Why They’re Protesting

MLS players in their own words on why they didn’t play soccer last night.

Yesterday afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the floor for Game 5 of a first-round NBA playoff series. Some people called it a “boycott,” but nobody was refusing to buy basketball. Others called it a “wildcat strike,” but this wasn’t a labor dispute. It was an act of social protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by video of a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting a black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back as he tried to get into his vehicle. Three of Blake’s children were in the back seat.

Within hours, the athletes’ protest had spread. The NBA cancelled all of its games scheduled for last night. MLB and WNBA games were called off, too. Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber issued a statement condemning racism but declined to delay a kickoff between Orlando City and Nashville, so Atlanta United and Inter Miami players took it upon themselves to stop their game. After other squads followed suit, the league issued a followup statement that “Major League Soccer has made the decision to postpone the remaining five matches.”

As LAFC’s Mark Anthony Kaye pointed out, the league had done no such thing. It was MLS players who made the decision not to play games last night. Here are some of those players explaining the reasons for their protest.

Image: Kara Walker, Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might Be Guilty of Something)

Here’s What People Who Know Cacha Acevedo Say About His Game

Coaches, analysts, and journalists who’ve followed his career agree: NYCFC’s new defensive midfielder is one of Uruguay’s brightest young talents.

Once upon a time, the story goes, the kid’s hair flowed long and golden. Never mind that it’s brown fuzz these days. Never mind that he’s a twiggy defensive type, not a glamorous World Cup goalscorer. Those shaggy days in the sun were enough for Uruguayans to nickname him after one of their country’s great strikers-slash-conditioner models, Diego Forlán, who they’d already decided looked like la Bruja Cachavacha from old Argentinean cartoons. In other words: the kid’s named for a witch. Every time you call him Cacha—and you should, really, he prefers it—remember there’s a touch of magic in it.

But then that’s always been what people notice about him, the magic. Nicolás Brian Acevedo Tabárez was born in Montevideo on April 14, 1999. A childhood playing soccer in the low-rise neighborhood of Villa Española took him across town to the academy of Liverpool FC (no, not that one). “Liverpool is my home and I will always be grateful,” he told the Uruguayan soccer reporter Gonzalo Martini, who shared their conversation with The Outfield. “It is the team that I love, that opened doors to me since I was a child, that formed me as a player and as a person, that gave me everything and never let me lack anything.” Cacha repaid them on the field. At 19 he earned his debut with the first team. Within a year he was named the country’s best U21 player and Liverpool’s captain. In the Uruguayan Primera. At 20 years old. And he led them to a trophy. Remember, magic.

Uruguay’s national team took notice. Last year Acevedo was a leader at the U20 World Cup, where Leeds United scout Gaby Ruiz judged him Uruguay’s standout player along with LAFC’s DP winger Brian Rodríguez. This year Cacha featured in Olympic qualifying for the U23s, a full year younger than his teammate Diego Rossi. His international performances drew attention from Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool (yes, that one), and City Football Group, which won the bidding in February when NYCFC bought him for a reported $2.6 million with a 10% sell-on fee.

What’s NYCFC getting for that kind of money? A player who, on paper at least, looks an awful lot like a three-months-older version of the club’s most accomplished homegrown, James Sands. Acevedo grew up as a central defender but when he reached the first team, Liverpool’s manager at the time, Paulo Pezzolano (who also coached Valentín Castellanos at Club Torque), converted him into a defensive midfielder—probably a better long-term bet for a kid who topped out at 5’8”. 

“Cacha’s played pretty much every position in the center,” former Liverpool club analyst Juan Giuffra told The Outfield. “Technically he’s very good. He solved a lot of problems for us with his passing and always tried to receive in a position to turn. On defense he’s good at recovering the ball and an intense marker.” Though Acevedo may take some time to adapt to MLS’s physicality and pace, Giuffra said, he’s perfect for CFG’s playstyle. 

