A Cosmos PR staffer asks me “How could I have a girlfriend?” and calls me “a child.”

If you’ve been following the rip-roaring excitement that is my Twitter feed, you’ll know that I’ve been aghast at the amount of publicity this “team” called the Cosmos has received despite having no professional players, no home field, and no league to play in.

Like seemingly the rest of the American soccer community, I had a bit of fun at the club’s expense today. Examples included:

and finally…

That prompted this response from a woman who is listed on her Facebook page as the Director of New Media for the New York Cosmos.

It’s impressive as much for its ee cummings-esque eschewing of punctuation and capitalization as for its total lack of professionalism.

Now, I’ve had my balls busted by many, many PR people over 10 years of writing about sports. Not once have I ever received a response this unprofessional and one that I think best embodies the sheer idiocy and sleeze that I think underpin this Cosmos “organization.”

If this Cosmos organization wants to be perceived as something more than the “Hello Kitty” of American soccer, then it needs to act like it. If people, even PR folks, are unhappy w/what I write, I’m almost always happy to discuss it privately with them if they approach me in a polite way. This woman, quite clearly did not do that.

In this case, I’ve decided to print the correspondence because a) it was so unprofessional, b) at no point in that message did she ask for it to be off the record, and c) it just goes to show what a joke this iteration of the New York Cosmos is.

Finally, for reasons relating primarily to my dislike of getting sued (for the second time), I’ve decided to redact the woman’s name from the Facebook image and this post. Be sure though, if anyone from the Cosmos attempts to publicly deny this in any way, the gray boxes are coming off in a very big way.

Not getting “Sporting Kansas City,” not getting it one bit.

So rumors are flying out of KC that they’re going to get a new name along with a new stadium. The rumored name?

Sporting Kansas City.

Seriously.

That’s it.

Okay, I get that MLS teams are currently on a “let’s make ourselves sound as European as possible” jag now. And in some cases like Dallas, Toronto, and Salt Lake, the results weren’t that bad.

But it was transparent what those teams were trying to do. They were trying to look/sound like big successful European clubs like Arsenal FC, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, and on and on. I got it. It was poseurish, but at least they were posing in the direction of something successful.

But now, here’s KC seemingly wanting to associate itself with Sporting Lisbon, the third-most successful club in Europe’s sixth-best league that itself isn’t known in this country outside of some older folks in Newark, NJ and Fall River, MA.

This is just bad marketing and the kind of really misdirected poseurism (yeah, I made that up) that actually makes the league look more bush-league rather than less.

I get the whole European name thing. Hell, I cheer for DC United. I get it. I really do. This isn’t a slap at KC for Europeanizing their name, it’s a slap at KC for doing it really, really badly.

Please KC ownership team, while there’s still time, think this out. If you want to re-brand the team, do it. But think this move through. Sporting Kansas City doesn’t really stir any echos, only the bowels.

Moreno Walks Away, as DC United Sticks to the Script

It was a melancholy night at RFK Stadium Saturday, as it always is for DC United supporters when the season finale hits, and we know going in there’s no playoffs to be had.

Beyond simply being the final game, it’s the final tailgate, and in many cases, the final time you’ll share stories and beverages and food with friends until hope springs to life again in March.

This was combined with the fact that United fans were seeing the final game for club and MLS legend Jaime Moreno. Fittingly, Moreno drew and then converted a penalty for his 133rd career goal (for now, the all-time MLS best). It was what we had all hoped for – that Moreno would tally in his finale, and with the goal giving United a 2-1 lead over Toronto FC, we hoped the second part of the script would include United holding on to the lead and giving Moreno a victorious sendoff.

But in the end, even on this special night, it perhaps wasn’t wise to think United would shed what has been their 2010 identity. United did in fact give up the lead early in the second half, then fell behind as Toronto scored twice and walked out 3-2 winners.

Despite the score, most United fans stayed, and Moreno was given a warm, emotional sendoff when subbed off in the final 10 minutes. He exchanged greetings with all his teammates, and even with a couple members of classy and sporting TFC players. And in that moment, Moreno walked out of our lives forever. It was hard to watch Moreno’s family be so broken up after the game, as the player greeted fans in front of the supporters’ club sections at midfield.

