biting the hand that feeds you

houston dynamo fans

look at all of those hooligans... at lest that's what MLS is wants me to think.

I talk a lot on this blog about the progress MLS has made over the last few years. The league has experienced a gradual but noticeable raised profile, and that’s been due to the league enhancing itself across the spectrum: more soccer-specific stadiums, increased global awareness, improved on-pitch product, budding rivalries, exclusive TV deals, and — perhaps most importantly — a growing devoted fan base.

I’ve talked at length about how impressed I’ve been with the improved atmosphere at MLS matches, and that is due in large part to the growing number of true supporters groups that show up for every match that their team. Some of these have gained some “notoriety” for their rabid support, such as the LA Riot Squad, Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters, Portland’s Timbers Army and Chicago’s Section 8. But there are countless others for each club that are present at every match banging their drums.

So when I read this week that MLS has come down heavy on some of it’s most devoted fans, my first reaction was, “Isn’t the league just biting the hand that feeds it?”

Don Garber and Friends issued sanctions on Tuesday against Houston Dynamo’s supporters for their multiple violations of the MLS Fan Code of Conduct over the course of last season. Because of these violations, the Dynamo faithful such as the Texian Army are  banned from bringing flags, banners, drums and confetti from away matches indefinitely (but probably just for the fist two away matches of the season). I ask you, how exactly is the all-too-rare MLS away fan supposed partake in healthy, competitive banter with their rival fans without such instruments? I suppose they can still sing, but that’s not exactly a skill that most MLS supporters groups have perfected yet… especially when only 20 of you can travel to fill the chorus in the first place.

So what horrid indiscretions did these “hooligans” commit to deserve such harsh punishment from the league?

  • They “ignited” illegal smoke bombs on three occasions (at FC Dallas, at Sporting KC, and at the MLS Cup Final in LA).
  • There were multiple supporters using obscene language and gestures at the MLS Cup Final.
  • They threw various objects that presented a safety risk thrown onto the field in the direction of players and stadium personnel, also at the Home Depot Center.

Look, I’m all for MLS trying to protect its fans, players and personnel. But of those three violations, really only one warrants any sort of safety attention, and that’s items being thrown on the field. I’m by no means condoning this kind of action from fans, but punishing the entire fan base for a handful of unfavorables tossing plastic water bottles and a mini-flashlight at Landon Donovan is a bit overboard. There were plenty of Dynamo supporters in that section that not only paid for a ludicrously priced MLS Cup Final ticket and took a 28-hour bus ride to get there, but didn’t throw a damn thing. Why should they be punished for the acts of a few idiots?

As for the obscene language and gestures, could you imagine the English FA attempting to police and punish these actions in the Premier League? Of course not. If so, you’d see away fans banned from every match. And while I don’t condone this behavior either, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll drop an F-bomb or two during the course of every Tottenham match I watch… it comes with the emotions of being an invested supporter.

MLS fans of the Independent Supporters Council

fans that are willing to travel across the country to attend an MLS "independent supporters council" are not the ones you want to be punishing.

And smoke bombs… well, I still don’t see why MLS has such a problem with these. Sure, they obscure vision and could possibly incite panic, but the open nature of most MLS stadiums means the smoke tends to clear quickly. They’re even creating a bit of a double standard on the practice, as they practically set off their own during significant matches.

If they’re having problems with individual fans, use CCTV and match footage to identify the problem makers, and ban them individually. It’s not that hard, especially considering England already use this template to police their hooligans. The way it’s currently set up, it’s an all or nothing cut off that will ultimately hurt the league in the long-run.

What MLS really has to remember about this situation is that these diehard fans are the lifeblood of this league. It’s not the Eurosnobs such as myself, who will only attend a few matches a year, that are going to help the league convert non-soccer Americans into fitba fans. Rather it’s these “superfans” that will be the ambassadors the league so desperately needs to grow the overall fan base. These are the fans that will inevitably drag some of their MLS-virgin friends to one of the many games they attend each season, and ultimately some of them will become fans themselves.

Look, I don’t disagree with the league needing to deal with fan control and to deal with the limited number of hooligans amongst it’s devoted following. But if they end up alienating these fans, their biggest and most ardent supporters, the league could drive away their most valuable assets… the ones that pay your bills.

wrong side XI: left mid

this is part X in the “wrong side XI” series, where i’ll be selecting my very own starting eleven, assuming of course that i could choose any player from any team in the world. you can read the rules i’ll be following to make my team selection, and what formation i’ll be squeezing them into, on the first post in the series.

Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, Cristiano Ronaldo, Juan Mata

my shortlist for left mid compiles players from all over the world: argentina, wales, belgium, portugal and spain.

