Revolution Lose Battle of the Bands vs. LA Galaxy

Last night’s New England Revolution loss to the LA Galaxy was a frustrating, if predictable, example of the Revolution struggles of late.

Watching it in the afterglow of the UEFA Champions League Final yesterday, where an excellent Barcelona removed any doubts about their status as the best team on the earth, made for some interesting contrasts.

For both games you just need to look at what’s right in front of you, and state the obvious.

The Revolution (and Manchester United) were both beaten by superior foes.

Simple, right?

Somewhat.

Barcelona have been given tougher games (and losses) from lesser opponents than Manchester United, and though a squad of inferior quality right now, MLS parity means that the Revolution could have beaten the LA Galaxy had a few things went differently.

They didn’t. And it wasn’t for lack of effort.

In the Revolution example, it was for lack of quality.

More than quality, I am reminded of the analogy Fox analyst (and former US National Team and MLS great) Eric Wynalda used pre-game to describe Xavi’s role as “conductor” in Barcelona’s mesmerizing midfield.

There is no doubt, Xavi is excellent.

But for that orchestra to play beautiful music, the surrounding musicians need to be masters of their instruments (positions, roles) and play from the same song sheet (tactics, style.)

While it’s unfair to compare the Revolution with Barcelona, the goals are the same, even if at different levels. Unfortunately, the Revolution have some missing ingredients.

Conductor? Shalrie is a magnetic force in the midfield when at his best, but not a top-notch conductor. (More the driving force in a hard-rock band, maybe…) And frankly, Benny Feilhaber hasn’t grabbed solid hold of the role yet either.

Musicians? At too many spots on the field the Revolution is simply average. How many of our starters would crack the first eleven of other established MLS teams?

Song sheet? Watching this team, you get the sense that if Mr. Nicol is going to motivate the team to pour more effort in, it’s not exactly sure into what that gets poured. Save for harder running.

Lastly, the very best orchestras showcase a stand-out soloist or virtuoso. Some may have a few. Lionel Messi stands out amongst the soccer “giants” at Barcelona, for instance.

The LA Galaxy’s obvious answers to that are Landon Donovan and David Beckham.

In my last post, I “thanked” the LA Galaxy for putting up with all the external noise created by Beckham’s presence such that the rest of MLS could avail itself of the media glow. (A blog which undoubtedly made fellow Revolution fan’s eyes roll. But count the butts in seats last night for my point to have been made.)

Let me be clear, I’m no Beckham fan boy. And no, I’d never have been in Gillette Stadium in a Beckham jersey.

But let’s also say this. The guy is a pro. Imperfect, predictable, aging? Sure.  But he delivered.

He played his part to “conduct” accurately hitting passes from all over the field.  He delivered a tough (some might say nasty looking) tackle on Benny Feilhaber that looked to add a level of uncertainty into Benny’s game for a while. And, of course, he delivered a terrific ball that led to the game winner.

Who’s the player on the Revolution who can step up into the limelight and lead? Where’s the soloist?

So, credit the Revolution’s effort, but there’s still more missing than present (orchestra analogy or otherwise.)

The fact remains that turning up the volume on bad music doesn’t make it sound better.

Reluctantly Thanking the LA Galaxy

Thank you, LA Galaxy.

It’s hard to type those words, since I am not a Galaxy fan. Far from it, actually.

I am a New England Revolution fan. Well, to be honest, I am an MLS and US Soccer fan who supports my local New England Revolution. I’ve not (if I’m totally honest) proclaimed “New England ’til I die” like some of those I most commiserate with.   (More on that some day…)

Yet, despite that qualifier, it is still hard to thank the LA Galaxy for much from where I sit.

So why, then, would I?

David Beckham.

I haven’t spent much time commenting on Beckham’s impact on MLS on SoccerSoapBox. In fact, I had to search the site to remind myself of my own prior commentary.

There was one brief post (here) however, that sums up my desire to thank the Galaxy for bringing David to our shores. In reference to the “drama” that surrounded him, I wrote: “Frankly, I love it. The more drama, the better.”

