Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer
1. Strong TV ratings for MLS Cup final
The domestic soccer news cycles spins at a cartoonishly fast rate. As such, we can miss some important stories – or perhaps not apportion all the attention they deserve.
The last three days paint a clear picture of it. In the hurry-flurry of player trades, coaching news, protected player lists and then Tuesday’s expansion draft for Atlanta and Minnesota, it was easy to bypass one tasty slice of the soccer news pie.
TV ratings dropped for the league’s MLS Cup final. And you know what? Not bad!
Seattle's tiebreaker win over Toronto – short of pretty soccer but long on tension, atmosphere and aesthetic – drew 3.5 million television North American viewers, a record for a Major League Soccer’s championship contest.
The breakdown: About 1.4 million on Fox, which more than doubled last year’s MLS Cup audience on the primary U.S. carrier (ESPN), plus another 600,000 on Spanish-language Univision. The rest of the TV audience came from Canada (in two broadcasts, one in English and one in French).
These aren’t numbers that will make NBA or Major League Baseball executives jealous. Games in the NBA finals over the last decade have generally averaged between 14-18 million viewers, for instance. There’s the larger context. Also deserving of consideration: the game included a Canadian team, which super-boosted the numbers north of the border.
Still, the viewership was encouraging. According to Fox, Saturday’s contest was the most-watched MLS final since 2001. Univision says its figure represents the network’s second-highest viewership for an MLS match.
All of that improves the chances of network interest going forward, perhaps in the same Saturday night timeslot (although next year’s final goes back to ESPN, and that network may have a different set of conflicts, and therefore different thoughts). So the strong numbers could factor into MLS scheduling as league leaders might favor pushing the playoffs into December to get that slot, after most college football biggies are done.
2. Did Curt Onalfo learn from his time at DC, KC?
One of two things happened Tuesday in Los Angeles, where Curt Onalfo was introduced as the man to replace Bruce Arena. (Cue the warnings of being “first up” to replace a legend; Arena isn’t exactly Sir Alex Ferguson, but he did win three MLS Cups with the Galaxy and is generally considered the country’s most successful soccer manager.)
So, yes, something important happened Tuesday – we just cannot be sure which one just yet.
The Galaxy either made a smart choice, exploiting the experience of a man who has spent countless hours on MLS sidelines, not just as an assistant but twice as the big boss (at Kansas City and D.C. United). At 47, Onalfo is old enough to benefit from all this experience but still young and energetic enough to steer the Galaxy rebuild.
That’s the rosier scenario. Here’s the thornier, dimmer view: That MLS may be walking down a street it would be better to avoid.
See, Onalfo did manage at these other two spots, but neither went swimmingly. He lasted two and a half years at Kansas City, departing with a 27-29-22 mark. (The man who replaced him, Peter Vermes, has been at SKC longer than any MLS manager has been at his current address.)
Onalfo’s second spin of the managerial wheel came at RFK Stadium and didn’t last even a full season. United was a 3-12-3 when higher-ups dismissed Onalfo in August. Here’s what Steven Goff at the Washington Post said at the time: “Executives had grown alarmed with more than just the team's mounting losses, defensive follies and attacking shortcomings. They said they saw a team that hadn't taken sufficient pride in the MLS club's heritage and had become unresponsive to Onalfo's attempts to direct and inspire.”
So, is MLS becoming Premier League-like in its “recycling program?” EPL may be the world’s top association in cash and acclaim, but nobody does the managerial merry-go-round quite like England. Harry Redknapp, Alan Pardew, Tony Pulis, Tim Sherwood, Steve Bruce, Sam Allardyce – those are just some of the familiar names that have cycled and recycled through England’s collection of clubs. They come. They win a bit, but probably lose a little more. They get fired. And like a Whac-a-Mole game, they pop right back up somewhere else.
Neil Warnock has managed 15 teams through England’s tiers! David Moyes is relatively new to the merry-go-round but he is already on a third Premiership side, Sunderland. There are other examples, but you get the idea.
So, either Onalfo has studied hard and demonstrated to Galaxy brass that he is 100 percent ready to apply those critical lessons. Or MLS has already become that place where we just recirculate the usual suspects when the next coaching position comes open. Let’s hope not, because there are just too many exciting American coaches who deserve a chance.
3. A little warning on Sebastian Giovinco’s larger legacy
Another unfortunate byproduct of so much MLS offseason news happening just after MLS Cup final is that we can’t chew and chew on the tasty gristle of actual match analysis – the tactical back-and-forth, the individual battles (Jozy Altidore vs. Roman Torres!) and all the other little tributaries of match narrative that feed into the bigger stream.
One of them was Sebastian Giovinco, who presumably had a point to prove after not even making the short list of league MVP candidates – odd, since he’s been the best player in MLS over the last two years by plenty of accounts.
Well, he didn’t. Prove a point that is.
In fact, Giovinco’s inability to make much of an impact will actually drive his larger legacy in the opposite direction.
