5 Reasons Why You Should Watch Major League Soccer

So you’re excited about the US Men’s National team breaking through the group stage? It may even be that you find yourself liking this whole soccer thing. That’s not surprising; most Americans you talk to that follow soccer, including myself, have had that specific moment that sealed commitment, a moment often from a past World Cup. Whether that be the 2002 World Cup run in South Korea or the 2010 heart break against Ghana that brought you to the “beautiful game,” because of the placement that soccer has in the standings of American culture, it’s just common to have these iconic moments associated with the sport.

The thing that distinguishes people like us from the rest of the excited US supporters across the nation during this time is that, once the World Cup tournament concludes, we’ll still want more.

Well, fear not because there is a serious and thriving league here in the US. If you are or have ever been called a ‘Euro snob’, then you can probably stop reading now. You’re going to argue and just generally disagree with most everything I have to say. So what’s the point? I’m not trolling you and it’s great that you like soccer in Europe. But we’re to talk to these new recruits about soccer in the United States. So here we go. Here are five reasons and examples about soccer in the US, and why you should follow it after the World Cup.

 

1)   Soccer in the United States is actually good.

Once upon a time Major League Soccer was viewed as a retirement league. A place where aged stars came for one last pay day once they were out of their prime. It was viewed as such simply because it was exactly that. It wasn’t that long ago, and because of that there some pretty common misconceptions about MLS.

“It used to be that just CONCACAF [The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football] internationals and retirees came here. In 2014 Brazilians, Spaniards, Englishmen (that just miss out), Australians, Persians (Iran), and Irish all play in MLS, and they also play roles for their home countries in the World Cup, or are of World Cup quality.”

Look, most people that don’t like MLS likely have not watched more than a couple of games; which is silly considering they base all their opinions on those few games. It would be like me basing the entirety of the NBA on a Cleveland and New Orleans games or New Jersey and Phoenix. Neither of which are what we would call riveting match-ups.

The quality of MLS is improving every year. If you believe MLS still to be a ‘retirement league’ or a ‘first division with watered down depth’ you haven’t really invested any time in getting your facts straight. Truth is most people are forming opinions based on a small sample size from years ago.

Looking at numbers produced by Dave Clark and the statistician known by the handle Sidereal, one finds strong indicators that MLS has just continued to improved over the last few years. The league is gaining traction to being near par with some quality European soccer leagues.

2) MLS is on the verge of getting even better and it starts with increased wages.

“Although not often addressed, there’s no question that achieving that vision will require increasing MLS player salaries to attract more top players. It’s just a question of how fast, and the salaries may need to increase much sooner than 2022.”

“…”

“What could the future MLS look like? Or what would it need to look like for the Don Garber to see his vision meet reality? Let’s build the reality. Let’s assume by 2022 the MLS will pay their players 50% of total revenues, in line with the current Bundesliga level. MLS won’t need to reach revenues of the Bundesliga to be considered a top league in the world, but they will need to be close to be paying quality players closer to market rate. Let’s assume that MLS can achieve Don’s dream by reaching Ligue 1 revenues but paying Bundesliga salaries. Finally, let’s assume that Ligue 1 revenues grow at a modest 4% per year until 2022.”

“…”

“The target MLS revenue growth of 16% is very aggressive but Don Garber has a good amount of low hanging fruit to pick. The new rumored TV deal is for about $100M in 2015 and would increase the 2012 revenues (the basis for these numbers) by nearly 15%. The next TV deal might fetch the same 15% growth or more. MLS has also announced a five-team expansion plan which will bring at least 26% growth as the teams come on. Without doing much, MLS can get almost a third of the way to the goal according to my calculations.”

Okay, I pray that Jared will forgive me for lifting so many of his brilliant words from the following article. Go read the whole piece because it’s great. Unfortunately it’s a bit of an involved article, and I just wanted to frame a great thought from his head.

The United States first division is growing, and growing at a substantial rate. That is due to the injection of money and the fact they can start paying players what their worth. This brings in more players from all over the place that can use the league as not just a place to end their career, but really to start it.

