The Colombians Said What?

As the New England Revolution prepare for a Wednesday night clash with the Colorado Rapids there are questions about tactics, lineups and what we can expect to see out on the plastic pitch of Gillette Stadium.

Among the lineup questions, the introduction and integration of the new international players is key among them, and as far as this blog is concerned, there’s a clear interest in the status and progress of our new Colombian signings and if we should expect to see more of them.

According to revolutionsoccer.net John Lozano has seen 90 minutes of 2012 action, Fernando Cárdenas has seen 138 minutes, and Jose “Pepe” Moreno has seen 165 minutes after his late arrival.  This compares to 540 minutes for rookie Kelyn Rowe, for one possible comparison of a player you would think should be fighting for playing time.

So while the verdict is out on these players, there was clearly a reason they were brought in and there remains a hope that they will help right a ship that has seen three straight losses. What adds to the mystique around these players (especially Pepe “I’m coming… No, I’m not coming… I’m here” Moreno) is that the fans never hear from or about them.  I don’t recall a feature article, video or any quotes of significance, in English or Spanish that provides much insight. (So much for that Latin community outreach…)

All this made it very interesting to see (clearly unscripted) videos of Moreno and Cárdenas from the visitor’s locker room at Red Bull Arena in NJ. Of course, these videos follow a frustrating loss, so all commentary comes with that important backdrop, but certainly the comments add some level of insight that wasn’t there before.

I’m not about to provide word-by-word translations because a) the audio is terrible, b) my Spanish is pretty darn good, but not perfect, and most importantly, c) I’m not paid nearly enough for this to spend that much energy.  So remember, aside from a few quick quotes, this is NOT VERBATIM.

So, without further adieu, here’s a most unusual Soccer Soap Box posting…

Of the points that Pepe Moreno talks through, here are the most interesting to me.

He touched on the team’s lack of energy/drive early on in the game that led to a goal (“we started practically asleep“) which was addressed by the coach.

When talking about the team’s inability to break down a Red Bull team that he called “worthy of respect” but also “vulnerable”, he suggested that it was mostly due to the lack of communication, “tranquility” (ability to slow down the game), and better thinking with the ball.

He suggests that the team was (as the advertisements promise) looking to attack, but that it lacked a vocal attacking leader to communicate and organize the team around the effort. He suggested that instead of making the killer passes they ended up playing it sideways, back and “kicking it all over the place” which didn’t allow them enough attacks to create the goals they needed. [Note: Sounds like a any forward looking for better service to feed off of, no?]

A leading question follows this, that asked: are you missing a leader on the field or off the field, or both? His answer is both, and that there are errors to correct for both “us” in attack and defense. [Not sure what to make of that one.]

The interviewer turns the questioning to the fact that though Moreno was the last of the Colombian players to arrive, he’s been getting the most playing time, and for his thoughts on this. Moreno suggests that it’s complicated and that he’s been where they are and it takes time. He notes that they had not played outside of Colombia before, and that these situations are something to be expected and you just need to continue to work hard.

The interviewer asks what the Coach is asking of the players such that they will see the field. Moreno largely dodges this question, but basically offers that here, everyone works hard, the type of work is very different than in Colombia. He suggests that the team is a good group, but only needs to be calmer on the field and more organized. However, he quickly notes that this is very typical of teams in the United States, and not only an issue for the Revolution.

He also suggests that he was familiar with the league before arriving, since there are many Colombians here already, and that he was glad to get a goal already to add to his confidence, thought he still needs to adjust to the MLS game.

[Note: Then, we get to what the team has inexplicably not provided us despite such noise and confusion in the fanbase: what was the deal with your wanting to come then not wanting to come?  How the team didn’t come up with a well scripted version of this and get it out to friendly media to answer any critics is beyond me and a major oversight.]

Moreno says he that he did reconsider joining MLS.  He wanted to come when they called him because he wanted another chapter in his career and already followed the league because of the all of the Colombians here.  Moreno thought it would be a something interesting and different.

Then Once Caldas made it clear that it didn’t want him to leave and “they were very happy with me, and though I had an injury I was recovering well.”  Later, when he was back with his family [visiting?] and was calm/happy, he started thinking maybe he shouldn’t leave Colombia. In the end though, it was his decision (not the local club’s) and so he came.

He ends saying that he’s here to work, and that if the team doesn’t get it done, he needs to do the work to pull his load and get the victories.

There was much less to cover in the recording of Fernando Cárdenas, and what jumped out more than the words on his video was the overall sense that he is clearly yearning to get on the field and prove himself. He’s never played for a club outside of Colombia and probably worried about making the impact he thinks he can… especially after watching the Revolution lose a few games because of a sputtering killer instinct.

Of course, none of this on its own means any player should see the field because they have that desire, but it puts the plight of young internationals that join MLS into an interesting perspective.

Cárdenas says that it was a complicated game, one where the Red Bulls got an early goal and the Revolution simply could not break them down, and that hopefully with hard work every day we’ll do better and hopefully see the field and make the team, “because, of course, us foreigners and everyone are hoping to see the field.

