Category Archives: International Football

The Club World Cup is already forgotten — Here’s how it could be awesome

The Club World Cup came and went last week, with Bayern Munich winning the trophy and officially confirming what many long believed: the Bavarians are the best club football team in the world. It was Die Roten’s fifth trophy of 2013 and Pep Guardiola’s second since taking over for Jupp Heynckes.

The final was especially significant for Bayern Munich center back Dante. Not only did the Brazilian defender score a goal in the final, he also picked up his sixth piece of silverware this calendar year. Dante also took home a Confederations Cup winner’s medal in the summer on top of the five trophies he won with Bayern.

But Bayern were not the story of this event. Not after home team Raja Casablanca made a dramatic run to the final, taking down Copa Libertadores champions Atlético Mineiro along the way. A few of Raja’s players also took home some souvenirs from a living legend, Ronaldinho, after that match:

Some people seemed legitimately upset that the host team made it all the way to the final (like here and here). Others rightfully appreciated the Cinderella story of the Moroccan club. Whatever it means about the quality of the teams they defeated and ultimately lost to, it’s undeniable that Raja Casablanca’s run captivated both the Moroccan people and the global audience of the Club World Cup.

This tournament always raises the same issues: whether it is a worthwhile event in the first place, and the significance of one-off matches between teams from different confederations. We’ve all heard that for whatever reason, the Club World Cup just hasn’t caught on as a big tournament that clubs want to take seriously. A full week since the final was played, and this tournament is already an afterthought.

Football is a global game, and when you hear World Cup you think of the pinnacle of competition. But the Club World Cup has rarely lived up to that billing.  What can be done to improve this floundering tournament that has so much potential?

How can we see more of this?


And this?

The are two things that can be done to make both fans and clubs care a lot more about this tournament: invite more teams, and give out a lot more prize money. Steve Graff write a nice piece on how to improve the Club World Cup for with similar suggestions. My solution is slightly different, but the general idea is the same.

First, the prize money. The current payout breaks down like this: Winner gets $5m, runner up 4m, third place: 2.5m, fourth: 2m, fifth: 1.5m, sixth: 1m, seventh: 0.5m. That’s not very much money for a team like Bayern Munich, who received over 50m euros from the Champions League. Here’s some more info on Champions League payouts, for those who are curious.

So, in order to make every team take this tournament a lot more seriously, we need to up the stakes. It’d be nice to multiply those payouts by 10, but to be more realistic, let’s go with 5x the current purse. That means the winner gets $25m and the runner up, $20m. Enough to make winning a significant temptation, even for a European team.

And how to finance that? Just add more teams: expand it from 7 to 14 teams. More teams makes it even more fun for the fans, but it also means more high profile players and more of a spectacle, which equals more sponsorship money.

We are keeping the host team. Raja Casablanca’s run to the final was a great story. A host team getting an auto berth is a classic part of a cup competition. We are trying to revitalize this competition. You have to keep the team that brings the home fans to the stadium. With potentially different hosts and the obvious advantage of playing at home, we could see a underdog story like Raja’s more often.

The winners of the Europa League and the Copa Sudamerica are automatically qualified. We are also bringing in some non-trophy winners. The finalists of each federation’s Champions League are invited, with the winners given an additional bye and the runners up entering the competition earlier. Here is a rundown of the seeding:

1. UEFA Champions League Winner

2. Copa Libertadores Winner

3. Europa League Winner

4. Copa Sudamerica Winner

5. UEFA Champions League Runner Up

6. Copa Libertadores Runner Up

7. CONCACAF Champion

8. CAF Champion

9. AFC Champion

10. Oceania Champion

11. CONCACAF Runner Up

12. CAF Runner Up

13. AFC Runner Up

14. Host country league champion

14 teams is a strange number for a tournament, so some teams are going to have to enter at different stages. The top 4 seeds are the UEFA and CONMEBOL trophy winners. They don’t come in until the third round of the competition. UCL and Copa Lib runner ups face off against champions of Asia, Africa, and North America. Here is how the bracket would look every year:

What does that really mean, you ask? Well, here’s how it would have looked for this tournament, given the winners and runners up of all the tournaments in question, assuming the higher seed wins each match:

Now this is starting to look like a Club World Cup that is worthy of the name. This bracket contains potential matchups of legendary European and South American clubs, and gives the weaker confederations plenty of chances to knock off the top dogs. The tournament also contains 5 different rounds of matches for the enjoyment of fans, and most teams only have to play one more game than they currently would under the existing format.

A few simple changes could make the Club World Cup a headline event, truly capable of determining the best team in the world.


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Filed under Champions League, CONCACAF, Europa League, European Football, International Football, Soccer

Philipp Lahm: The World’s Most Complete Player

In the never ending debate on Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo, some find it convenient to conclude that Messi is the best player in the world, while Cristiano is the most complete player in the world. But what does the most complete player really mean? Cristiano has pace, power, incredible technical skill, he can shoot with either foot, can jump higher than maybe any other player, he can score with his head, inside the box or outside, from penalties or free kicks. But if he was asked to play in defense, or organize a midfield, dictating tempo from the center, would his ‘completeness’ serve him just as well there? Could Cristiano Ronaldo play any position on the pitch?

Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that Cristiano is the most complete attacking player in the world. There is a different player, however, who is truly the most complete player in the world, whose intelligence and attributes enable him to play literally any of the 10 outfield positions. His name is Philipp Lahm.

Philipp Lahm was born in Munich and joined the Bayern Munich youth team at the age of 11. His talent was evident early on, with one of his coaches, Herman Hummels, famously stated that “If Philipp Lahm will not make it in the Bundesliga, nobody will anymore.” For Bayern’s youth sides, Lahm played at right midfield or defensive midfield in addition to full-back.

At the senior level, Lahm has proved more than adequate at either the right or left full-back position for both Bayern and Germany over the years. Since Pep Guardiola arrived in Munich this summer, he’s had nothing but the highest praise for Lahm, calling him the most intelligent player he’s ever coached. In an interview with adidas, Pep had this to say about the Bavarian:

“He understands the game. Not all players do. A lot of players understand his position. Philipp can play in all positions. Football is a game where people move and you have to decide in one second what’s going on in your position as well as all around the field, and what he decides in that moment is right.”