A new Collective Bargaining Agreement will be negotiated this year after the season is over. I get that most of us sports fan are sick of labor talks and news of player strikes. I read you loud and clear. The thing that makes this different is simply that the league gets better with increase salary caps for clubs and the increase of minimum player wages. I don’t want there to be a work stoppage, but with the increased revenue from the TV deal that MLS just signed, they owe it to the players and fans to further the cause of soccer in this country.

 

3a) It’s not just about overpaying old guys to get eyeballs, MLS is acquiring young and exciting talent…

The main example you could probably point to for young guys coming into the league is Fredy Montero. Montero has transitioned over the last 18 months from one of the MLS top scorers to being a perennial talent in Portugal. Montero, who spent four very good seasons in Seattle, had the opportunity to make mistakes in a league that pushed his abilities enough even four years ago.

Montero’s arrival was followed by an influx of young international talent.

Darlington Nagbe, for example, is an international and former collegiate star at the University of Akron. He has been a critical piece for the Portland Timbers, is one of the most creative and eccentric talents in all of MLS.

Fabian Castillo, the Columbian winger with plenty of technical prowess, passed up opportunities in Europe for a stable playing environment and a chance for consistent playing time in Dallas.

Deshorn Brown is a high-end prototypical speedster from Jamaica. In his first season with the Colorado Rapids, he lead his club in goals scored and took them to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

For every Montero, however, there will always be a player that just doesn’t work out. The examples are many. In spite of that, MLS has begun the reverse transition from retirement league to what many would call a feeder league. While many, if not most, would not purpose to spend the prime of their careers in MLS (see point: 3b), they can still make a fine career for themselves and good wages because of how the league has grown to reward these players.

More and more young players are coming here in the vein of Montero, now viewing the US as an opportunity to get on the radar of European scouts and develop a pathway to launch a more lucrative career while still having stability and having the chance to prove them in a physical league.

“The increased visibility in M.L.S. is attractive to the players, who also benefit from the league’s financial stability compared with some leagues in their home countries.” (Leander Schaerlaeckens, NY Times)

It’s true that MLS still has more players retire at the end of the year from soccer than will transfer out of its league, but the players that are being transferred out are going to better and better clubs.

 

3b) …and some of that league talent is even in its prime.

As I said, there aren’t many who look at MLS and think “gosh, I could have a good living in the US in the prime of my career.” However there are a few where the stars lined up perfectly and they’ve chosen to play in America rather than going abroad with their talents. Such examples are:

Diego Valeri, the creative midfielder from Argentina, has been a force since arriving in Portland. And teamed with their young budding star, Nagbe, they’re a spectacular pair just to watch.

Juninho, the Brazilian, is often glossed over in terms of the whole league, but his consistency in LA and his ability to play both ways centrally is fantastic. He could be earning much more abroad but the allure of being on an iconic franchise and coached by one of the best US coaches in the business, Bruce Arena, keeps him in LA… for now.

Osvaldo Alonso is a unique case. His heroic escape from Cuba and passport situation limit his options abroad, but believe me… he has them. Yet, he loves Seattle and MLS. He’s easily a top-3 midfielder in the entire league and still has a couple prime seasons left in the tank.

Matt Besler, the Sporting KC and USMNT centerback has had chances to go abroad, and yet here he is in his prime. This has happened by way of MLS introducing retention funds to pay for… well, people whom they define as worthy of using it. His salary relative to the cap has been kept manageable because of those funds and he loves playing in Kansas City. He’s possibly and probably the best defender in MLS.

 

4) It’s not just about foreign talent; we have a thriving league to grow future US national team talent.

Players like Shane O’Neil (Colorado), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Benji Joya (Chicago) and DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle) are just a few names that play significant roles on their MLS clubs, and they still can’t drink legally in this country. You could almost have thrown Will Trapp (Columbus) on this list too, but he busted the beer-drinking landmark at the beginning of the year.

