Mr. Bilello, I have Don Garber on Line One.

This was certainly an interesting week for MLS and US Soccer. We are gearing up for MLS Cup 2010. We saw a 17 year old score his first goal – a game winner no less – for the US National Team against South Africa. And Don Garber delivered his “State of the League” address.

I was already feeling vindicated that my 2010 Most Valuable Country award for Colombia was pushed further from reproach as David Ferreira won the 2010 Volkswagen MLS Most Valuable Player award. Added to Jamison Olave’s already announced MLS 2010 Visa Defender of the Year award, my pick was looking pretty solid.

Little did I know that during the 2010 MLS State of the League address MLS commissioner Don Garber would offer up some tidbits that would add to my burgeoning soccer blogger ego by hitting key points that Soccer Soap Box has been focused on for some time.

I thought Mr. Garber hit some key points during his address that many fans knew were necessary – including an improved and re-launched Reserve League, increased roster capacity that focuses on younger players, help for teams competing in the CONCACAF Champions League and a reexamination of the playoff format that saw two Western Conference teams compete for the Eastern Conference championship in 2010.

Mr. Garber also discussed the fact that MLS is at least considering how its clubs could make good on an invitation from CONMEBOL to participate in Copa Libertadores. This is both a blessing and curse, as it would provide a higher profile experience for MLS teams in international competition, but would even further stretch MLS teams further than they can realistically go. Having a run-down MLS club get embarrassed in South America helps nobody.

It was already clear the MLS brass like the idea of a second MLS club in the greater New York area, so the fact that this was an issue that got some focus isn’t really news.

Aside from all of that great information though, I was transfixed on something that was at the very end of the transcript which had, to me, a direct correlation to our local New England Revolution.

Earlier in the year the Revolution offered a gesture to fans of having its Chief Operating Officer Brian Bilello and VP of Player Personnel Michael Burns take questions from directly from fans on its website. If the wound that was inflicted on them by a ready base of very frustrated fans had mostly healed over, some comments by Mr. Garber ripped off that scab and poured in the salt. At least for me.

Why?

Well, as I sleepily read through the transcript of Mr. Garber’s comments, there was a passage at the end that grabbed my attention in the way that news of the Revolution signing Ronaldihno would to the Foxboro faithful. It was about how each of the MLS teams presents a business plan to the league, and his commentary about what he hoped to see left me slack jawed.

You see, I took the offer to lob questions at the Revolution, both on the official Revolution pages, then a longer version with my questions explained on Soccer Soap Box. I expected most wouldn’t be answered, and let’s just say that belief was met.  As the frustration of fans started pouring out based on what felt like boiler-plate answers, I simply sulked back into the dark corner where we bloggers so carefully grow our deep seated negativity  and snickered. (please note, sarcasm is welcome here)

My questions were probably too harsh, to unrealistic, too hopeful. Here, you can see for yourself: Bilello Questions and Burns Questions.

But then Mr. Garber spoke, and I reconsidered.

My first question to Mr. Bilello: Do the New England Revolution have a “mission statement” – from an overall perspective? (not specifically on the field)

Unrealistic?

Well, Mr. Garber proclaimed that “Every team creates their brand vision and their mission as to how they want to go about achieving it. These visions or missions are things that they should be sharing publicly.”

Wow.

A key question I lobbed at Mr. Burns: I would imagine that it helps to have a specific “style” of soccer in mind when scouting players. I wondered, is there a “shared vision” of how the New England Revolution believe soccer should be played? What is it? Does it affect the choice of players we sign? Does this vision extend to your burgeoning efforts in youth development?

Mr. Garber added that “All of the clubs talk about what kind of team they want to be on the field. They discuss the style of play and the commitment to that style of play as it is part of their brand and part of what they’re trying to do in connecting to their audiences.”

Really Don, they do?

It’s too bad there wasn’t a platform for the team to answer such questions that were publicly lobbed at them and remove the doubt that the team is running on autopilot. If only there was a publicly posted question and answer session posted online where these questions came in…

Oh. Never mind.

I do take some solace though that there’s a league office somewhere where the team does need to answer these questions.