Perhaps just as sad as that thought, is the realization of what now is left. Which, barring a keen offseason from the front office, is very little. There’s the young Andy Najar, and a full season of Branko Boskovic and Pablo Hernandez is somewhat intriguing to me.

But as we’ve seen multiple times this season, a complete defensive upgrade is needed, United have to be more dangerous on the wings, and perhaps an upgrade in goal could be sought (though, better defensive work might make the Troy Perkins/Bill Hamid combo look better, to be fair to both).

All of this, however, makes this the perfect time for Moreno to exit. There’s no reason for him to hang on for another season that may well look much like what we saw in 2010. He’s done all he can do, more than anyone else in league history. His records will be surpassed, his legacy never will be.

United have many changes to make, and even if we don’t like it, it’s time to move on. I know there’s a big segment of fans that would love to see Moreno play forever, just as we did when the end finally came for Ben Olsen as a player. United fans hold their heroes dear, and the bond between Moreno and the community has been tight and has uplifted all involved.

No one replaces Moreno. No one will step in next year and instantly become that kind of hero. And it would be unfair for us as fans to put those expectations on a single player.

Seeing the end of Moreno’s career is a monumental transmission for the club and the fans, even if his goal and assist numbers have declined (as almost everybody on the team’s did this year). With Moreno gone and Olsen not likely to continue as head coach, the links to the glory years are now just about completely fractured for good.

United have never gone this long without winning an MLS Cup. No one would make them favorites in 2011. There are many changes to be made, and there’s no time like the present to get down to business.

My heart wishes Moreno could be a part of it. But my brain knows that 99% of good things must end … and it was time for this to end. I wish Jaime Moreno nothing but the best in whatever endeavors he takes on. I have no doubt he will be a success. He will always be a hero to me.

And I wish United nothing but the best in getting themselves out of the MLS cellar. I have no doubt … there’s a long way to go.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what made last night all the more difficult.

The $50M ChampionsWorld lawsuit against MLS and USSF allowed to proceed


Charlie Stillitano just won’t go away

Remember ChampionsWorld? It was an organization setup by disgraced former MetroStars executive Charlie Stillitano to promote and organize friendlies between European and South American teams. After three years of promoting these matches, it went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Since 2006, it has been engaged in a lawsuit against US Soccer and MLS claiming $50 million in damages and now, according to Sports Business Journal, an Illinois judge has allowed the suit to proceed into court with the case starting as early as Spring 2011.

According to the SBJ piece here are the basics:
Now, before I go on, allow me to add that I am not a lawyer, but it appears to me that the basic question is whether the Ted Stevens Olympic Sports Act allows for US Soccer to charge fees to promoters when the events don’t immediately relate to the “Olympics, Paralympics, and Pan-American Games.” Now, after reading the law (PDF) and specifically the part “Granting sanction for amateur athletic competitions,” it looks like US Soccer is granted the sole ability to sanction and charge fees for competitions held inside the US. But the law does say that the fee must be “reasonable and nondiscriminatory.”

If the intent of the lawsuit is to challenge the USSF’s exclusive ability to sanction soccer matches held within the United States, then I suspect it’s fairly doomed. That ability of US Soccer was one of the secondary elements settled when MLS players’ lawsuit failed a few years back.

Thus, that appears to leave open the question of whether the fees were “reasonable and nondiscriminatory.” I must admit, I have no idea what “reasonable” means in a legal context.

What do folks out there in comment-land think? If anyone out there is a lawyer, I’d be curious to see how you think this lines up.

UPDATE: Here is the ruling from the judge. This looks to me like ChampionsWorld is going after the sort of inherent anti-trust exemption given to national sports governing bodies by the Olympic Sports Act. I find it hard to see how the ruling in the MLS players lawsuit doesn’t stop this one cold, but I’d like to hear from those more adept in reading legal opinions than I am.

Why an MLS move to the international calendar wouldn’t just be bad, it’d be destructive.

First of all, I am getting to this dreadfully late. I’ve been just hammered at work and with travel and thus have been terribly behind on writing here on the site. I am reminded by the saying my old Ohio State journalism professor Rose Hume used to bat dated story ideas down.

