The Resurrection

I’ve not written a thing on this blog in over a year.  But I’ve clearly got plenty to blog about.

It’s a game day for the US Men’s National Team. Landon Donovan.  And heck, my two <10 year olds got their first “cap” last week.

IMG_6393

We’re on the cusp of a Brazilian World Cup and stars are dropping like flies in pre World Cup tune up matches. My adopted 2nd nation of Colombia has finally realized it has lost Falcao, but has a chance to advance nonetheless.

Falcao Goes Down

My first visit to Old Tafford came not long ago. Cool.

And heck, the 2014 New England Revolution are, well, thoroughly watchable.

Diego Fagundez

I have more than enough reason to rejoin the >140 character world of self-expression with relevant, meaningful and heartfelt ideas about soccer, the meaning it has on life, love and the world around us.

So what topic came to me in the shower the other day that finally tipped the scales for me to sit down and clack away at the keys?

It’s not any of those wonderful topics.

It’s hardly even a relevant topic at this juncture.

In fact, it’s the US Soccer’s third-rail.

I’m almost serving up a troll’s paradise for my own ridicule and clear soccer illiteracy just by going here.

It’s Freddy.

Freddy Adu

I know, I know. But, bear with me, I think I’ve got an interesting twist on this one.

You see, this article is NOT about Freddy being a washed up player who should pack it in.

Nor is it about his incredible skill and the fact that just some bad contracts and unlucky breaks lead him to his current, club-less position.

Clearly, neither of those are completely true. At least not to me.

And I’ll go on the record and say that I’ve written more on Soccer Soap Box about Freddy in the past than is probably warranted or logical given his frustrating flirtations with the US National Team, confusing MLS tenure and unsuccessful stays abroad.

The most obvious of this vintage was “Much Adu About Something?” which gives you plenty to throw stones at, as a perspective from December 2009, but there are others.

So, it’s clear.  I have a curiosity and interest in Freddy’s career.  Probably more than justified.  So be it.

But the other day, with thoughts whipping around about Julian Green being included, and Landon Donovan being discarded, from the US team, I began thinking of other young talents that need to be watched. New England’s own Diego Fagundez central to those thoughts.

It brought me back to Freddy, and the tale of what went wrong and what could have been. If you don’t believe he can play, stop reading. Because, while none of what follows is an argument on why he is “the saviour”, it is built upon the idea that Freddy can play.

My evidence? You don’t get to the Olympics, National Team, MLS, Benfica contracts, etc. on marketing alone.  Argue if you’d like, but check out these quick clips to remind us of Freddy with the USMNT.

Flip to 2 minutes and 52 seconds of this one.

He was (is?) a good bit better than terrible.

Freddy, has a one-liner on his gone-pretty-quiet Twitter account that popped into my mind. “Never put a period where God put a comma.”  And I suppose he’s praying that’s true.

Capture

OK, religion is not my specialty, but it got me thinking, how on earth do you turn that period in Freddy’s career into a comma.

Most MLS coaches are probably not interested in the headache created by his return.

He’s probably too proud to play in a lower-level US Club.

He doesn’t have the best international track record.

So now what? Is there a way out?

Then, it hit me.  Why not leverage the machines that made (and ruined?) him to resurrect him.

Forget miracles, think ‘Murica: Marketing and money.

Imagine these ingredients, if you will:

  • A club team that wants to get some “noise” generated about it, but cannot be seen as being desperate.
  • A club that has a sister/mother club where a player can prove himself in some harsher-than-MLS conditions. Or at least interest-generating conditions.
  • A motivated Freddy Adu interested in a) regaining some former glory, b) playing the sport he loves, c) cashing in one last time, just in case.  Or, D) all of the above.
  • A creative agent and an even more creative contract, built largely on future performance.
  • Sponsor logos and product placements, lots of them.
  • And now imagine, cameras. Lots of cameras.

Huh?

Freddy Adu signs with MLS “Team X” (we’ll get back to that) on short-term “All Star Trial” contract. With lots of options that follow the trial period.

