21 February 2008

Out on business, and everyone goes crazy!

And, judging by the headlines and comments, the following occurred while I was away. Clyde Simms lost his job, Ben Olsen and Jeff Carroll will be out for the season, Pat Carroll is a goal-scoring machine, and the stadium deal was decided to be a taxpayer ripoff that would sell the children of DC into bondage so that we could play soccer on a field built by the labor camps of third graders. Ah, fun. Let's pull out the deconstruction toolkit and get to work.

DEPARTMENT OF OVERSTATED HEADLINES - "SIMMS JOB IN JEOPARDY": If the Times is like most papers (and who knows on that count) then John Haydon does not write his own headlines. Which gets him off the hook for the overblown headline about Clyde Simms losing his starting role. I mean, John's main source for the article is... Clyde Simms. I doubt he's really saying "Please Coach Soehn, I should be benched!" I mean, is he?

But the soft-spoken Simms knows the defensive-midfield role isn't his to lose. Another player at his position is draftee Dan Stratford, an Englishman who attended West Virginia who has looked good in preseason training.

"He is a very smart player and can play this position very well, so I definitely have competition for this spot," Simms said.

So, Clyde Simms says some nice things about Stratford, and we get this? Nah, he's just being the soft-spoken "Gonna show up to play every day, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains..." kinda guy.

TYPICALLY IN AN ARGUMENT, YOU MARSHALL FACTS, CREATE A CHAIN OF LOGIC, THEN REACH AN OPINION: Look, your point may be correct. But if you say things like "Betting on such a risky source of public funds to finance another massive, debt-incurring project like a $230 million soccer stadium might be good for sports, but it’s dangerous for the city," well, you need to demonstrate those facts. See, I can say anything, and it sound ominous. For instance "Letting college kids write newspaper editorials might be educational, but it threatens our American Way of Life (TM) and could lead to global warming." You gotta prove these things, not just state them as fact.

MORE PLEASE: Yes, good.

I HATE ALARMISM: But the UnitedMania gang may have been write to sound diverse alarums about Ben Olsen.

Okay, I hope to be back to work now. Let's hope so.

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Better Refs in MLS this Season?

Dont' hold your breath: The essential fairness of a single national test....
It is obvious in order to protect the referees they wanted to referee in the MLS ...


15 February 2008

Stadium Links Roundup

Curious placement of ads...

Any talk of getting a stadium in the district should be welcome, although color me pessimistic about the team being offered a good deal by the current mayor. Unfortunately, Fenty burned a lot karma with United fans by the changing the parameters of the Poplar Point deal at the last minute and opening the bidding in a way that looked like it purposefully excluded MacFarlane's plans.

I'm not saying that the District owes DC United a sweetheart deal, or that DC should enter into a deal that doesn't make financial sense for the city - D's written about criteria to evaluate said proposal as much in the past. We should be suspicious the latest offer. It does show that the mayor may really want to keep United in DC - and more tellingly, that the team leaving the city is a distinct possibility. Now have 2 suitors in the District government and Maryland, which is 2 more than we had just a few months ago.

Thoughts from the blogosphere:
  • Center Holds It: "Still, all cause for elation aside, a couple warps and wrinkles loom."
  • Sideline Views: "I mean, how the Rapids have a nice place but D.C. has to play in a fossil of a stadium is strange."
  • The Offside Rules: "before all you DCenters start throwing your celebratory tailgate down on the Anacostia there are two things you should note."
  • UnitedMania: "It is unclear how the funds will be distributed and what the city will pay for"

14 February 2008

The Fenty Stadium Initiative: Does This Make Any Sense To Anyone?

The number one topic of conversation today must be the Washington Post's A1 article on Mayor Fenty's pending public support for development of a soccer stadium at Poplar Point. This development is, naturally, being hailed a huge one, even with everyone acknowledging that we are still years away from playing in a home of our own. Certainly there are reasons to hope, but also reasons to be concerned.

Let's start with the key grafs...

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has proposed using public funds to build a professional soccer stadium in Southeast Washington that would cost as much as $190 million, a drastic departure from his stance against public financing of the Nationals baseball stadium...Even if the council agreed to use public money for a soccer stadium, the larger Poplar Point development project is likely to cost much more in public funds. The Clark proposal could cost $200 million to $350 million for infrastructure, including roads, sewers, lights and the park. Some of those costs almost certainly would fall on the city.