At long last… we finally reach the front three of my hypothetical team. It’s been a long time coming, considering that this series was originally intended to wrap up prior to the end of Summer 2011. And while I’ve spent roughly the last 10 months (occasionally) working on this project, debating relatively boring positions, we’ve now crossed the threshold into the so-called “glamour” positions.

Whether you want to call this player a forward, an outside midfielder, or a winger, he’s almost exclusively an attacking player. Sure, my formation defines this position as one of the five in the 4-5-1. But in practice, it’s a position that behaves much more like one of the forward three in a 4-3-3.

In general, I expect these players to attempt to receive the ball high and wide on the touchline. From there, they can do what they like: drive further forward on the flank, cut into the middle, or drive in a cross. In fact, I expect a large majority of my attacks to funnel through the left or right mid’s feet as I would instruct my players to look to the wings as option #1. Defensively, I just want them to high pressure when the ball is near, and track back whenever the other side breaks.

The job of picking this player, as you might expect, isn’t very easy. The primary reason for this is the cornucopia of wide attacking players that I enjoy watching. The second is because many modern wingers are becoming more and more ambidextrous in their wing of preference. But I’ve got a good set of contenders in mind that I doubt many would argue with… jump past the break to see if you would or not.

Continue reading

ten words or less #47

stevenage vs tottenham

the last time the minnows of stevenage graced this blog, it’s because their scott laird was punched by one of his own fans as they upset newcastle in last year’s FA cup.

If this wasn’t a vintage “FA Cup Magic” weekend, I apparently don’t know what one is. One “upset” was on the cards, as the O’Neil bump effect continued on as Sunderland definitely thumped Arsenal and sent them crashing out at the Stadium of Light. Stevenage triumphantly/frustratingly held — and let’s be honest, outplayed — Spurs, earning themselves a lucrative replay at White Hart Lane. Liverpool thumped an unlucky Brighton side to temporarily re-over-inflate their fan’s expectations for the rest of the season. And Chelsea… well they continued to look piss poor as Birmingham City forced a replay at St. Andrews where they’ve only lost once all season.

The FA Cup’s been enough to fill a hundred story lines on its own, which has predictably delayed my job of finishing my next full length article. So as I struggle to push out the next post, enjoy these articles by writers who are a bit more diligent and focused than myself.

Why Chelsea are stupid not to let Mata reign centrally. –

Smart. Someone buy me this. –

Behind the scenes video from Alex Morgan’s SI photo shoot. –

Adidas HQ gets a shiny, futuristic makeover. –

Villa taking advice from Cleveland Browns. This will end poorly. –

I bet you didn’t think that futsal was that dangerous. –

Potential bidding war brewing? Anfield Cat up for adoption soon. –

Am I to take a female “model only” club seriously? –

Americans buying Tottenham? Not sure how I feel about that. –

This year’s football feel-good story is undoubtedly “Zambia”. –

the long awaited cinderellas

Over the last five to six years, the UEFA Champions League has become a bit of a dull affair. Season after season, we get to see the same super clubs battling it out with one another to see who gets to be this year’s queen of the ball.

APOEL nicosia

when i first watched APOEL play in the champions league this season, i was very confused. did someone let tottenham back in and force them to wear odd, yellow-stained kits?

Don’t get me wrong: the football on display over that time in the Champions League has generally been fantastic. We’ve been lucky enough to witness some dazzling individual and team performances. How can I really complain about getting to watch the best players in the world competing for the world’s preeminent title?

Well as it turns out, I can find something to complain about within just about anything.

Taking a closer look at the participants in the UCL Round of 16 over the past five seasons (’06-’07 through ’10-’11), only 15 of the 80 clubs have come from outside the traditional top five European leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). That 18.75 appearance percentage for clubs outside the top five leagues drops to 15% for the quarterfinals and all the way to a donut for the semifinals onward.  In fact, looking back over the last 15 seasons, only Porto’s magical run to the trophy in 2003/2004 featured any club outside the top three leagues taking part in the final.

If that type of trend isn’t concerning to you, it should be. Participation in the group stages and later of the Champions League is the footballing equivalent of a club hitting the lottery. The €5.5 million guaranteed to each of team might just be enough to sign a reserve player at a Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, but for clubs from the smaller leagues, it could be enough to stave off extinction. And the more the Champions League group stages are dominated by the bigger sides from the bigger countries, the greater the divide becomes between the big and the small. It won’t take much more than that to sentence an entire class of club acorss Europe to their doom.