Included in the contract is an agreement for a “The Freddy Experiment” (or whatever it would be named), a reality show based on Freddy’s “trial period.”  Imagine the cameras tracking Freddy’s good days, and bad.  Playing and living. Confessionals. Girl troubles.  Whatever.  The whole sickening reality TV gambit.

At the end of the trial period, decision time on the options.

One is a “big” contract. The other is a hand-shake and a goodbye. (And yes, more quietly, lots of intermediate options are probably included.)

The contract meetings include the league, the team, the player and agent and two few key others: representatives from the companies MLS just signed a big TV deal with, Soccer United Marketing, and interested league sponsors.

Sponsors could be integrated into the show the way Spanish television has done for years.  He drinks Gatorade. He plays EA Sports games on his Panasonic TV to relax. Wears Adidas.  Uses a Visa card to pay for life’s needs. Calls home with AT&T.

Heck, you can even build in (raising the sum you’d need to pay Freddy up front), some “goodwill” or prove yourself events as part of the trial/show.  Go use Makita tools from the Home Depot to build a house and help the poor via an MLS Works project.

It’s almost sells itself.

So, where? What team?

Reality is, as we all know, MLS owns player contacts, so it could run the show and decide later.  The end contract could be provided to a club at a reduced cost and a lottery.  This way MLS gets the maximum sponsorship control and flexibility.

But, unless some odd exceptions are made, that probably breaks plenty of MLS/team player distribution rules.  And you lose the idea of a team gaining its own publicity, which is probably a major selling point.

So where then?

The best option is probably Chivas USA.

Of course, that is if the club has a real future, a concern at this point. But why such a great fit?

  1. It’s hard to think of a team more in need of “buzz” than Chivas USA.
  2. The trial period could be with Chivas Guadalajara, a perfect environment for a story line of “prove yourself” in another world.
  3. You could probably craft both English and Spanish versions of the show.  Call it “Sueño Adu” or something to build off of the very Latino-market focused “Sueño MLS” which is already in place.  MLS could leverage an Americanized name in the USA for the show, and get both Univision and one of the American networks onboard.
  4. If it actually works out, he could fit within a more Latin-style playing scheme the team should be leveraging.

Other options exist, of course…

  • BeckhamFC: Whatever this team will be called, it has time to build this story and campaign. It has David’s connections to get a trial situation set up. And c’mon, David could cameo on the show and be part of the story line to build interest.  Maybe he’s the Donald Trump of the decision meeting?
  • NYFC: One more way to leverage the media and marketing capability of the New York market.  No commitment.  Build Buzz.  Imagine rainy scenes from a Manchester City reserve practice showing if Freddy has the commitment… compelling, no?
  • Red Bull USA: Take the above, and turn Manchester into Salzburg, Austria. It works. Us this as a way to keep headlines while NYFC starts stealing attention.

I sense the Cosmos could weasel their way into this discussion somehow, because, credit where credit is due, they seem to be a creative bunch even if not at the top-level of US professional soccer.

Ironically, I don’t see a terrific play for my local New England Revolution unless Freddy goes to Patriot’s Training Camp. Though… given Mr. Kraft’s interests and portfolio, anything’s possible.

And why shouldn’t we, the global-we, try to make this work?

Because whether you like him, dislike him or wish never to think about this again, this our our journey as US soccer fans.

The spirit of the recent US Soccer match (and maybe the controversial captured soldier recovery in Afghanistan?) reminded me “We are the US, might *mighty* US.”

And we don’t leave a man behind.

Nor do we miss a marketing opportunity.  And maybe that’s more important here.

So maybe it’s true what Freddy says.

It’s God that puts in commas.  Freddy’s career needs a miracle and some prayers. But I’d be glad to see something work.

Is this the route to his resurrection?

What say you?

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The (Revolution) Thrill Is Gone.

Judging by activity on Soccer Soap Box you wouldn’t think that I’ve been an active Revolution watcher in 2012.  In fact, you might have thought I fell off the earth if you weren’t following on Twitter. But job changes, family obligations and good weather conspired against blogging and pushed me towards the 140 character variety of self-expression.  Ah, yes, Twitter: blogging-lite. So easy, it’s like cheating.