Guardiola is a product of the Barcelona system implemented by Johan Cruyff, who himself evolved his game from the concept of Total Football as a player under Rinus Michels at Ajax and later Barcelona. In this footballing philosophy, players must understand space, where their teammates are, and the intricate movements required to break down an opposing team. Complete players are valued in this system, and Philipp Lahm is the most complete of them all.

Lahm has the technique, intelligence, spatial awareness, and tackling, passing, and shooting ability to play in any position. He hasn’t scored too many goals in his career (just 18 for club and country at the senior level since his professional debut in 2002), but no one could deny that he’s capable of finishing when given the chance.

Lahm’s unique combination of skills is why Guardiola has trusted him as the team’s base in central midfield this season, despite the unprecedented success that Bayern had last year under Jupp Heynckes with Lahm as the right full-back.

The central holding midfielder, operating as a single pivot, is a very important position for Guardiola. It was the position he occupied as a player at Barcelona, and the position he entrusted to Sergio Busquets once he became the manager. The single pivot in Guardiola’s system is required to do several things extremely well. On offense, the pivot must be able to collect the ball from the goalkeeper or the defense in order to build play from the back, and use intelligence and vision to pick out the appropriate pass going forward. The player needs excellent positioning sense, and must always be available as an outlet for the more advanced midfielders if they are under pressure. When the opponent has the ball, the pivot must be available to drop into the defense as a third CB to cover for the advanced full-backs. He must also be ready to press quickly and win the ball back in the midfield to cut out opposing attacks before they begin.

The qualities that Busquets possess allowed him to displace Yaya Touré in this role for Barcelona, another player who could play in almost any position on the field. And Busquets went on to be a cornerstone in the Barça side many consider to be the best team ever assembled. But is it possible that Lahm, who has played full-back his entire career, is even better in the ‘Busquets’ role than Busquets himself?

A look at some statistical graphics from Squawka reveals that while Lahm may not be superior to Busquets in the role, he is just about the best imitation you can find. Let’s take a look at heat maps and total passes for Lahm and Busquets from a Bayern Munich match in the Bundesliga and a Barcelona match in La Liga this season.

These games are quite similar in terms of the performances of the two sides. Bayern beat Schalke 4-0, having 60% possession while completing 685/790 passes (87%) for a performance score of 517. Barça beat Real Sociedad 4-1, having 64% possession while completing 700/766 passes (91%) for performance score of 563. Two performances as dominating as they come, and it’s not as if they were against weak opposition. Both Schalke and Real Sociedad are competing in the Champions League this season.

Statistics courtesy of

As we can see, both Lahm and Busquets locked down the middle of the park and completed a very high percentage of their passes. Lahm’s heat map is more contained to the center while Busquets roamed from touchline to touchline. This can likely be explained by the free flowing attack of Barcelona compared to the discipline of Bayern Munich. Bayern’s full-backs and wingers stick to the wide areas, which allows the central midfielders to contain themselves in a more narrow stretch of the pitch.

Both players completed a great number of passes with extraordinary accuracy (77/84 or 92% for Lahm, and 80/86 or 93% for Busquets). It would be difficult to find more similar performances from any two players on any two teams in the world. And lest you think that these stats from just one game don’t tell the whole story: this season, Busquets has completed 95% of his passes in La Liga and 93% in the Champions League, while Lahm has hit on 91% in the Bundesliga and 94% in Europe.

The difference between Lahm and Busquets, however, lies in the Bavarian’s ability to perform just as excellently in other areas of the pitch. Playing at both full-back positions for Bayern and Germany over the years has seen Lahm positioned in the opponent’s half just as often as not. Last year alone for Bayern, Lahm contributed 11 assists, mostly from crosses and cutbacks from the right wing. Even playing mostly as a holding midfielder for Bayern this campaign, Lahm has created 20 chances to 8 from Busquets.

At some point this season, Pep Guardiola will once again be able to count on the services of Javi Martínez and Thiago, which could likely see Lahm moved from central midfield back to his usual place on the right side of defense. Or Pep may decide that he can’t displace his new midfield general, and incorporate Martínez and Thiago in alongside Lahm.

Wherever the coach decides to play him, know that Philipp Lahm will perform at the highest level. As Guardiola claimed earlier this season, “if I told him tomorrow he has to play at centre forward, he’d be one of the best in Europe.” It is difficult to doubt the words of such an accomplished tactician. There is no outfield position on the pitch that doesn’t suit the most complete player in the world.

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Filed under European Football, International Football, Soccer

Promotion and Relegation in the United States

The past month has been very exciting for US Soccer. It’s been quite a successful month for MLS, with announcements of future expansion and the acquisition of USMNT standout Clint Dempsey by the Seattle Sounders, one of the league’s most successful franchises. The American game has also seen the return of an historic team, as the New York Cosmos of the NASL took the field for the first time in almost 30 years. The sport has taken big steps forward, but there has also been a backlash against the structure and rules of MLS and calls for an overhaul of the US Soccer pyramid from fans, journalists, activists, and the NASL commissioner alike. Soccer fans in this country are energized by the progress the game has made but divided over how it should move forward.

Let’s start on July 23rd, when I came across a post by Chris Jones of Has Been Sports. Jones listed all the teams in the top three divisions of the US Soccer pyramid as if there were promotion and relegation between each division (MLS, NASL, USL Pro). His post inspired me to take a closer look at how pro/rel could work in this country. But as I started to lay out how I thought it could be implemented, the story kept changing.

On the night of the MLS All-Star Game, a week after Jones took a hypothetical look at pro/rel in the US, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that the league will expand to 24 teams by 2020. The announcement sparked an unprecedented call for promotion and relegation from soccer fans in America, many of whom have been calling for pro/rel for some time, especially with the resurgence of the NASL as a potentially viable second division.

Other reasons for fan backlash include FIFA guidelines, stating that a first division should not exceed 20 teams to protect players from playing too many games. Even assuming that somehow does not apply to MLS, further expansion beyond 24 teams does run the risk of diluting the product. This happened in the United States with the NBA and NHL, leagues which were and are the pinnacle of their respective sports, which MLS is not, and sports that draw from a global talent pool as soccer does.