Like any good Guardiola-style six, Acevedo admires Sergio Busquets for how simple he makes the position look. “My style is defined by grit, sacrifice, positioning, and trying to play simply with two touches, always searching and searching for a free teammate. My strengths are marking and staying well positioned,” Acevedo told the Spanish journalist Nahuel Beau. He added that he’s most comfortable in a possession-based 4-3-3, which happens to be Ronny Deila’s preferred system at NYCFC.

“We want players who can step forward with the ball from behind, and that’s something he can be really, really good at,” Deila told The Outfield. As a coach he’s not worried about any overlap between Acevedo’s and Sands’ skillsets. Both are versatile, he said, but he expects Cacha to compete with Alex Ring for a spot at the base of the midfield, while Sands may see more time on the back line. Besides, there’s the question of timing as both players look to make the next big step. 

“If [Sands] continues progressing like he’s doing now, it’ll be hard to keep him. Clubs in Europe are going to be [interested],” Deila said. “It takes time for players to come into the league and adapt, especially young players, so it’s very possible that Nicolás needs some time to get used to the style of play and the league and the players around him. I don’t see it as a problem. We’re very happy that we have one of the biggest talents in Uruguay.”

Conversations about Acevedo’s room for growth tend to focus on his undersized frame. “Physically he has to improve a lot,” said Beau, who’s followed his development with Liverpool and Uruguay’s youth national teams. “He’s not fast and he doesn’t have much bulk or height. I think he’s got some work to do there.” Everyone agrees Cacha is an excellent ball winner, though some cautioned he can get caught out during quick defensive transitions. And while he doesn’t offer much on the attacking end, his work in the buildup draws raves. “He always plays with his head raised,” Martini said. “That’s a big plus, since he can easily find an open teammate to pass to at long or short distance.”

Acevedo stands out for his progressive contributions in the buildup. (Wyscout)

Acevedo’s stats at Liverpool show a metronomic, precise passer with an eye for breaking lines. According to Wyscout, last year he had the eighth-most progressive passes per 90′ in Uruguay. High involvement and a surprising number of balls into the final third from his defensive midfield hole might explain his outstanding expected buildup, which tallies the xG from shots at the end of possessions he contributed to. (Sands, by contrast, was an extremely cautious passer last year, though he played more vertically in the first few games of 2020.) Acevedo isn’t a big dribbler—as he told Beau, he tries to keep things simple and quick. Like most young players, he does lose the ball in dangerous positions from time to time, and his 5’8″ frame is average at best in the air, but his ruthless closing down, especially right after his team loses possession, more than makes up for it.

Wyscout data shows Acevedo winning the ball all over the midfield by blocking passing lanes and closing down in transition.

When NYCFC announced Acevedo at the beginning of March, Deila and sporting director David Lee were ecstatic. “He’s an excellent player technically and loves to win the ball back, which is key in how we want to play our football. In possession, he’s able to dictate the tempo and that’s a quality that really helps us build from the back,” Deila said. Cacha was poised to be one of the most exciting signings of the season—until the season, and the world, fell apart.

This week, after months of waiting, Acevedo finally joined his teammates in New York. In fact he’d already met them in February, when he flew in secret to Costa Rica to be with the team during its first CONCACAF Champions League game, followed by a jaunt to Manchester for a medical and photos, Acevedo told Sebastián Amaya for Uruguay’s El Observador. Then it was back to Montevideo for quarantine, which he spent cooking with his girlfriend, hopping on video calls with Deila’s coaching staff, and playing FIFA against FC Barcelona’s young Uruguayan center back Ronald Araújo. “I play with Manchester City, always them, even before [the transfer],” Acevedo said.

It’s not lost on him that a star turn with NYCFC could put him on the mothership’s radar. “I was a little surprised by [the bid from] New York, and I liked the idea, because they’re in City Group, they’re very organized and they play very well,” he told Amaya. Winning playing time from Alex Ring at 21 would be a feat, and working his way from Montevideo to Manchester by way of the Bronx would be a fairy tale. But don’t count Cacha out—after all, the kid is magic. ❧

Image: Las Nuevas Aventuras de Hijitus, “El Genio de Cachavacha”

Let’s Talk About the Salida Lavolpiana

Ronny Deila’s fledgling romance with a buildup known as the “lovers’ outing.”