I actually did once say (here): “This is not because I’m anti-Beckham, in fact, I think MLS is better with him in it than without him.”

And that is why I thank the LA Galaxy.

I believe that the coverage, attention and (often ridiculous) focus that David Beckham gets, on balance, benefits MLS tremendously.

That isn’t to say he doesn’t add unnecessary distractions (who remembers the media circus that was his first game?), locker-room confusion (the silly Beckham/Donovan tiff) or huge costs to his team.  He does.

But that’s the point of my thanking the Galaxy, or perhaps the Galaxian fans, for putting up with this. He adds those things – while not yet significantly adding to on-field production – to the Galaxy, but the rest of the teams (and fans) gain the impact of increased exposure.

Is all that exposure always good for MLS?  That’s hard to measure.

Having him play a full match in England for Gary Neville’s testimonial today when granted a leave of absence from his team and missing a mid-week MLS game adds fuel to those who position MLS as “bush league.”

Of course, this isn’t the first of this type of absence… as his insistence on long loans and training stints that lasted through MLS preseasons are already well known.  (Cut to MLS article with key teammates saying obligatory nice things about testimonial matches, despite what they might really feel, here.)

So there’s a limit to “any press is good press” mentality out there, but at some point another oft used line matters equally. Beggars can’t be choosers.

And in many markets and within the consciousness of a Joe Blow sports fan in the USA, MLS is still largely an unknown, if not actively denigrated, entity.  And that affects TV ratings.  And that affects sponsorships.  Etc.  Etc.

It’s not insignificant that when I searched for a link describing Beckham’s first game in MLS, the key article that was linked was from People Magazine. For better or worse, that’s Americana for you.

However, this is hardly out of context in a David Beckham world.

I played around with Google Trends a bit (beware, it’s a great way to lose an hour of your evening) and did a quick comparison of news articles and search requests of a few related topics.

Here’s one link you can spend some time contemplating. It covers the topics “Beckham” and “MLS” over the last 12 months. (You can probably find umpteen other interesting and related searches.)

What jumped out at me?

When looking at what is searched for, Beckham (admittedly, getting a few extra hits from “Posh”) gets around half as many searches as MLS does and twice in a year was searched for MORE frequently than the league itself. That is one player, or one player’s family name, getting more search interest than his league.

Maybe that’s because people don’t search for a league? Well, have at it, search for other players, other teams. Players in other sports… (Interestingly, here is “David Beckham” vs. “Tom Brady.”)

But while that is interesting, the second (much smaller) graph you see is “news reference volume.” And in this metric, “Beckham” typically gets more mentions/coverage than the rest of the league – with only a few exceptions over the last twelve months.  This means that at the end of the day, there’s more coverage of the man (and family) than the league.   Presuming that many of those articles somehow allude to his team, or at least the country where he remains a professional soccer player, that’s (generalized) exposure for the league.

There is clearly a quality-of-mention metric (articles saying he’s a pompous jerk who is mailing-it-in in MLS versus articles saying he’s a leading world star that chose MLS as his new home) that would need to be applied on top of a simple review of the quantity of mentions achieved to understand the true value to MLS from Mr. Beckham’s notoriety.  But come on, what other soccer player had a detailed article in Women’s Wear Daily about their upcoming merchandising efforts this week?

So, for all us fans that don’t need to deal with the localized team drama, but do get some benefit from Beckham’s ability to keep the in front of cameras and on the mind of writers, adding much needed buzz to our league… we owe the Galaxy a thought, even if not vocalized, of thanks.

However dirty that makes some of us feel.

Unfiltered Thinking: Beckham, Donovan, MLS Cup 2009

When writing about a game that involves a team I support I like to take the approach of looking at the cup as being both half full or half empty. As a (mostly) non-partisan observer for MLS Cup I didn’t want to pollute this blog with such thinking.

(I am, however, surprised that I haven’t yet seen an overtime/penalty related headline somewhere about how “The Cup Runneth Over”… )

Instead, here are some largely unfiltered thoughts on yesterday’s MLS Cup.