So far MLS has not responded to the calls for pro/rel, instead touting the incredible growth that both the league and the sport of soccer have seen in the US in the past decade. We’ve already known for a few months about NYCFC, the joint partnership between Manchester City and the New York Yankees which in 2015 will become the 20th MLS team. Now MLS wants 4 more by 2020. These new MLS franchises could be existing clubs that currently reside in the lower tiers, but that is by no means a guarantee. There is a lot of buzz in Miami surrounding a potential expansion franchise part-owned by David Beckham, which would be a completely new team. If Miami is one of the four as many suspect, it would make sense to bring in Orlando as well, creating a Florida rivalry. For the final two teams, MLS could look to other cities like Atlanta, St. Louis, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Detroit, markets which are already home to lower division clubs. But will MLS bring those existing clubs up to the top flight or create completely new ones?

Meanwhile, the NASL reached a major milestone with the New York Cosmos returning to the field on August 3rd. But another huge move by MLS overshadowed the return of the Cosmos. Clint Dempsey signed with the Seattle Sounders, returning to MLS after seven seasons in the English Premier League. The details surrounding his move, such as his large contract compared to the league average, and the fact that MLS paid his transfer fee rather than the Sounders, caused fans to voice more concerns about the MLS single entity structure and the lack of clarity over the rules.

Throughout all this, the NASL has done its best to make news. As noted, the Cosmos have started playing at Hofstra University, but the current second tier also moved forward with expansion plans of its own, recently announcing the addition of franchises in Oklahoma City and Jacksonville for the 2015 season. By then, there will already be a USL Pro club in Oklahoma City, as a yet-to-be-named team will begin play in 2014. Sacramento Republic FC will join the USL Pro division for the upcoming season as well.

NASL commissioner Bill Peterson has also lent his voice to the growing discussion. Last Tuesday, he revealed his vision for US Soccer in an interview with Empire of Soccer’s Dave Martinez. That vision includes promotion and relegation as a byproduct of a successful MLS. Peterson believes that the fans want something different than what MLS has given them, which echoes the sentiments voiced by those in favor of pro/rel or unhappy with the lack of transparency within MLS.

Now, it’s certainly no surprise that the commissioner of the current second division would want pro/rel. But let’s go back to Chris Jones for a second. According to his Twitter profile (@CJonesHBS), Jones is one of the founding members of Nashville FC, a club which is “100% supporter owned and non-profit.” Nashville FC’s stated goal is “to compete in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) within the first three years of [their] existence.” The NPSL it is currently the fourth tier of the pyramid, roughly equal to the USL Premier Development League (PDL) in the eyes of US Soccer and a long way from MLS at the moment.

Implementing pro/rel in some form in the United States would give clubs like Nashville FC – clubs that are created organically from the bottom up instead of being awarded by MLS – the ability to advance through the soccer pyramid with the goal of one day making it to the first division. It would allow the current NASL clubs to have that same chance, the chance to compete against the best. It would give every fan in America the opportunity to one day see their local team play against the top teams in the country. This is about more than just an ambitious commissioner of an new pro league, or the idealistic vision of a founding member of a club with no players. It’s about an opportunity that association football clubs and their fans have everywhere in the world – everywhere, that is, except the United States.

It is evident that US Soccer will soon reach a tipping point. MLS wants 24 teams by 2020. NASL is more hesitant to make declarations but could be targeting 18 by 2018. USL Pro is on 13 and counting. There will likely be 60 different teams in the top 3 tiers of the pyramid within the next 6 years. The US national team draws from the deepest talent pool in its history. Interest in soccer is greater than it’s ever been, as new TV deals give Americans unprecedented access to games from leagues all over the world. The popularity of the sport is exploding.

As all three of these separate leagues continue expanding, some sort of merger including promotion and relegation must at least be on the table for serious discussion. But many fans are not convinced, and arguments against pro/rel abound. Teams couldn’t survive the loss of fans or money if they were relegated from the first division. Travel costs are prohibitive for teams in the lower tiers. Americans don’t understand and/or won’t accept promotion and relegation in this country. These are all reasons given as to why the system wouldn’t work. But probably the biggest hurdling block to adopting pro/rel in this country is this: MLS owners would never agree to it due to the financial risk associated with possible relegation. This is a legitimate concern as these owners hold a lot of the decision making power.

One way this could be solved is by offering a buyout to every owner as the league switches from a single entity to individual organizations that own the rights to their players. If MLS owners truly fear losing value on their investment by being relegated, they can be bought out at the market price for their franchise, which will almost definitely be higher than their initial outlay. If the sport continues to become more popular and successful in America, other owners will be lining up to purchase teams that are already in the top flight. After all, a number of Americans have purchased teams in the English Premier League, where there is always the possibility of relegation. That hasn’t deterred them from making what is generally acknowledged as a savvy investment. MLS owners have invested a lot of money in their teams, but any owner wanting to start in the lower levels will have to invest a lot to make their team good enough to earn promotion to the top flight. Furthermore, even with pro/rel, the powers that be could still set standards for promotion, which would include financial backing, strategic vision, fan support, and stadium situation.

But the opposition goes beyond the owners who may not be 100% committed to the sport and the fans, or are worried about being overtaken after they were the first to invest. Many argue that pro/rel is suicide for the business model of MLS altogether. This is true in the sense that MLS as a single entity closed system is fundamentally incompatible with pro/rel. But as long as the second division is stable and successful, relegation would not be the death of any MLS franchise. This is where the growth of the NASL comes in. Implementing pro/rel before US Soccer is ready for it would be far more disastrous than not implementing it at all. But the NASL is on the right path, and more competition can only be a good thing. If the NASL can prove that a second tier league is sustainable, then relegation will not be the end of MLS teams, nor the end of the professional soccer business in America.