During the group stage of the 2006 World Cup, a Spanish newspaper columnist who’d spent that spring playing soccer in Mexico reported something he’d heard about El Tri’s manager, Ricardo La Volpe. For 30 minutes of every training session La Volpe made his center backs practice advancing the ball over and over, coaching their every pass, every decision, until after hundreds of repetitions defenders and ball fell in love. Led by their captain, Rafa Márquez, Mexico’s back three didn’t just start play. That was the phrase people used for shuffling the ball around the back and then booting it long. La Volpe’s center backs salieron jugando, went out with the play. Como novios. Like lovers.

The column’s author was one Josep Guardiola, who was just two years away from taking charge of FC Barcelona and changing the whole world’s ideas about building from the back. But Pep’s hope to emulate La Volpe’s lovers-going-out buildup had one little hitch. Barcelona didn’t like to waste bodies behind the ball when it could have numbers in midfield instead. That meant lining up in a 4-3-3 instead of a three-back system like La Volpe’s. But during the first phase of Barça’s buildup, a lot of opponents pressed with two forwards, one for each center back. How could Guardiola’s defenders drive the play forward without the numerical superiority they needed to find space?

His solution was to drop his defensive midfielder, Sergio Busquets, between the center backs to form a temporary back three. Two opponents couldn’t mark all of them, which meant at least one center back—or, more dangerously, Busquets in the middle—would be free to bypass the first line of pressure and pick the pass that would get Barcelona out of its defensive third in a controlled, purposeful way. The tactic, meant to approximate the Mexican buildup that Guardiola admired, became known as the salida lavolpiana, the La Volpean going-out.

Twelve years into the Pep revolution it’s become commonplace for any coach who aspires to play possession-based juego de posición (which if you’re going off hiring-day press conferences is pretty much all of them) to turn a center back pair into a back three during certain buildup situations. Sometimes that’s done by nudging one fullback toward the middle, although the evolutionary triumph of attacking fullbacks has produced a generation of overlapping whippets who might not be at their best when hanging around at the back. Sometimes a midfielder drops off to one side of the center backs, like Frenkie de Jong loved to do at Ajax. But the salida lavolpiana is still a classic: a defensive midfielder retreats into the middle of the back line, the center backs split wide, and a two-man press watches helplessly as one unmarked defender or another doesn’t just start the play, he goes out with it.

Ronny Deila is (Perhaps) for Lovers

Like everyone, Ronny Deila says he wants to play attacking, possession-based soccer. Unlike everyone, Deila has a squad that’s talented enough, in MLS terms, to pull it off. They’ve been doing it for years. The way New York City FC lined up for its first competitive game under Deila—a 4-3-3 with inverted wingers, overlapping fullbacks, and ball-playing center backs—has been a favorite for this team ever since Patrick Vieira gave up trying to resurrect the W-M.

So it wasn’t exactly a surprise in the ninth minute of the CONCACAF Champions League game against San Carlos to see James Sands, whose hybrid position makes him perfect for this kind of thing, relieve pressure on NYCFC’s buildup by dropping from the defensive midfield line into the salida lavolpiana. For a moment he was back in the middle center back role where he got his big break in last spring’s 3-4-3. It felt familiar.

If you looked closely, though, Deila’s first draft of the salida lavolpiana had some peculiar features. Unlike Gregg Berhalter’s version at Columbus, the goal wasn’t for Sands to become a Wil Trapp-style pocket passer but rather to free an outside center back, ideally Alexander Callens, to dribble toward the halfway line and pick a linebreaking pass. Counter to conventional wisdom, one or both of NYCFC’s central midfielders didn’t drop to support the buildup by showing for the ball in the space Sands vacated; instead Alex Ring and Keaton Parks pushed up between the two banks of four in San Carlos’s standard-issue 4-4-2 medium block. And unlike Guardiola, who likes his wingers to provide width, Deila let Alexandru Mitriță and Jesús Medina come inside, sometimes almost colliding with the center mids in the halfspaces. The whole strategy only really lasted about 25 minutes, until NYCFC went up 2-0 and both teams changed their gameplan in response, but it was enough to put tactics nerds in a tizzy.