There is one unambiguous fact: Mayor Fenty is sincere in his desire for a new stadium. How can we be sure? Because Fenty's plan manages to maximize his vulnerability to any charge of hypocrisy a political opponent would make. The original United initiative did not call for public funds to be used for the construction of the stadium, just infrastructure improvements (which Nakamura puts a $350 million tag on.) In a way, MacFarlane had provided Fenty perfect political cover for supporting a stadium, since public funds would not be used for the construction. Now Fenty has gone further -- the original infrastructure costs are still there, but we're adding $190 million on top of it. Fenty's opposition to the Nats stadium was well documented, and this represents a choice that seems to be in direct opposition with his earlier views. It represents a huge political move that Fenty, had he taken the original United deal, didn't have to necessarily take.

So let's be thankful for Mayor Fenty's support, even if I have no understanding of how he came to this decision. And, admittedly, even I am a little nervous about using public funds to finance the construction of a stadium. I enjoyed the idea that United would build it and that subsidies would be used for infrastructure which would not just benefit the stadium, but the entire development and area.

Which brings us to the following causes for concern: Why did Fenty abandon a way of pursuing the stadium that would have given him cover for a more politically risky (to him, at least) method? Who will own the stadium? How many people who were okay with infrastructure improvements suddenly rebel against public financing for the stadium itself, and will soccer prove an easier target to kick (hah!) than baseball? I don't know. This is not the development (in any sense of the word) that I expected a year ago. And while I'm happy to have Mayor Fenty on board, I'm more nervous than ever about how the city will respond to the stadium.

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12 February 2008

Grab a Cup of Coffee and a "I Voted in Arlington" Sticker

RANDOM POLITICAL RANT: Yes, it is cold this morning, but I still managed to drag myself to my local polling place and vote. Now, frankly, I'm not sure that one individual vote matters, but I'm pretty sure that politicians care about the types of people who vote. Old people vote, so politicians care about them. If nothing else, the fact that people under 40 (let alone under 30 like me) are getting out to the polls makes me think that perhaps some politicians will actually stop writing off the kids as people they can ignore. Plus, I want myself a soccer stadium. That may not be on the ballot, but if people who do want soccer stadiums vote, then maybe that'll be a nice bonus. Okay, that's a dream. But still...

FIFA LOVES EL DIABLO: I'm not sure what prompted FIFA.COM to run a "Marco Etcheverry - Not Just in Bolivia" article, but I like it. One of the things that this league is in danger of occasionally is losing touch with its past while it tries to reconfigure for future growth. We're fortunate in that "Tradition" is not just a catch-phrase around these parts, but something we take somewhat seriously. In a little over a decade, we have had some great moments. Let's not forget our early years. I think this guy agrees with me, and I also am pretty sure he's doing something about it.

DID YOU EVER PLAY SIM CITY AND RUN OUT OF ROOM TO ZONE COOL THINGS IN? Tim Lemke in the Times has an interesting article about the pace of stadium construction in the USA. One of the things I think it highlights is the fact that we need to move on the stadium situation now, in the next year or two, or the entire situation nation-wide may be bogged down beyond belief:

"We look at the U.S. pro sports market as about 80 percent built out," said Bob White, director of marketing for Kansas City-based architect HOK Sport Venue Event, whose numerous designs include Oriole Park and Nationals Park. "So we're not at the end of that phase, but we can certainly see the end."

"SYNERGY" - NOT JUST A CORPORATE BUZZWORD. OKAY, IT PROBABLY IS. HOW ABOUT "WIN-WIN" INSTEAD?Kyle McCarthy breaks down the Gomez to Colorado trade: "this deal benefits both teams and the league." I agree.

IF LA CAN PAY HIM, HE SHOULD GO: It's no secret that I like Jay Needham, if just because he was willing to do an interview with us. So the story that he might be heading to LA (via Goff) saddens me, since I think L.A. is pretty atrocious to people who aren't marquee attractions. But if they can pay him above the developmental salary, he should take the money and DC, not being willing to pay him, should trade him. I would want him here, but he had every right to want more than $30K for his services, and his time at Puerto Rico vindicated his decision.

