owner should be forced to start a club-affiliated youth academy, plucking the best talent available to them out of junior highs and high schools (or, gasp, even earlier), hiring former players and top-notch coaches both nationally and internationally, to train these kids and fast-track them for success. I know education is important, but throughout the rest of the world, youngsters have somehow managed to balance education and football. I hope us Americans can muster the courage to do the same.

Not only do you grow better athletes, but you also have the opportunity to grow athletes within a team’s specific system. Not every team plays with the same formation (4-4-2, 4-5-1, 4-1-3-2 … there are plenty of formations in football). At the Arsenal academy, players learn how to play the Arsenal way from a young age. They are trained to play the style and formation that the top-flight team plays, so that when a player reaches a certain age (or skill level), he blends perfectly into the team and the system. It’s what’s made Arsenal the benchmark football franchise for cultivating young talent. This season, Arsenal’s genius manager, Arsene Wenger, changed the formation of the club from last season’s 4-4-2 (or really a 4-5-1 with former striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who was sold to Manchester City this summer, playing the “stand around and do nothing” role in the midfield) to a 4-3-3 in an effort to unleash Arsenal’s talented attacking players and provide additional defensive cover from a defensive midfielder. But that change doesn’t just impact the first team, it’s a sort of “company-wide memo” that prepares all levels of the team.

“Of course where Wenger leads, the rest of the Club follows. That's why the Frenchman is not the only one instilling new ideas into his players on the training pitches at London Colney. Neil Banfield's Reserve team have also embraced 4-3-3 and Steve Bould has adopted the same formation at Academy level.” (Arsenal.com)

We have that type of mentality in Major League Baseball with multi-level minor leagues. We are starting to build that in the NBA with team-affiliated D-League franchises. And everyone knows NCAA college football … cough … USC … is simply the NFL’s minor league. Wake up, Major League Soccer, you’re being left behind. There’s no excuse 13 years into the league’s formation, for this type of ideological oversight to exist. So ownership groups need to step up. The Seattle Sounders, who have clearly shown they have the best ownership group in MLS, need to set the standard like they’ve done in so many other ways. Hire more coaches, build an academy training ground, scour the world (yes, the
world) for young talent and start a real Sounders Academy … not just summer camps for “Elementary Inclusion Rule” kids. Youth soccer in our country is already a year-long commitment for any kid who wants to take the game seriously, so why not up the ante in talent and money. Give our best players something to play for other than half of a college scholarship at an underfunded and poorly coached program.

But really, what is the point of education in the first place? Why do people go to college? To get a job!

If a young athlete is physically and mentally gifted, driven and passionate about the sport, that
must be encouraged just as we encourage a wunderkind violinist to join a symphony or a brilliant mathematician to go pre-med at the age of 12. Enter one Jozy Altidore.

Only 19 years old, Altidore is the star of the U.S. National Team. A physical phenomenon in a sport filled with diminutive players, Altidore is a fast, tall, powerful beast of a striker. At 16 years old, Altidore made his debut for the New York Red Bulls, the youngest player in the history of Major League Soccer, before being sold to Spanish club Villareal in the largest deal in MLS history (£10m transfer fee … and if you were wondering, push and hold Alt-0163 and you can type the pounds sign … anytime you want! £!). Altidore is currently on loan at Premier League side Hull City (guess where Hull is from?).

Let’s call Jozy “The Exception.” Why was he given a chance to play professional football at 16 years old in America
as an American? Normally, Americans have no problem with young players in our leagues as long as they’re foreign. Tony Parker was lauded for his skill at age 19. Wayne Rooney was worshipped from afar once he joined Manchester United by Americans who didn’t care how old he was. Dominican and Cuban baseball players flood the major leagues with birth certificates from Chuck E Cheese. And yet Jeremy Tyler leaving high school early to go play pro basketball in Europe caused nationwide uproar. Know what people in Europe thought about Tyler leaving?

So what? Let’s see the kid play.