High costs for cross country travel can be subsidized with a portion of the league’s shared revenues. With an improved product on the field, the lower divisions could command decent television money that would help support the cost of traveling long distances for games. This might seem like a long shot at the moment, but remember that we are not talking about pro/rel just now, but closer to 2020. Sports television rights continue to increase in value, and 5 to 10 years from now, there could be legitimate interest in the second division in many large US markets.

So if those are the business oppositions to pro/rel, then what about fan concerns? We’ve heard that MLS teams will lose fan support if they go down. But far fewer point out that MLS teams should be well placed to go right back up, so true fans should be able to stick with their team even if it drops to the lower level for a year or two. Clubs in MLS have the advantage of being established at the top flight for some time and should have greater financial capability to attract quality players and market their product effectively to the local fanbase. On the flip side, many soccer fans who are not MLS fans complain that there is no team in a reasonable vicinity for them to support. With pro/rel these fans become MLS fans even if they don’t have a current top flight team in their area, just because their team has the chance to reach the top. This unifies US Soccer fans, as they’ll all be cheering for teams with the same chances in the pyramid. For every group of casual fans that a relegated team loses, many more passionate fans will be added when their local team is promoted, and MLS as a whole will gain fans.

Finally, there are those whole feel pro/rel is an alien concept that is incompatible with sports culture in the United States. Some can be heard saying things like this: “This isn’t Europe, so why should we adopt European rules? The Eurosnobs can go watch La Liga for all we care.” Besides being close-minded, this is based on a fundamentally incorrect premise. Promotion and relegation isn’t just some European rule that a small minority of “Eurosnobs” want to impose on America. This is the way it’s done in nearly every other professional league in the world. It’s what the large immigrant population in this country, which has yet to fully embrace MLS, views as the norm. It also raises the stakes higher, punishing teams who aren’t good enough to compete at the top level. There is no tanking for top draft picks when the worst teams get relegated. Promotion and relegation is based on values that Americans prize highly: survival on merit and equal opportunity for all. Far from being a European rule, the concept of pro/rel is as American as it gets.

So if those are the arguments against promotion and relegation, what about those in favor of it? Well for one, it would create a more authentic soccer culture in the country. Clubs can be built from the ground up, like Nashville FC is attempting to do. Academies will be important to the development of the club in many ways. With no draft, teams will have to develop homegrown players to succeed. They could also sign free agents or purchase players’ rights from another club, but the academy is the best way to produce cheaper players who have a strong association with the club. Local communities will have a stake in the academies and thus be more likely to support the club as it progresses up the pyramid.

These changes would greatly benefit US Soccer as a whole. Integrating all the leagues with a functioning ladder up and down the pyramid unifies everyone under the same goal. It means stronger lower leagues with a better system to loan out players. Without the single entity structure, independent clubs can invest more money in their squads, making them better able to compete in CONCACAF Champions League and hopefully soon the Copa Libertadores as well.

US Soccer will also gain more respect from the rest of the world by implementing the system that is the norm everywhere else. More top players will be willing to come to MLS if they have the freedom to choose their team, and their movement is not restricted by the league owning their contract. If a team gets big enough, the American league could eventually become an attractive destination for world class players in their prime. An owner could decide to pay a large transfer fee and high wages that would otherwise burden MLS if the league as a whole had to pay it.

Most leagues around the world have a cup competition which gives clubs in the lower divisions the chance to win a trophy competing against the best. It is the same in the United States, where the US Open Cup has 100 years of tradition. Fans of clubs in the second or third tier will still have a chance to see their team play the best every year in the US Open Cup. But with the change in system, lower division clubs could aspire to another thing, much more beneficial in the long term: promotion to the top flight.

This is part of the most basic and maybe most significant argument, which has been stated a few times already: with pro/rel all teams would have equal opportunities. This is important because there are enough markets in this country to support many more first division teams than any league could handle. Chris Jones listed 44 teams in his hypothetical three divisions, not accounting for any of the new expansion teams. At least 10 clubs will join the various levels of the pyramid in the next few years, bringing the total count of teams in the top three tiers above 50.  Mike Firpo of Soccer Newsday recently wrote a very interesting article about MLS expansion and how the league should focus on what he calls “rivalry bubbles” by expanding to different cities close to current franchises. Of course his ideas are purely hypothetical, but his complete map of rivalry bubbles includes a total of 60 teams. It’s not unreasonable to assume that most, if not all, of these teams would ideally like to compete in the top division if possible.

I think even the most ardent MLS expansionists would agree that 50-60 teams is far too many for the top division, so what happens to all the teams on the outside looking in? Is it fair for them to be permanently stuck in the lower divisions with no possibility of promotion? Should we as US Soccer fans accept only the teams MLS gives us as the top flight teams, and write off other clubs and cities as ones that simply didn’t make the cut?

I personally don’t think that’s fair, and I think there are many that would agree. The only way to give equal opportunities to all clubs in this country is to adopt pro/rel in some form. The question then becomes how, and when?

The plan

With MLS announcing 4 more teams by 2020, we now have a time frame we can work with for the implementation of pro/rel.  When MLS reaches 24 teams it will be the largest first division in the world. It does not make sense to go beyond that number for many reasons. After 2020 or 24 teams, whichever comes first, if the league wants to expand further it should do so by implementing promotion and relegation. Three nationwide divisions are already established, and they all continue to look towards expansion. There is no reason why, after a bit more development at the lower levels, these divisions cannot be unified with promotion and relegation between the three of them. NASL commissioner Peterson has indicated that his league will look to expand to 16 teams over the next few years and then reevaluate. With MLS now working towards 24 teams, it could soon be the perfect time for a merger.

Depending on the state of the NASL and USL Pro by 2020, MLS should look to have between 18-24 teams in each division, with 2-3 teams going up and down from each division every season. The NASL could keep its name and remain the second tier with pro/rel, but for the purposes of this article we will call it MLS-2. Assuming pro/rel does not cause the financial implosion of franchises as some claim it might, the new MLS could wait a few years and then integrate USL Pro as MLS-3. These divisions could even go up to 20-24 teams with future expansion when clubs are ready for it.