Cárdenas quickly says that lineups are the coach’s decision, he respects the coach’s decision and that you need to work hard everyday so that you can respond when you get the chance.

Asked about how he feels about the style of play in the league now that he’s playing in it, he says its very competitive, but more “hit and run” than the Colombian league.

The (very difficult to understand) last question poked at whether he was sorry to have come here, and though clearly disappointed to not see the field, he said now, that it’s in gods hands and he’ll keep moving forward.

So there you have it… now have your say.

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Why Colombia?

Anyone who has read anything on Soccer Soap Box pretty quickly sorts out that I am a US Soccer supporter (and occasional complainer.) But after the United States, the country that gets the most coverage here is undoubtedly Colombia. Colombia is, after all, my adopted-by-marriage second country.

I’ve also been over-sharing Colombian related ideas lately because I was recently visiting the country (my ninth such visit if my math is correct) at the same time as my local team the New England Revolution was adding two and a half Colombian players and MLS is seeing an influx of Colombian talent. It was my perfect storm. (Oh, and two and a half players? Ask a Revs fan.)

Having also had the luck of taking in the Colombian season’s opening weekend at the Bogotá derby between Millonarios F.C. (the prevalent favorite amongst the in-laws) and Independiente Santa Fe (where “new” cousin Andres is a serious “hincha”), I was tweeting away about Colombian soccer.

Now, I am not an expert on Colombian soccer but I do pay some level of attention to it. Then an innocent enough tweet from Twitter bud Jim, came in, and has been logged in my psyche ever since.

I sent some quick thoughts from Colombian vacation about the similarity in types of soccer that are played and the players’ desire for stability, but figured it might be worth a few more thoughts here, since others must be wondering the same thing.

**Knowing that my research is far from complete, please share your thoughts, challenges and color commentary to what you are about to read. I’m interested in thoughts.**

Is The Cafetero’s Influence on MLS Real?

First, let’s set some context. Is there really a significant weighting of Colombian players, or are recent news items simply messing with our perspective?

A quick scan of mlssoccer.com shows that 28 “active” MLS players are listed as having been born in Colombia. (Yes, this includes Colombian-born American players. The same logic will apply to other countries below because, look, I have a day job… let’s just get some context.)

So how does this number compare? As for other South American countries that might seem like logical comparisons, consider these contributions: Brazil = 18. Argentina = 7. Uruguay = 5. Chile = 4. Venezuela = 3.

How about some of the theoretically less expensive Central American markets? Costa Rica = 9. Honduras = 4. Panama = 3. Guatemala and El Salvador, one a piece. And the much pricier Mexican market currently shows a contribution of eight players.

For some perspective, six more active MLS players are born in Colombia than were born in Canada, where MLS actually has multiple teams. And there are more Colombian-born players than the combined contributions from France, England and Germany.

MLSSoccer.com may not offer the perfect data set, but it is clear that there is a strong Colombian influence in MLS right now.

But why?

Certainly, it’s a multi-dimensional issue, but at the center of everything is how Colombian soccer’s past is affecting its present and future.

A Look Back Into The Cloud.

Most people need no reminder of Colombia’s difficult past. Violence was a societal norm for many years, fueled by leftist guerrillas and money drenched drug lords. While there are still challenges, luckily much has changed. I’ve seen much of it with my own eyes. Over the last dozen or so years of visiting, it’s hard to comprehend how much more “normal” life has become in the country. Progress continues and is imperfect, but compared to the struggles that existed a couple decades ago, Colombia is blossoming.

But in soccer terms, the same cannot be said. In fact, in no other country has the relationship to soccer investment/success and overall well-being of the country been so inversely related.

The better, and more lawful, the country becomes the harder it has become for soccer, because the growth of Colombian soccer was largely fueled by the exuberant investments of narcissistic drug lords, who turned professional soccer teams into personal trophies.

This is much more difficult, if not impossible, in today’s Colombia where drug cartels are on the run and money laundering is taken seriously. But the after-effects of these investments, both positive (in soccer-terms) and negative are easy to see, and directly related to why MLS is finding Colombia a fertile fishing hole for top talent.

The Cloud Darkens.

MLS, not unlike the Colombian league in the 80s and 90s, is filled with rich benefactors. These benefactors have determined much of the success, or survival, of the league. There is, however, a business distinction. (Aside from the obvious “moral” distinctions of how many of the Colombian owners were very, very bad people.)

By and large, the MLS investors appear realize that they will need to lose money initially for a hopeful windfall somewhere down the line, and the league (whether regarding single-entity or salary caps) has been built to support careful, logical growth.

Those that spent the “black money” of the drug world in Colombian soccer were little concerned about what profits they would see, or when they might come. They wanted to have a legal-looking way to launder money, and they wanted to fuel their ego trips with Champion teams. The cash-transaction-heavy flow of ticket sales was a perfect way to get money flowing in and out of their illegal enterprises. The biggest clubs were fueled by incoming drug money, and ticket sales created a fast and loose way to launder that money (with easily bloated attendance numbers to make tracking difficult.)

