What leagues and people should I follow as a new soccer fan?

Dear Sports Fan,

Ok, so I downloaded the app FotMob and being a newbie to soccer (thanks to Fancred), I have a few questions. What are all the different leagues in the U.S.? I thought I would start out following those and the World Cup stuff when it comes around. Just trying to figure out what all is going on. Would take any suggestions on who else to follow. What leagues and people should I follow as a new soccer fan?

Tim Lollar

Dear Tim,

Congratulations on getting into soccer! Learning any new sport can be a fun and intellectually stimulating experience. As you learn the new sport, it subtly changes the way you think about sports you already understand well and even other aspects of your life. You may even find yourself having eureka moments about something at work or with a relationship and be able to trace it back to something you thought of while learning soccer. Long story short, learning about anything sparks learning about everything. If you haven’t already explored them, we offer a few easy email courses on soccer: Soccer 101, Soccer 201: Positions and Logistics, and Soccer 202: Culture.

It’s a particularly interesting time to become a new soccer fan. Thanks to this year’s women’s World Cup and last year’s men’s World Cup, both of which were conveniently located for U.S. soccer fans, there’s a tremendous amount of excitement about soccer. Unfortunately, it will be another three years until the next men’s World Cup and four until the next women’s. That’s a shame because, especially for the non-totally-hard-core soccer fan, the World Cup is the ultimate competition. Luckily, the alternatives are plentiful and exciting in their own right:

  • In the United States, the two main professional leagues to follow are Major League Soccer (MLS) for men and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) for women. Both leagues are in the middle of their seasons, so now is a good time to become a fan. Choose the team closest to you and start rooting. One of the great things about professional soccer in the United States is that tickets are still quite accessible, even for normal people. NWSL tickets can be had at most stadiums for between $15 and $40 and MLS tickets go from $25 to $100. I wrote an entire post about how to follow the NWSL because, although all its games are available on YouTube for free, because only a handful of games are on TV, people often don’t know how to watch them. MLS games are carried weekly on ESPN and Fox Sports channels.
  • If you want to follow a professional league outside of the United States, your two best bets are Mexico’s Liga MX and the British Premier League. Virtually every game from both leagues is now available in some form in the United States. Liga MX is carried on Univision, Azteca, UniMas, and ESPN Deportes. The right to the British Premier League (the BPL but also sometimes called by its old abbreviation, the EPL) are owned by NBC and its child channel, NBC Sports Network. Unless you have a real connection to Mexico or England, choosing to follow either league as your primary league could be thought of as a slightly pretentious move. Don’t pay too much attention to that. Unlike with baseball, basketball, football, or ice hockey, the best professional league in the world is not in the United States, it’s widely thought of as being the BPL, so if you simply need to watch the best, that’s the league to follow regardless of the pretension.
  • Also unlike club teams in other sports, professional soccer teams play in many different competitions simultaneously, often against club teams from other leagues. These tournaments provide another exciting opportunity to watch extremely good soccer. The most prestigious of all inter-league tournaments is the european Champions League which pits the best teams from each of Europe’s many soccer leagues against one another. North America (plus Central America and the Caribbean) has its own version of this called the CONCACAF Champions League. Teams from every league in the United States play against each other in the U.S. Open Cup. As you can tell, there’s a wide array of competitions to track.
  • Even without the World Cup, there is a lot going on in international soccer if you want to focus on that. The U.S. men’s national team is playing in the Gold Cup right now. The Gold Cup is held every other year and is a World Cup-like tournament between only the teams in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Next year, the Summer Olympics will have their own soccer competition. Soccer at the Olympics are a funny proposition because they are almost as important as the World Cup to women’s soccer but they’ve never been seen as important in men’s soccer. Either as a result or as a cause, men’s olympic teams are restricted. All but three players on each team must be under 23 years old. The most important international men’s soccer tournament in 2016 will be the European Championships. The Euros, as they’re called, are a 24 team tournament that also closely resembles the World Cup, just with only teams from Europe. Some people argue that because of the depth of European soccer and the geographic requirements that the World Cup have to ensure representation from all over, the Euros are actually a more competitive tournament. They’re definitely fun to watch.

As you can tell, there’s always something to follow in the world of soccer! Apps like FotMob, which provide news and schedules for virtually every league and competition in the world are great resources to have. Twitter is another great resource for following soccer. I would start by following Grant Wahl, a leading U.S. soccer reporter who works for Sports Illustrated. He maintains lists of other people in the soccer world to follow for breaking news, as well as the men’s and women’s World Cup. Poke around in his lists and you’ll find some great soccer people.

Thanks and good luck,
Ezra Fischer


2014 Major League Soccer Cup preview

This Sunday is not just Week 14 of the NFL season and the first weekend of many people’s fantasy football playoffs, it’s also the day of the Major League Soccer championship game. The 2014 MLS Cup will be held in Carson, California, at the StubHub Center at 3 p.m. ET. The game between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New England Revolution will be televised live on ESPN. It will be viewed by a sold-out crowd of 27,000 and a few hundred thousand soccer fans on TV. Any single elimination championship game is compelling but this game is even more interesting than most. Coverage of the game is split between those looking at the game as a small lens through which to view the larger story of Major League Soccer and United States soccer in general and those who are focusing on the game as a culmination of months or years of effort. We’ll do a little of both in our preview here, starting with the macro view and then zooming into the micro.

