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The High Five: An argument against MLS dies, “relegation lite,” Cyle Larin, Sir Alex Ferguson and more

1. The ill formed argument that MLS damages international play

Everybody is stepping up to take their swing at the Jurgen Klinsmann piñata; the embattled U.S. men’s national team manager has become something of a slow-moving target at the moment.

But he keeps inviting the criticism. Literally, that is; he keeps telling us he welcomes it, advising that U.S. Soccer is better off for it. So…

Klinsmann has taken little swipes here and there at MLS, mostly little pitter-patter tummy punches that seem harmless enough. But he’s thrown a couple of serious haymakers, too. The most blatant was his virtual public rebuke for Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore in returning to MLS rather than continuing to fight the quarrels of European soccer.

His point was that lower quality MLS would degrade their individual acuity, which would eventually hinder the national team. Never mind that professional career choices are about a lot of things, impact on the national team program being just one of them.

That argument is dying a slow, frightful death.

Toronto FC hero Sebastian Giovinco hardly looks “diminished” for his participation in MLS, now does he? The presumptive MLS MVP is not only getting call-ups for four-time World Cup champion Italy, he’s producing on the field for the Azzurri.

Same for Fabian Castillo, who played in Colombia’s recent pair of World Cup qualifiers in South America, setting up a late goal in a win over Peru and playing more than half an hour in a loss to Uruguay.

Nobody is arguing that MLS can match Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, etc. in overall, back-to-front quality. On the other hand, joining MLS is not going to turn Robert Lewandowski into Steven Lenhart, now is it?

There will be more of this (top shelf players like Giovinco and Castillo claiming call-ups from quality national teams). And with each one, Klinsmann’s argument that MLS is a drain on individual ability loses some heat.

2. MLS playoffs: sort of relegation. Go with “relegation lite”

American sports are about playoffs; that’s what MLS leaders have said for years in advocating a system beyond the globally popular single-table concept. (I agree, by the way; there’s nothing wrong with playoffs.)

Even if relegation weren’t pretty much impossible within the framework of modern sports – don’t bog down on that tired old argument; here’s why it is pretty much is impossible – the concept of playoffs has long been a central tenet of our sports culture. If you don’t like it, that’s OK. That’s your opinion and fair enough. For you, there’s Premier League and Serie A, etc., to enjoy.

But here’s something to keep in mind as embers of the debate that never ends (“Promotion/relegation for U.S. soccer!”) flare up again and again: You can make a case that MLS already has a system of what we’ll call, “relegation lite.”

It’s the playoffs.

The consequences of failure to qualify for Major League Soccer’s post-season certainly aren’t as dire as, say, in England. The math gets complicated due to “parachute” payments for clubs relegated out of the princely Premier League, but organizations face an annual revenue drop of some $40-50 million by tumbling down into England’s second tier.

There’s no such financial consequence for non-playoff qualifiers in MLS, but there is certainly a blow to prestige, and jobs are frequently at stake. When 12 of 20 teams do qualify for a post-season “tournament,” the implications of those left behind are obvious: “You had one main goal this season, and you didn’t get there.”

Orlando City is fighting with all its expansion club heart to make the playoffs (but won’t get there, in all likelihood). New York City FC, Philadelphia and Chicago have all copped to the reality of a grim 2015; Fire manager Frank Yallop has already lost his job, in fact, and the ground beneath Jim Curtin’s feet at PPL Park outside Philadelphia looks shaky at very best.

In the West, Owen Coyle’s first season in charge in America will be seen in a dim light due to failure to make the playoffs. Jeff Cassar needed a win Tuesday as Real Salt Lake attempted to salvage something in 2015 by advancement into CONCACAF Champions League knockout stages. There’s more … but you get the picture.

In short, not qualifying looks like relegation. It isn’t … but it’s not that far away.  

3. Records that may never fall

Someday, some stellar feller of a striker will push past the 27-goal plateau in Major League Soccer. How strange, eh, that no fewer than three players have landed squarely on the number without surpassing it: Bradley Wright-Phillips last year, Chris Wondolowski in 2012 and Roy Lassiter in the league’s inaugural 1996 season?

That one looks sure to fall at some point; someone will establish a new and improved scoring benchmark.

Career marks will fall, too. Landon Donovan’s all-time goals and assist records could be overtaken at some point, especially as MLS salaries continue rising, creating more opportunities for talented young men to remain here through an entire career. Even two or three years ago, we might have said Donovan’s massive numerical accomplishments might never be matched, if only because the best and brightest would surely take their skills to Europe and its higher pay scale. Now, who knows? (Somewhere, Clint Dempsey is nodding knowingly.)

But it’s fair to wonder whether a couple of notable MLS achievements can ever be challenged? For instance, while Donovan’s all-time markers in goals and assists may fall, it’s fair to wonder if anyone, everwill simultaneously hold both all-time marks the way Donovan now does? That may be a bridge too far.