They had no real reason to create alternative sources of team income. Now, in countries with smaller TV markets and a public that is perhaps less able to buy $120 team jerseys, this is a perennial problem, but thoughtful teams can do what’s possible to diversify themselves. With the deep pockets of the drug-cartel owners, and the appreciation for the easily falsified revenue streams that ticket sales produced, Colombian teams never bothered.

(As an aside, imagine an attempt at a single entity league in those times, with those owners? Ouch.)

So, not surprisingly, when the drug money (thankfully) became scarce, the teams were very ill-prepared to self-finance. Ticket sales remained the key source of revenue.

Much of this crystalized for me as I was reading an interesting article in La República on the flight back from our recent Colombian visit. It was an interview with Felipe Gaitán Tovar, the newly announced President of Millonarios F.C. as he took his new position from a role totally outside of local sports. His focus (on top of the needed-to-be-said – and obvious – hunt for the next Championship) was an interest in getting the team on better financial footing, and even issuing a second round of local stock. After admitting that the team was too reliant on ticket sales for income, he explained that his prime objectives included diversifying the team’s revenue streams, leveraging the brand and consolidating sponsorships. He also discussed looking to find ways to increase attendance at games, and much is being done to better control ultras, market games and appeal to a broader fan base. (For an English link, this Microsoft-translated version works pretty well: here.)

To understand the stark reality of a business model dependent on ticket sales in Colombia, understand this… today’s first division Colombian league would gladly accept the average MLS attendance figures, in fact, it would be a significant improvement, even in some of the larger markets. I’ve found it difficult to find any reliable attendance figures, but in a great Economist article (that highlights some of the themes I write about here) league attendance is shown to have fallen from an average of 15,423 in 1991 to just 8,099 “last year” (presumptively the 2010 campaign given the date of the article.)

Despite a healthy attendance at the game I recently attended, featuring two teams from the Capitol city on the season’s first weekend, conversations with locals suggest even regular games for the smaller of the Bogotá clubs are lucky to see ten thousand fans. Now imagine what the clubs well outside of the very large city see. Presumptively, that number of 8,099 is, if anything, flattering the league. For this weekend’s smaller-market games, some attendance figures found in El Tiempo, the largest of the Colombian daily papers, were between 2,000 and 3,500.

It’s a harsh reality, and a very big drop off outside of the top clubs.

The Cloud’s Silver Lining.

Believe it or not, however, there are a number of upside benefits to the Colombian teams’ spending-spree pasts and need for a more secure future that make the league a very interesting market MLS (or others seeking players.)

However irresponsible, the past spending sprees successfully created great soccer teams, infrastructure and youth programs. The investments in these teams might not have held much water in terms of building a long-term sustainable business model in terms of revenue generation, but the owners did want to win and would pay (and perhaps do much worse) to get that success.

Need a better place to practice? Fine. Need a way to groom youth teams? Fine. Just win, no excuses.

All this investment, and success, created an infrastructure in the largest clubs and an expectation of great soccer all throughout the country that persists today. Which maybe be a reason you tend to see that most Colombian teams are filled with Colombian players. This is both because they have the capability to find and groom young players, but also that they lack the money to be significantly active buyers of foreign talent. Of course, there’s a sprinkling of other foreign players in the mix, but by and large it is a local talent base.

So what you have today are high expectations and decent infrastructure to find and groom players (by luxury in the richer clubs, and necessity in the smaller clubs), contrasted by low attendance, poor business model readiness and an increasing need to find alternative ways to pay the bills.

Less Money, No Less Expecation.

All in all, this means that Colombians maintain a high standard for what they expect to see in their local soccer teams. They grew up with World Class soccer, and don’t want to hear that a cleaned up league means lesser standards of what is on the field. (Though it most certainly does.) The larger clubs have a decent infrastructure to groom players, and an ability to leverage their attendance and sponsorship advantages to quickly buy promising players from small clubs.

But those large clubs still need to grow, and one manner to do so is to sell players. MLS has no lock on the Colombian market, but it increasingly is seen as a good market for these players. With many Colombian stars having jumped to Europe only to bounce back home fairly quickly, there seems to be a hope that MLS offers a good compromise of style, security and broader exposure for these players to be “re-sold” to larger leagues, without the harsh blow-back that so many foreign players get from a stint in Europe.

In order to leverage the hope that MLS will showcase their talent more broadly, you’ll see the Colombian teams agree to loan-to-buy arrangements that include an agreement that if MLS is to sell that player on for a windfall within a pre-determined amount of time, the initial Colombian sellers see a percentage of that second sale. (A thought that seemed reasonable with established international player agent Michael Wheeler.)

One could surmise that this was why Independiente Santa Fe was interested in renegotiating their deal with the Portland Timbers when it became clear that Jose Adolfo Valencia, who was expected to be an impactful young Colombian import, needed knee surgery that would take him out for the year. Not only did they need to amend the loan section, but they may have wanted to extend a sell-on clause as well. (Nothing that specific was said, I’m solely making some presumptions.)