All four have been featured in U-23 matches gearing up for the Olympics, just two short years away, and all look to be prominent members of future World Cup teams. There are others worth mentioning also, but the point here is that MLS is starting to become a facilitator of growing US talent. That’s important.

That doesn’t even highlight players such as Gyasi Zardes or Jack McInerney, who are both big-time names in the league and may not qualify as members of the Olympic roster. It also doesn’t include 19-year old striking sensation Diego Fagundez, who just graduated from high school two weeks ago and just entered his fourth season as a member of the New England Revolution. Sadly enough, he is still technically not a US citizen…yet.

 

5)  There is parity, and possibly more so here than in any other relevant league in the world.

“The three factors above were weighted equally and assigned a standard deviation (either + or -) for each league and each metric. Add them up and MLS is indeed the most competitive league in this 15-league sample. Interestingly, Brazil was not far behind. Of course, there are multiple ways one can measure parity and competitiveness, and this is just one of many approaches.”  – Alex Olshansky

 

“This consistency, when combined with MLS’s overall lower variation, results in a lower proportion of the MLS’s points variation resulting from actual talent differences. The overall impact is that MLS table results are nearly a 50/50 split between talent and luck.” – Zach Slaton

Everyone hates the Yankees and yet wants to be them. It’s one of the greatest catch-22’s in sports. We all hate the winner—unless, of course, it’s us. MLS has developed a single entity program that just doesn’t lend itself to helping clubs that win, but it helps those that do not. In fact it’s worse to finish middle of the pack in the league than to finish at the back.

The league subsidies the salary cap of certain teams based on the order in which the teams finished. Teams towards the bottom get certain stipend (called allocation money) that assists in pay down contracts for cap purposes. Teams at the top also are awarded this money as a means of deepening the team for international competition in CONCACAF Champions League. This enables them to compete against the Mexican League teams that often tend to be superior in talent depth.

This all creates an environment on a yearly basis that creates volatility in casting predictions and makes the whole process rather difficult. A team can be good and have bad luck (see: LA Galaxy) or it can be mediocre with good luck (see: Real Salt Lake, according to Matthias), or it can have best of both worlds (see: Seattle Sounders). The beauty is that teams are never that far out of it, and never that far ahead.

The team that serve as the best example of this anything-can-happen league is DC United. Our readers had predicted prior to the season that they would miss the play-offs and would be generally sit near the bottom. In fact 15% thought they would end up dead last, opposed to the less than 1% that thought they would win the conference. Currently sitting nearly halfway through the season, they are in good position to fight for that very chance. And last year, this is the same club that nearly set all types of records for being anemic and generally pathetic in their overall performance.

There are few, if any, instances in which you can point to a club going from worst to best in a single season. The 1990 Atlanta Braves come to mind for me, but thinking abroad in the world of soccer, that seems improbable if not all together impossible. In MLS, it’s a yearly event.

——-

These are just a few reasons on why you should turn your attention to Major League Soccer after the World Cup. I’m sure others could add to this list, and generally speaking I know I missed things that others would include. But in talking with so many people down here in the South, I felt compelled to at least try to provide a this motivation to get involved in a dynamic league right here in the United States.

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How it Happened: Week One

Hello friends. This is the first in what will hopefully be a weekly feature here at ASA by yours truly.

First, the background: Not being a fan of any particular MLS team is hard. It’s hard to follow an entire league of 19 teams. Seven or eight games a week are difficult to catch up on, even when they aren’t all played at the same time. Previously, I’ve watched highlights and ‘condensed games’ to try to pick up which teams and players were playing well, but it just doesn’t work. The only way to really learn a team’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies is by watching every minute of every game they play. There’s no way I can do that with every team in MLS while still working a full-time job. Sorry.

My solution is this: I plan on committing to watching a full 90 minutes of three games per week. This gives me six teams that I’ll feel that I truly know (at least for that week), and should certainly teach me a heckuva lot more than just if I just watched their highlight packages. Since this here is an analytical and statistic-focused blog, I’ll break down each of the three games by one particular stat or Opta chalkboard image that I think told the story of the game for each team. Think this idea is idiotic? Love it? Please, let me know: feedback is always appreciated. But leave my mom out of this.