But Jozy is the wild card. He played his youth football in America. Somehow ended up in New York at 16. Somehow ended up in Spain’s La Liga, widely considered one of (if not
the) best leagues in the world. Somehow ended up in the Premier League at the brink of an American explosion this season. There are more Jozy Altidores out there, and there will be more Jozy Altidores out there, but only if we throw up a middle finger to the broken system of and start building professional athletes when they’re ready, not when the system decides they should be. Let them sign for great teams, learn from great managers and teammates, let them grow with experience and adversity … don’t coddle them, tell them they’re pretty, and that they’re heroically indestructible. While our high school and college athletes are accepting bribes, skipping classes, letting friends take their SATs, all while still being told they’re perfect, international athletes from South America to Europe are being put through the ringer by professionals who want to challenge them and make them complete athletes. It’s time for Major League Soccer to catch up. It’s time to unleash more Jozy Altidores on the world.

And get rid of the draft … as I mentioned earlier. Whew.

HINDSIGHT IS ALWAYS 20/20 … EXCEPT IN MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER

On August 17, 2009, David Beckham, the English legend, Los Angeles Galaxy star, and “savior” of the MLS was red-carded for a nasty studs-up tackle against former teammate and friend Peter Vagenas, a midfielder for the Seattle Sounders.

It was a stupid foul, an instant red card in any league across the globe, and despite Beckham’s misguided post-game protests that he’d never do something to his mate Pete, Beckham grabbed his well-earned bullhorn and shouted at the massive elephant in the room: Major League Soccer referees are terrible.

“Pete’s one of my best friends. It was a hard tackle but by no means a red card. But, that’s the inconsistency we have got with some of the officials in the league,” British newspaper The Sun quoted Beckham as saying. “I’ve never gone into a tackle wanting to hurt someone, but the referee saw it differently.”

It’s not even funny anymore. When former Arsenal legend and Swedish international superstar Freddie Ljungberg joined Seattle Sounders FC this summer, the phantom whistles and consistent no-calls on blatant fouls elicited a bewildered grin on his chiseled Scandinavian chin (Scandinavians are inherently more attractive than anyone else). The season waned on, Ljungberg kept getting fouled, kept looking for the referee to protect him from technically-inferior players who were trying to keep up with him by putting him on the grass, and his mood changed. He started getting combative, with both the fouling players and the referees. Yellow cards started showing up in Ljungberg’s face. The crime? Dissent. Then the yellows turned to red cards. This time for running in to protect his teammates, running in to tell the ref one of our players just got punched in the back of the head. The MLS referees, stoic as a roadkill raccoon, simply told him to walk away. Ljungberg wouldn’t.

Another yellow.

Another red.

Another ban.

“There was nothing after the first yellow,” Ljungberg said after a game that saw him sent off with two quick, successive yellow cards. “You could see that I go down on the side, away from him. I got suspended because of that. It was my fifth yellow so I got pissed off about that. I knew what he is like. He’s been fretting me the whole game. I hit my chest and made conscious to not scream anything abusive at him. And then I hear some whistles behind me. But, I have got to just rise above it. I can’t control him. Like I said, that’s the way it is.

“It’s an important game and there were a lot of things wrong in that game, things that players from the other team were laughing behind his back sometimes. It’s not the way a game should be. If I would not have cared, if I would have just walked away and didn’t care, I wouldn’t care to win the game. And that’s not me. I always want to win.”

It was nice having you for a season, Freddie, thanks for trying …

Refereeing in Major League Soccer is a plague, a walking plague of red-shirted zombies destroying, ravaging the appeal of the league and the flow of the football. It’s not just the unnecessary bookings or the complete distaste for understanding the rules of the game, the fact that the referees aren’t doing their primary job – protecting the players – causes the deepest unrest.

The referee needs to set the tone in a match. If someone tosses in a nasty tackle on a player early in the match, he can’t be afraid to show a yellow. What that does is let everyone else on the field know that overly aggressive tackles, tackles that put players at risk, aren’t going to be tolerated throughout the match without repercussions. What
actually is happening is that referees are setting the tone “anything goes” to start a match, and then reversing course minutes later with little rhyme or reason. What was just overlooked suddenly becomes an instant red card. What was just considered a dive suddenly becomes a penalty.

Consistency is to MLS refs as __________ is to grizzly bears.

And when the referees are inconsistent, players become hesitant, players make bad challenges, and, in the end, players like Ljungberg either end up with broken legs or their own incomprehensible bookings. When the stars of your league, guys who sacrificed bigger paychecks from bigger teams in Europe to come to MLS, end up as the brunt of a sensy-poo referee’s bad hair day, those players are going to stop coming to our league. They will. I promise you. Players want to be protected, want to have the freedom to actually run 30 yards without a defender stomping their Achilles tendons from behind, and if they don’t have that type of security and reassurance, they’ll simply leave.