MLS offers Colombian teams and players an opportunity for broader promotion, organized (if not the richest) business practices and a sense of stability. It also offers a successful track record of ensuring Colombian successes, either in the form of established star players doing well (Valderamma, Alvarez, etc.), young starts excelling (Fredy Montero) and players coming, doing well and being sold to other leagues (Juan Toja.)

Alternatively, MLS sees Colombia as offering an ability to find and groom skillful players, teams willing (or needing) to negotiate to get deals done, and an increasingly easy place to see players. Seeing a talented African player is a bit trickier than the one-stop Jet Blue flights through Orlando I took to get to Colombia.

Other Factors.

All the above structural reasons help explain the increase in Colombian participation in MLS, but there are more sporting ones as well. Here also, I do not proclaim expertise, but can suggest that even I fall on pretty tired stereotypes of the slower, more skillful soccer played in Colombia. There is some truth in that perspective, but in the limited views of the league I’ve had lately there is also a physicality that suggests many of their players will not be in any way overwhelmed by play in MLS.

Presuming that element has been growing, it’s a good thing. Not, of course, because I hope the Colombian league gets more physical and less skill oriented, but that I sense they could never lose the desire to see creativity and quick, interchanging passing.

What’s Next?

The main challenge to MLS continuing to scoop up Colombian talent isn’t going to be a lack of Colombian talent or interest in making deals, but more likely the fact that other professional leagues will step up their own efforts to grab that talent. Mexico, always a reasonable destination for star Colombians, is a market that could steal talent otherwise destined for MLS. And Carlos Bacca, who was among the League’s leading scorers in 2010/2011 just signed in Belgium, so MLS is not the only group watching these players.  Perhaps he’s that league’s Fredy Montero?

Given that, hopefully the solid pipeline will continue, but it will only get more challenging to get the best players on our fields. I’ll share some other thoughts on the Colombian league and how other regional leagues line up as options for MLS talent in post very soon.

The Revolution’s Words, Actions And Colombians

To kickoff 2012, my first (and only) blog entry centered on a plea for the New England Revolution to be “blog worthy” in 2012.  A hope that it would “show the fanbase how big the Revolution dream is, and steps you are taking to achieve it.”

Given a week of activity, I’m concerned the team still cannot explain the vision of the team’s future the way I’d like, but its actions actually give me hope.

The two news items of note are the addition of two reasonably young Colombian players (Fernando Cárdenas and John Lozano from América de Cali) and two additions from the MLS SuperDraft (Kelyn Rowe and Tyler Polak.)

For most of us, the addition of four players is news enough to get the chatter going. However, I’ll admit (as I have along the way on this blog) that despite being a full-blooded, US Men’s National team supporter, I have a particular soft-spot for Colombian players and Colombia generally. So my heart fluttered just a bit more than might have been necessary. It also led to my latest team suggestion, so read on…

First, I’d like to personally thank the team for bringing these players in to appease yours truly. Clearly, the fact that the team added two Colombians a couple days after I plead for news-worthiness means they were reading the blog, knew my Colombian soft-spot and jumped at the opportunity to please me.

OK, perhaps not.

But the fact that one of my fondest, foreign soccer adventures was going with my brother and family-in-law to a Millonarios vs. Tolima match at “El Campín” (quick clips here and here), and that I’m a couple weeks from my next visit to my adopted second country, means I may well overstate my impact and the likely impact of these players on the team.

So, with my biases stated, I’ll do my best to avoid hyperbole.

The reality is that the Colombia’s First Division is not the league it once was. With clubs that were once the hobby of ridiculously wealthy drug kingpins in the late eighties and early nineties, the main teams of the league “benefited” from an influx of ill-gotten cash to fund player acquisitions and operations. (A trade-off none of us should want for the country or league to revisit.)

Despite the change in stature, the league continues to produce, and provide MLS with, quality players that tend to have strong ball skills, a creative outlook and impressive composure. In Colombia, the game is typically played at a slower pace, with a greater emphasis on skill, passing and even (gasp) dribbling capabilities. These are not the skills we are used to from our own youth development efforts here in MLS and US Soccer.

Of course, the same can be said of other leagues as well, but there appears to be an ongoing clearance sale on Colombian talent, with MLS being a primary shopper. Until Colombian professional clubs start seeing better success in pan-South American competitions, this will likely continue, and MLS would be wise to keep an eye out for continued discounts.

I know very little about these new players, so I will not venture to estimate their upcoming fortunes in MLS and with the Revolution, but the fact that the first foreign additions new head coach Jay Heaps and “revitalized” team management have made were Colombian, young (Lozano is 27, Cárdenas is 23) and yet have experience in tense first-division soccer, is a good step.

That one is a creative attacker and the other a stout central defender and the team also gets credit for shoring up two of its weak spots as it readies for the 2012 season.

The team still has some significant shortcomings though, which brings us to last week’s MLS SuperDraft.

I’m less of a draft-junkie as some of my compatriots (which is pretty obvious when you listen to my fumbling on The Midnight Ride podcast from earlier this week…) but there were a couple things any Revolution-watcher knew going-in.