“This is a newspaper, not and oldspaper.”

Well, this is an oldpaper, my apologies.

Okay, so a week or two back there was brief blip of non-news after the Russian league decided to move itself to the standard FIFA/UEFA calendar. My good friend Brian Straus (Fanhouse) and I tweeted a bit about it and I said that beyond all the very difficult logistics of deciding to shift the entire calendar of your league’s matches (though not impossible, after over 100 yearsBritish Rugby League went to a summer calendar in 1996), the biggest problem with an MLS move to a European calendar is that it would completely undercut clubs’ abilities to promote themselves both in advertising and the media. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the media issue. Quite simply, it’s already really hard for most MLS teams to get themselves media coverage in the printed versions and even online versions of their locality’s newspapers. While it’s definitely better than in the league’s early years, it seems self-evident to me that moving the calendar into the meat of football/basketball seasons would immediately shove coverage of MLS to notes pages and agate columns, if not out of the section all together. You don’t have to have worked in journalism to see how the industry is hurting, all you have do is look at the reduced page and ad counts of major dailies like the Washington Post, USA Today, and Boston Globe, to name only a few. MLS would have to be suicidally dumb to think that its stature is such that its exposure wouldn’t take a major hit by forcing it to compete for space with coverage of the professional/college football and basketball.

Beyond print media, a winter move would almost certainly punt MLS out of any local news sports reports, an anachronism yes, but one still viewed by many people that I would perceive as casual fans. Additionally, you would waive goodbye to what few seconds MLS already receives on Sportscenter and other mainstream ESPN programming like SportsNation, PTI, etc. There’s also the issue of finding time around ESPN’s near-constant broadcasts of NBA, college football and college basketball to get MLS’ live broadcasts on the air. That already difficult task would be made nearly impossible if the calendar changed.

Finally, a move to football/basketball seasons would make it far more difficult for MLS clubs to buy advertising time in local print/TV/radio. The NFL is one of the few things that virtually guarantees large numbers of eyeballs/ears and as a result, TV/radio stations and newspapers raise their ad rates knowing that companies want to get their logos in front of one of the last large male audiences left in the media landscape. Will MLS clubs be able to advertise as much, if at all, if forced to pay the NFL-inflated rates?

Finally, I know there are some of you saying to yourselves that MLS doesn’t need any of this because online media is going to replace it all anyway. You’re wrong. The internet (especially in sports) is a narrowcasting medium, to people already interested in the subject of the websites/social media they’ve already surfed to, whether it’s pro soccer (Bigsoccer), snarkiness (Deadspin), or undignified sucking up to B-list celebrities (Kyle Martino’s Twitter feed). Coverage and advertising in seemingly anachronistic places like newspapers, local television and even radio are opportunities (especially in the advertising deadzone of Summer) to expose MLS to potential new fans. MLS, as an “emerging” league, simply can’t afford to turn those opportunities down.

Seriously though, I don’t think we’ll ever see promotion and relegation in MLS and I view it and its proponents as annoyances. This is different. I actually worry that the league could, in a fit of arrogance, actually try this and that it would be really, really destructive on the league and sport’s ability to promote itself in this country.

See, I managed to get through an entire column about MLS possibly aping Europe without calling anyone any names… except for Kyle Martino – soccer’s less funny, more feminine version of Chelsea Handler.

Olsen Gets the Keys to DC United …

… Here ya go club legend Ben Olsen … here is what you have always been waiting for. Here is your chance to run a big-time Major League Soccer club with lots of tradition and shiny trophies and big banners and … 3 wins.

Come on down, Ben Olsen!! You’ve won an MLS head coaching gig!!! Let’s see what you’ve won …

Enjoy! And remember, once you buy a prize, it’s yours to keep.

OK, so I’m mixing my game shows, but whatever.

Ben Olsen is in fact the new interim head coach at DC United, as the powers that be fired Curt Onalfo this morning. Onalfo leaves with a 3-12-3 record, giving United a league-worst 12 points on the season. It’s never good when the league’s most decorated team has fewer points than a first-year expansion team, but DC is looking up at Philadelphia (and everyone else) in the standings right now. United scored just 12 goals in 18 games, and has allowed a league-worst 31. Actually, the 12 goals scored is a league-worst, too, but I wasn’t sure how many times you wanted to see “league-worst” in the same paragraph.