And if one star leaves because of the referees, the league might as well bend over and touch its toes.

But
rectifying mistakes is equally as important as not making them. In England, if a player receives a head-scratching yellow or red card, the team can appeal to the governing body of the league to review the alleged incident and repeal a card or shorten a ban. Players have had red cards rescinded, and as such, one game bans removed as well, when the governing body determined the referee had a lapse in judgment. Players have also been banned longer than a traditional red card ban, like when Matthew Taylor of Birmingham City was given a three-match ban for the leg-breaking tackle he performed on Arsenal striker Eduardo over a year ago (that ban should’ve been a helluva lot longer … but I digress).

You
have to let the referees make split-second decisions on the field without an immediate review getting in the way, you have to maintain the flow of the game in the heat of the moment even if, in hindsight, a call may not have been perfect. If I have to sit through one more flipping NFL challenge review I’m going to pull out my eyes and fill my eye-sockets with peanut M&Ms. Get rid of the stupid “booth” the head official goes under to review a challenged play, get rid of the three minutes of split-screen torture, and have an extra official upstairs, surrounded by 15 monitors all with different views of the play on them, and let him make the decision the second the play happens. The NFL took a decent idea and ruined it with a dog and pony show. The NFL-style replay causes the game to come to a screeching halt, and in a sport like football (soccer), the flow of the game is vitally important to the outcome. As they say, the game must go on.

Human error isn’t always a bad thing. But is becomes a bad thing when it impacts beyond the initial moment, and without a review board to posthumously review questionable bookings or questionable non-bookings, the human error of MLS referees ruins both current and future games.

Sigi Schmid, head coach of Seattle Sounders FC, spoke of the refereeing standards under cloak and dagger after a July 25, 2009 game against the Chicago Fire that saw Ljungberg ejected from the game with a heinous red card.

“Obviously they got the red card on the foul from behind and I just had the feeling, I told our coaches on the bench, that somewhere, somehow today we’re going to get a red card. It was going to happen. I’m not going to go into it because I’m going to get into trouble if I go into it. It was a decision by the referee. I noticed he had a nice chat at halftime with Blanco. He was walking away and (Cuauhtemoc) Blanco called him back and he turned around. It was tough for me to get a word in but he found time for Blanco at halftime.

“I think when you look at the NBA and some other sports that are around, there’s a certain respect factor that’s given to an established player. And when you look at the game internationally I think the same thing happens. Obviously there was respect given to some of the experienced players on the field, unfortunately they weren’t in a green uniform. I don’t know what he said. I asked the referee what he said and would not go into it. He just said it was too much, and I said well, what was it, and he said, it was too much.

“I thought there were a number of fouls, they committed tactical fouls. When you look at a play where (Peter) Vagenas steals the ball right in front of our box and is starting to break out, and (Chris) Rolfe pulls him back by the shirt. That’s a tactical foul, stopping a counter attack and there’s no yellow card given. That to me makes no sense. It’s obvious to see he realizes his team is going to be short-handed so he’s going to give a foul away, a foul I thought was a card in that particular case. That’s why I get confused sometimes. I thought our guys - (Fredy) Montero and (Freddie) Ljungberg - continued to get fouled, all defenders are the same it’s not going to be any different.”

What makes this story even more intriguing is the fact that MLS refs have been suspended and disciplined from accepting player jerseys after a game (including Blanco’s … weird, huh?), allowing play to go on when players are seriously injured on the field, and for not being able to pass fitness tests to keep up with the pace of the game.

Coaches doubting the referees before the game even starts? Star players ejected for blowing on an opposing player too hard? The face of the league, David Beckham, questioning the consistency of refereeing?

I wonder if Tim Donaghy will be available to do MLS games when he’s released from prison …

THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE AMERICAN MEDIA

There’s no doubt ESPN, the Goliath of sports media, doesn’t have much room on the programming schedule for slingshot-wielding Major League Soccer fans. With poker, softball, the kiddie-porn that is the Little League World Series, and a host of self-congratulating, self-flatulating Sportscenters and Sportsnations, it’s quite surprising that ESPN finds any time at all to broadcast
actual sports.