First, the team needed strikers. (Among other positions that also needed addressing.)

Second, the team had the highest pick it’s seen in quite a while.

At least in Revolution terms, expectations were high and interest was intensified.

The results? Pretty darn good.

Now, “pretty darn good” might not sound like ticker-tape parade stuff to most people, but in Revolution country, team followers will worry about more than “pretty darn good” after it once again provs an ability to hit that low-bar with consistency. At this point, local supporters have become realists.

Now, there are questions to ask, as the major gap for a “pure-forward” went unfulfilled. But two solid, Generation adidas players with US Youth National Team pedigree were added. Forgetting everything else, the Generation adidas status of these players is a major coup. Players in this program bring two major benefits, 1) they have already signed with MLS and 2) their salaries do not cost against the team’s salary cap.

Without even delving into the players’ skill-sets and credentials (which are solid), these facts point to a – dare I say it – savvy draft strategy – and make even critics forgive the lack of a pure forward.

First, the team needs players, and it knows it. The fact that there is no negotiation with these players (as they have already signed with the league), there is no risk of losing them to the lure of a European dream, among other distractions.

While to a casual onlooker this could seem trivial, contrast it against the fact that only one (Clyde Simms) of the team’s three Re-Entry Draft selections has signed so far, with both Nate Jaqua and Danleigh Borman apparently still deciding what direction their soccer futures will take, and the pre-signed nature of these Generation adidas picks seems like a wise move.

Second, the team knows it needs room under its salary cap to bring in the players needed to become competitive again. To that end, the Revolution have cleared out high-priced European imports, given Designated Player status to Shalrie Joseph (which, based on the sometimes counter-intuitive rules of MLS, means he’ll cost LESS against the salary cap) and have now added two promising young players for no-charge against the salary cap.

Savvy indeed.

Now, all this money-saving and movement toward skillful youth (Colombian or college) aside, the team still needs to figure out how to fill out the roster. That flickering of light of hope which is ever-present in the Revolution faithful should glow a bit brighter when it looks as the signs in front of them.

When Jay Heaps was appointed as the Revoltuion’s new coach, there were serious questions about what type of soccer local fans should expect to see. As Jay readily admits, his impressive playing career was highlighted by dedication and effort more than pure soccer skill.

But, in bringing in Kelyn Rowe, as opposed to a forward to fill in a glaring hole in the team’s roster, Jay Heaps noted that Rowe’s skill was “…important for us because we want to be a possession-oriented team and we want to keep the ball. He’s a player that can do it.” Interesting words.

If the team’s followers hadn’t heard Steve Nicol tell them for the last two years that the Revolution were looking for a “possession oriented style” – while delivering something quite a distance from that goal – it might be a bit more believable.

However, these early player additions – which on the surface seem to point toward creativity, youth and an acute understanding of MLS rules – might just point to a brighter future. This is the kind of surprise many have been waiting for, and were not expecting. Interesting actions.

The question will be, what will follow this promising beginning? Do these player acquisitions point to a different direction – potentially one that focuses more on soccer-skills and creativity and less on athleticism? I sincerely hope so.

Does Mr. Heaps have the chops to coach fluid, possession oriented soccer out of skillful, creative players? Good question.

The imminently likeable Mr. Heaps, likely realizing some of his own potential deficiencies, added “longtime U.S. Soccer coach and talent evaluator Jay Miller” who is known to be a savvy tactician and student of the game. Tactics are important, yes, but in US Soccer coaching ranks are far too frequently prioritized ahead of talent, rather than seen as an augmentation of that talent. Hopefully, that will not be the case with the Revolution.

But it’s clear that Mr. Heaps is still in the market for a second assistant coach. In my last blog, I continued chasing Colombian shadows with a pipe-dream that Leonel Álvarez would get a look for some type of coaching association with the team.

Other than his history of a brief stint as a Revolution payer and his recent ousting as Colombian National Team Coach, perhaps this was a reach. But I still like the idea of a Latin coach, one who brings Spanish (or Portuguese, I suppose) to the team. And considering our two recent South American additions, and the success the league has had with Colombian player acquisitions lately, a Colombian coach doesn’t seem like a reach. Of course, one that understands how to deal with younger talent sure would be a bonus given our recent moves and the high hopes around Diego Fagundez.

Whether I simply need to pull my head out of the clouds or not, I’m not quite ready to give up on my vision of a Colombian on the coaching staff for the Revolution. In fact, if there hasn’t been a call placed Wilmer Cabrera at this point, it’s a terrible oversight. He would bring a unique and extremely valuable addition to the staff, with almost too many positives to mention.

He’s a Colombian, with exceptional years at América de Cali where he won three Colombian championships. That is, of course, the same club from which our two new Colombian signings came from.

He has worked within, and is clearly familiar with, MLS as its one time “Manager of Fan Development.”

He brings a solid coaching record as both an assistant (Under 18 US Youth National Team) and as the head coach with the Under 17 US Youth National Team – with very good recent results – including a a 3-1 victory over Brazil in December.