Some don’t see that as much of a problem for the sport, as it’s just football prescribing to the “survival of the fittest” mentality that’s bound to come with the influx of money into the sport. They believe we’ll all be better off watching Barça and United square off again anyway, what with their superior skill and marketing might.

barcelona vs manchester united in the champions league final

thanks in large part to fc basel, we have been "spared" another barcelona vs manchester united final.

So despite Michel Platini’s best efforts to boost the participation of non-marquee league clubs, it’s clear that this is a tournament steadily becoming one for the have’s rather than the have-not’s. And to me, that’s a really sad thing.

While I’m always a fan that loves to take in and lay witness to extraordinary players doing extraordinary things, I’ve got an unmistakable urge to root for an underdog, too. Maybe that’s something ingrained in me as a Tottenham fan (and which duly made last year’s adventure extra special), or perhaps I’m conditioned to it from growing up in a country with wildly popular knockout tournaments that are primed to launch a Cinderella or two. But ever since the rise of the Premier League and the revamp of the European Cup into the Champions League, the tournament has had an increasingly distinct lack of underdogs for which we can root.

This season, however, has been a departure from that trend.

This Champions League campaign features a comparatively massive five clubs from outside the Big 5 Leagues, or 31.25% percent of the field. Not only is that the most we’ve seen since the 2001/2002 edition, but it’s the same as the previous two editions.. combined. There’s no way Platini can keep from cracking a smirk every time he hears those statistics.

Now, admittedly, three of those five sides aren’t exactly newcomers to this elite level of European football. And unsurprisingly, all of them all come from Europe’s best-of-the-rest leagues. Benfica of Portugal (League Rank – #6) is the most successful of that group, having won the competition twice, and finished runners up once. Russian Premier League (#7) sides Zenit St. Petersburg have a UEFA Cup to their name, and CSKA Moscow have made numerous appearances in Europe’s top competitions.

But, those two remaining clubs — Switzerland’s FC Basel and Cyprus’ APOEL Nicosia — are the real, live Cinderella teams that this tournament has been sorely awaiting.

FC Basel’s home Swiss Super League is ranked 13th in Europe, which most years would have enough to make them the team hailing from the lowest league in the Round of 16. But this year, they’re joined by an APOEL side that hail from a league ranked 21st in the 2010 Coefficient rankings from which this year’s tournament field was decided. At least In the 10 years of Champions League data that I’ve poured through, no league has ever contributed a Round of 16 (or equivalent) side with a lower UEFA Coefficient than the Cypriot Championship.

Now before anyone bites my head off for calling these teams Cinderellas, I am aware that both sides have at least made previous forays into the Champions League group stages.

APOEL Nicosia — or ΑΠΟΕΛ Ποδόσφαιρο if we’re writing it in proper Greek — have only once qualified for the group stages, in the 09/10 edition. Though they finished bottom of their group, they did manage split the spoils three times in group consisting Chelsea, Porto and Atlético Madrid. That campaign was highlighted by an impressive 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in which Nenad Mirosavljević scored an 87′ equalizer. Prior to that year, APOEL hadn’t ever managed to advance past the 3rd qualifying round.

xherdan shaqiri of fc basel

underdogs with star talent -- like basel and xherdan shaqiri -- are breathing life into a tournament that was starting to feel stale.

Basel, meanwhile, have performed slightly better than their fellow Cinderella side in Europe’s top competition. They’ve managed to reach the Group Stage four times, the most ever for a Swiss team, but they’ve even done one better by reaching the final 16 when they qualified for the now-defunct Second Group Stage in the 2002/2003 tournament. That magical campaign included a number of impressive results, such as two thrilling ties with Liverpool, tying Manchester United away, and defeating Juventus at home.

But just because both teams have had (relatively minor) successes in Europe before, that doesn’t mean they’re not true Cinderellas.

Though the Swiss side are probably better known for being “the side that looks like Barcelona that’s not actually Barcelona”, their qualification to the group stage was historic in that they’re the first team from Switzerland to ever directly qualify for the stage by winning the league. They Swiss champions have also boasted one of the most impressive young players in the tournament in Xherdan Shaqiri, though the impressive winger will depart for Bayern Munich in the summer. It’s always easier to root for an underdog when they’ve got an exciting star player to watch.

APOEL are the debutante Cypriot side at this stage of the competition. As a club based in an island nation of only around a million residents, they’re pitted against a Lyon side that hail from a metropolitan area of around 1.4 million residents and the second largest in France. Just to even reach the Group Stage, they had to navigate through three qualifying rounds against stiff competition: Albania’s Skënderbeu Korçë, Slovakia’s ŠK Slovan Bratislava and Poland’s Wisła Kraków. Thanks in large part to these exploits, APOEL manager Ivan Jovanović was named Serbian Manager of the Year. If that’s not a Cinderella side, I don’t know one that is.