So it turns out I’ve not fallen off the earth, but like most people, I haven’t been to many Revolution games in person either. I have, though, watched nearly every game.  So despite a clear enthusiasm lag, I’ve far from ignored the team. But there’s more, and it is undeniable… my emotional connection to the Revolution has been tested this year.  It’s like a long-term marriage that has kept all the familiarity but lost all of the energy and intrigue. (Mrs. Soap Box, please note, I speak only theoretically, we’re all good.  Now, back to the program…)

Soccer, for me, is a game of passion and beauty.  I want to be enthralled.  I want to think the team I’m watching can deliver something of an emotional connection both on the field and in how they view the game and conduct their business. Yes, I want to see victories, but the intangibles are probably, or nearly, as important for me.

Sadly, the Revolution aren’t living up to such expectations.  (Mine or pretty much anyone else’s.)   The team has largely been incapable of creating the beautiful game on the field, certainly have continued having trouble creating passion within the fan base and simply doesn’t make decisions I can defend with both my heart and head being in agreement.

The year started positively enough, at least relative to the debacle of 2011, with an attempt at a fresh style and with a young and popular (as a player) new head coach.  New players, like Lee Nguyen brought skill and optimism. Possession improved and we occasionally didn’t boot the ball up field. It was delusional bliss, and I miss it so.

On top of that, the addition of three Colombians appeared to add skill, experience and guile from my adopted second country – heck some of these player acquisitions were announced when I was vacationing in Colombia… things looked – and felt – pretty good.

And while I was worried that appointing Jay Heaps head coach was an underwhelming and risky decision – thinking he was too inexperienced to right a ship that clearly needed a special brand of leadership (or quite possibly an exorcism), he’s a hard character to root against and I was willing to buy into the “we will attack”  battle cry.

But it wasn’t to be, was it?

The Revolution will miss the playoffs again, and were simply not good enough to suggest they deserved better.

So where are we?

Ironically, the team is full of good players.  The problem, is that ‘goodness’ is no longer enough across a team – some level of greatness is required. And we lack greatness.

Let’s review… our most exciting import?  (Arguably) Saër Sène.  He’s good.  Is he great? Not clear.  Maybe, but ‘great’ would bring that left-footed magic as well as the ability to occasionally win a header and an intensity that sometimes seems missing.  There’s potential for greatness though if he’s not done growing.

Jerry Bengston? He had a great Olympics, but has only looked good for the Revolution.

Lee Nguyen.  Certainly a good MLS player.  Can he be great at this level?  Maybe.

I could go on and on, but fundamentally the Revolution lacks stand-out leaders. It lacks All-Stars, officially or otherwise.

So to find “greatness” shrewd personnel moves would be required. It is far from clear that the Revolution have made the wisest personnel moves or that they even get the best out of what they have. Though, this year it’s the personnel decisions that baffle me most and have sucked the much of the passion out of me.

I am on record as thinking that trading Shalrie wasn’t the worst idea – and I can still see the rationale. He was not the same player from a few years ago, yet he was being paid based on that history, and certainly not his current performance.  Of course, his presence hasn’t really be replaced.

The Pepe Moreno fiasco isn’t worth commenting on at this point.  His arrival was a mess so his departure certainly was neither a surprise nor a real disappointment.  But let’s be clear, though imperfect, the guy didn’t get into European clubs because he couldn’t kick a ball.  What a mess.

Another head-scratcher was the undying affection for the Bromance-duo of AJ Soares and Stephen McCarthy.  Fine guys, but would they be a center-back pairing on any other MLS team?  Doubtful.  Unless John Lozano keyed the coach’s car, I’ll never understand how we walked away from a center-back with good history in the Colombian league without giving him a real run out.

Now, this will probably set off some warning bells for folks, but the last games, for me, are perfect examples of how my views of what I want to watch are nearly not the same as what the team is thinking.  On the bench Benny Feilhaber and Fernando Cardenas watched Ryan Guy and Kelyn Rowe get the start.

Really?