He is likely already bringing a familiarity with some of the Revolution Youth Prospects from time they spent at the US Soccer residency program.

It was an article in Soccer America is what both excited me about this possibility and immediately worried me about its likelihood to come true.

Exciting because I knew all of the above areas that would seemingly bring a new and interesting addition to the Revolution sideline, and Wilmer is quoted in the article that he is “in conversation with an MLS club to try and join the staff and we’ll see.” Why not the Revolution?

Worrisome because while much has changed with the Revolution, and as we’ve seen here, some of that is very good news. But some oddities remain, like the team’s propensity for near over-the-top, hard-ball contract negotiations that sour ex-Players on the team and the process.

Unfortunately, despite his seemingly good record and positive momentum, this sounds eerily similar to Cabrera’s departure with US Soccer. From the Soccer America article we learn that he was offered what a much shorter contract than he had been accustomed to (and which would be the norm in the youth coaching ranks) and that he rejected it. “I had been working very well with the Federation but I couldn’t accept that offer. It wasn’t good enough for me or my family.”

Rajko Lekic would sympathize. Of course, Sunil Gulati, President of US Soccer, is just a “consultant” to the Kraft family now, right?

So, what we’ve learned this week is that the team has taken positive steps forward in terms of adding some apparently skillful players who have their best soccer still ahead of them. Jay Heaps and the team may still lack the ability to cohesively describe WHAT they plan to turn the Revolution into, but if actions speak louder than words, than I don’t see much to complain about.

And if the team wants to make a strong statement, I’d love to see a continuation of the Latin focus, the emphasis on technique and skill and the growth of young promising talent by adding someone like Wilmer Cabrera to the coaching staff.

It would also be an action that would speak louder than words about this team’s new direction, a lessening reliance on Mr. Gulati and a departure from whatever tactics have seemingly poisoned contract negotiations of the past.

Because as much fans want to hear the vision, but they will get excited by the actions.  Speak loudly Revs.

Dear Revolution: A 2012 Request

In the spirit of honesty, I can let you know that I’ve been writing the same Revolution-focused blog post for well over a week. It’s a long winding tale of where the team stands and what you might do differently from a business and marketing perspective. Goodness knows, I didn’t have the heart to also tackle on-field possibilities in the same post.

But there it sits… half developed, half logical, and quickly sliding down the “recent files” list in Microsoft Word.

Typically a post (aside from the sometimes-needed fact finding missions) take me an hour or so. Well, usually more as often I’m writing, falling asleep, writing, falling asleep…

Why is it taking so long this time? Well, there are many reasons (as there are for the frequently large gaps in posts of any type) they include having a family, a day job… basically, a life of priorities outside of soccer.

But there’s one other reason, and it ties to my primary request as we move into 2012.

Please, Revs, be blog-worthy.

Because as much as my life gets busy and can intrude on my soccer attention span, when there are things going on that can stir the imagination, it is not hard to write about you or the game I love.

Revolution faithful are bemoaning the lack of New England media attention for the team and sport they love (as they should!) but the reality is that “our team” consistently feeds the media cold shoulder by serving up lackluster news. The media could be more attentive, but you need to help them. While your fans are doing their part on Twitter by calling out local media for their inattentiveness, they can only hope that the team will help their cause.

I’m NOT “real” media… shoot, I’m barely a blogger during slow periods… but if I lose attention from time to time, how will the real media ever PAY attention? And it’s not that I’m falling out of love with the game. I wasn’t in France for the recent USA friendly because of a lack of love. In fact, the only reason I found time to write this was I woke up early mistakenly thinking there was a big game on at 8AM this morning. My bad.

So I’ll work on my issues, and hopefully you’ll work on yours. Otherwise, maybe I’ll need to figure out what the Boston Victory Soccer Club is all about. I mean the Victory already “Likes” the Soccer Soap Box Facebook page, someone over there must have good taste.

Or perhaps I could help promote the much-closer-to-home Worcester Hydra‘s longshot dream somehow.

Maybe.

But Revolution, it need not be this way. Newsworthy soccer is not an impossible dream. Your fans can see it happening all around you.

And it isn’t just big headlines that motivates the fan base. The whereabouts of Mr. Beckham and Mr. Henry are interesting topics, but it doesn’t need to be galactic news item to stir the imagination.

You need to show the fan base how big the Revolution dream is, and steps you are taking to achieve it.

Colorado wanted to change its style (and who would argue with that desire from them?), so they hired Óscar Pareja. He’s a Latin-trained, MLS veteran that is both seasoned professional and has coaching experience and a perspective to share. Despite having won a final recently, Colorado knows that standing still in MLS is really falling behind nowadays.

The Revolution hired Jay Heaps. I like Jay. I hope he’s successful. But which team made a bigger statement to soccer-people? Which was more convincing? Which let fans know how big the team dreams?

Oh, maybe you remember Óscar, he was a Revolution player at one point, so you probably interviewed him for your recent opening, right? Or, since you must be watching the Latin markets including the recent MLS talent hot-bed of Colombia, I presume that ex-Revolution star Leonel Álvarez got a look with all the recent turmoil in Colombia’s national team coaching ranks? We are dreaming that big, right?

