H5 1012

The High Five: U.S. soccer history, Pablo Mastroeni’s peculiar situation, what the NWSL final teaches us and more

1. On RFK Stadium and “real” soccer history in the States

There is real soccer history in our country. Say it out loud: “There is actual, genuine, stirring soccer history in our country.” Maybe tap your buddy on the shoulder and say it to him.

It can still feel like we’re new at this thing. (Well, unless you’re a millennial. For you, the United States went to a World Cup quarterfinal when you were in diapers, and men you know as MLS coaches – Jason Kreis, Jesse Marsch, Oscar Pareja and others – were on the field back in the day.)

Still, for a lot of folks, soccer in the United States still feels fresh, with lesser volumes of history. But it’s just not true – and we’re now getting important (and perhaps poignant) reminders.

The United States national team did its thing inside historic RFK Stadium on Tuesday, a friendly against New Zealand. It’s a moment to stop and consider because it may well be the national team’s final match there. The final one of many.

Follow with me here: Baseball fans of another day lamented the loss of Ebbets Field, once the place to be in Brooklyn. Or they might miss the old Yankee Stadium. One day, perhaps, people will drop to their knees in tears as Fenway Park or Wrigley Field are targets of the wrecking ball.

See, those are physical, hard-structure proof of baseball history. Similarly, American football fans may get nostalgic as they recall the old Texas Stadium, Giants Stadium, Mile High Stadium, etc. Real history, happy and sad and sometimes maybe even bizarre, was created in those torn-down theaters of sport.

If we’re not already there in domestic soccer, we’re getting there fast. What happened Tuesday in the nation’s capital reminded us again of our nation’s fast-developing soccer history.

See, D.C. United is moving steadily toward its new ground in Southwest D.C. That means RFK is losing its primary tenant. From there, well, how long before some developer looks to gets his mitts on this dis-used parcel of pricey in-town land? Even if they save RFK – for what, I’m not sure – it seems unlikely that U.S. Soccer will glance its way again. So no men’s national team games. No women’s national team games. No place for RFK in Gold Cups, Olympic qualifiers, etc.

RFK Stadium, built in 1961 and named in honor of Robert F. Kennedy, has hosted more U.S. national team matches than any venue in the world.  It hosted World Cup 1994 matches, two of the first five MLS Cup finals and one more in 2007. It has hosted U.S. Open Cup finals and Women’s World Cup matches. They played there in the old North American Soccer League, which means multiple appearances by guys like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff.

Obviously, it has hosted 21 years of D.C. United matches (and will continue housing the Black and Red until those new gates swing open).

Furthermore, it’s a great place for soccer. When the old lady gets crowded, the building really rocks. It’s in the city, on a light rail line. U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley calls it a facility with “a mystique and an aura about it, and a stadium that I think a lot of us enjoy playing in.”

It’s what you want in a sports “palace” – just don’t get nailed by any falling rocks, and try to avoid face-to-face critter confrontations.

Tuesday had something of a “tribute match” feel for RFK; that’s certainly a sign post that significant soccer history in this country is building steadily.

2. Stomping out bad narrative on USMNT attendance

The golden rule on assessing friendlies is always thus: Little conclusions can surely be drawn, but temptation to draw bit ones should be resisted.

That is especially true when it comes to friendlies where experimentation and trial, in both personnel and tactical arrangement, happens in abundance. Good example: Tuesday’s abovementioned U.S. performance vs. New Zealand.

A few starters were included, but not many. And Jurgen Klinsmann, who had seen his team work well lately in a 4-4-2, spun the wheel once again on a loosely organized 4-3-3 (that mostly hasn’t worked). So there you go; it’s not a platform stable enough to draw multiple hard conclusions.

Sacha Kljestan looked pretty good, perhaps doing enough to get a start in the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Mexico. Goalkeeper William Yarbrough needs more seasoning. And that’s about it for hard conclusions, aside from a little confirmations here and there or a note or two to circle and monitor. (Good example: “Terrence Boyd back on the field.”)