DC United vs. Columbus Crew

Stat that told the story for Columbus: 58% of successful passes in attacking half for the fullbacks

clb1

The above image is all of the completed passes for Crew fullbacks Waylon Francis and Josh Williams on Saturday. These two players are clearly defenders who aren’t afraid to get forward, but the startling frequency with which they were able to get up the field against DC had to have alarm bells ringing for United fans. For folks who prefer numbers to images, here you are: 49 of the 85 passes that Francis and Williams completed (58%) were in the attacking half. That’s a pretty solid attacking contribution from two guys who are listed along the back line.

This was made possible for Columbus by a couple of adjustments made by new coach Gregg Berhalter. Centerbacks Michael Parkhurst and Giancarlo Gonzalez split reallllly wide when in possession, allowing both fullbacks to get forward. This was made possible by holding midfielder Wil Trapp, who sat very deep to cover the gap between centerbacks. It’s only one game, but it certainly looked like a good strategy in week one for Columbus.

Stat that told the story for DC: 1 attacking player’s pass into the penalty area

dcu1

Really, the above image for Columbus tells a lot of the story for DC, as well: they got hammered because the Crew got the ball wide and stretched DC’s shape like a bad hamstring. With a team full of new faces who clearly haven’t learned to play with one another yet, the defense was abused by all the space Crew players were able to find. But I can’t use the same stat for both teams, so here’s what I got for United: one. One successful pass from any of the three players nominally deployed in attack (Eddie Johnson, Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva) that ended in the penalty box.

Seriously: take a look at the Opta Chalkboard above. I get that it’s hard to complete passes in the 18, but for the three guys who are tasked with creating chances, there needs to be more than one completed pass that ends up there. Oh, and that one completed pass? It came from a free kick, and ended with a flick-on by Davy Arnaud that didn’t even turn into a shot. There was a lot wrong with DC in 2013 and a lot wrong with DC last weekend, but if the new faces of Johnson and Espindola were expected to cure all attacking ills….Ben Olsen may be in for a rude awakening.

Portland Timbers vs. Philadelphia Union

Stat that told the story for Portland: 20 crosses in the second hour of the game

The Timbers came out for the season opener and were dealt a dose of their own medicine from the new-look Philadelphia Union. Playing in a 4-3-3, the Union clogged the center of the field, put a lot of pressure on Portland and really made it difficult for the home team to get into their possession game. But as any good team does, the Timbers made adjustments. After being credited with just two crosses from open play in the games first 35 minutes, Portland emphasized wide play with Michael Harrington getting forward and Darlington Nagbe flaring out wide. After the 35th minute, Opta credited Portland with 20 crosses from open play. Some of this was due to bombing the ball forward as they sought an equalizer late, but recording 10 times as many crosses was certainly the product of an adjustment made by the Timbers.

Stat that told the story for Philadelphia: 12 midfield interceptions & recoveries to start the game

As I said above, the Union started the game very strong, with their midfield really clogging up Portland’s attempts to possess the ball. The midfield three of Maurice Edu, Brian Carroll and Vincent Nogueira seemed to be replicating some of what made Portland so successful in 2013: clogging the middle of the field and winning a majority of loose balls. Opta credits those three with 12 combined interceptions and recoveries in the game’s first 22 minutes. However, as also noted above, Portland adjusted to the Union’s set-up and began to emphasize wide play. The Union didn’t really adjust to the adjustment, as the Timbers clearly became more and more comfortable as the game went on. After those 12 interceptions/recoveries in the first 22 minutes, Edu, Carroll and Nogueria only recorded seven more the rest of the game.

LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake

Stat that told the story for LA: 2.39 expected goals; 0 actual goals

lag1

If you’re at this site, chances are you know the concept behind expected goals. If not, scroll down a ways and read up. Anyway, look at the above image: that’s not a map of shots that typically leads to a shutout. According to the numbers run by ASA’s own Harrison Crow, a league average team would’ve finished 2.39 goals from those shots. They finished zero. If you aren’t into the stats and would prefer the English commentator’s version: Robbie Keane missed some sitters, Landon Donovan was unlucky not to finish any of his half-chances, and Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas combined for some speculative efforts that nearly bulged the ol’ onion bag. Oh, and Nick Rimando had a magisterial day in net to keep his clean sheet.

Stat that told the story for RSL: Joao Plata’s complete game

I’m cheating a little here because that’s not a real stat, but any time there’s a 1-0 game, it’s tough to leave out any conversation about the lone goal scorer. In this case, that’s the diminutive Ecuadorian, Joao Plata. Plata debuted for Toronto FC three seasons ago, and it seems like he’s been around for a lot longer than your average 22-year-old. But it’s true. Plata is only 22, and if Saturday night is any indication, he could be in for his best season in MLS yet. Not only was Plata’s finish on the game’s only goal very cool, he was consistently playing with a lot more tactical awareness than I’ve seen out of him in the past. Whether it was setting up Alvaro Saborio for golden chances or making intelligent runs to stretch the defense and open up space for Javier Morales, Plata had a very, very good game against LA.

Season Preview: Portland Timbers

Like a hot new boy band busting onto the music scene, the Portland Timbers came out of nowhere last season to  improve more than any other MLS team, jumping from an eighth-place Western Conference finish and 34 points in 2012 to first place and 57 points in 2013. Expectations are high for 2013 Coach-of-the-Year Caleb Porter, and we will soon see which member of the band the Timbers are; a legitimate talent with true staying power like RSL, the Galaxy and JT, or the goofy one that is just along for the ride, like 2007 ChivasUSA, 2010 FC Dallas, and Chris Kirkpatrick. Do the Timbers have a model that will let them hang with the big boys, or will they regress to the mean with a vengeance? ASA readers see them as Nick Carter material, with a majority of voters picking the Timbers to win the Western Conference for a second season in a row.

PTFC2013squad

 Players In    Players Out  
Name Pos   Name Pos
Jorge Villafana D Trade from Chivas USA David Horst D Traded to Houston
Norberto Paparatto D Transfer from Tigre Ryan Miller D Option declined
Bryan Gallego D Homegrown player Dylan Tucker-Gangnes D Waived
Taylor Peay D SuperDraft Andrew Jean-Baptiste D Traded to Chivas USA
Steve Zakuani M Re-Entry Stage 1 Mikael Silvestre D Contract terminated
Schillo Tschuma M/F SuperDraft Sal Zizzo M Traded to Sporting KC
George Fochive M SuperDraft Brent Richards F Waived
Aaron Long M SuperDraft Sebastian Rincon F Loan expired
 Andrew Weber GK  Free Transfer Jose Valencia F Loaned to Club Olimpo
Milos Kocic GK Retired

Roster Churn: Portland returns 82.31% of their minutes played in 2013, 6th most in MLS.

 

2014 Preview

Median age: 25 *Designated player

Median age: 25
*Designated player

Coming off their first place Western Conference finish in 2013, the Timbers’ theme for the 2014 offseason has been “more of the same”. Led by new coach Caleb Porter and MLS Newcomer-Of-The-Year Diego Valeri, the Timbers were a surprise contender in 2013. Porter’s 4-5-1/4-3-3 hybrid system was a 180% turn from their philosophy under former coach John Spencer, and it brought the team immediate success. By controlling possession and maintaining the defensive pressure even in the opposition end, the Timbers brought a unique style that was both entertaining and effective. This attack based system saw them finish with the third most goals in the league last year, despite being only 9th in attempts. Not only were their attacks fruitful, they were dangerously efficient. Unlike last season’s roster overhaul, Portland made few big changes in the offseason for 2014, instead solidifying their depth and bringing in two Argentine veterans to shore up the back-line and attacking corps. Clearly, the Timbers are willing to ride Goalkeeper-of-the-Year Donovan Ricketts and playmakers Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe in the upcoming season.