(Now THAT would be quite the assistant coach or would have made a very interesting head coach if his English is up to par, not that I think he’d accept an assistant role with the Revolution… watch for him in Dallas though, who still seems to dream big.)

Speaking of Dallas, they wanted a goal scorer. They signed Blas Perez. Granted, Thierry Henry he’s not. But he is a big, skillful forward who can appeal to the constantly growing Latin fan-base, presumably fit into the attractive style of play Dallas has and who brings a name that USA fans remember for how we gave the USA National Team defenders fits in prior meetings.

The Revolution don’t want a goal scorer. You are desperate for one. (Or three.) Where’s the news? The only news so far is that our first ever Designated Player Milton Caraglio is probably already another club’s player and the conciliatory Rajko Lekic seems on the way out as well. Despite fan support for Lekic, neither set the league on fire, so it’s hard to attack you for starting fresh. But it is just as hard to see how this is addition by subtraction.

So, you’ve told us Mike Burns and Jay Heaps are looking at players. Hopefully they are newsworthy. At this point, let’s hope they are even “blog worthy.” Because when it comes to your fans, it’s well past time to feed the (news) hungry.

In 2012, please be blog worthy. Do it by showing us a dream and explaining your roadmap to get there. Otherwise, us dreamers will let our imaginations focus elsewhere.

Colombia: MLS Most Valuable Country 2010

At the end of the MLS 2010 season we find ourselves awash in end-of-season awards.   After some thought, I’ve decided to create one of my own… “Most Valuable Country 2010.” (MVC)  

OK, I’ll admit that I entered into this thinking with a certain bias.  I have two nations that are close to my heart – both in soccer-wise and otherwise – the USA and Colombia. 

Since this is an American league, dominated by American players, I excluded the USA. 

So I’ll admit it, I entered into this with the belief that my adopted second country had the inside track.  But, I did my best to be objective by sifting through the official roster lists and comparing country contributions.

(Note that the MLS official player roster “NATL” (nationality) breakdown was almost frustrating enough for me to forgo this whole idea… many players were listed according to where they were born… which is fine, but means very little in the international soccer world.   US International Pablo Mastroeni as Argentine?  Reggae Boy Andy Williams as Canadian?  Ugh.   So, when I talk about how many numbers of players come from these countries, please understand your mileage will vary.)

Here are a few thoughts…

Argentina makes a very strong case for being MVC as it brings ten players to the mix and two of them at least are top class in Javier Morales and Guillermo Barros Schelotto.   Add to those, the effective Fabian Espindola who was a solid contributor for Real Salt Lake, and a few other solid players, and you have a credible argument.   And, if the ability to play a pickup game against some of the other countries in the showdown mattered, they bring a decent goalkeeper in Dario Sala.

Brazil’s argument about its MVC candidacy is a strong one.   However, despite the undeniable depth and skillfulness of the MLS Brazilians, there are more role-players than stand-outs in that sixteen.  Geovanni, Fred, Miglioranzi , etc. … all good players, but – I don’t see too many superstars – at least not this year.

Jamaica offers an impressive array of talent.  Eleven MLS players are Jamaican internationals.   Omar Cummings and Donovan Rickets lead a very strong talent pool.   Andy Williams, Tyrone Marshall and Dane Richards all offer a glimpse into the strong role-players that Jamaica brings to bear in MLS.

Other honorable mentions go to Canada, Costa Rica and Ghana.  Canada, in particular, brings a dozen players, and Dwayne De Rosario is their clear standout.   Pat Onstad, Julian de Guzman and Will Johnson add some depth to the proceedings. 

Both Costa Rica and Ghana have seven MLS players with solid resumes.  Gonzalo Segares, Leo Gonzales and stellar newcomer Alvaro Saborio show the combination of skill and tenacity frequently displayed by better Costa Rican sides.   Patrick Nyarko, Dominic Oduro offer a taste of the speed and skill of Ghanian soccer.

But Colombia’s contribution trumps them all.

Starting in defense Jamison Olave, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Wilman Conde and Jair Benitez are top notch MLS defenders.

Colombia’s midfield contribution to MLS could have started and ended with David Ferreira and that would have been a strong enough argument right there.   Ferreira is quite possibly the best player in MLS this year, a thought shared by a just-defeated Landon Donovan after FC Dallas – with Ferreira pulling the string – ran up a three to zero victory.  

Colombia also provided us with Roger Torres, who shows significant potential – a potential Ferreira in the making?

At forward, Juan Pablo Angel and Fredy Montero are very different forwards, but both of them are inarguably among the top forwards in MLS.

So, emotion aside… I don’t see any real argument that (outside of the USA) Colombia was the country that brought the most to MLS this year. 

 Congratulations Colombia, Soccer Soap Box tips our sombrero vueltiao to you.   

Enjoy your phony award.

“Cero a Cinco” Caps a Long Soccer Weekend

Well, that was quite a weekend of soccer.   My eyes hurt.