Busy day for me, but I'll see if I can check back in later.

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11 February 2008

Gomez Gave Us Options, Even in Departure

I'm working on putting together an something I hope you might find interesting, but let's spend at least one post dedicated to the most important player that D.C. United had from 2004 to 2007: Christian Gomez. He is arguably the reason we won the MLS Cup in 2004. He was critical to the 2006 and 2007 Supporter's Shield runs. His free kicks were frequently the difference between one point and three points (such as last year against Houston.) I did say that Christian Gomez may not reach the highest order in the D.C. United pantheon, but that's primarily because he was only here for three and a half years. Does it seem longer? If so, it is because he was so good that it was hard to conceive of a time when he wasn't here.

What made Gomez so great was the versatility he brought to the field. He ran the offense, and made defenses respect that we had three legitimate scoring threats. Who could they eliminate? Gomez? Moreno? Eskandarian or Emilio? Someone would be free, and sometimes it was Ben Olsen, or Fred, or they just couldn't taken them all out. Gomez was the reason teams couldn't combat us the same way we'd combat Angel (deny him service, then watch the attack wither). They might try, and hack at his shins and ankles all day long, but even then we'd earn free kicks that could be even more dangerous.

And now, even as he leaves, we learn that Colorado had to give us their Designated Player slot for a few years after Toronto made a similar offer for him. Even if Christian Gomez isn't a Designated Player, it is clear he was worth the price of one, and to have the opportunity to sign a new player or promote one to a DP slot after the signing of Gallardo is immense. It is only fitting that Gomez would not just give us options while on the field, but expand the universe of options in his departure. Mr. Gomez, we salute you, and provided you don't grab your crotch at the fans when you spark Colorado to a nice scoring move, you will always receive a warm welcome at RFK. Thank you sir.

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08 February 2008

Gomez and Schedule released

First, as we've all been hearing all along and talking about but now its official, Goff reports that Christian Gomez's rights have been traded to Colorado Rapids. I'm not sure why we can negotiate trades so easily with Colorado. Its hard to cheer against them when they play other MLS teams since they love former DCU defenders. Will Gomez turn them around and save Clavijo's job? Who cares, its not our team. As we've said before, not re-signing Christian for Gallardo is a huge, but calculated, gamble. I'm cautiously optimistic about the trade, but I realize its really hard to deal away such a well-known, MLS-tested player as Gomez. We'll always remember him for the 2004 MLS Cup run, the sick goal against Chivas, and drumming in Meadowlands stands with the fans.

United also released their 2008 schedule yesterday. A local TV deal doesn't appear to be hammered out yet, as Comcast times for matches aren't listed. In the past, these are worked out pretty late in the offseason, so its not a cause for panic. The team has 7 regular season games during the week, 6 Sunday games - including a 9am game coinciding with the Euro Cup final, and 17 Saturday games. There are no regular season games scheduled in July, while August will see the team playing 6 games, including NY twice. The Beckham game, since your non-soccer friends will be asking you, is on Sunday June 29th at noon.

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Promote Integrity - Raise Salaries

We are largely insulated from the darker sides of soccer in the United states. Not for us the ethnic and religous violence that accompanied games in Scotland and England, the racist chanting in Spain, the match fixing and general seedy corruption of Italy. We talk of making the game more like the rest of the world, but we mean that primarily in terms of passion of fans and level of skill. I doubt many of us really think the rest of it could happen here. That could be willful naivete. Consider the story coming out of Houston in the wake of the USA-Mexico match (via AOL Fanhouse) It's entirely possible this is just a random act of violence, but since we don't know, we must at least consider the possibility that this was a situation of people targeting Mexican fans. Yes, there's nothing to say right now that was the motive, but we just don't know. Even if it is not the case, we would be smart to think about some of the problems the rest of the world has with soccer, and how to stop those problems from developing over here.

Which bring us to the low salaries for developmental players. We have seen the specter of match fixing overseas in soccer for some time. There has also been the constant background noise of match fixing in tennis as well. The rise of legal online proposition wagering systems had made it easier to make money off of fixing events in a sports match.