The Attack

As in 2013, Valeri and Nagbe will be relied on to be the catalysts for the Portland offense. Led by their 12 and 10 goals respectively, the Timbers finished with the fourth best finishing rate (goals divided by attempts) in MLS last season. Being two of the most fouled players in MLS last season, and due to Valeri’s somewhat slow recovery from off-season hernia surgery, their health could determine if Portland can continue to finish with similar efficacy this season. Still, the additions of Gaston Fernandez and Steve Zakuani will alleviate some of the dependence on Portland’s playmakers. If injury isn’t an issue, the Timbers can expect to score lots of goals in 2014.

PORINFO

The biggest (and perhaps the only) major offseason subtraction was the loss of Jamaican international and Oregon State alum Ryan Johnson’s nine goals (third on the team last year), as he pursues a career in China. The departure of Johnson will certainly be felt, but late-season acquisition Maxi Urruti had taken over the starting striker position before an injury last year, and he looks to fit perfectly into Porter’s high-pressure defensive scheme. Also significant has been the addition of “La Gata” Fernandez. Besides having the best tribute video on the internet, Fernandez will fill some of the holes left by both Johnson and Rodney Wallace, who tore his ACL in the playoffs and isn’t expected to return until late summer. Fernandez is versatile as an attacking midfielder/forward, and seems likely to assume a utility role on the Left side of Midfield to start the season. Zakuani is an unknown quantity after excelling for the Sounders before enduring two years of injury and disappointment. Few things would be more welcome to Timbers fans than seeing a former Seattle player return to form in Portland, so any significant contribution from Zakuani will be considered a bonus. Couple those additions with first-round SuperDraft pick Schillo Tshuma, who has impressed in preseason, and the Timbers will expect to continue with their high-scoring output last year.

Still, requisite warnings about reading too much into the preseason aside, a lack of scoring (only 6 goals in 7 preseason games) in the lead-up to this MLS season is cause for some concern. For the Timbers system to work they’ll need to score goals in bunches.

The Real Bash Brothers

2012 Timbers Army’s player of the year Diego Chara and captain Will Johnson, who saw his career revitalized by a move to Portland last season, will again anchor a high-energy midfield that is likely to be among the league leading duos in minutes and fouls (Chara has finished in the top three in fouls committed in all three of his MLS seasons). While not as flashy as their attacking counterparts, Chara and Johnson are just as important to the Timbers’ success. Their hard-tackling, box-to-box styles are exemplary of Porter’s possession philosophy. The Timbers will expect to win the midfield battle in nearly every game they play this season, with Chara and Johnson expected to neutralize the opposition’s playmakers as a way to free up and start Portland’s multi-faced attack.

Defensive Questions

Despite a conference best 33 goals against last season, center back was a position in flux last year with six different players all getting starts there (Futty Danso, Pa-Moudu Kah, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Mikel Silvestre, Rauwshan Mckenzie, and David Horst). Jean-Baptiste started the most games next to Kah, but lost his starting spot to Danso in the last couple months of the season. Still, Danso’s limitations were exposed in the playoffs last season, and priority number one for the offseason was to find a consistent starter to pair with Kah. Portland ultimately ended up bringing in contender for best-named signing of the MLS offseason, Argentine Norberto Paparatto. While little besides some YouTube highlight videos (especially dubious when judging a CB) is known about Paparatto, judging by his solid if mostly unremarkable preseason the starting spot next to Kah appears his to lose. The outside backs are likely to stay the same as they were for nearly every game in 2013, with Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington (fresh off a USMNT summer call-up) being active both as wing-defenders and initiators of the attack.

Ricketts silenced his doubters and skeptics last year by earning his second Goalkeeper of the Year award at age 36. While not getting any younger, the Jamaican did a lot to cover up for the mistakes of Portland’s defenders last year, having allowed only 83.2% of the goals a replacement MLS keeper would have, according to our goalkeeper ratings. Along with Nick Rimando, Ricketts was a head above the rest of MLS keepers, having prevented 6.27 goals  more than the average MLS goalkeeper last season. Still, the Timbers appear to be grooming young New Zealander Jake Gleeson (who they have sent on loan to Sacramento Republic FC) to fill Rickett’s shoes, so there will be a smooth transition when Ricketts ultimately retires.