“Cero a Cinco”

Surrounded as I am by a large Colombian family of in-laws, I understand and revel in the “Cinco a Cero” (5-0) hysteria that rang down as a high-note of 1994 World Cup Qualifying when Colombia downed Argentina by that score in Buenos Aires.   Any Colombian of the right age will remember that night, or at least remember the hang-over from the partying that ensued.   And why not?

I never expected that today’s Gold Cup final could be the flip side of that for the USA vs. Mexico. Since this wasn’t a World Cup Qualifier, it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as that Colombian victory . . . but Mexico really needed a victory like this against the US to set them back on the right path.  And I’m sure they are delirious South of the Border.  (Well, or in lots of places North of the border too, like Giants Stadium which looked like an Azteca preview party today.)

On Friday, I acknowledged that we didn’t yet know enough about our USA “B” team and that “. . . it’s Sunday against Mexico for the final where we’ll really learn something.”  Well, lesson learned.

Stepping back . . . a questionable penalty tilted the field toward the US goal and then the flood gates opened. The US team on that field is further away from the best 11 we’d start than the Mexican team was from their best eleven (since it certainly contained some first team starters.) And for good stretches of the match, the US looked as dangerous as Mexico.  At 0-5 though, none of that will matter, nor should it.

There is a bigger picture here, both in terms of the Gold Cup and the US v Mexico rivalry.

Gold Cup: As I noted on Friday, the pressure in the Mexico/Costa Rica Semi-Final was much higher than what the USA faced against Honduras – a representation of the fact that the USA’s group stages overall shouldn’t have been that hard to get through. Reaching the final inflated expectations which were brought down to earth in a hurry today. When we started this competition, everyone acknowledged this was NOT the best eleven for the USA but would provide an excellent growth opportunity and learning experience for a (mostly) young US Squad. Well, this is one lesson the players on that field won’t ever forget.

US v. Mexico: US fans have had it easy for a while. The USA has “owned” Mexico on our soil, beat them at the World Cup and overall had a pretty clear sense of superiority about them recently.  Is that real though? Are we better than Mexico? Probably need to define “better” . . . our best eleven can beat Mexico’s best eleven, we’ve proven that. But be it the National teams or club teams (as evidenced in Superliga, CONCACAF Champions League, etc.), what was proven today is that there remains a pretty serious experience gap after you dig deeper into the roster.

Again, I’ll avoid player ratings here, as there will be too many offering opinions already. I heralded Jay Heaps for his improved play after a rough start . . . if I were clairvoyant, I’d have begged him to take the accolades and run for the hills.  Missed opportunities in the final third and tackles that needed to be all or nothing but missed that mark were shared by many. Risks were inevitable after the team was a down by a couple goals  . . . but the disintegration of the back line screamed for experience. Too bad Jimmy Conrad’s bell was rung against Panama, he might have helped.

The real question is what will happen on August 12th in Mexico City. Can new found confidence push Mexico to leverage the Azteca advantage and romp once more?  Will the USA “first-eleven” feel the need for some “revancha” in Mexico and be even more motivated than they already were?

MLS Games

Funny things happen when the New England Revolotuion can get some of their better players (Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston) on the field.   They win.   I have a secret (and perhaps unreasonable) hope that this season has some potential left. Why? Based on no-data to prove this it seems to me that many teams which start out gangbusters tend to run out of luck (injuries) or otherwise lose their way by the playoffs, whereas the teams who work through early season injuries/issues are fresher and more focused come playoff time. Hmmm, perhaps all we need to do is sneak into the playoffs and keep recovering from injuries.

David Beckham played and even shook a fan’s hand, but he didn’t score.  His captain did.  Both were out done by the more than half-field goal by Claudio Lopez.

I didn’t see the Red Bulls / Colorado game, but I didn’t really have to, did I?  RBNY really is THAT bad.  Unfortunate for MLS.   Hysterical for a Revs fan.

World Football Challenge

I struggled to care about these games. How is it possible that some of the best teams in the world are visiting and I struggle to care?  Frankly, it’s sad to me that the crowds are coming out for a pre-season warm up “competition” in such numbers as to suggest they had no other soccer to watch in this country. I thought Taylor Twellman’s (whose team gets maybe a third of today’s crowd) tweet said it all “gosh I wish the stadium filled like this for OUR games be so cool.”   Yes, it would . . .

Taylor also tweeted on the joys of playing on natural grass. Which makes me wonder . . . if it is feasible to install a grass field for some of these one-off games is it really out of the question for MLS to do something for the part of their season that doesn’t conflict with the NFL?

As for the AC Milan / Inter Minal game, the idea that this game was anything like a true “derby” is laughable if I’m being generous. I’ve been to a European derby (Chelsea/Arsenal), a Brazilian Derby (Fluminense/Flamengo — OK, preseason, but still) and actually stood in the last row of Inter’s Ultras at the amazing San Siro.   The intensity of those games is hard to describe.   What happened at Gillette earlier today pre-season warm up with a little extra juice than the others we’ve seen in this tournament.  But not much more.