It was a Cup Final – Last night’s game was not filled with particularly pretty soccer nor as many goal-mouth chances as I’d like to see, but this is what Cup finals are often like.   What was noticeable: players cared.   Players played sick.  Players tried to play hurt.  Fans watched.  (Actually I don’t know that anybody watched, but I can hope.)

Counter ‘this’ – I was lightly supporting RSL over LA last night, mostly because I like the approach Jason Kreis takes (“He’s making an offensive sub, so early, what about penalties?  Go Jason!”) and as a sentimental vote for ex-Rev Andy Williams who I always liked and whose personal/family story was so compelling this year.   What solidified my support for RSL was this . . . they held the ball, the tried to play on the ground, the wanted to play soccer.   LA never seemed quite capable of that despite Donovan and Beckham’s presence – and appeared to be content to try to win by striking on the quick counter.   While possibly effective, it is not my favorite style.

Penalties – Most people start their rant with “what a terrible way to end a game”… fine.  What’s the realistic alternative?   The players were dead tired and the soccer was beginning to suffer greatly.   Penalties are certainly dramatic, require some level of skill and provide a chance to feed the US fixation on goalkeepers (more on that below.)  I don’t know a better, reasonable, solution.

Beckham – Frankly, I am glad his team lost.  This is not because I’m anti-Beckham, in fact, I think MLS is better with him in it than without him.    However, what I like is that this loss helps the MLS marketing department write the story line around Beckham’s “unfinished business” to create some drama after his Milan loan draws to a close.   (Too bad he doesn’t have a deep evil voice – quite the opposite in fact – or he could have stormed off with an Arnold-esque “I’ll be back” snarl.)

Landon – The contrast of the first goal’s pin-point cross from the wing to his missed penalty and absentee performance post the 45 minute mark pretty much sums up the confusion MLS and US fans have about Landon Donovan.  It will certainly add fuel to the ‘Landycakes’ fire anyway.   Is he a World Class player whose absence from the US National Team shows us as bland and boring?  Is he a player how only really shows well in less-meaningful games and fades away when it matters most?     Like with my view on Becks, part of me was happy that Landon’s team lost.  I like the idea of a ticked-off Landon with something to prove taking the field in South Africa for the USA.  What I worry about is the reverse – some odd crisis of confidence that affects his decision making about his play and his next steps for his club future.

M.V.P. – I like Nick Rimando and both last night and the Chicago game show that he seems good at stopping penalties.  But I must admit it really bothers me when a goalkeeper – any goalkeeper – getts an MVP award.   I much prefer a field player gets it, and this game I’d say Kyle Beckerman was probably worthy.   I doubt most “soccer experts” would really argue this anti-goalkeeper stance, but there’s a continual need to pretend a US soccer fan couldn’t notice a good performance that didn’t directly result in one or more goals.

*Note: Beckerman’s hair may have removed him from eligibility for the MVP award.  Only the other Beck(ham) can be a super-star/sex symbol while having absolutely ridiculous hair.  And Beckham clearly wasn’t going to win anything last night . . .

Field Turf – I have mixed emotions on this.  The purist in me says a final should never be on turf.   Well, actually, the purist in me says a professional game should never be on turf.  (I may have turned off the TV if there were football lines, so at least that was addressed.)   However, there is a piece of me that also wants to say this.  SHUT UP.   “That injury only would happen on turf.” Maybe.  “You can see the affect of the turf on that play.”  Maybe.   Both teams played on the same pitch.  Both knew what type of surface they’d be on.   Both had some amount of time to practice.   Once the game starts, please just LET IT GO.   Alternatively we’d be hearing about the injury that only happened because of the divot in the grass or the pass that didn’t get completed due to the mud puddle.   PLAY THE GAME.   Let’s rid the game of turf if possible (thanks Toronto!) but let’s deal with it until that day.

So that wraps up MLS 2009… time to start watching the Collective Bargaining Agreement hyperbole that we will all be bombarded with and seeing if we can cut through the malarkey that gets spewed from both sides.