Here’s how Deila’s buildup worked:

To be clear, CCL Round of 16 ties are still basically preseason games for MLS teams, and analyzing preseason games is, as a rule, a huge waste of time. But this pattern was distinctive enough, and clues about Deila’s style are still scarce enough after weeks of closed-door scrimmages, that it felt worth going to the tape. Will Ronny’s hilariously aggressive salida LOL-piana be a staple of NYCFC’s buildup this season? Does that mean we’re in for a wild year of gunning for 5-4 scorelines? Who wouldn’t have time for that?

The Salida de Ronny

If you skipped past the video in the last section, take a minute to back up and watch it now. It’ll help illustrate the four tactical ideas we’re going to talk about here, the step-by-step objectives that make this buildup interesting.

Relieve Pressure

The whole purpose of the salida lavolpiana is to outnumber the opponent’s press three (or four, counting the goalkeeper) to two. Once the defensive midfielder—here, James Sands—drops between the center backs, somebody’s going to get open. 

More often than not against San Carlos, NYCFC would move the ball around until that somebody was Alexander Callens, the Peru international who bosses this team’s buildup. Since 2017, Callens leads NYCFC’s center backs in expected goal chain per 96 minutes (a measure of how likely NYCFC was to score from possessions he participated in) and is second among all MLS players for expected pass score per 100 attempts (a measure of pass quality). Get Callens the ball in space and good things will follow.

Claim Space, Break Lines 

Once you’ve got a player in space, use it. Over and over again Callens would turn upfield with nothing but fifteen or twenty yards of bright green grass in front of him. As San Carlos’s front-line press played catch up, the center back would carry the ball past them and keep going until an opponent left the second line to confront him. As soon as that happened, Callens would pull the trigger on a linebreaking pass through the hole that marker left open. And once you’re between the lines, the defense is in trouble.

In some ways the salida lavolpiana isn’t too different from last year’s 3-4-3, which also spread Callens and Maxime Chanot out to the halfspaces. Getting wide can help the center backs find lanes to make more aggressive passes. According to American Soccer Analysis’s Tiotal Football, Chanot and Callens attempted lower-percentage passes and performed significantly worse against ASA’s expected passing model when playing in a back three in 2019, but those riskier passes were more effective, producing a higher average expected goal value per possession for NYCFC and less xG on opponents’ next possession compared to when NYCFC played four at the back. That’s about what you would expect if the outside center backs were playing more linebreaking passes from their wider positions.

But there are differences from the 3-4-3 too, most notably that Deila’s version of the salida left NYCFC’s defensive midfield line totally empty. There’s no easy passing option—it’s break lines or bust.

Get Numbers Upfield

The reason there’s nobody in the center of the pitch is that Deila pushed both central midfielders upfield between the lines. That’s feasible when the defense is mostly passive, like San Carlos was until NYCFC’s second goal, but it’s a high risk, high reward proposition.

The reward of positioning as many as five attackers between the lines and two more on the wings is obvious: get anyone the ball with room to turn and you’re facing the last four defenders with overwhelming numbers. Even if your first foray fails—a misplaced throughball, a clumsy dribble—you’ve got extra bodies in place to win the ball back in a dangerous spot.

Deila says he wants to improve NYCFC’s counterpress, and it’s true that there’s some room for improvement. Even though the club ranked near the top of the league last season in most high-press metrics, the numbers weren’t quite as dominant as the two years prior. A bottom-heavy buildup and direct attack (part stylistic choice, part function of protecting a lot of leads) meant they weren’t always in position to recover lost balls in the attacking half. Moving more players upfield will help keep opponents off balance.