Ideally, MLS-1 would be organized as a 20 team single table, with all teams playing each other twice. Due to the size of this country, it may make sense to have a top division that’s a bit larger, but 24 should definitely be the limit. One divisive issue with MLS at the moment is the playoffs. Currently, 10 of 19 teams make the playoffs, which is definitely too many, and seriously devalues the regular season. With a 20-24 team top flight, no more than 8 teams should make the playoffs. I would prefer to see the top 6 teams qualifying for the playoffs, with the top 2 seeds receive a first round bye. This makes the regular season much more important than it is under the current format. Many American fans want to keep playoffs as they find it a more exciting way to determine the champion. I’m fine with keeping playoffs, but wouldn’t mind if a single table round robin determined the champion. MLS needs to find a balance between a meaningful regular season and exciting playoffs.

Playoffs should be 2 legged for the quarterfinals and semifinals, with one final game held at a neutral site. At first, the bottom two teams would be relegated from MLS-1 every year. The winner of the second division automatically earns promotion, while the teams finishing 2-5 have a playoff with two legs each round for the second spot. These playoffs could be some of the most exciting games of the year at any level. The league could eventually decide to promote and relegate three at a time, if everything progresses as planned. There would be also be no relegation from the second division at first, to ensure stability while undergoing a drastic change.

Eventually, USL Pro would be integrated as MLS-3 and all the teams contained within this division would be given the opportunity for promotion. Each year they would replace teams being relegated from MLS-2. This would complete the professional setup at the national level. Below MLS-3, we have the regional leagues, where new clubs begin play and less ambitious clubs remain. It would be prudent to delay relegation from MLS-3 for a time period, again to maintain stability. Since relegation from tier 3 really could be disastrous for teams that started at the top, there may need to be some kind of safeguard established. A system like the one in place in Argentina, where teams with the worst three year averages are relegated, could work for MLS-3. One terrible season in the third division wouldn’t guarantee relegation, but if a club is that bad for long enough, it deserves to drop.

Below the third division we currently have the NPSL and USL PDL, which are already regional leagues. There must be some sort of agreement on how to combine and organize the regions amongst the levels below D3. These lower tiers will be where new clubs join the pyramid and begin play. Leagues below regional could be organized by states, with teams first registering in the state leagues and then winning promotion up to regional. The system should allow for the possibility of any club being formed and eventually working its way up the pyramid to the top flight on its own merit.

All clubs must reach certain benchmarks relating to finances, strategic vision, fan support, and stadium situation in order to progress from the regional leagues to the national divisions and on to the first division. This allows MLS owners to retain some control over the future of the league, while at the same time giving access to any club that earns it, not just the ones willing to pay the expansion fee. It’s a necessary measure to ensure that teams do not get promoted if they cannot handle what promotion brings. It means that any club that does reach Major League Soccer will have a solid ownership group, an executable business plan, an established market of fans, and an appropriate stadium in which to play. Clubs can also decline promotion if they do not feel they have the ambition or resources to one day become a top flight club.

There is also the question of salary cap. MLS currently is pretty restrictive in this area, with the designated player feature the only real way for teams to work around the cap and sign top talent. A solution that could give teams more freedom but also maintain parity is a soft cap with a luxury tax, like the NBA utilizes. This would hopefully guard against having the same teams dominating every year like in Europe, while still allowing teams in bigger markets or with the financial capability to attract the best players in the world.

This is a basic outline for how promotion and relegation could be implemented in the United States. Obviously there are still many more issues to be addressed on the path to making pro/rel a reality, but that is why it is important to start a serious discussion now. A system like the one outlined above may hurt a few current MLS teams in the long run, but it would be greatly beneficial to US Soccer as a whole. Eventually, the league must align with the long-term goals of the sport in this country in order for America to become a true power in the world of soccer.


1. I use the terms club, team, and franchise interchangeably to refer to professional soccer organizations in this country.

2. Although I use just pro/rel far more often, the changes I’m proposing include both promotion and relegation and an elimination of the single entity structure. I believe these two things go hand in hand.

3. Although I only mention the United States, everything stated here can be applied to Canada as well, as Canadian teams currently compete in the same pyramid as American teams.

Works Cited:







Filed under CONCACAF, International Football, MLS, Soccer, Uncategorized, US Soccer

U20 World Cup: Croatia 1 – 0 Uruguay

Group F action kicked off today at Bursa Atatürk Stadium and Uruguay took on Croatia in the second match of the day. It was a hard-fought game with chances for both sides, but a goal in the 41st minute from Ante Rebić was enough to earn Croatia all three points.

This is Uruguay’s 12th appearance and Croatia’s third at the U-20 World Cup finals. Neither side have won the tournament, although Croatia was a part of Yugoslavia when the former Balkan nation won in 1987. Uruguay’s best finish was second in 1997.

Despite having populations of less than 5 million, both Uruguay and Croatia are strong footballing countries that put an emphasis on youth development, and a good match was anticipated. It began with energy coming from both sides, and the referee produced a yellow card after just 14 seconds on Croatia’s Marko Livaja. The teams battled for control of the middle and the game went end to end in the opening minutes.

The first quarter of an hour was a bit tentative with no great chances for either side. Uruguay’s Federico Acevedo went wide with the first shot of the game five minutes in. Croatia came back and won a corner in the 11th minute but could do nothing with the chance. The first great opportunity of the match came on a Uruguay free kick from distance in the 17th minute. Playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta launched the ball into the box and it was almost turned home by center back José Giménez’s header, but the ball hit the side netting.

In the 21st minute, Croatia won a penalty after a nice ball over the top from Livaja found Dario Čanađija. Uruguay captain Gastón Silva clipped Čanađija’s ankle and the referee pointed to the spot. Livaja stepped forward to take the penalty, but his shot rocketed off the post, then ricocheted off the back of keeper Guillermo De Amores and Uruguay were able to clear it. The South Americans came right back down the field to win a corner, and Silva almost atoned for the penalty give-away, but his header was tipped over the bar by the Croatian goalkeeper Oliver Zelenika.

Uruguay looked like they had found a second wind after the missed penalty and started to attack the Croatian goal with more energy. De Arrascaeta tried his luck from distance twice and also sent several good-looking free kicks into the box, but Uruguay were unable to convert.