And here’s another one:

With 17 goals this year, Cyle Larin has obliterated the rookie goal record. He picked it up, put it down, stomped on it, stood over it and taunted it … all that.  Consider that Damani Ralph’s record for most goals by a rookie (11) stood for almost 12 years.

Larin was the first overall pick in January’s draft, so a nice season isn’t that surprising. But calling 17 goals as a rookie a “nice season” is like calling the decades-long Star Wars franchise a “nice little story.” In other words, he had a lot more that a swell little season.

Most rookie strikers, even very good ones, don’t get anywhere near 11 goals – much less 17. The 2014 Rookie of the Year, FC Dallas’ Tesho Akindele, had a fantastic first season; he had 7 goals.

Generally speaking, young midfielders and defenders have an easier transition into the league than goal-scorers. That may be a product of spending habits in MLS (clubs tend to pay more for goal-getters than for goal-stoppers, leaving more room for youngsters to break in further back in the formation). Either way, young strikers have a tougher time making hay in MLS.

Between Ralph in 2003 and Akindele in 2014, only one forward was named MLS Rookie of the Year. That was C.J. Sapong with Kansas City in 2011. In the interim, five defenders and four midfielders took the prize.

So, Larin’s 17 goals (well, 17 plus whatever the Canadian international gets in this week’s Round 34) may well stand for some time.

Consider this, too: in some MLS seasons, as recently as 2011, 17 goals would have been enough to claim Golden Boot, never mind Rookie of the Year. (If it wasn’t implied, RoY for 2015 is in the bag for Larin, too.)

4. Giovinco gives … but Giovinco takes away, too. We explain here …

All praise for Sebastian Giovinco, who will win MVP this year. (C’mon … you aren’t still thinking anyone else has a chance? Oh, that’s so cute!).

He may well take Goal of the Year for his slaloming wonder (and game-winner to boot) last week against New York’s helpless back line. The back story is just as great as the goal on that one; the man was the best player for Italy in a Euro 2016 qualifier the day before, got on a plane in Rome that morning and scored the brilliant game-winner later that night off the bench for Toronto.

And now he’s removed all mystery from the Golden Boot race. Kei Kamara is suspended for Decision Day 2015 for yellow card accumulation. So barring a ridiculous evening from Robbie Keane, Giovinco has already won it; he’s level with Kamara on goals but ahead on assists, the Golden Boot’s first tiebreaker.

So, congrats and all to Giovinco, who is most responsible for TFC’s very first (first!) MLS playoff appearance. But, man … he’s been such a spectacular success that he’s taken a bunch of the doggone mystery out of final week! We love you, Gio … but leave us something, eh?

By the way, the full complement of Giovinco highlights (so far) is here. It’s definitely worth a look-see.

5. The Little Five

5a. I know Didier Drogba didn’t score last week, in Montreal’s win in Round 33. But I only thought of this over the weekend, so here goes: Drogba is this fall’s Robbie Keane in MLS, if you will, in his ability to rise and push his team’s attack to another level as the MLS playoffs approach. Of course, Keane has done it in the playoffs as well. So we’ll see …

5b. You’ve seen this, yeah? About NFL players adopting soccer’s longtime practice of jersey swapping? You should see it. I love when our game further infiltrates the American sporting culture, when the more established leagues “borrow” from soccer.

5c. Legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson always has lots of interesting things to say. Seriously, if you can’t learn something by listening to him, you aren’t trying very hard. He just sat down with the New York Times’ Andrew Das. One of the truly interesting nuggets was Ferguson saying the best national team managers are older, those who have accomplished what they wanted in club soccer. “You need that experience to be able to sit in your house and do nothing for three or four weeks. That’s what it is. And for a young manager to take it? Very difficult, because he wants to be every day out on the field, coaching.” That is real wisdom, straight from a source who would know.

5d. Do not underestimate the significance of MLS adopting simultaneous kickoffs for so-called Decision Day. Yes, a few important elements will be decided Sunday. But there will be years ahead when far more is at stake, more playoff places, more teams vying for Supporters Shield, more CONCACAF Champions League spots, more home field advantage variables, etc. And it will be glorious. This year will be “neat.” Future years (some, though not all) will be nothing short of epic.

5e. I’ve long sang the praises of Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso who, with apologies to close-second Kyle Beckerman, has been the league’s top defensive midfielder over the last several seasons. (My praise for Alonso goes back before his first kick of the ball for Seattle; I first caught his talented act in the U.S. Open Cup final, when he was the best player for the Charleston Battery against DC United back in 2008.) That said, no player in MLS seems to get more “talking tos” and “second chances” than Alonso. He is afforded tremendous respect from referees. Which is OK … but only to a point. Generally speaking, he deserves cautions for hard fouls and persistent infringement just like anyone else.

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