Wednesday night MLS games often turn in to times for thought for me. I haven't really been able to put a finger on why that is, but it is - and this past midweek matchup between Sporting KC and Philadelphia Union game was not much different.
As a midweek game it first got me thinking about how the Columbus Crew didn't shuffle their lineup as both these teams did last week. Philly's was more out of necessity, but still. Most think professional soccer players should be able to play two games a week. I subscribe to this thought but do realize that saying that means I think that all 11 starters are professional level players and have professional training, diets, coaching, reserve games against other pros, etc... most MLS teams aren't even close to there.
Sporting also made a couple changes. Top players; Graham Zusi, Beasler, Rosell, Feilhaber, Sinovic and Collin were starting but the side was notably missing Chance Myers at RB and Dom Dwyer up top. Both absences were clearly felt.
Philly scored both goals on 19 year old Igor Juliao's right side. One caught him tracking all the way over to the left side seconds after sub Dom Dwyer scored a spectacular equalizer. I'm pretty sure that doesn't happen if Myers in the match (just observations of a passer by, here).
Fun game and easily the best Wednesday night matchup this year, but like I said, it got me thinking...
BROADCASTING as a TOOL
One of the things I've noticed over the past couple years in watching Sporting KC games is that they not only use the broadcast to get sponsors and events out there but also to set the tone of the organization. Not in a 'rah rah' kind of way, nor in a plain honest way. It's more of a social engineering type thing (not as bad as that sounds but best way to describe it).
An example of this is about halfway through the second half team CEO Robb Heineman joined the broadcast team in the both to talk about goings on. Some of it focused on a local event for millennials in town but there was also some brutally honest conversation about the team that night. Heineman did not shy away from expressing displeasure with his team's play when he was on (game was 0-1 at the time). You could even here him sigh / grunt when his team made a bad pass or turned it over. It was refreshing.
After the match, Sporting head coach Peter Vermes was asked about the team's performance, he didn't sugar coat anything and ripped into his team. He went as far as to say that by no means did his team deserve to win.
Now, non-MLS fans will not see anything strange about Vermes hammering his team post game. It happens all the time outside the fan pleasing realm of MLS but inside this realm... it is not a common occurrence.
"We didn't play our best," or "we have some things to work on," is usually the refrain you hear.
In Columbus it is usually followed up by an interview with a non-impact, well spoken, college educated player whose number of hardships and lost fights equal about the same number of career goals. "The effort and fight was there tonight," he'll say. "Our fans were great tonight, results will come, we just need to keep working hard," he'll conclude.
The lesson here from Sporting is thus; The fire burns hotter in that organization. Winning is important (even on a Wednesday!? in MLS??) and they use TV and radio to get this expectation across to fans and players.
While, I would prefer professional unbiased announcing teams in MLS, what KC does here is close to it in their honesty and criticism. And it works.
3 THINGS that are KEY for KC, MISSING IN COLUMBUS
It's well known that Anthony Precourt wants to take some of the things KC has done over the past half decade or so and apply it to Columbus but there are some major differences that I don't think can be bridged.
1. A Local Group.
Two words out of the three in point one, the Crew lack. Sporting was a local group effort of five businessmen. Within the ownership group you also have a CEO. This is very important as not only do you have a executive officer with a job to perform but his success also earns him a return on his investment. On top of that you have another group that can reel him in if it isn't working. This is normal business but sometimes lost in the world of sports (especially MLS).
The ownership group purchased the team in 2006 but it wasn't until nearly four years later they overhauled the "brand" and moved on a new stadium. The two of those things happening simultaneously is extremely important. They also moved conferences from West to East which helped in furthering the new image.
3. Players, Staff.
With a strong leadership structure you get a strong front office and a strong front office means stability. Stability allows coaches to do their work and that yields good players. Graham Zusi is a mystery to many. I watch him with the ball, his movement, skill... and ask, "where did he get this?" Same thing with Seth Sinovic, Chance Myers, Matt Beasler and others. While they aren't world class by any measure, they are some of the top players in the league. They never played overseas or Mexico or South America. They are products of a good organization (and one that even had an analyst!).
WHERE SUCCESS BEGINS and ENDS
For KC it started at the top. Salt Lake as organizational strength that came from an experienced Dave Checketts and his SCP Worldwide that he built (which it should be noted was sold to Dell Loy Hansen who said "I've always referred to Real as the Green Bay Packers of soccer," back in January 2013).
You've also got San Jose Earthquakes, who are going through a reformation now, that have a good org. Lew Wolff owns it but on his executive staff he has the long tenured president of the Oakland Athletics, Michael Crowley as Managing Director.
Why do I mention these teams above? Because they are the most successful teams since the beginning of 2012 - present. Why 2012? That's because the league has had the same number of teams since then (in other words, most stable the league has been competitively in some time).
PPG Team...Goal Difference per Game
1.77 Sporting Kansas City... +0.50
1.71 Real Salt Lake... +0.46
1.65 San Jose Earthquakes... +0.27
1.65 New York Red Bulls... +0.37
1.65 Seattle Sounders FC... +0.27
1.55 LA Galaxy... +0.39
1.49 Houston Dynamo... +0.04
1.49 Chicago Fire... -0.01
1.37 Vancouver Whitecaps... +0.08
1.35 Columbus Crew... -0.06
1.32 Colorado Rapids... 0.00
1.32 New England Revolution... +0.13
1.28 Portland Timbers... -0.05
1.26 Montreal Impact... -0.19
1.25 FC Dallas... -0.10
1.16 Philadelphia Union... -0.16
1.14 D.C. United... -0.32
0.83 Chivas USA... -1.00
0.81 Toronto FC... -0.60
It goes without saying. Every situation is different. But what binds good teams together is not the number of fans that show up or the strength of supporters' groups... It is the strength within the organization.
The Crew aren't going to be Sporting KC or RSL or whomever, of course. They will be their own thing but it's not going to come easy and it's going to take some work and a lot of help if they want to move towards that top five and not fall closer to that bottom group.
Stay away from that bottom group.