But here is a hard conclusion, one that everyone should maybe write over and over on the blackboard, Bart Simpson-style: friendlies against non-marquee opposition don’t draw well. (And they especially don’t sell when U.S. Soccer sets prices too high, which seems to be an ongoing issue the federation needs to address.)

It’s an important point, because the venue cities get roasted regularly on social media (and sometimes by the broadcast talent, who really should know better) for these crowds. The thing is, a little research shows the truth. Compare the RFK Stadium crowd on Tuesday (9,012) to other crowds for U.S. friendlies this year:

- U.S.-Iceland, StubHub Center, 8,803

- U.S.-Canada, StubHub Center, 9,274

- U.S-Ecuador, Toyota Stadium, 9,893

- U.S.-Bolivia, Children’s Mercy Park, 8,894

For friendlies, bigger crowds arrive vs. Mexico, or against a Germany or a Brazil. Obviously, competition (aka “real” matches) are better draws, which is why contests in the recent Copa America generate more ticket buyers. And matches in the anxious run-up to a World Cup tend to do better, too.

Good example of all this: the United States met Turkey a few days prior to departure for Brazil and World Cup 2014 – a Red Bull Arena full house of 26,762 saw the contest. About 16 months later, in October or 2015, a crowd of 9,214 at the very same Red Bull Arena just outside New York, watched a friendly against Costa Rica.

The U.S. market has become more sophisticated; buying habits now more closely resemble what we see abroad. Even in places where soccer rules, friendlies don’t typically sell.  Good examples: U.S. friendlies in Europe in the last two years, in Denmark, Switzerland and Czech Republic, have just managed to top 10,000 in attendance.

3. Pablo Mastroeni in a strange place, indeed

Colorado Rapids manager Pablo Mastroeni finds himself in an odd space, indeed. He probably shouldn’t be there, but … well, read on.

On the one hand, he has advocates for handing him MLS Coach of the Year. And it is a strong case.

On the other hand, he has detractors who want him run out of town. Out of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, at least. Yes, #PabloOut is actually a thing.

NYCFC’s Patrick Vieira and, of course, Oscar Pareja are probably Mastroeni’s chief rivals for MLS Coach of the Year. But barring something odd happening – like a complete Colorado Rapids’ collapse over the last three matches, the numbers say so, and so does common sense.

In NYCFC’s second year (the first year under Vieira) the moneyed club has improved thus far by four wins and 14 points. That’s pretty good. But Colorado has improved by five wins and 17 points while having played one fewer match. Don’t forget, the Rapids play in the tougher conference.

And let’s not pretend there isn’t a ginormous difference in club resources. Vieira and City FC have David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, plus financial access to pretty much whatever staff and support systems their little well-financed soccer hearts’ desire. Mastroeni does not.

We can talk all day about how Colorado can’t score enough goals to make a dent in the playoffs, and it’s a reasonable point to debate. But you know who really, really doesn’t do well in MLS playoffs? Teams that concede goals by the barrel. That’s NYCFC; if the playoffs began today, they’d be the worst of 12 qualifiers in goals allowed.

Look, Mastroeni suffered a rough learning curve in his first two years as a pro manager. The Rapids won just 17 of their first 68 matches (in 2014 and 2015) while placing next-to-last and last in the conference. But the key here is “learning curve.”

In 2016 the former U.S. international clearly has applied the lessons and learnings of those two wayward campaigns. No, nobody will confuse the 2016 Rapids for an offensive steamroller. Then again, they don’t need to be. They still may grab Supporters Shield based on having the league’s top “D.”

Mastroeni is out of contract this year. He’s done enough to earn another two or three years. And the thought of kicking him to the Commerce City curb? That’s complete nincompoopery – and it would be a complete waste of two years of club investment in the man’s learning curve.

4. On the NWSL final, and neutral site finals

Sunday’s NWSL final provided some pretty good theater – at least at the end, when two extra time goals and a tense penalty kick shootout put a better punctuation mark on a match that had some longer, prosaic periods. It also provided something else:

A reminder of why MLS has it right by awarding its final to a home team site. (And the implied reminder that any notions of moving the final back to a neutral site is a sketchy idea, and one that doesn’t really jibe with history.)