Sure, Rowe got a (deflected) goal.  And he’s a good player, a solid rookie who probably has a nice little MLS career in front of him if he keeps improving.  Heck, the Revolution fans even voted him “Man of the Match” for last game. (Oh those Revs fans, they never miss a goal…)

But for my eyes, when Cardenas is on the field the team the moves the ball more quickly and play wakes up. It becomes watchable and interesting.  He’s imperfect too, no doubt, but it is baffling he’s on the bench for this team – one that is static and constantly in search of the unexpected.  Yeah, yeah, “super-sub.”  We’ve all heard it – and some of you are guilty of saying it, “clearly, Fernando is better coming on late and running at tired defenders.” (When isn’t that the case?  Isn’t that patently true of any player? “Messi would be more effective coming on against tired defenders.”  Ugh.)

The Super-sub cliché is a great way to write off a player you cannot figure out how to properly integrate.  On a team this devoid of movement and ideas, that’s a darn shame.

And Ryan Guy. He works hard and is a good player. Better than Benny Feilhaber?  Not for my money.

My last blog (from what seems like years ago) was about how – during an almost-good stretch of Revolution soccer – Benny seemed to have a vastly improved on-field demeanor attitude.  Well, he’s struggled to get time recently and the team hasn’t done that well either.

Both of these examples show a lack of conviction to prioritizing skill and creativity in choosing players. Rowe and Guy instead of Cardenas and Feilhaber suggests effort over style is still the plan.  The team’s style has taken a step backwards since the beginning of the year, which points to a lack of belief that they can win with attractive football.  I blogged earlier this year that if nothing else, I hoped the Revolution would “keep the faith.” That faith seems betrayed.

Let’s be clear… I know it’s not exactly Rowe vs. Cardenas or Feilhaber vs. Guy, but the comparison it creates is illustrative as far as priorities, decision-making and what type of product we’ll see on the field. Maybe if the Revs were winning ugly, it would be forgiven.  But it’s not.   The team appears half-committed to half-attractive soccer.  It remains a team without a discernible style.

This all points back to an initial worry – is Jay Heaps really ready to fix this mess?

The evidence before us is damning. Young players that aren’t game changers get more faith that seems logical. One time stars fall out of favor (Joseph, Feilhaber.) Commitment to attractive soccer has waned. Players that might be on the verge of “great” are stuck squarely in “good.”

I’m not sure what the final games of another throw-away season can show us, and despite my sliding passion… but I’m sure I’ll watch.  I’ll almost certainly tweet.  I may even blog.

But will I be connected?  Enthralled?

Right now I sense that might it take World Cup qualifying, not the Revs, to rebuild such passion.

And you tell me, what does all that say for MLS?  It is bad that a team can so frustrate a die-hard fan and squelch his hope for seeing attractive soccer in his own backyard, or it is a positive development that the league has improved enough to have marginalized teams that simply are good, but not great.

I’d normally close this post with a request for ‘greatness.’  But I’m tired: of the night, of the season, of the same-old, same-old.

So screw greatness, just give me a sign you and I speak the same soccer language. I am not writing off the idea that I could fall in love all over again.  But as they say, once-bitten twice-shy.  I have a couple season’ worth of really bad bite marks on me, so you better get working.

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.

Will The Revolution Keep The Faith?

In theory, it’s way too early on a Saturday morning to be typing, but a coughing son is wide awake and there’s little convincing him that bed is a better option than dragging me downstairs.  Perhaps he’s just too excited about the Merseyside Derby cup match this morning to sleep? Not likely, as he’s sitting on the main computer playing pbskids.org games as I type away on a laptop.

So be it. The blog is dusty and I’m awake. Not only that, but I’m going to miss tonight’s New England Revolution home game versus D.C. United as we have important birthday plans with a friend. DVR (or MLS Live) to the rescue, once again.  Without the game to watch tonight, this is my outlet then, early and bleary eyed, but still hoping for a Revolution victory.

More than that, actually, I’m hoping for more signs that the team continues to build toward something than can make me, and the rest of the fans, smile.  Now, let’s be clear. Victories bring smiles. And I’d like to see more of them.