There’s also no doubt that ABC, an ESPN-partner and primetime juggernaut, has too many Saturday and Sunday night TV movies to show to carve out space for an “MLS Game of the Week!”

The American media is just too darn busy to bother covering a minor-league sport like Major League Soccer. I thought it’d be interesting, on any given day, to see what kinds of stories and shows are getting force-fed into the sports fan’s mouth these days, because everyone keeps reminding us that, despite record attendance for MLS newcomers Seattle Sounders FC, higher average attendance than the majority of NBA teams last year throughout the league, and a rapidly growing and appreciative fanbase stretching across the globe, there’s just no interest in “soccer” these days. Personally, I’m used to English journos, where David Beckham twisting an ankle or getting red-carded is a national story in every paper, magazine, and television show. I’m used to the Spanish
government planting sports stories in an attempt to woo players to Spain to help a president get elected. I prefer a … watered-down version of that sort of disruptive football fanaticism, but regardless, at least they care. So let’s just see what the “American sports media” cares about these days.

“Tequila plans to meet with DA in Merriman case.” Probably a good idea.

“Can Slice cut it?” Awesome headline guys …

“Derek Jeter is about to take over the Yankees' hit record, but can you name his at-bat tune?” Dude looks like a lady?

“UFC 107 takes shape without Rampage.” GRRRRR! MASCULINITY!

“Judge ponders rejecting both bids to buy coyotes.” We’re reporting pondering now?

“Knicks offer LeBron cable channel?” We are all witnesses … to the downfall of American sports.

Not a single front-page story about Major League Soccer on any of the major sports media Web sites. I get
more MLS coverage from overseas Web sites than I do in my own country, and frankly, that has to change. It’s not that people don’t like football, it’s that they just don’t know it. When a game does end up on TV, you’re forced to listen to bad announcers who don’t show you the intricacies of the game. I was listening to an interview with Alexi Lalas, former U.S. national defender, former L.A. Galaxy director of football, and current ESPN TV analyst. Lalas, one of the few solid ESPN announcers, said, “What makes soccer intriguing is what happens off the ball.”

Seeing a guy start a run toward the box from 60 yards out, with no idea if he’ll ever even get a pass, is a thing of absolute beauty. But most people in our country would never notice something like that, not because they don’t like the sport or care about the sport, but because they haven’t been indoctrinated into the culture, the vocabulary, the
essence of what makes football so incredible to watch. They haven’t been shown what it’s like to watch a player, in the waning moments of an exhausting match, sprinting down the flank with the ball at his feet, a defender chasing him but somehow not keeping pace, weaving through a centreback who comes over for cover, and slotting a shot past the goalkeeper at an impossible angle. The sheer skill and brilliance of plays like that happen in every single match, on and off the ball, whether the terrible announcers are talking about it or not. The American sports media is solely to blame for the veiled disinterest from sports fans.

Major League Soccer officials need to end that. End the enigma. Open the Ark of the Covenant and show everyone what’s inside. Work with the ownership group to sign massive TV contracts, both in America and abroad, to show as many MLS games as possible on whichever networks will take the plunge. Put Major League Soccer on in Europe at 3 a.m. Put Major League Soccer on in South America and Mexico. Work out a deal with Japanese and Chinese networks to broadcast MLS games at random hours of the day. Let the culture of the sport seep into the minds of the youth of the world, but even more importantly, the youth of America. If a young, talented, athletic kid happens to stumble on yet another ESPN game of the week (one is not enough) and becomes inspired, Jozy Altidore is no longer “The Exception,” LeBron James is no longer a basketball player, and the U.S. national team is no longer an afterthought at the World Cup.

We must
breed football into our society. The media must teach our nation about the game. And we must support our teams and our league with unbridled fervor and passion. Lead by example. Leave no doubt in the minds of the fence-sitters whether they should or should not watch Major League Soccer. This league has potential, the potential to be a major player on the international scene, but it mustn’t be stagnant. Our leaders must innovate, they must replicate the best, and they must celebrate, with the American sports media and Americans sports fans alike, the beautiful game.

Football has the power of hundreds of years of history on its side, but Major League Soccer has the power to learn from the successes and failures of history without having to wait for it to happen.

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