The breakthrough of the game came in the 41st minute, when Rebić scored a brilliant goal. Livaja was again involved with some quick passes in the final third, and the ball came to a streaking Rebić at the edge of the box. The Croatian looked like he took a touch too many to round a defender, but still beat De Amores with a good finish across to the back post. It was perhaps a bit unfortunate for Uruguay, who had looked dangerous, but certainly deserved for Croatia. The Europeans went into halftime up a goal despite relatively even possession and shots numbers.

Uruguay came out determined in the second half and almost went level off a headed shot from Diego Rolán, as Zelenika was forced into a fingertip save to touch the ball over the bar. Croatia were ready for the test, however, and still managed to control a bit more of the possession. Livaja especially continued to be dangerous with the ball at his feet, but was almost sent off for a second yellow card after a bad challenge in the middle of the park. As the game approached the hour mark, it was clear that Croatia were content with their one goal, and they began to employ various time-wasting tactics.

Uruguay made a double substitution after 65 minutes, bringing on Nicolás López and Leonardo Pais. The South Americans showed more attacking intent afterwards as they pressed forward for an equalizer. López was dangerous upon entering the game, and Diego Laxalt and De Arrascaeta created chances but Uruguay could not put the ball into the net. Croatian fullback Ivan Aleksić made several important challenges to deny Uruguay in various attacking positions. The final 20 minutes were nervy, but Croatia held on for a tight 1-0 victory and three important points.

The two teams will be back in action on Wednesday, when Croatia take on Uzbekistan, who also earned three points today. Uruguay will meet fellow losers New Zealand and will certainly need a win to boost their chances of progressing.

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Spain cruise past Tahiti

In a game billed as the mismatch of the tournament, the only question was whether Spain would take it easy on Tahiti or keep their foot on the gas out of respect for the sport. Spain answered that question with 10 goals, despite never really hitting top gear. Fernando Torres missed a penalty but still scored four, David Villa had a hat trick, and Juan Mata and David Silva (twice) were also on the scoresheet for La Roja.

With 10 changes from the squad that beat Uruguay 2-1, Spain started slowly and didn’t look properly focused. The midfield and attack was comprised of almost entirely foreign-based players, with David Villa the lone exception. Perhaps it is due to the different style of play in the Premier League, where most of the players ply their trade, but Spain’s “B team” did not look nearly as adept at tiki-taka as the mostly Barcelona-based side did on Sunday. After having 75% possession against Uruguay, Spain could only manage 67% tonight.

The reduced possession for the Spanish was also a result of Tahiti’s tactical strategy. The huge underdogs packed the middle of the field, playing very narrow with a high defensive line. It was much more of an end-to-end game, and Spain’s chances came mostly from balls through the middle or over the top and crosses from out wide. The offside trap worked a few times for the Tahitians but also allowed David Villa and Fernando Torres to get in behind on several occasions with chances on goal. Torres got the first goal early but La Roja struggled a bit in the opening 30 minutes.

Eventually, Spain found a rhythm and it went from 1-0 to 4-0 in less than ten minutes. In the 31st minute, Villa came across the top of the box and fed Silva, who made a nice run and finished around the Tahitian keeper. Two minutes later, Torres beat the offside trap and took a nice touch to beat the onrushing keeper, finishing with a simple pass into the back of the net. Not long after, Silva returned the favor with a low cross into the path of Villa, and El Guaje finished nicely to make it 4-0.

Jesús Navas replaced Sergio Ramos at half time and Spain came out a bit sharper. It didn’t take long for La Roja to record another goal, with Villa scoring in the 49th minute off a cross from Nacho Monreal. Navas was very lively on the right wing and found Torres in the 57th minute for 6-0. A huge mistake by the goalkeeper gifted David Villa the easiest of goals in the 64th minute, and Juan Mata got his name on the scoresheet two minutes later to make it 8 to nil for the Spaniards.

Spain were awarded a penalty in the 76th minute after a handball in the box, but Torres’ shot rebounded off the crossbar. The Chelsea man atoned for it just minutes later with his fourth goal of the match. Finally, Silva scored his second of the match with just minutes to full time to make it a double digit victory, but the Manchester City playmaker couldn’t be bothered to celebrate.

It is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from this game. David Silva looked bright starting on the right side of the field, notching a goal and an assist in the first half, and Spain’s 10th goal in garbage time. However, the player Silva would likely replace in the starting XI is Cesc Fàbregas, who performed very well against Uruguay. Mata and Santi Cazorla were a bit sloppy with their passes at times, and are definitely not going to oust Xavi and Iniesta when it matters most. Torres and Villa both looked motivated and scored plenty of goals, but unfortunately the two players they could replace, Pedro and Soldado, scored against Uruguay in a game that obviously had more meaning. Torres’ missed penalty definitely didn’t help his chances, while Villa may have gained some important confidence from his performance.

It may have been a record goalscoring performance, but that won’t mean anything to the Spanish if they don’t go on and win the tournament. La Roja should be tested a bit more in their final group game against Nigeria, and will likely face the loser of Brazil – Italy in the semi finals.

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Spain 2 – 1 Uruguay: What We Learned

After Spain dazzled fans in Brazil and around the world with a magnificent exhibition of football yesterday, here are four things that we learned:

1. Spain are not on the decline.

Far from it. The have developed tiki-taka to near perfection, hardly allowing the opponent to sniff the ball. When they do lose it, the pressing and recovery is unimaginably quick. Many fans claim it’s boring, and they may be right. It usually is boring to watch a match where one team is on a completely different level than the other, especially if that team doesn’t fill up the score sheet. What’s certain though, is that if matches with Spain are boring, it is not the Spanish team’s fault. Uruguay recognized they were outmatched from the get-go and packed all 10 outfield players behind the ball. It hardly mattered to Spain, as they passed around La Celeste with ease.

2. Andrés Iniesta is the best player at the Confederations Cup.

This tournament might be Neymar’s coming out party to the world, but even he would recognize the superiority of his new Barcelona teammate. Iniesta was all over the field, linking up with the very familiar Xavi, Cesc Fábregas, and Sergio Busquets, and generally making it impossible for Uruguay to involve themselves in the match. In a game admittedly lacking action for large portions of time, Iniesta dazzled and excited the Brazilian crowd.