Perhaps understandably though, neither side are being favored to advance any further in the tournament. But that doesn’t mean they won’t move on, either. Despite losing their first leg yesterday 0-1, APOEL are capable of upsetting an unusually weak Lyon side… especially with the second leg at home. Basel’s chances of advancing are slightly less likely, with their tie against mighty Bayern looming next week. Bigger upsets have happened though.

Regardless, even if neither team advances, both clubs have proven that there is room in European club football’s ball for an unfancied side or two. Other small clubs from around Europe have undoubtedly taken notice, and will use Basel’s and APOEL’s success as inspiration for their own ambitions. Coupled with Platini’s Financial Fair Play coming into effect in the coming seasons, it could be just the boost those clubs need to find the belief that they too can make an impact.

And if that’s the case, perhaps we’ll get a yearly dose of the Cinderella magic in the Champions League, instead of once every blue moon.

playing the game

When the clock struck midnight GMT on Tuesday and brought an end to another hectic transfer window for Spurs, I admit that I was initially left a bit dumbfounded by the moves the club made. Who did we bring in? They’re both over 33! Has Levy lost it?!?!

tottenham's ryan nelsen

spurs signing blackburn's ryan nelsen (above) and everton's louis saha, both considered past it by lower clubs, didn't exactly show "ambition". or did it?

I angrily hashed out an outline for a scathing post — rife with references to nursing homes and a need for another ambulance on match days — detailing how these aren’t the type of players that a club supposedly harboring title ambitions should be signing, and that they shipped off players who were better than the players replacing them. However, as fits of rage tend to do to me, I was too worn out and frustrated to complete the article that night.

The workday on Wednesday provided me ample opportunity to further reflect on the transfers. And the more I thought about it, a potentially bigger plan seemed to unfold from them. Maybe there was more to these signings than I had initially thought.

Let’s take a deeper look at the departures from White Hart Lane, first:

  • Roman Pavlyuchenko finally engineered his long awaited exit from the club with a reported £7.5 million move to Lokomotiv Moscow. Aged 30, he’s nearly four years younger than the man who replaced him in Spurs strike corps. Yet despite showing flashes of an ability to produce brilliance, his inconsistency led him to spend most of his time in North London on the bench, bitching about lack of first team chances and/or pining for a transfer. Either way, Pav moving on was always the most likely move to happen this January.
  • Sébastien Bassong — another player frequently linked with a move away from Spurs — departed to Wolves on loan, with an option to buy at the end of the season for what’s expected to be a fee of around £4.5 million. Though not a bad player when not caught with his pants down, he was rather prone to a major error now and again.  At nearly a decade the junior to his replacement, and with a severely depleted Tottenham back line, Bassong’s departure was one that left me the most worried.
  • Steven Pienaar’s return to Everton on loan was also another puzzler. With Lennon struggling for fitness, and Gareth Bale’s style of play always seeming to invite a crunching tackle, Spurs aren’t exactly up to their teeth in wingers at the moment. Though not as direct as Bale or Lennon, Pienaar was a great player to be able to bring off the bench. But thanks to a long injury lay off, Harry never really grew that fond of the guy, so a move wasn’t that unexpected.
  • former tottenham striker, roman pavlyuchenko

    getting rid of pav's high wages and poor attitude will be more beneficial than if spurs had held on to him through the summer.

    Vedran Ćorluka’s loan to Bayer Leverkusen, much like Pienaar, leaves Tottenham dangerously thin at the right back slot. At 25, he’s also significantly younger than his replacement, and he was never a player I bemoaned to see on the pitch due to his comfort on the ball. But, with speed a priority in Spurs style of play, Charlie’s propensity to look like he had a refrigerator strapped to his back while running made him a prime suspect to move on. Although I suspect this move is more to do with him securing a spot in Croatia’s Euro squad than a want to leave the club.

What’s the one thing all of those players has in common? They’re all players in their prime that were desperate for first team football.

Securing money now for Pavlyuchenko was clutch, as a poor performance at the Euros would have severely deflated his sell on value in the summer — something strikers are particularly at risk of during major tournaments. But loan moves for the rest were brilliant bits of business, too. All three are likely to feature prominently for their new temporary sides for various reasons (injuries, league position, etc.) so if they perform well, Spurs will be in position to ask for larger sums for them all come the summer.