Oh, to be a fly on that wall…

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WSJ on Soccer in America

Most people – well, most blog-reading soccer fans – have seen the Wall Street Journal article called “Are Americans Becoming Soccer Fans?” since it has been pretty well shared by now.  There were a number of points raised that caught my attention.   Some were border-line insightful, others confusing but most were just plain annoying.

This article highlighted that we struggle in the US to keep different (potential) fan bases in mind when discussing how to move forward.   There are those who are:

A) MLS Fans

B) Soccer players who are not fans

C) Those who are not (never were) fans or players

D) Soccer fans that are indifferent (or worse) to MLS.

We could break each of those groups down further (might be an interesting exercise), but both within the WSJ article and in general we don’t distinguish between the non-MLS-fans enough when making generalizations about what is “needed.”

Either way . . . here are my thoughts.

Quote:  “When it comes to sports, one of the stubbornest examples of American exceptionalism is the use of the word ‘soccer.’”

Bob says:  Can we please just let this go already?  Let me know when reigning World Cup champions Italy apologizes for calling it ‘calcio’ . . .  Besides, the word “soccer” comes from the UK anyway, so ‘exceptionalism’ is a bit hard to argue.

Quote:   “. . . game’s third most important international trophy, the Confederations Cup.” 

Bob says:  Really? Maybe FIFA has that in official documents somewhere?  Gross over-simplification does little to impress a reasonably educated soccer fan base.  Outside of the World Cup there’s an argument about the ranking of other international competitions.   European Championship?   Copa America?  Africans Cup of Nations?   Youth (U-20) World Cups?  Olympics?   Add international club competitions in and it gets even more confusing . . . I’d say UEFA Champions League is more “important” than many international (Federation) cups.  

Quote: “To be a soccer fan in most of the world is to abandon simplicity and yield to a global alphabet soup of federations, associations, leagues, competitions and cups.”

Bob says:  For non-soccer fans this is indeed a hurdle.   Doubtful that it is a hurdle for soccer fans that haven’t warmed to MLS . . .

Quote:   “You must have a league that is credible,” Mr. Blatter, of FIFA, said of the U.S., which doesn’t even hold its season when the rest of the world does. “You have good players, but you must keep them here.”

Bob says:  Isn’t our league credible now?  Who owns the definition of credible Mr. Blatter?   If your sentence started “You have a credible league, now . . .”  — wouldn’t that have made it so?    The development of stars would be helpful – but where we are today, can you be a star unless you’ve earned your stripes in Europe?   Alternatively . . . the Dutch, Brazilian and Argentine leagues (just to name a few) all lose their best players to other countries as a normal course of business.  Are they not credible leagues?   And, for the nonsensical refrain that the US “doesn’t even hold its season when the rest of the world does” . . . wow, that’s our silver bullet?   More January games in Chicago and New England?  Compete for attention during the heart of the NFL season?  Hardly.

Quote:  “In many ways, the greatest danger for America’s domestic soccer league is the changing nature of the world. The global sports-television market now allows avid fans in the U.S. to ignore MLS and instead follow the world’s best teams from afar.”

Bob says: This is a big challenge for winning over those who are soccer fans, but not MLS fans.  (I didn’t call them Eurosnobs, but I could.)   Maybe back when half the country was going crazy and French Fries were becoming Freedom Fries, we should have changed MLS to the Soccer Freedom League or something . . . perhaps people would have been guilted into loving the American product.   Anyway . . . in reality, many MLS fans like the soccer of the best European and Latin leagues, so this should be something we can figure out . . . if the quality of MLS continues to improve.

Quote:  “We’ve seen what happens and the excitement it generates when the national team plays deep into an international tournament,” Mr. Garber said. “What we need is one of our clubs to do the same thing against the best foreign clubs, and we’re probably a little ways off from that.”

Bob says:  This is perhaps the line that interests me most, since Mr. Garber knows that structurally this is nearly impossible.   The league is DESIGNED for parity.   That means, for one team to be good enough to win consistently against the best foreign competition, they all need to be good enough.   That is a long way off.    Heck, if our teams had the resources (roster size, salary cap) to compete with in-season Mexican and Central American teams on a regular basis in meaningful competitions, that would be a start . . . and would catch the attention of a latent soccer-loving-MLS-indifferent audience.  (Latinosnobs?)