But there are a couple of not so subtle drawbacks to the ol’ 3-0-7 formation, too. For one thing, that attack can get awfully crowded. Recall that Dome Torrent, who knows Guardiola-style tactics better than just about anybody, sized up this same NYCFC squad and decided it wasn’t suited to a 4-3-3. No extremos puros, wide wingers who could spread the field and beat a fullback up the touchline instead of working inside. Sure enough, Deila’s aggressive buildup sometimes saw the wingers, Mitri and Medina, stepping on the midfielders’ toes in the halfspaces. That proximity can help players improvise short passing combinations, but the suboptimal use of space means you’re going to get caught in awkward positions sometimes. 

Which brings us to the second problem with high center mids: yes, they’re in place to challenge for lost balls in the final third, but if a counterattack gets past them you’d better have someone right behind them for a quick tackle or tactical foul. You need your defensive midfielder again.

Reshape and Counterpress

This is where the salida lavolpiana has a natural advantage over a three-back formation: it’s built for flexibility. The defensive midfielder acts like a center back in the buildup, but he’s still a defensive midfielder, and once his services are no longer needed at the back he can charge forward and cut out counters in midfield the way a 4-3-3 is built to do.

Busquets, who’s equally comfortable orchestrating the buildup and snuffing out attacks in the opposing half, was the ideal defensive midfielder for Guardiola’s salida lavolpiana. For Deila’s NYCFC, that two-way player just might be the 19-year-old Sands. In Costa Rica, the homegrown’s dual training as both a center back and a defensive midfielder came in handy as he showed a knack for knowing when to drop into the back line and when to get forward for a well-timed midfield stop. 

As a matter of fact, that’s exactly how NYCFC’s first goal of 2020 happened: Sands moved up a line, recovered a loose ball, and two quick passes later Héber was celebrating (when is Héber not celebrating?). The salida lavolpiana was working. The defenders were going out with the play, the midfielders were counterpressing, and Deila was winning the way he said he wanted to win. For the moment, at least, it was easy to love. ❧

Image: Pierre-Auguste Cot, The Storm

Brad Sims is Ready to Talk

NYCFC’s CEO on transparency, ambition, and what he’s learned in a year on the job.

Of all the things New York City FC is known for, it’s safe to say openness and communication aren’t what your corporate exec types might call “top of mind.” Like a lot of soccer outlets, The Outfield’s occasional efforts to pull interesting quotes out of this club have felt like dental surgery with rusty pliers, and like a lot of soccer outlets those efforts have sometimes ended with us getting ghosted by NYCFC’s comms department.

So it was a pleasant surprise to eat bagels around a conference table in NYCFC’s office this morning while the club’s still newish CEO, Brad Sims, held forth to the usual local media suspects on the coming season. I’d braved Grand Central at rush hour because lately Sims has been making noise about communicating better with fans and media, and I wanted to sit down with him one-on-one to find out whether we’re really seeing the dawn of some kind of City Football Glasnost.

Our conversation is below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

You said in a recent Q&A that communicating more with fans was your New Year’s resolution, and true to your word we’ve seen more of that from the front office in the last month. Is this a new era of transparency from NYCFC? Why now?

So, first, yes. I’m excited about it. I really want to focus more on it going forward. I’ve been on the job twelve, thirteen months or so and I’ve heard about how things may have been in the past, but for me all I have to go on is the last year-plus. Looking back at the last year, I don’t feel like in 2019 I communicated as much as I should have or needed to with fans. I had some feedback about that and I think it was fair feedback, so that is something that is more of a focus.

I think that generally I was really hyperfocused internally, in our house, in 2019. And I still need to do that in 2020, there’s still work to be done, but I think it’s important to be more externally facing. Myself and then we’ve had—whether it’s our coach, our sporting director Dave Lee, and now Matt Goodman, coming on, has done a number of things. That’s a huge focus across the senior level of the organization going forward.

On Thursday night you told a reporter that “the reality going back five years” on the stadium was that “we can’t legally announce something until there’s contracts signed by all the parties.” On Friday the New York Times published a stadium story and by Saturday you were emailing fans to fill them in on the stadium situation. What happened to the legal obstacles in those 36 hours?