What? That’s the fourth time? Oh. Sorry.

Olsen is in a really bad spot here. Perhaps United’s most beloved player of all time, he finally listened to his ankles and moved to the sidelines after his long playing career was over. It wasn’t expected that as an assistant this year, he’d be very visible. But with Onalfo gone, Olsen now steps into the spotlight of a situation where injuries, suspect player acquisition, and the uncertainty of the club’s future plans off the field all combine to make the position of DC United Head Coach not nearly as enviable as it once might have been.

Some might make the comparison to the Red Bulls putting Richie Williams in as an interim coach last year, where New York were 2-16-4 before Williams took over, 3-3-2 after. But the Red Bulls exited that season knowing they were going to have a new stadium, and it appears based on what we’ve seen with the signings of Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, the club knew it was going to be making big name signings (these things don’t happen overnight). No matter what Williams did, the organization had legitimate reason to believe that better days on the horizon.

Now, with Williams back to an assistant’s role for 2010, the Red Bulls are in second place in the East, a mere 15 points clear of flounding United.

United doesn’t have those reasons for optimism that the Red Bulls did. There have been glimmers of quality from new signings Branko Boskovic and Pablo Hernandez, and the team has an emerging star in young Andy Najar – but many acquisitions in the last 2-3 years haven’t worked out – quite of few of whom aren’t even around anymore. There is no certainty about a future home here, or whether the club will even remain in the area much beyond this season or next, unless a stadium deal suddenly appears on the horizon.

It’s a very fair question to wonder just how much changing coaches at this point is really going to matter. It doesn’t change the way the club identifies players and signs them, and it doesn’t change the organizational philosophy going forward. Though just in firing a coach mid-season, United have already taken one step to break away from its past traditions. Even Thomas Rongen, Ray Hudson, and Tom Soehn got to see out their final years.

United fans will root on Olsen like crazy. He was that popular, and we all want to see him do well. Some probably hoped he’d be in this position some day – but I’m not sure this was the situation they had envisioned. It’d be a shame to see Olsen finish the season something like 2-7-3 because he just doesn’t have much healthy talent to work with, and then never get another chance. Williams has had two chances as the interim Red Bulls coach, but hasn’t gotten the call for a top job yet (it should be noted, he’s gone 4-6-4 in 14 games as head coach).

If he wins, of course, Olsen will be a hero. For him, I really hope that’s the case. But deep down, I’ll be stunned if this one move turns around a club that has problems far more reaching than who is calling the shots from the touchline.

Good luck Benny, we’re all counting on you.

MLS and the USSF are heading in the right direction in youth development matters


DC United academy product Andy Najar, age 17, battles against Landon Donovan
Photo courtesy of Nick Eckert, more of his work available here.

In the last week or so, we’ve been lucky enough to read two great pieces on the changes in American youth development by Bill Archer and Tom Dunmore. Ever since our elimination from the World Cup by Ghana (and Jurgen Klinsmann’s subsequent comments), the manner by which American soccer develops its young talent has been at the forefront of discussion topics.

I’m glad Bill wrote what he wrote not only because I happen to agree with it but because I got a far better sense of what the ODP/State Cup system was and how it apparently related to all the other youth development schemes out there. I didn’t play competitive soccer growing up and my brother, who did, decided he didn’t need the aggravation of playing on our high school’s hyper-competitive team and ended up attending UVA to study history rather than to play on the varsity.

The only YD setup I was familiar with was the MLS-based systems that have entered existence since I’ve been writing about the sport. Thus, it was really informative to get a summary of how ODP worked and from the looks of it, it didn’t work one bit. It’s clear to me now that when people like Klinsmann moan that our system is pay-to-play, that’s the system they appear to be talking about primarily.

And that’s precisely the system that MLS academies and the USSF Development Academy System are working to solve, literally as we speak. It’s not so much that Klinsmann and the baying hoards are wrong. For the most part, they are not. It’s that there are solutions taking hold and bringing in someone with the specific mandate to blow them up and start over just doesn’t make any sense.