The larger story

The game on Sunday is the 19th MLS Cup. It’s a time to reflect on the history of the league and the current state of soccer in the United States. You might think that next year’s 20th anniversary would be a better time for reflection, but there are forces at work making this year particularly interesting. Major League Soccer began in 1995, the year after the United States hosted the World Cup. And that’s no coincidence, it was very much a part and parcel of hosting the Cup. This year, fans in our country embraced the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team like never before. The team captured the imagination and affection of both die-hard soccer fans and complete soccer neophytes. In the aftermath of the World Cup, interest or at least curiosity about MLS has been high. The league has seen some very positive signs this year. According to a Wall Street Journal story about the league, there has been a 26% increase in television viewership from last season and signed a $720 million dollar television deal with Fox, ESPN, and Univision. There is talk of expanding into at least one, maybe two other markets in addition to the opening of a second franchise in New York, New York FC, which will begin play next year.

On the other hand, the league has taken a few hard knocks during the year as well. Chivas USA, an interesting experiment with having an MLS team function as a second tier part of a Mexican League club’s organization, has failed. The team was purchased by a new ownership group but it will shut its doors for a year or two before re-opening. The United States Men’s National Team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann has been public in his criticism of the league, which can’t be good for the MLS since he’s one of the more well respected soccer figures in the country. There’s also just continuing weirdness that makes the MLS seem like a subpar league. In order to get Manchester City’s owners to invest in NYFC, the league promised they would have special privileges in terms of transferring young players back and forth between New York and Manchester. Add that to the weirdness around bidding between teams for high profile players like Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones and you’ve got a consistent stream of information that suggests the MLS is not sufficiently interested in fair play.

The actual game

If you set the larger picture aside, this game is revealed as being unusually interesting. It’s one of those games where, unless you’re a fan of one of the teams involved, it’s almost impossible to pick a team to root for. Here are some reasons to root for each team.

Why to root for the Los Angeles Galaxy

There’s one main reason to root for the Galaxy and its Landon Donovan. This championship game will be Donovan’s last competitive soccer game. He is retiring from play after the game. You probably recognize Donovan’s name. He’s been the face of U.S. Soccer for the last dozen years. He has been one of the best players and leaders of the men’s national team during that time and scored the most dramatic and memorable goal in international competition since 1989. He’s played with the Galaxy since 2007 and, despite the international presence of David Beckham on the team, has been a central figure in their history throughout. He’s also a very interesting person. He took a brief hiatus from soccer in 2013 for psychological reasons, something that most athletes don’t do. One of my favorite sports writers, Brian Phillips, wondered in 2013 whether Donovan is even “happy playing soccer?” Earlier this year, following Donovan’s last game on the U.S. Men’s National Team, Phillips returned to writing about Donovan:

It’s not so easy to achieve emotional fusion with your avatar-champion when everything from the tension in his jaw to the way his eyes keep flicking to one side of the frame suggests there’s stuff going on with him he doesn’t want you to see.

In his final go around with the national team (after becoming a sympathetic figure when coach Klinsmann left him off the 2014 World Cup roster) and the Galaxy, Donovan has finally achieved a status he almost definitely never sought: emotional fan favorite.

Why to root for the New England Revolution

A long-suffering Boston team has a chance to end a period of losing but to do so they’ll have to beat the winningest team in league history. Sounds familiar, right? It was the sports plot that drove interest in the Boston Red Sox in the Major Baseball league for years or even decades before the Sox finally broke through the hated Yankees to win the World Series in 2004. The New England Revolution will be playing the role of the Red Sox in this drama on Sunday. The Revolution are the only original Major League Soccer team to never have won the Championship or the Supporter’s Shield given to the team with the best regular season record. To break their drought, they’ll have to beat the Galaxy… who play the role of the Yankees in the MLS. The Galaxy have won four championships, four Supporter’s Shields, and several other tournaments. They are playing in their third championship game in four years and they’ve won two of three so far. And, the Galaxy is going to be playing in their home stadium where they haven’t lost since the first game of the season.

If it sounds hopeless, well, it’s not. The Revolution are on a streak as well. They are 11-1-2 since the mid-season acquisition of Jermaine Jones. Jones was the best player not named Tim Howard on the U.S. Men’s National team this past summer at the World Cup. If you don’t remember who he is, he was the one who did this. He’s a completely solid midfielder, brilliant on offense and defense, and a physical presence wherever he goes. He’s joined by two clever attacking players, Lee Nguyen and Charlie Davies. Both Nguyen and Davies have wonderful redemption stories and are easy to root for. Nguyen made is international debut in 2007 for the U.S. team. After a few games, he fell out of favor and left the country to pursue his soccer career first in Europe and then in Vietnam where he is a dual citizen. He returned to the U.S. in 2012 and has flourished for the Revolution, so much so that he was finally asked back for a set of international games this year. Davies was also a promising young international player but his fall from grace was more violent. In 2009, Davies was involved in a terrible car crash. One woman in car (neither she nor Davies were driving) was killed and Davies suffered a litany of injuries including a broken tibia, fibia, and elbow, various facial fractures and a lacerated bladder. Despite that, he recovered in time to make a semi-serious push to rejoin the national team for the 2010 World Cup. He didn’t quite make it back and, indeed, has never quite been the same player since. The player he has become though, is still able to wreak havoc on defenses from time to time. We’ll see if its enough to beat the Galaxy on Sunday.