The United States, as much as we might pretend otherwise, is not immune. Forget the Black Sox scandal and Pete Rose, it was within a year that we had an NBA referee admit to betting on games he officiated. The basic premise of any sporting competition that we see is that both sides, on the field, are trying their best to win. Without that assumption, we are not watching sport, we are watching at best a pseudo-reality show. MLS developmental players, typically, are role players. Frequently they play in the back line or defensive midfield. For their trouble, they earn between $18,000 and $30,000 a year. There is the prospect of a better contract in the future, but then again, maybe not. Bobby Boswell thought he might be getting paid, but he's still at a shockingly low salary for Houston. Devon McTavish made $30,000 last year, and saw several starts for United. Jeff Carroll made $12,900 for the year. These are low salaries, which players augment through perfectly legal means.

Still, given the cost of living in this area, it is not hard to see the temptation. A one-time payoff for hundreds of thousands is a temptation that I think most players could ignore, but if you turn the screws tight enough on a player, might they not buckle? If you can't have a keeper on the take, might it not be good enough to have a Center Back make a few bad passes in his own end to set up opposing attackers? And MLS is still not on the sports radar throughout much of the world, or even in this nation. Perhaps no one would notice a set of strange bets on a peer-to-peer gambling system based in Europe? For the player, perhaps now their integrity keeps them away from throwing a game. But add in a sick family member, a worry about that nagging ankle injury, and a brother in serious debt, and you have to see that it could be quite difficult to resist an offer for some big cash and the chance of not being found out.

I do not believe that this is a problem that MLS currently has. But I do believe, given the salary structure, it is a problem MLS is inviting in its future. The economics of the MLS business model have demanded that salaries remain low for many players, but those economics are changing. The damage of a gambling or match fixing scandal in MLS could be profound, and so it is in the interest of the single-entity to remove that temptation as much as possible. Yes, oversight is good, but the best insurance is to make the risk/reward ratio not favorable to any illicit gambling offers. If I am making $12,900 a year, like Jeff Carroll, I don't know if I would have the moral backbone to say no to $150,000, especially if I had a family that could really use that money. If I am making $40,000 a year, that's a different story. I at least make enough to get by on, and perhaps and not in a desperate situation. It may be tough, but it may not seem impossible.

It is not just a moral issue in paying players better, it is an issue that helps ensure MLS's own survival and marketability as a sport. It cuts profit now, but helps insure against a bigger potential loss later on. Call it an insurance down payment.

It's possible others are making this argument, but I haven't seen it. Perhaps I am missing something obvious, or missing where others are making this case. If so, please let me know.


07 February 2008

Transition-In Planning

Okay, let's put my other thoughts on hold. There have been discussions regarding the start of United's season, and how it might take time to integrate all the new pieces. That we shouldn't panic if we have the same 0-3-1 start that we had last season. Well, with the release of the 2008 Schedule, I'm willing to say panic is a decent option. Your first two months:

MARCH: @Harbour View, Harbour View, @Kansas City

APRIL: Toronto, @RSL, Columbus, RSL

Even with our slow start last year, we still got into the semis of the CONCACAF Champions Cup, and I demand the same this year. That gives us five MLS regular season games, during which United was 1-3-1 last year. Our opponents last year were @Colorado, Kansas City, @Columbus, New England, Chivas. Those teams finished 2007 at 1.17, 1.33, 1.57, 1.67, and 1.77 ppg respectively, for an aggregate of 1.5 ppg when you consider them all.

Our first five MLS opponents this year had ppg of 1.33, 0.83, 0.9, 1.57, and 0.9 ppg respectively, for an aggregate of 1.11ppg. I know, Toronto brings the noise, RSL is a banana skin team for us and is better with the Argentinians, and Columbus is not as bad as people think. Excuses all. The fact remains that we are playing only one team that was in playoffs last year, and last year we played three. Even if you don't want to think of this as an easy opening schedule, you have to admit that the games, on average, will be tougher than this the rest of the season.

United may struggle and drop points in their opening five matches. Fine. But starting 0-3 or 1-3-1 is not, and should not be, acceptable. We are being given an opportunity to get things right before things get tough. We should take advantage of it.