2014 Predictions

The 2014 MLS All-Star game will be in Portland, but the Timbers’ organization and fans expect MLS Cup to be held there, too. Under the guidance and leadership of Caleb Porter and Diego Valeri, year two is primed for success. With the Timbers figuring to compete in all three major competitions – MLS, the US Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League – this is a team that expects success. Outside of the Cascadia Cup, the Timbers have never brought any silverware back to the Rose City, but this could be the year things change.

Our data suggest the Timbers drastically over performed compared their expected goals for and against last season. Did they just get lucky a season ago, or has the organization finally built a model for success? They return their three best players from 2013 in Ricketts, Valeri, and Nagbe, and hope the added experience and chemistry between these players continues to flourish. A lot is expected of the Timbers this season, and only time will tell if 2013 was a sign of things to come, or in the words of N’SYNC, it will be “Bye, Bye, Bye” for their championship hopes in 2014.

Crowdsourcing Results

1st place in the Western Conference; 204 of 404 (50.4%) readers projected the Timbers to win the Western Conference, and 386 (95.5%) projected them to make the playoffs in some capacity.

Positions and The Diminishing Value of Formations

It’s Christmas Eve, so what better time to highlight an article by Jonathan Wilson of the UK Guardian which talks a little about formations and the future of positions in soccer?!

As positions become more specialised, as we divide the holder into destroyer, regista and carrier, and all points in between, so the importance of formations has diminished. Terms like 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 are useful as a rough guide, but only that: the higher the level, the more teams are agglomerations of bundles of attributes; the key is balance rather than fitting to some abstract designation, even if that shape can be useful in the defensive phase.

This is something that Drew, Matthias and I have mentioned on past podcasts and something that I believe is a true within the “modern era” of soccer. Players are increasingly versatile, and as such are able to handle more duties on the pitch, as well as the fact that it’s being more expected of them. The reality is that we see players put into areas of the pitch based on what they are able to do and what makes them unique to the roster. Wilson speaks of position rather than an interpretation of what I assume is a role.

Parreira’s 4-6 vision of the future has been overtaken by a 3-7, either as three centre-backs or two centre-backs with a destroyer just in front of them. That is another discussion, but what is true is that to speak of a holding role is merely to describe a player’s position on the pitch and not how he interprets it.

Wilson here is speaking of Brazilian national team coach Carlos Alberto Parreira and his prediction that soccer would migrate to more ambiguous roles. Also this article was speaking specifically to the roles of midfielders, but I think we can safely apply his words to the attack as a whole. There is a possibility we may be seeing something of this prophecy come about in Major League Soccer in 2014. Teams such as Portland, Chicago, Columbus, New England, and even Seattle with some of it’s recent moves, have the pieces to move towards a 4-6 where they have a lesser-defined striker, or “false nine,” at the top of their formation. These teams’ capable scorers like Darlington NagbeMike Magee, Federico Hinguian, Diego Fagundez and Clint Dempsey aren’t relegated to striker positions by convention, where they probably wouldn’t play best anyway.

This isn’t to say that strikers or players of those specific roles and old time “mentality” is absolutely wrong or trash now. No, I think this is something that you incorporate. As Wilson said in his post, “it’s about balance,” and it’s about putting together a group of players that are able to A) create good shots on the opponent’s goal and B) defend and attempt to prevent shots against its own goal.

This goes further into building a roster and down through a rabbit hole of discussion which I’m sure that we could have any time, and which would eventually eclipse my knowledge base. That said, I think this is real. I don’t think this is a fad but something that will be realized as a changing of the guard and a new way of thinking.

I’ll excuse myself as I mutter something about idealism, while trying not to have the door hit me in the hindquarters as I woke out.