3. Despite Uruguay’s strikeforce threat, there was no verdict on Casillas vs. Valdés.

Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez might be worth a combined 110 million euros, but were lucky to even see a ball they could attempt to run onto. Ironically, it was Cavani who seemed to lose his composure, clearly frustrated throughout the game, while Suárez maintained his and even gave Uruguay a false hope with his stunning free kick in the 88th minute. There was uncertainty in the build up to the game over whether Iker Casillas or Victor Valdés would start in goal for Spain, but it ultimately mattered none. Vicente del Bosque could have set up a chair in front of the net and the score wouldn’t have been any different.

4. Spain are not invincible.

They may have utterly dominated Uruguay, but the final score did not indicate that. For all of Spain’s possession and mesmerizing passing, they still looked lacking in the final third. Having 80% possession will mean nothing if Spain cannot convert it into goals. If they are caught on the break or a set piece once or twice against a strong team like Italy or Brazil, it could wipe out a half hour of fine passing and possession. La Roja probably won’t be tested much within their group, but they will need more lethal finishing once they reach the semi finals.

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Confederations Cup 2013 Squad Preview – Spain

The Confederations Cup kicks off this Saturday and looks to be a very entertaining tournament, with a number of strong sides vying for the trophy. Brazil is the host country and has an exciting young team featuring new Barcelona signing Neymar, but Spain are still the favourites to win the only tournament that has eluded them during their magnificent run that began with Euro 2008.

Perhaps the biggest story for the Spain squad is the absence of Xabi Alonso, who was a vital part of Spain’s success at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Alonso has been dealing with a groin injury that could be one of the reasons for his poor form at the end of this season. The double pivot of Alonso and Sergio Busquets has been the core of manager Vicente Del Bosque’s strategy since he took over from Luis Aragonés, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts his squad without the Basque midfielder.

If Spain’s last two friendly matches are any indicator, Del Bosque will likely replace Alonso with a more attack-minded player like David Silva, Pedro, Cesc Fàbregas or Jesús Navas. This may lead to a bit more direct style, but La Roja will certainly miss Alonso’s ability to unlock a defense or switch the play with a pinpoint long pass. Look for Xavi Hernández to sit deeper and collect balls from the defense or from Busquets that Alonso would normally see.

The other question marks for Spain are in goal and at the forward spot. Iker Casillas is the team captain and was instrumental to the capture of the World Cup and the two Euro trophies, but he hasn’t played competitively since fracturing his hand at the end of January. His two backups are more than capable of taking on the starting role, and reports in Spain suggest Casillas’ place is far from assured. With the Real Madrid keeper out of action for so long, it may be Victor Valdes’ time to shine on the national stage.

Moving to the forwards, Spain has a number of options but no clear cut favourite to start up front. All time leading goalscorer David Villa has not been the same since breaking his leg in December 2011, Fernando Torres has been inconsistent, and Roberto Soldado had a fine year for Valencia but does not appear to have the full confidence of Del Bosque. It’s possible the Spanish technician will forego a striker altogether and go with wide forwards such as Pedro, Silva, or Navas and false 9 in Cesc Fàbregas. That strategy worked pretty well last summer, with Cesc scoring a number of goals en route to Spain’s second straight European Championship win.

A number of Spain’s players who have never been regular starters for la selección had standout seasons for their clubs this year. These include César Azpilicueta, Nacho Monreal, Javi Martínez, Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata, and Soldado. It will be interesting to see if any of these players get significant playing time, given Del Bosque’s tendency to stick with his favourites. Below, I’ve created two formations; first, who I think should start accounting for club form this season, and second, who I believe will start based on my knowledge of the Spanish national team.
football formations

This is what I personally would like to see, although I believe the chances of this being the starting XI on Sunday against Uruguay are zero. Starting at the back, I personally rate Casillas over Valdés even if he hasn’t played since January. Azpilicueta had a solid season with Chelsea, earning the starting right fullback spot, and deserves a chance to show what he’s got. Arbeloa has the position on lockdown for Spain, but he had a very inconsistent year and has never provided great service from the right even at his best. In the midfield, I think there’s no question that Javi Martínez had a better year than Sergio Busquets, but the Barcelona man is practically untouchable for Del Bosque. Cazorla and Mata tore up the Premier League and are in better form than Silva, Cesc, and Pedro. Finally, Soldado has been superior to Villa and Torres this year and scored a true center forward’s goal against Ireland on Tuesday.

Despite those reasons, Spain has shown that they value continuity over merit, which is why the next formation below is my best guess at the true starting XI.
football formations

Deserved or not, Busquets will get the nod over Javi Martínez, and truthfully you cannot go wrong with either. I still think Casillas gets the start because Del Bosque is a Madridista at heart and Casillas has given everything for Spain as captain over the years. The front three is the toughest to predict, and Del Bosque may opt for Jesús Navas over David Silva on the right. I put Cesc in at the false 9 because of the aforementioned lack of confidence in the strikers, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of Torres, Villa, or even Soldado up front. Pedro has performed well for Spain in World Cup qualifying and appears to be first choice at one of the forward positions.

Spain’s squad may be aging and perhaps on the decline a bit, but they still have more talent at every position than any other team in the Confederations Cup. It’s a guarantee they will control the possession in every game, but the question mark is scoring goals. Even at their best Spain have struggled for goals at times, so whoever Del Bosque opts for up front will be expected to deliver. If they do lose, I fully expect it to be a game where Spain dominates but simply cannot find the net. If they win, this team will truly have achieved everything at the international level.

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Victor Valdés (Barcelona), Pepe Reina (Liverpool)

Defenders: Álvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), César Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Ignacio Monreal (Arsenal), Raúl Albiol (Real Madrid)

Midfielders: Javi Martínez (Bayern Munich), Xavi (Barcelona), Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), Cesc Fàbregas (Barcelona), Juan Mata (Chelsea)

Forwards: David Villa (Barcelona), David Silva (Manchester City), Roberto Soldado (Valencia), Pedro (Barcelona), Jesús Navas (Sevilla), Fernando Torres (Chelsea).