Now let’s take a look at Spurs two arrivals:

  • Louis Saha comes with the stigma of being old and injury prone. Despite that, and much like Pav, he’s still capable of producing a moment of magic. Even better though — and very unlike the Russian — is that he’s actually still capable of producing a match-dominating performance. Though with only two goals this term, one would hope being surrounded by higher quality players will bring that out of him more frequently.
  • Ryan Nelsen also arrives with a dodgy fitness history, but a boatload of experience to balance. He captained the only side at South Africa 2010 that left the competition without a loss. Nelsen has 172 Premier League caps to his name, and was a major contributor to Blackburn Rover’s relegation-staving efforts last season after forming a formidable partnership with oft-Spurs target Chris Samba. And his four year spell with D.C. United also inspires… confidence. Yeah.

So what do these elder statesmen have in common? They are proven veterans — a.k.a. Premier League Experienced Players — who know that they’ll have to fight if they want to see playing time, and won’t pitch too big a fit if they don’t make the starting XI. Oh yeah, and they were both FREE and are likely on significantly less wages than the players they replaced.. Considering that both have signed relatively short contracts, if neither works out, we’ll be rid of them quickly without having to pay anything extra.

Effectively, we’ve swapped skilled back-ups with problematic attitudes for slightly-less skilled back-ups AND stayed cash-positive. On closer inspection (and assuming that our loaned players perform well), the moves actually set the stage for Spurs having enough to make a bid for a world class player or two in the summer.

Combining the £8m for Pav, plus conservative estimates for cash from the sales of Bassong (£5m), Pienaar (£6m), and Ćorluka (£6m) in the summer, and you’re left with at least £25 million. Further sales of fringe players such as Giovanni dos Santos and potential Champoins League money could easily raise that total.

athletic bilbao's fernando llorente

with levy saving money this window, it could clear the way for a massive buy in the summer. i'd prefer that move to be for this guy.

For that kind of money, you could make a pretty big big splash in the transfer market. Loïc Rémy, Bafetimbi Gomis, Leandro Damião and — most preferably — Fernando Llorente, are all players within reach with that much cash in Levy’s back pocket. Even if they have to pay over the odds for that elite striker we’ve all been craving, there should still be enough left over to buy cover at right back, on the flanks, or in the center of defense.

So while this revelation obviously has me excited, I’m not stupid enough to not see that this plan also has tons of potential pitfalls.

The most glaring and obvious problem Levy’s thriftiness has caused us is the current crisis at right back. With Walker picking up a hamstring injury in the win against Wigan on Tuesday, Ćorluka off to Germany, and the young Adam Smith loaned to Leeds, there are no fit, natural right backs in the side. Sure, Kaboul and Nelsen can deputize, but they’re not exactly comforting options.

Even more concerning is how confident Levy seems to feel that Tottenham are going to finish in the top four. If he wasn’t that confident, would he have resisted his penny-pinching ways and kept the better players on the books? I don’t know the answer to that question, if you’re waiting for a response… hence my concern.

Look, Dan Levy has played the game that is the transfer market far better than any other manager/sporting director in the top six over the last two years. And though this January’s moves don’t seem the shrewd on the surface, they could pay off and pave the way to Tottenham establishing themselves as a new force in the Premier League.

But if we somehow manage to shit the bed and slip out of the top four, I have no doubt that the whole house will go to hell. Falling out of the Champions League means we’ll no longer have any incentive to offer Bale or Modrić to stay. They’ll likely have to sell one, if not both. While that’s another £70 million to spend, it’s even more to replace.

And if that happens, I’ll be really, really pissed that I didn’t write that scathing post I had originally planned.

ten words or less #46


louis saha rushed in for tottenham medical

louis saha was rushed in for a late medical to complete his move from everton to spurs.

As the dust settles after another underwhelming transfer deadline day, I’m sure all of you readers are fed up with transfer news and gossip. I am, at least. In an effort to stray away from that topic of conversation, and to give your brain a break from digesting it all, I’ve put together this TWOL that contains absolutely zero transfer news. Except for the mocking picture above. So if you’ve come here look to catch up on yesterday’s “madness”, you might want to navigate elsewhere.

Barça’s kits next year: taking Blaugrana to literal the extreme. –

Milan disrespecting a man to whom they owe so much. –

The perfect artwork for me: one part nerd, one part Spurs. –

FIFA’s looking into allowing four subs… only in injury time. –

I want to play Norwegian Bubble Football right now. –

Trolling Atlético fans, Spanish press, and knock-off kit manufacturers. –

Pushing your best player out the door, Philly? Bad idea. –

Don’t click this unless you have a lot of time. –
courtesy of an old high school frenemy, @Ryan7Hurley

Bravo to whomever “amended” Dan Borislow’s Wikipedia profile. –

Someone needs to make Twellman and Wynalda watch this. –