I think my intentions were to say, in most situations, we won’t announce things that aren’t signed. Two recent examples are the CCL venue and the Citi Field series. Going back to Citi Field, I heard some feedback from people saying, “Why are you announcing this now in December? This is a bait and switch.” Most people were very positive about it, but the people that were saying that—we literally did not have the discussions and plans until two weeks before. We were negotiating the contract. When we signed the contract with the Mets, we literally announced two hours later.

Is that a PR strategy or is that a legal obstacle?

No, so that—it’s two things. Sometimes it’s legal and sometimes it’s negotiating leverage.

So what changed on Friday, was that a negotiating leverage point or a legal obstacle that was cleared?

The primary thing was negotiation. One thing I said on Thursday night was that we were still exploring other opportunities, which is true, we were attempting a hail mary option at that point in time. And the other thing is there were some important deal points that we needed to have in that deal that at that point, on that night, had not been agreed upon, and we felt that if we said anything specific it would put us in a much worse position. The next morning we got to a point where things were negotiated to our satisfaction—well, relatively speaking—and from the time we signed a contract, within thirty minutes we had an announcement out there.

Have you been happy with the feedback that you got on that email?

On Saturday?

Yeah, what you sent out to fans this weekend.

On the stadium? Yeah, I probably had fifteen, twenty emails, LinkedIn messages, responses from fans that they were appreciative of it. Other feedback has been positive. Emails to our staff, social media, things like that, I think it’s been positive.

City Football Group has privately expressed concern that NYCFC’s stadium search could expose it to criticism for Abu Dhabi’s politics on, quote, “gay, wealth, women, Israel.” Has NYCFC’s ownership kept the club from being more transparent with its city and fans?

As it pertains to UAE, that’s not something I can comment on. I’m not familiar with that quote or anything that you said, and I’m not an official spokesperson for UAE. All I can talk about is NYCFC and my role, and from that standpoint, all I’ve seen from our organization here in New York and in Manchester and in other markets, I’ve seen nothing but incredible amounts of support and resources from our ownership group, from CFG, into local communities and City in the Community, our nonprofit group. It’s been unbelievable the amount of resources and support that they have put toward that.

Have they had any influence on the club’s lowkey media strategy on the stadium?

They’re not—really we drive all the decisionmaking here locally. We consult probably a little bit but none of our policies or business operations are top-down driven. I think that we utilize our CFG resources appropriately, because they’re great resources. We have talented people. Our global CMO in Manchester and our VP of Marketing here talk regularly, because our global CMO is really smart and has a ton of good ideas and resources and can be helpful. Same with all of our other departments. Sam [Cooke, NYCFC’s Head of Communications] has a similar relationship with the global Head of Comms; our head of finance with the global CFO; and Dave Lee, our sporting director, with the global Head of Football. They’re great resources for us, but ultimately decisions are made here in New York across the board, on business strategy and sporting.

Speaking of the sporting side, in its first season, NYCFC signed global superstars like David Villa for what it called “one of the most ambitious projects in MLS history.” Last year the club sank below the median MLS payroll. What happened to that ambitious project, and why should New Yorkers accept an uber-wealthy team settling for low-budget efficiency?

Well, I don’t know that we’re settling. We had the best record in the Eastern Conference last year. It was the best club we’ve ever had, the most goals we’ve ever scored, the first time we’ve qualified for the Champions League. So if that’s settling, bring it on, we’ll settle some more.

The reality is, I think we’ve gotten, as an organization, smarter, and have found better ways to team-build. That’s not anything I can take any credit for, but I think we have really smart people in our sporting department and great resources from CFG. That’s probably our biggest advantage against other MLS clubs: we’re finding players like Héber and Mitriță that no other club really knew existed, and they’re being every bit as impactful or more impactful than some aging big name star player.

It was a good season but the club lost in the first round of the playoffs. It could have been a historic season with somebody like Carlos Vela in Jesús Medina’s wasted DP slot. Why are you satisfied with good enough?

We’re not satisfied with good enough, and that’s why our ambition is to hoist a trophy this year. We have four opportunities to hoist trophies this year.