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A Tale of Two Border Wars

Two great rivalries in world soccer were on display for ESPN viewers in America yesterday. Spain versus France kicked off in Paris at 4 pm EST on ESPN2, and the United States took in Mexico in the Estadio Azteca at 10:30 on ESPN. Both battles featured bordering countries fighting to book their places in the 2014 World Cup. It’s always a treat to watch your two favorite national teams play in the same day, and I sat back and enjoyed the football feast.

Spain came into Paris needing all three points to return to the top of Group I, as it looks to avoid a one-off playoff against another European side in order to qualify for Brazil. World and European Champions Xavi and Xabi Alonso returned to action for La Roja after missing the Finland game with injury knocks, and were vital to Spain’s domination of the midfield.

Xavi did not have his best game in a red uniform, blasting over an open net in the 5th minute and generally lacking sharpness, but the diminutive Barcelona man still combined well with the rest of Spain’s attack. Alonso, on the other hand, had a monumental performance, with his metronome-like passing finding the boot of nearly every target. Andres Iniesta once again showed why he is the best attacking midfielder in the world, popping up almost everywhere on the pitch. Along with Sergio Busquets, who won the ball back with a number of good challenges, Spain’s midfield was too much for France’s young but promising bunch.

Perhaps Spain’s best two performances came from those who do not typically start at their position for la seleccion. Nacho Monreal filled in for the injured Jordi Alba and was instrumental in both defense and attack. Monreal played the ball in for Xavi to blast over early on, but his cross to Pedro in the 58th minute was converted for a goal, albeit very sloppily. The recent Arsenal signing also made a huge stop in the second half, when a France corner went over the head of Gerard Pique and fell at the feet of Raphael Varane, who could have sent it home if not for Monreal’s foot. And then of course there was Victor Valdes, starting for injured captain Iker Casillas, who made some huge saves to deny a result for France. Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque has to be pleased with the play of his reserves in such an important game. Spain took all three points back down south and now controls its own destiny in Group I.

The USA – Mexico game was covered on ESPN with a full hour pregame show leading up to kick-off, but I couldn’t help switching over to the Spanish language coverage on Univision for parts of the game. It was interesting to note the contrasts between the two telecasts. The crowd volume was much, much louder on Univision, and there were many more camera shots of the areas behind the goals, which were packed with fans. The ESPN cameras focused more on the empty seats near the touch lines, and the commentators were clearly heard over the crowd. I’m not sure if these differences were intentional, but the Univision broadcast certainly made the atmosphere appear much louder, more hostile, and more intense.

Mexico is the technically superior side, and obviously had a big home field advantage, but the Americans were determined to overcome these facts and get a result. Michael Bradley is developing into a world class midfielder with AS Roma and the national team. He did a great job receiving the ball from the back four and distributing out wide and up the pitch, and also made some good runs forward. I really liked what I saw from Graham Zusi, who was often looking for the ball, took nice touches, and tracked back to make some important defensive plays. Unfortunately he was pushed out wide to the right and did not see as much of the ball as I felt he should. Up front, Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore, and sub Eddie Johnson were largely ineffective as the US managed just one shot at the Mexican goal.

The main bright spots for the stars and stripes were the center back pairing and goalkeeper. Omar Gonzalez answered many critics who’ve claimed he is not ready for big time international football, intercepting countless passes and doing a very solid job of sticking with speedy forwards Javier Chicharito Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos. Matt Besler, on only his second cap for the US, also performed admirably. He picked up a yellow card early on but was relatively mistake free for the rest of the match. Brad Guzan was huge, keeping his second straight clean sheet filling in for the injured Tim Howard. He has been in great form all season with Aston Villa, and these last two performances may create some controversy over Team USA’s #1. Personally, I feel Guzan deserves to keep starting at least until he allows a goal in qualifying.

The defending was exceptional for the US, but I must touch on the two no-calls that could’ve been penalties for Mexico. In the first half, Bradley looked to have pushed over Chicharito in the box, but the forward wasn’t exactly involved in the play and the referee waved off the linesman’s flag to signal play on. Fifteen minutes from full time, Maurice Edu knocked over Javier Aquino in the box, with the replays showing it was clearly a foul, but the ref did not make the call there either. Oddly enough, the Univision crew screamed for a penalty when Chicharito went down but at first did not feel the Edu tackle was worthy of a spot kick. After a few replays, the ESPN commentators conceded that it should have been a penalty, but USA fans won’t dwell on the call for too long, and a hard earned point was won in the Azteca.

It’s obviously a gigantic stretch to compare Spain to the USA, but there are some things to be learned from La Roja’s style, and Jurgen Klinsmann may have a few players who can emulate the best team in the world. Spain controls the game with its trivote of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, and Xavi, passing even the world’s elite such as France to death. The US definitely did not control the game last night, but Michael Bradley showed signs that he can be a Xabi Alonso-esque distributor with the way he collected the ball from his defenders to start attacks and showed up in the final third. Edu did his best in the ballwinning Busquets role, and Graham Zusi is no Xavi but he did appear composed on the ball and very intelligent in his movements, two distinct traits possessed by the Catalan maestro. With Dempsey playing the Iniesta role running between the lines, it is possible to envision the US playing a (very very very) poor man’s version of Spain’s game. They may not be able to run the show against a France, Italy, or even Mexico, but Team USA has the talent to dictate the game against most CONCACAF foes.

Eventually, though, the ball will need to start finding the back of the net more often for the Americans. Playing in a blizzard and the Azteca won’t be the norm going forward, but the lack of ideas in the final third is disappointing nonetheless. The absence of Landon Donovan still hangs over the team’s collective head, but he should be back with the LA Galaxy soon and could yet feature in upcoming qualifiers. Brek Shea made a late cameo last night, and if he finds his form with new team Stoke City, he could provide a different dimension for the US. Klinsmann will now look ahead to friendlies against Belgium and his home country of Germany before the qualifying begins again in June. Things have changed drastically in the span of a week for the man charged with turning around US Soccer, and the national team now finds itself in a great position in what appears to be a highly competitive hexagonal.

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