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Is anyone else at least somewhat relieved that there was a 2-2 draw in the USA-Mexico match last night? I get the sense that occasionally US fans believe their own hype when it comes to "owning" Mexico on U.S. Soil, and so a gentle reminder that to our fans now is a useful thing, especially in a friendly. They can't all be 2-0. Better now than later. This is a quick thought, I'm working on a bit more later.


05 February 2008

Voices Carry...

...see, because I waited 'til Tuesday for this post responding to reader comments. I know! You were expecting some cheesy Super Tuesday joke, not an Aimee Mann 1980s anti domestic violence sub reference. I shall leave the Super Tuesday type posts to those more fit to make them.

I like to highlight disagreements with me, or at least perceived disagreements with me, in this post, simply because I enjoy the lack of group-think. That's what this site is somewhat dedicated to. We do our analysis, we make up our minds. If you look at things and reach a different conclusion, well, that's just as good in my book. So, regarding the "Latin Flair" (a loaded term in and of itself) and what it means for United and MLS, let's address some of the comments from Friday's post.

First, to everyone who wrote in either agreeing, or at least saying how they enjoyed the analysis, thank you. I value those comments, especially when, as on Friday, I was a bit unsure of my territory. Sometimes it just helps to hear that I'm not utterly over-reading, or insane. Really, I get insecure. You may have noticed.

Now, to the critiques. JCM, of the most reputable Poplar Point Perspective, noted one concern: "...it bothers me that United's top draft pick went to France because he would max out at a $30,000 contract. If United was a bit better with the home grown talent, they wouldn't need to look quite as far for the $100-300K players." This is a valid point, and the fact is that the Salary Cap constricts how we pay players, especially draft picks. Now, when the players' Collective Bargaining Agreement comes up for renegotiation, we should watch closely. If MLS suits take a hard line in keeping minimum salaries low, and stringent caps in place, then MLS may well be shooting itself in the foot when it comes to retaining domestic talent. The departures of Needham and Jacobson represent a trend which is good on two fronts - it allows these players a chance to get more for their services than they would in MLS, and fires a nice warning shot across the bow. For years the Collective Bargaining Agreement was simply about cost-containment for MLS, and minimizing the losses. Now with the movement towards more profitable franchises, these austerity measures begin to look extreme. If there is new wealth coming into the league, some of it must be shared with players other than the Designated Player signings. Watch the CBA negotiations in a year or so.

Tarheel Tom takes issue with my tone: "Throwing out the accusations of racism was a bit hasty don't you think?" Tucksider echoes this in one of his comments, "one of the few things i often disagree with in your writing is what seems like a tendency to assume the basest motives in other writers." This is fair, and it stems from an odd situation. Let me take this opportunity before someone big sees this and gets angry to clarify -- I do not want to accuse Ridge Mahoney or Slow Francis of being racist. Mr. Mahoney is an excellent analyst, and Mr. SF is an excellent court jester. They do their jobs well. However, both I felt were loading the language in unfortunate ways. Mr. SF did it because sometimes to bring the funny, you need to bring the discomfort (which I'm fine with.) Mr. Mahoney was a bit more problematic, because I felt he didn't need to charge his writing quite in that way except to create a feeling of fear and foreboding that his analysis did not require. I disagree with his point, but his point was fine. The language was unnecessary, and while not hurtful, was drifting that way. The even more racist comments that are out there I think can be found through some easy google searches. I do not wish to link to them, so instead I went with the cases that were not nearly as offensive. That was a disservice to both SF and Mr. Mahoney, and I apologize.

Now, on the more substantive post, Tarheel Tom concludes his point with this:

Almost our entire audience are US citizens. They follow and DC not only because of the team but because it is the premier american club in existence. The defining term being american, if it is simply a team of brazilians and argentines then it might as well be independiente or Corinthians.

Now, this is a matter of perpective, and I think I disagree. While the majority of our audience is US Citizens, we do not bond to this team because of its American component. Emilio, Gomez, Etcheverry, Moreno, Raul Diaz Arce were loved by our US Fanbase on aggregate just as much, if not more, than Olsen, Pope, Harkes, Lassiter, or Boswell. Perhaps the hook for DC fans back in the day was the return of Harkes, but the bond that exists now is beyond that. I care about goals, tackles, and silverware, and do not care for nationality. I root for Ben Olsen not because he his an American, but because he provides the right attitude on the field and plays his heart out. When Ben Olsen made the US National team for Germany, I was happy for him and because I do root for the USA, but I was also happy the day Bolivia came to its senses and finally recalled Moreno to their squad.