Can you do that when all three of your DPs aren’t on the field?

Sure. I mean, we could have done it—just because we didn’t have a third DP isn’t the reason why we lost a playoff game. The playoff system is a cruel system. It was a different system last year, the first time it’d been kind of a knockout round versus being two legs. Anything could happen. You could have players that get injured, you could have players that pick up a bad foul, you could have a bad call, you could have one bad 45 minutes, one bad one minute, and that could be the difference in a match. And it doesn’t mean that our roster construction was flawed.

I mean, one of your Designated Players, Jesús Medina, wasn’t even on the bench in the playoffs. That’s a problem, right, in MLS, when you only have three Designated Player slots?

Well, I think that ideally every player on the roster is playing at or above your expectations. You can make the same argument for player number nine, if they are way worse than every other team’s player number nine. I think that for us, ideally, you want to maximize every roster spot. There are challenges and complications around the rules in MLS. There’s the salary cap, and obviously like you pointed out there’s a number of DP slots. Ultimately we’re trying to construct the best roster we can, and we feel great about it.

After NYCFC finished first in the East, the founding sporting director and most successful coach in club history both quit, signaling problems in the organization. Why did Claudio Reyna and Dome Torrent leave, and what will NYCFC do differently to retain talent in the future?

I can’t speak for Claudio or Dome. You’re welcome to contact them and ask them.

What I can say specifically to Claudio’s situation is he’s got a great opportunity. He built this club. He was the first team member here and he built the sporting department from scratch. Those kind of opportunities, to start a club, or to build a stadium or arena—there’s certain transformational opportunities, in this industry, that don’t come along very often. Most people go their entire careers without being a part of them.

That’s something that’s attractive to me about this job. In prior jobs I’ve built stadiums and arenas. Starting a team from scratch, that’s one thing I haven’t done, personally, on the business side. I know people who have and it’s one of the most rewarding experiences that anyone can have in this industry. Claudio did it here and he’s got a chance to do it in Austin. Austin’s set up to be an amazing success, I think, from a business standpoint, and they’ve got a great person to run the sporting side.

So we’re—I don’t want to say happy for Claudio, because Claudio did a great job here, but we’re happy that he’s found a challenge that he’s excited about as his next career step. Having two of those projects in a career is something almost nobody on the sports side or the business side, regardless of the sport, I don’t know of anyone who’s started two teams from scratch. It’s an amazing opportunity.

And Dome leaving with no job lined up, that doesn’t worry you, that somebody would want to leave this club that badly?

Again, it’s just speculation from my standpoint. Personally I had a really good relationship with Dome. Dome had a number of challenges, I think, with the league and with other areas that were well documented. I’m not going to speak for him. But he’s done very well in his career, and he felt like he was ready for a change.

For us, what’s really important is having people who are really dedicated to the club and want to be here. I think that way whether it’s an entry-level ticket salesperson, a VP of Marketing, an academy coach, or a head coach. We want people who are dedicated to this club, who really want to be here and want to be a part of this. That wasn’t the case, for whatever reason, with Dome, but it is the case with Ronny [Deila].

I mean, Ronny couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of this organization. When we went through the coaching search, that was a key piece. There’s all these big names—people opine, like, go get this guy or go get this guy, but we didn’t want someone where this job was settling for them, or just a placeholder until they could get their next job. We wanted someone who really saw the opportunity here, saw the type of club we had, the type of team we had, how well positioned we were, and that wanted to be in New York, wanted to be in MLS, wanted to be at NYCFC and bring championships to us. That was super important.

So Ronny Deila’s happy to be here, possibly because he comes here from a team in the bottom half of the Norwegian league that got worse in three seasons under him. Why does NYCFC think he’s qualified to improve on Patrick Vieira and Dome Torrent’s teams?

I would say a couple things. One is look at the full story. You can look at anyone’s career at any point—if you look at a salesperson’s last two weeks and they had a bad last two weeks and you say why should we keep that person on—

Last three years, though?