But as we touched on in a recent “The Midnight Ride Podcast” (you do listen, right?) there’s also something about how a team plays that drives the “smile” factor. OK, perhaps that was my babbling only, and it involved talk of Fernando Cardenas and how he plays. Stepovers? Yup. Try that (seemingly random) shot? Sure. Smile-worthy.  If you cannot tell, I forgive and often celebrate the unexepected – at least as far as offensive creativity is concerned.

Other players are doing things that make me smile too… Lee Nguyen for example. Benny, I suspect, will when he returns. Crafty? Creative? Sure. Effective? Admittedly, the jury is out on some of this so far for the Revolution.

But that brings up the eternal debate, is there a necessary trade-off between creative (attractive) play and success? On the world stage, one would think that Brazil squashed this years ago, or that Barcelona/Spain had driven the final nail into the coffin.   Closer to home, teams like Real Salt Lake have made a compelling argument that winning can come with a good brand of soccer.  But of course, this debate will continue for as long as we talk about the sport.

However, let’s not let the validity of the debate stop any progress that this team has shown in building something new and exciting. There’s a fragile hope, a tentative excitement, building within the fan base that is fueled by a better than expected showing against LA and an attempt to keep the ball and play good soccer.

Coach Jay Heaps has instilled a new energy, new attempts at possession soccer and a positive attitude. He took his first real criticism related to late substitutions during the 0-1 loss to F.C. Dallas. Starting in the 64th minute, offense either replaced offense, or offense replaced defense. And then gave up a last-minute goal.  The calls for “wiser” substitutions came quickly.

Of course, the knee jerk reaction here is to blame the coach for not “battening down the hatches” and filling the field with defense minded players. And sure, that would be a standard response by coaches around the world.  But ponder these two thoughts…

First, offensive solutions didn’t lose the last game. Not playing the ball out when our player was down, hopeful long balls out of the back (which was intercepted and sent immediately back down field), a foul by a hurting and frustrated center-back and poor marking on a free kick… that’s what lost the game and erased 94+ minutes of effort.  Those errors, mind you, didn’t come from those “unreliable” creative players.

Second, would you rather support a team that throws defensive bruisers at a problem, or looks to offense and hopefully possession to solve a challenge. Who keeps it the ball up by the opponents goal or who tends toward desperate clearances out of the defensive third? Critics will criticize both… either “too defensive, too soon” or “too naïve, why didn’t they lock down their lead with defense?”

I choose offense. I prefer possession.

But let’s be clear, with a young coach and inevitable questions and pressures that come, the temptation to batten down the hatches and only “boot the ball to the big men up front” will always be there. Heck, with the addition of Bjorn Runstrom, the team now has three six foot or taller forwards eager to jump around after the long ball.

But please, Revolution, keep the faith. Spring is in the air and there are seedlings of optimism growing in the fanbase. There is some excitement that you now have creative players who might be able to play attractive soccer.

Realize that criticism will come, no matter what you choose. So choose wisely, and stay the course.

Because I sat through the “successful” season of 2002 as a season ticket holder.  I remember the wonderfully large (if not particularly animated) crowd that filled Gillette Stadium for the MLS Cup final. Winning got the Revolution there and got butts in the seats. But most of that season, what was on display was ugly, sad soccer.  Ugly soccer doesn’t do much to stir the soul nowadays.

A decade later, and following a “fresh start” with a new coach there is a chance for something new.

Keep the faith Revolution. And keep the ball.

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.

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.

Being Thankful For MLS

Wow, there is a lot of noise in the Major League Soccer system right now.

You either think Houston were idiotic (or poorly attempting to be sly) for not protecting local-icon Brian Ching, or you think Montreal hopes to do slimy deal-brokering with little regard to the player.  Maybe you think both.

There’s an intriguing fog around where David Beckham will next lace up his bend-it boots. LA? Paris? Somewhere else?   Was he a success or circus?  Both?  Best player in MLS or over-hyped pop star?  Both?

Locally, a rage continues building in certain New England Revolution fan circles that the team owner (who forks out all the money to bring us soccer to watch) actually does not care enough, invest enough, and know enough about the game for the Revolution to ever be successful.

The list topics that are heavily debated across the league, or even specific to the Revolution, could go on and on… there are more topics to debate than there’s time to debate them.