Now, on to the issue of "building the National team." Kelly quite correctly notes that:

When MLS was getting off the ground, one of its stated objectives was, indeed, to develop "American" players. Given its dearth of youth programs, its worse than miserly salary cap and an utter disregard of international schedules, developing the "American" player yet remains one of the league's aims.

I concede all of these points, but I feel they are irrelevant. The goal for each team is winning, and however MLS tries to create incentives for developing US players, the only goal for my team is winning games however they can. Now, you can argue, as Kelly and Mr. Mahoney both do, that MLS needs to do a better job with those incentives. Still, at no point should we ever mistake that the league's goals and the team's goals are, or even should be, the same. To goal of the team is to win the league, and its strategies for working in that direction should never be confused with the league's priorities. The league doesn't like dynasties that upset parity. I kind of like them, provided it is my team that's the dynasty. Teams love to be a dynasty. Just ask those crazy kids in Houston.

And that's the thing. When D.C. United was just doing its own thing, most commenters are correct that no one objected. The concern now is that D.C. has become the model, and now the objections are coming. That somehow it is unfair.

Now, the most fundamental point that I need to make is this. We are conditioned to view the influx of foreign players and the development of American players as a zero sum game. Certainly the salary cap and low developmental salaries bolster that view. So let me agree with everyone who says we must raise the cap and pay a (for lack of a better term) living wage to all of our players. I agree with all of you. We are now beyond the time when economic reality made it impossible for MLS to be expected to take care of the new developing players. And I agree with Kelly that sitting on the bench in Europe may be just as beneficial to a player's skills as sitting on a bench in Columbus (which is to say, not at all). But even the players have figured this out, looking to go places where they will get time on the field. Perkins is not the third string at West Ham, he is the starter in the European North. Adu is getting substitute time with Benfica, not rotting in Madrid's reserves. Needham wanted to start and earn more money in Puerto Rico. They have made smart choices all (the Michael Bradley example is also relevant, although he was playing pretty damn well in New York before Mo got rid of him). Even Benny Feilhaber realizes that benched for Derby sucks, and was willing to go to Israel.

Finally, one more point. I have carefully not said that I am sure that United's signings, or any team's South American signings, will bring success in 2008 or upcoming seasons. I don't know. I think I've been clear on that. If United is barking up the wrong tree, they will lose. I will say that looking at United's history shows that they have gotten good returns on South American talent, and to that extent I can understand the desire to double-down on that continent. But if they were wrong, and if another team shows that developing American talent is more effective in MLS, then United will lose for a few seasons... and then they will adjust. I am not saying that players are better simply because they are from South America, I am saying that United is better at identifying the right, affordable talent in South America than they are in the United States. We, to perhaps exaggerate a bit, suck at identifying talent in the United States that we can keep and use. And perhaps that will bite us. As I have said, this season may be more about the choices of the front office than the players on the pitch.

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04 February 2008

Value Over Replacement | Replacement Over Value

This weekend was marvelously rewarding for neutrals. There was Fulham's nice comeback against Villa, an amazing Boca-River game that made me glad we missed out on Palermo, as well as that Super Bowl thing, and for once the Puppy Bowl was upstaged by the Kitten Half-Time show (last year... not so much). But you can feel that United's return is imminent, and so we must put away the shiny distractions and focus in on the upcoming season.

First, John Haydon devotes himself to the Big Question about United's upcoming season: "Gallardo likely will earn more in one year than Gomez did in his entire United career, but can he match Gomez's numbers?"

Actually, that question is a bit misleading. I don't care if Gallardo can match Gomez's prodigous output in terms of goals. If you head over to UnitedMania and download the soccer show podcast, you can hear about just how remarkable Gomez's goal scoring talent was. Still, if Gallardo gets fewer goals, but sets up the attack and perhaps even involves the wingers to a greater degree, then he can have fewer goals and still be an upgrade. He needs to make the offense work, but he doesn't need to do the work of the offense.