Selling Soccer and Stalled Italian Journeys

Not so fast Ricardo . . .

It seems I may have jumped the gun on Ricardo Clark’s impending transfer to Livorno.   No Short Corners is reporting that he has the offer but it isn’t a done deal.   If you haven’t my read my “Forza America” yet, please do so with this liberal dditions of “ifs” . . .

Supporter’s Club (Brought To You By Soccer Soap Box)

OK, I’m not about to be sponsoring any supporter’s clubs . . . but the idea promoted here that companies could be bypassing sports sponsorships to instead directly align to/sponsor major fan groups is very interesting.    Those groups are influential and cut out the middle-men when wanting to directly reach your end customers.   There are significant risks of course, since such fan groups will undoubtedly be interested in the funding and perks, but will have little tolerance of the rules that might be tied to them.  Of course, no sport seems to have more vocal and organized fan groups than soccer.  The article refers to one of the primary US National Team supporter groups the “American Outlaws” and their ever growing presence on the US Soccer scene.

Selling (MLS) Stuff

Sponsoring fan groups is all well and good . . . but I doubt the official soccer merchandising will ever slow.   This New York Times blog (thanks to the very interesting FootieBusiness) talks about merchandising efforts by the league, including the mini-takeover of the “World’s Largest Toy Store” in NYC.   A few notes of interest . . . the top three teams in terms of sponsorship Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles Galaxy, Toronto F.C. – Seattle and Toronto off of their amazing local fan support, and L.A. clearly because of Beckham.    The Red Bulls are 6th in merchandising, but have generally been terrible on the field . . . a statement to the potential that remains out of reach in that market.

While MLS makes it clear that they have trouble accurately tracking player-specific merchandise, it comes as no surprise that David Beckham, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Landon Donovan, Freddie Ljungberg, and Juan Pablo Angel would lead the way.   That most of them are “Designated Players” is not a coincidence . . . and makes the ideas recently posted over at the Daily Soccer Fix to increase the rule’s use all the more critical.

Beckham Drama and MLS Reboots

While I’m still recovering from that Mexican kick to the groin at the Gold Cup final, here are a few brief thoughts.

How to reboot an MLS club?

The Seattle crowds make me jealous.   There I said it.  I work with people from Seattle every day, some of them know this, some not.    I’m no longer ashamed…

My jealously doesn’t matter, I can begrudgingly admit that.   What does matter is that the atmosphere and size of that crowd is by far the exception, not the rule.   If game day atmosphere is as much of a draw as the game is . . . this is a big issue for most MLS clubs.

The problem is that fans have already heard the proverbial pin drop at places like Gillette Stadium or Giants Stadium . . . and don’t have to fight lines at the men’s room when watching from their comfy and free-to-visit recliner . . . so they are not motivated to give it another try.    At least the RedBulls have a new stadium providing a manufactured reason to “reboot” and relaunch their team . . . again.

What can the other teams like the Revs do?    (Hint, it’s probably not the addition of Rev Girls.)   Something to revisit in future blogs for sure.

More Beckham Drama, Works for me . . .

Frankly, I love it.   The more drama, the better.

I mean really, without this what else are we going to talk about?  Or better yet, what else are the non-blog-authoring/reading potential fans going to talk about?   This just in . . . three rookies living together in a failing attempt to make LA rent argue over the Ramen noodle package again.   Movie at 11 . . .

The most recent conflicting reports though could spin anyone around.  MLS banned the fan who jumped on the field during LA’s home game against visiting AC Milan and then caved and rescinded the ban.  Why?  He didn’t know the policies for fans entering the field of play.    Hmmm, yeah, that’s a huge mystery for everyone – I know I personally thought that since Beckham came we were all invited for afternoon tea in the center circle during half time.

Meanwhile, Becks complains that a fan who was giving him a hard time in Kansas City shouldn’t be wearing an England jersey.   As if England fans weren’t giving him a rough ride – can we say hanged in effigy? – after his World Cup ejection against Argentina.

Hilarious . . .