The neutral site final is something of an American sports staple. Super Bowls and bowl games, true icons of our sporting culture, are almost always neutral site affairs. The “Super Bowl” was so named by Lamar Hunt, an influential figure in pro football and also an American soccer pioneer, as all good American soccer supporter know.

So at Major League Soccer’s birthing, an MLS Cup final on a neutral site just seemed natural. But here’s the thing: professional soccer is certainly not in the same place as professional football. Obvious as that seems, that got lost in the MLS architecture.

So after 2011, MLS did a prudent switcheroo, toggling away from neutral site to home site. The game – well, the entire “event” – is night-and-day better for it. I’ve been to both. And I’ve seen both on TV. The energy, and therefore the greater engagement, simply can’t be compared.

Which brings us back to Sunday’s NWSL final: it had been scheduled for BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston; the qualifiers were the Western New York Flash and the Washington Spirit. First, it’s a tough ask for fans to get halfway across the country on short notice, for a Sunday evening final. That limits the crowd and, more importantly, the die-hard supporters.

So the event misses energy, and optics suffer (the crowd was sparse, to say the least). All that makes it “feel” smaller. Bottom line here: Neutral-site finals work for leagues or events with sufficient cultural cachet. It works for, say, the Rose Bowl, with its volumes of history. It works for the Super Bowl because we’d all watch even if they played it on the moon.

Until NWSL reaches a certain level of awareness and cultural heft, the women’s league needs a home team to supply the right energy and atmosphere, and to ensure the right kind of local media buzz. 

5. The Little Five

5a. It would be easy to label Bastian Schweinsteiger as another aging Euro looking to extend his career in an “easier” place. But he’s just 32, and just two years removed from being a major part of Germany’s World Cup championship.  But where in MLS? Some places, even if he fit the roster like a custom made Snuggie, it’s just too hot for an older European (Dallas, Houston). Some places just do not have a DP spot (Toronto). Some places, barring significant departures, the roster is already too darn old (NYCFC, LA Galaxy). So, at Orlando City to organize? Or … at Sporting Kansas City to sit in that deep pocket, the way Oriol Rosell did so well a couple of years ago? Hmmm.

 5b. Anybody else see FIFA’s new push for an super-sized 48-team World Cup field this way: it puts more power (and money) under FIFA control while subtracting power (and money) from the continental federations. See, qualifiers in Europe, South American, CONCACAF etc., would lose just a little relevance (because getting into a World Cup would be easier). So it’s a slight, subtle transfer of power (and money) FIFA’s way.

5c. It’s easy to read Klinsmann’s comments about Bill Hamid’s place in the national team goalkeeping depth chart and see this implied message: “Go play overseas.” Klinsmann said the talented D.C. United ‘keeper was 6th or 7th in the U.S. ordering, behind the obvious (Brad Guzan and Tim Howard) but also behind Ethan Horvath, who plays in Norway, and William Yarbrough, starter for Leon in Mexico. Hamid is a brilliant shot stopper whose anticipation, awareness and positioning keeps steadily improving. We know this much, at least: If Hamid is No. 6 or 7, U.S. goalkeeping is in a seriously great place. Then again, it usually is.

5d. Wonder if Yarbrough and San Jose’s David Bingham are still ahead of Hamid in Klinsmann’s ordering after Tuesday’s series of “What just happened there” moments? Surely not, right?

5e. Maybe my favorite soccer-related line of the week: Came from a story on the ongoing StubHub Center improvements (as the suburban LA clubs looks at the fancy new LAFC digs being built in the city and says, “We gotta up our game.”) Here it is: “Anschutz Entertainment Group, the sports and entertainment empire that owns StubHub and the Galaxy, even built a chicken coop so players can have fresh eggs with breakfast.” Think of Bruce Arena, rolling his eyes as he strolls by the chicken coop en route to daily training; doesn’t that give you a little laugh? (I’m sure this doesn’t actually happen, but still…)