Cue Cards 9-30-14

Cue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Yesterday —  Monday, September 29

  1. Down and out in Kansas City  — The Kansas City Chiefs beat the New England Patriots 41-14 last night and the game didn’t even seem that close. The Chiefs dominated the Patriots in just about every way possible. They were better at running the ball. They were better at throwing the ball. They were able to keep the Patriots from running the ball successfully and, when the Patriots tried to pass, the ball seemed just as likely to end up in an opponents hands as one of their own. It was a complete beat-down.
    Line: I know the Patriots always seem to turn it around, but this year their team seems really bad.
  2. Two little bits of soccer — Other than the football game, the sports world was pretty quiet yesterday. You know it’s quiet when the other biggest score of the day is Stoke City 1, Newcastle United 0. Both these teams are relatively weak teams in the top British soccer league, the English Premiere league. According to this ESPN article, Newcastle United’s manager might get fired because of the result. Also their nickname is the Magpies! The other interesting soccer news is that Chivas USA is being sold and as part of the deal will skip the next two seasons! It’s an unorthodox move. Chivas had been one of Major League Soccer’s most interesting franchises because it was owned by the owner of a Mexican soccer team and operated almost as a minor league team. Apparently that has not been successful and the new owners insisted on the team taking a break from competition while they rebrand and potentially relocate the team.
    Line: Soccer seems so wacky compared to other sports. Who names a team the Magpies? Who buys a team but insists that it stop playing?

Why Major League Soccer is like a New York co-op

Jermaine Jones
Jermaine Jones was assigned to sign with the New England Revolution

Recently Major League Soccer, the top professional soccer league in the United States did something which raised eye-brows and exposed one of its oddest elements, its organizational structure. If you remember anyone from the United States Men’s World Cup team from earlier in the summer, it’s probably goalie Tim Howard. But if you remember anyone else it might be Jermaine Jones the dreadlocked maelstrom of a midfielder who was probably the best non-goalie on the team for the duration of the tournament. Jones is one of our many German-American players. He grew up in the United States but moved to Germany as an adolescent and began his professional career there as a fourteen year old (which is not rare for German players). He’s spent his entire career in Germany and Turkey but became interested in playing and perhaps finishing his career in the United States. And that’s where the weirdness began.

Major League Soccer has a “single entity-structure” in which, according to Wikipedia, “teams and player contracts are centrally owned by the league.” Most other leagues in the United States are connected, but much more loosely, like a neighborhood association connects property owners throughout the country. Instead of operating independently on the important things and in unison when necessary, Major League Soccer operates independently until the decisions become important. This type of structure is familiar to me only from living in a co-op apartment building where I am a “tenant-owner” the same way that Robert Kraft (who owns-owns the New England Patriots football team) is an investor-operator. Through this peculiar organization, the signing of Jones became an assigning. 

The MLS team most interested in Jones was the Chicago Fire and had been pursuing him for months. According to MLS rules, most players are able to negotiate and sign with teams of their choosing if they are free agents. Players who fit this description, as a “U.S. National Team player who signs with MLS after playing abroad” however, have to go through an “allocation order” where teams that did worse in the previous year have first dibs until they sign a player that fits that description. Then they drop to the bottom of the list. Okay, that’s a little arbitrary, but I can see what they’re going for there. But what is this? There’s an asterisk? 

*Designated Players of a certain threshold – as determined by the League – are not subject to allocation ranking.

That, my friends, is an elastic clause if I’ve ever seen one. So, in some cases, the league can just bypass the rules and do whatever it likes. In this case, MLS decided to have Jones skip the allocation process and they decided to choose between the two teams interested in him with a coin-flip! The two teams were the Chicago Fire and the New England Revolution (it boggles the mind to believe that these were the only two teams who wanted him, but…) and the Revolution won the coin flip.

Not only does this feel anti-competitive and arbitrary, but as Barry Petchesky argues in his Deadspin.com article about the assignment, it’s “shockingly anti-labor. If MLS wants to be the league of choice for the world’s best players, it’d better start allowing those players to choose their situations.” I couldn’t agree more. The worst thing a sports league can do is create the appearance of favoring one team over another or one player over another from an organizational standpoint. The NBA lives and flourishes with a little bit of this sentiment thanks to conspiracy theorists who think the draft lotteries are fixed or the refs are instructed to favor big-market teams. Too much of it can only lead to bad things, like the UFC’s recent issue with President Dana White’s removal of a judge mid-fight. The perception of true competition is essential for the enjoyment of sports.