At the same time, there remains fervent soccer-haters, still happy to say their piece. There are even institutions, like ESPN, who are investing in the game and still seem determined to cover its day-to-day happenings as if it were a small badminton league in Eastern Europe.

To top it all off, the American fan has enough concern about player quality, our coach’s direction, and why the USA cannot step up to the elite level of international soccer to occupy their minds for the foreseeable future.

It’s enough to drive a fan crazy.

And I, for one, am immensely grateful that it all exists.

I’ll take the noise. The Beckham drama. The oddball unbalanced schedules. The new German coach whose system seems to be better on a whiteboard than in action.

I’ll take it.

During this Thanksgiving, I won’t think all too much about soccer, at least after I’m done typing this. I’ll relish time with my kids, my family and my friends. And those are the things I’m truly most thankful for.

But outside of my family, friends and job… soccer finds itself near the top of all other topics in terms of my attention span.

So I, for one, am not afraid to say it. I’m thankful for this sport.  And for our league.

Many of us need to find that special outlet where we can lose ourselves a bit and have struggled through the times where access to that special something was difficult. Mine is the beautiful game. Or whatever the approximation of beautiful we typically get.

My soccer madness was kicked into high gear at the Italy vs. Ireland USA 94 World Cup game, and the electric atmosphere and managed chaos that surrounded it.  After that game, I remember well how hard it was to find games to watch back then.  Parmalat Cup?  Sure, I’m there.

Since then, soccer fandom has since taken me to many of the soccer meccas of the world and given experiences not to be forgotten. The “curva” sections n San Siro and Rome’ Stadio Olympico. “Fla-Flu” at Maracanã. A London derby in Stamford Bridge. Camp Nou behind the Barcelona bench.  And just over a week ago, to 70,000 fans in Stade de France as I saw my first USA away game. There are many more, each of which leaves a unique memory.

However, it is more than the international flings that have me thankful. It’s also more than US Soccer, which will always be with we, nearly a given fact, rather than something I can feel thankful for.

I’m thankful for MLS. My long term soccer relationship.

Which is interesting, as I’m not a typical fan. I know that.

I support the New England Revolution. Well, I support them when I’m not over-analyzing and criticizing them.  (Which is pretty frequently.)  They are, however, my team, and now my kids’ team.

But it is MLS, not the Revolution, is what I’m more “wed” to. I really support the league. And I have since before day one.

During Major League Soccer’s first two years I was in grad school in Rutgers University in New Jersey. I missed more than one evening class because it was only a few more minutes from the Newark campus I had some Wednesday evening classes to get to Giants Stadium to watch a game.  In fact, I even used the then-imminent launch of the league as a topic for a paper in one of my business classes.   I met with MetroStars officials to discuss an internship, but chose a paying one instead.   It was an exciting time.

Wait, what?  Yes, that’s right, I started as a MetroStars fan. (There goes the Twitter following.)

I “switched” during the expansion year of 1998 when I moved to the area. There was little in terms of history and neither the Revolution nor MetroStars were very good, so it wasn’t like I was jumping on a winning bandwagon. I felt intellectually justified.

I wasn’t about to live in an area with an MLS team and only care about a visiting team.  I needed a steady stream of the game like I need my morning coffee.  (Drug addict references aside.)

Now, all these years later. Could I, would I, do it again if I had to move?  What if I moved to NJ again?  Kansas City?   Would I flip?  Honestly, I don’t know.

But it wouldn’t be out of the question.  And it’s nothing against the Revolution, but what draws me in is the game, the league, the sport, the drama. Because despite all its growing pains, its sometimes lower than hoped for quality and higher than needed physicality, it’s ours.

And I’m very thankful for that.

So give me the rumors, the complaints, the expansion-reentry-college drafts, the referees.  Give me the unbalanced schedules, odd numbers of teams and people still arguing we could have relegation, the salary caps. Give me an inexperienced coach for a bad New England team in a quiet stadium.  Heck, give me the offseason to reenergize.

But then, please MLS, just give me me the game.

And thank you.  Happy Thanksgiving.