That said, while I agree with the sentiment that MLS is coming in and blowing away all the other YD options, I think he should’ve given a bit more credit to the other USSF Development Academy Clubs. I think they play an equally important role in two specific areas:

  1. In soccer-heavy areas outside MLS regions such as Raleigh-Durham, St. Louis, Baltimore, and the whole of Florida, the USSF Academy clubs provide a good learning environment and top competition for kids who don’t live in MLS’ 14 current US markets.
  2. In some areas, it just might not be possible for a single club or academy to find every talent. For example in SoCal, Houston, or New York, there’s more than enough room for multiple USSF Academy clubs as opposed to just one MLS team trying to cover hundreds of kids over hundreds of miles.

Now, one question I’d love to ask MLS development types is how do the MLS clubs work with the other clubs. For example, what if it was Potomac Soccer Club in nearby Rockville or McLean Youth Soccer in Virginia who found Andy Najar on that playing field? They both have their own teams in the USSF academy league. Say he lights up the Academy league, how does DC United get him on to its academy’s roster without leaving the smaller clubs pissed off? Now, maybe the smaller clubs simply understand their status compared to the MLS academies and justify it by adding Najar to their alumni page and hoping his future glory rubs off on them in some way. But if the plan right now is for all the non-MLS academy clubs to simply supply the MLS academies, I can see some fissures opening up in the, so far, seemingly well-operated USSF Academy System. I might be wrong here. I’m just curious to hear how that relationship works within the academy structure.

Moving on to Dunmore’s piece on how college soccer does or doesn’t relate to elite talent development, I am one of those who believe that college soccer, while not ideal in many ways, will continue to provide talent to MLS and the US national team. I don’t think it’s the right place for truly elite talent, but those who say that it (and the collegiate draft) should be entirely eliminated are both unrealistic and shortsighted.

If I had to pick a sport whose talent development system to call my favorite, I’d say it’s hockey. In hockey, American and Canadian players can choose between attending a US college and getting some education or playing fully professional major junior hockey starting at age 16 in the Canadian Hockey League. Both systems have their pluses and minuses but both systems regularly produce elite talent whether its college players like Zach Parise (North Dakota), Martin St. Louis (Vermont), and Ryan Miller (Michigan State) or CHL guys like Bobby Ryan, Sydney Crosby or the scores of other Canadians who’ve come through major juniors. The point is that both systems place plenty of players in the NHL and Olympics.

American soccer needs a system where both systems work. I think, with the development of an elite MLS/USSF-led development program we’re finally building the system analagous to major juniors to go alongside the collegiate game. That said, I think college hockey is a far better vehicle for talent development than college soccer (far more games + better rules), but hopefully the NCAA will move to make the kinds of changes to its soccer rules and regulations to make it a better development venue. Of course the NCAA is an infuriatingly slow-moving and political organization, but there’s evidence that’s already underway.

I think it’s irresponsible to simply say that we should send any 15-year old who believes they can play professional soccer into massive European-style fully-professional academies. I saw the recent NYT piece on Ajax and wasn’t wowed, I was terrified. I found the whole system utterly dehumanizing and even more than that, totally dechildhooding. (Apologies for totally making that word up.) I don’t want that. I don’t want soccer players chewed up and destroyed before puberty like figure skating, gymnastics and tennis.

If I had to choose between the US winning the World Cup and the US not turning soccer into a sport that damages and chews out its young, I’d choose the latter every single time. A trophy, any trophy, just isn’t worth the kind of damage that I’ve seen in so many other sports, here and abroad. That said, I don’t think that kind of binary choice has to exist in American soccer.

The key now isn’t to overreact to every disappointing “phenom” or disappointing result that rolls down the pike. If there is a next step to take, it’s to monitor the USSF academies and ensure best practices are spread across all teams in all areas, whether they emanate from MLS organizations or other clubs. Also, the USSF needs to keep pushing the NCAA to make it a better venue for developing players by trying to get D-1 teams to play more matches, practice a bit more, and get its rules closer to the FIFA standard.

Believe it or not, but I think we’re finally heading the right direction in terms of elite talent development. And whether you like it or not, it’s the much maligned USSF and MLS leading the way.