His touches were heavy Saturday against Seattle. He couldn’t find the channels. He never had a shot on goal nor beat a defender on the dribble. Seattle’s well organized defense and Ozzie Alonso’s unyielding midfield screening – the guy took eight pain killing shots in his knee in order to play, according to Fox’s Stuart Holden – gets partial credit. But when a badly cramping Giovinco asked to be withdrawn in extra time, when he surely would have been among TFC’s penalty kick tackers, it sealed the deal on what was a miserable night for the Italian attacker.
Michael Bradley bossed the midfield and Altidore kept Seattle’s defenders busy. Meanwhile, Giovinco was just plain ineffective. He hasn’t been at his best through the entire playoffs, in fact.
This match certainly will not become Giovinco’s legacy in MLS nor in Toronto. On the other hand, it does matter. He’ll need a big night (or at least a big moment) in a contest that really matters somewhere along the way to ever be considered for the figurative Mt. Rushmore of MLS.
4. USMNT in good hands with Bradley in the captain’s armband
The United States was still not in the clear for World Cup 2014 during a qualifier up in Kansas City. Tim Howard was captain at the time, not long after inheriting the captaincy from Carlos Bocanegra, and the ceremonial armband would soon be handed to Clint Dempsey.
But for some of us, there was zero doubt about who had become de facto captain, the team’s emotional heartbeat and unofficial spokesman. It was Michael Bradley. I spoke to Bradley before and after that qualifier, and it was just impossible to come away with any other conclusion.
That was 25-year-old Michael Bradley; now the man is 29, even more worldly and studied. As the U.S. national team and its second-time-around manager, Bruce Arena, try to get the wheels back on the road, steadfast leadership will be important. And here, it seems the team stands in great hands.
Read these words from SI.Com’s Brian Straus, written in the run-up to last week’s MLS Cup final: “His commitment to team chemistry is the reason he captains both his club and his country. Stories of his voracious appetite for the game, whether it’s in training or on video, are well known, and his devotion hasn’t waned. He works hard, stays healthy and plays unselfishly. He’s the sort of athlete who wins championships. He just hasn’t.”
Last month, Bradley was eloquent and measured while providing comments on the U.S. presidential election, a flashpoint coincidentally aligned with the biggest USMNT match that happens on American soil every four years, the U.S.-Mexico clash.
Then consider Bradley’s message to hurt Toronto FC fans after Saturday’s final. Bradley was probably the best player on the field over 120 minutes – but he missed his penalty kick in a tiebreaker the Reds would eventually lose. It would have been easy for him to “hide,” to go on vacation and not bother with something like this. Then again, that’s not what leaders do. Here’s what Bradley said:
“I'm sorry. Sorry we couldn't give you the perfect ending. The ending that every single one of you deserved. Sports can be cruel. Not for the faint of heart. And Saturday night was the perfect example. We left our hearts and souls on the field. For each other. For you. For the city. And just like that it was over. Dreams shattered. Tears shed. But its not finished. It doesn't end like this. … The pain and heartbreak of the last two days have made one thing very clear. I've never been more proud to call TFC my club and Toronto my home. Together our time will come.”
There’s more. You can read it here.
That’s a guy you want on your team. If not, then you and I don’t have the same vision of “team.” Bradley’s performances in the U.S. shirt have been up and down recently. Whether that’s more on him or on Jurgen Klinsmann’s tactical deficiency is hard to say. But Bradley clearly still has a huge role to play in the national team. It starts in about a month during Arena’s first January camp.
5. The Little Five
5a. Unofficially, it looks like the MLS Cup final was the fourth most-watched soccer game in the United States this year, after the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier (combined English-language and Spanish-language audience of 5.3 million), the UEFA Champions League final and the Liga MX final.
5b. The scale of risk-reward is off the chart with Jermaine Jones’ apparent arrival into Los Angeles. Honestly, we could all write entire essays on the potential windfalls or pitfalls of a 35-year-old who can be an inspirational figure on and off the field – or a complete mayhem maker on or off the field. (Frankly, I would have leaned toward former Galaxy steady-Eddy midfielder Juninho, who apparently wanted back in … but they didn’t ask me.) Either way, Jones is sure to give us all plenty to yak about.
5c. When will soccer make it in the United States? I dunno. But have a look at the snapshot above. (Thanks to Nick Firchau for the pic via Twitter.) Here are a whole bunch of snapshots and video of the Sounders’ victory parade from the Seattle Times.
5d. I’d wager my prized Pele-signed soccer ball that a lot of American fans who pooh-pooh MLS playoffs (favoring the global single table format) also watch and quite possibly treasure the NFL, the NBA, MLB or perhaps all of the above. Not to put too fine a point on it, but … they have playoffs!
5e. Soon enough, U.S. Soccer will announce the sites for upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Some of the “usual suspects” will surely be in the mix. But now it seems we have another “player” now in the burgeoning list of candidates for USMNT and USWNT matches. It’s Cincinnati, where attendance for the city’s USL side was nothing sort of jaw-dropping this year. Now, the club has spent substantially (about $2 million) to widen Nippert Field, which puts it in play for qualifiers, friendlies, etc.
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for FourFourTwo and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.