Quick side note: Did anyone else feel a bit queasy seeing Gallardo with the 10 shirt at the press conference before we had traded Gomez's rights. I mean, yes, we know Gomez is leaving, and that Gallardo will get the 10 shirt, but until we finalize that trade, it feels to me like that shirt is still Christian's. Just saying... It struck me as an uncomfortable moment.

Still, the point remains. Will Gallardo not only be as good as Christian Gomez, but so much better that we get down on our knees and thank the Front Office for bringing him in (the way we would for, say, Emilio). That's not hyperbole, that's the level of success we should expect and demand for a player with a Designated Player salary. It is a huge question, but one that we will get a good preview of with CONCACAF action soon. Maybe Harbor View isn't like most MLS teams, but I think we saw from the Olimpia match that Emilio was for real. Can Gallardo provide the same good early returns.

Also from the UnitedMania podcast was the idea that we have to be patient and let this team gel. They argue that if United starts 0-3 again, it is okay because the team will naturally have a transitional time. I respectfully disagree. While I have no problem with a 1-1-1 start, 0-3 is a cause for concern. Yes, it may be a transitional issue, or it could just be a dysfunctional preview of a 0-7-2 start, and that's not acceptable. This team has made moves, and while it may not be utterly fair to judge the team three games into a season, I intend to do so. Last year 0-3 was solved by some decent formation adjustments by Soehn combined with Emilio getting over his transitional problems. That may not be the same situation a poor start would portend this year.

Final note as I'm jotting things down -- Many of you had excellent comments in the previous post here, and I do intend to respond to them. Sometimes comment discussions are so good that I don't want to get involved, and this was the case. Many of you who disagreed with the post (in whole or in part) made excellent points though, and I do not want you to confuse my silence with dismissal. I do owe you all a response, which I will give at the post level. There's a lot of good thought in those 19 comments to date.

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01 February 2008

Priority and Strategy

Or, why I don't give a damn about Nationalism when thinking about United's starting XI.

Emphasize your strengths, minimize your weaknesses. It is one of the most fundamental rules of achieving success in any endeavor, and it is true of soccer as well. It is true in terms of how an individual plays his game, how a team adopts tactics for another team, how a manager plans for a season, and how a front office establishes a long-term plan. D.C. United has, in this off-season, placed this plan into overdrive with its acquisitions from CONMEBOL countries. At first, United was thought to be working a primarily Bolivian connection with Etcheverry and Moreno. But the scope expanded from country to continent with the arrival of Christian Gomez (Argentina), Luciano Emilio (Brazil), Fred (Brazil), Facundo Erpen (Argentina) as well as some of the non successful plays with Matthias Donnet (Argentina) and Filomeno (Argentina). Not that United abandoned other locations for players. Casal came from London, Steve Guppy was an English International, Rod Dyachenko may be from the East but we only knew him because he played college soccer in Las Vegas. Still, the largest return on investment is from South America.

United's South American focus is inherently logical from a business perspective: It works for us, it makes sense. Yet we can tell that people are not entirely comfortable with it. SF at The Offside Rules wrote the following:

DC has always had an international line-up that matched the city's multicultural populace. But being that they operated under the league's strict policy regarding foreign players it never seemed over the top. But looking at the names linked to the team in the transfer rumors this off season, it's almost like Tommy Soehn & co. have forgotten about the leagues role in developing American players entirely.

Well, yes. Kasper, Soehn, and Payne probably don't care about developing American players. That's a method to success, not an end in and of itself. And, to be frank, we're not particularly good at it. Some, such as Steve Nicol in New England, are rather good at taking their college picks and putting them on the field, developing their talent. We're not. But the important thing is that at the end of the day, for all that development, the only thing the Revolution have won is a U.S. Open Cup (fittingly enough.) I will not engage in the cliched United fan's behavior of reciting our trophy cabinet.

Still, there is a sense being promulgated in various places that somehow this is unamerican, that somehow we are off-shoring jobs to South America. In most places, writers have the good-grace to not openly engage in race/nationality-baiting on the issue. SF writes "I don't think it's a bad thing, just a curious development in the the leagues evolution," which is perhaps one step up from "not that there's anything wrong with that." Ridge Mahoney in MLS Confidential is willing to go one-step farther.

...in MLS, if Chivas USA wants to field eight Mexican players, plus however many more it can sign by trading for additional slots, it can do so. FCD could load up on South Americans. Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio could open a pipeline from Medellin to the Meadowlands. “Trader Mo” Johnston could invite a slew of British retreads to represent TFC.

There is a panic one can hear in these words, "the foreigners are coming!" I do not think it is an accident that the words "pipeline" and "Medellin" are used so closely together. While SF at the Offisde Rules was simply making a jest with "DC United Love South America More Than Drug Dealers," it seems Mr. Mahoney is almost taking it as a serious concern. Am I being oversensitive? I think not. Mr. Mahoney continues:

Has the league gained anything by encouraging teams to sign cheaper foreign players, assuming they will be willing to play for MLS salaries, rather than Americans? And teams can certainly pay out more to additional international players while squeezing the Americans still further...Logic dictates if teams have more slots available for foreign players, who normally cost more than domestic players, and sign more of them, less money will be available for Americans, many of whom - even those on the regular, 18-man roster - earn the league minimum ($32,000 in 2008) or close to it. MLS contentions that the new international guidelines don’t impact American players don’t ring true.

The idea that MLS teams should operate a developmental system of U.S. Talent strikes me as naive. Certainly D.C. gained some valuable marketing material from John Harkes on patrol in the early days. But that was then, when the soccer crowd in the United States was much less sophisticated, and to the extent the average fan in the United States paid attention, it was to recognize the occasional world cup name from the 1994 campaign and might be able to identify the faces of Pele and Maradonna (but probably not Best, or Cruyff). After over a decade of MLS, and Fox Soccer Channel, and Gol, and Setanta Sports, the average soccer fan is much more sophisticated and we care about our league and teams not because they are here in America, but because we want them to win.

United's goals are to win trophies, and United has, as Oscar and Kinney have both written, a competitive advantage in South American scouting. So the Front Office has doubled-down on that theory. I am not rooting for a team to make the US National Team better, or to improve the general quality of U.S. players. I am rooting for a team to win. MLS, as well, may care about developing US players, but first and foremost it needs to put out a product that people will spend money on. And right now, with future expansion coming, and some fans a bit jaded when they compare MLS teams to the EPL, or La Liga, or what they see in Libertadores, they simply can't make developing US talent a priority over putting a non-amateurish product out on the field.

Am I disappointed that United has not done well in the draft, as we have documented on this site? Yes. Would I love it if some future US Nats came up through the academy of D.C. United? Oh yes. But when I think about my team, I care about them winning, and exploiting every competitive advantage they have in trying to win. For D.C. United, this is "nothing new", as Gregory Sica writes in a good overview at SI.Com. We have always been a team that has sought talent from around the world. Our early years saw Raul Diaz Arce and Etcheverry. Those years it worked. Some years it did not, as when Hristo Stoichkov came to United with his impressive pedigree at Barcelona. But we have always attempted to not simply be the US Under-23 team. Our goal was always to find a team that would win trophies. It worked more often than not, and now we see other teams doing the same (RSL) or being urged to do the same, as Bernardo Fallas urges the Houston Dynamo to look south, young men.

And perhaps that's why I detect the whiff of racism. Not with Ridge Mahoney, who I think unfortunately framed his language in his article, but otherwise shows every indication, but in the larger gestalt about how it might be easier for D.C. Untied to "Move to South America" as one writer put it, or the not so subtle slanders that somehow La Barra Brava will blindly cheer any South American (ask Filomeno about that). When Europeans are coming into the league, that's one thing. Hooray for David Beckham, and rule change that brings him here. But when the people aren't quite so white, or perhaps are motivated because of unstable economic conditions, well then suddenly we're bankrupting Mom and her Apple Pie business. It's unsavory.

Now, at some point, there will be no competitive advantage for United in South America. Everyone is hip to the gig now, so in ten years perhaps the draft will be the great overlooked deciding factor. Markets, and there is no truer global market than soccer, find ways of taking economic advantages that one team, or corporation develops, and exporting them elsewhere, so suddenly the tallest tower you built is hemmed in by sky-scrapers on all sides. And so we will look to the next place for an advantage. No doubt at some point, a strongly developed youth system will play a bigger role than it does now, and I hope we can keep our advantage long enough to figure out what we're doing wrong when it comes to developing players, and then turn that to our advantage.

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