Well, he’s had a career that’s longer than three years, and he’s lifted lots of trophies. One of the things that’s important for us is someone who’s actually coached winning teams, has won trophies. That was important for our head coach and also our top assistant that we announced recently, Nick Cushing, from Man City Women. Again, same kind of great reputation with players, has lifted many trophies. We believe we have a team that’s ready to take that next step, so we wanted someone who has been a part of that, which Ronny has been many times and Nick has been many times.

Again, we want people that really want to be here and people that understand and want to play a similar style of play. That’s the core of the DNA of NYCFC—and City Football Group, for that matter—having people who have a strong familiarity with our system and our organization, which Ronny does, Nick obviously does, and Dome and Patrick did. We’ve found it’s been important to have people familiar with our organization and the way we play.

How many coaches were interviewed for that position?

Oh, our vetting process was unbelievable. I was in Manchester shortly after that process. We vetted hundreds of coaches and we interviewed many. I won’t give an exact number, but we interviewed many. Our shortlist was four or five after the initial round of interviews, the initial round of vetting based on lots of factors we felt were important. It took a while because it was a very thorough process.

All right, last question. You spent your first year at NYCFC on a “listening tour.” What did you learn about this club that you didn’t know when you took the job?

Good question. One thing I didn’t know was the level of passion of not only our biggest fans, but also our team members. A passion for the club but also growing the sport. I’ve spent 24 years now in the sports industry, been very fortunate to have spent my whole career in this industry. I’ve worked in baseball, basketball, hockey. Major leagues, minor leagues. I’ve been in the league office, I’ve been on the team side. This was my first foray into soccer, and that’s what stood out to me.

In addition to seeing NYCFC do well and win, I think people want to see the sport of soccer elevated and grown in this city and in this country. Our mission statement is building New York City into one of the soccer capitals of the world. I feel like we have that opportunity in New York City, the greatest city in the world, in a country where soccer is going on a very steep upward trajectory. We have an awesome opportunity and, quite frankly, really, responsibility. 

None of that was really on the top of my mind when I took the job. On the top of my mind when I took the job was: We’ve got to increase attendance. We’ve got to increase partnership revenue. We’ve got to, you know, connect with the fanbase. But it became pretty clear to me pretty early on that this is next level stuff. Which is really exciting and refreshing.

Now obviously passion can go the other way, too. And that’s going to mean that I’m going to be—me personally and our organization—criticized, and I get that, I appreciate it. I have thick skin, so I can deal with it. I don’t take things personally because ultimately I know it’s coming from a place of passion. Our fans love this club and they love this sport and they have high expectations. For me, it’s a great opportunity and responsibility to lift this whole thing to a place where everyone feels great about it. It’s not easy, it hasn’t been easy, it’s not going to be easy. But I like a good challenge, so I’m having a lot of fun. ❧

Image: Irving Penn, Mouth (for L’Oreal)

Toronto Preview: Running Through the Six

A conversation with Kieran Doyle, Assistant Coach and Data Analyst, Women’s Soccer, University of Toronto.

Dummy Run: Kudos to the club you follow, Toronto FC, which took its sweet time but eventually found the firehose and blew away D.C. United in extra time, 5-1, to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. They’ll face NYCFC in Queens on Wednesday night.

This was not unexpected! Nobody in the league had a stronger homestretch than Toronto, who clawed their way up from the playoff line to a four seed by closing out the regular season on a 10-game unbeaten streak, matched by a sharp upswing in their underlying numbers. (Although as Kevin Minkus at American Soccer Analysis pointed out, the contrast with their summer low probably had something to do with losing key players to international tournaments.)

This viz is stolen directly from ASA’s Toronto playoff preview, which you should read.

So maybe a good place for us to start is: how did TFC turn it around? Has Greg Vanney finally fixed whatever’s been ailing this team ever since their 2017 MLS Cup title gave way to a year and a half of mediocrity? Just how nervous should NYCFC fans be about catching this team in the playoffs?

Kieran Doyle: I guess the best answer so far is that they probably haven’t turned it around … yet. Omar Gonzalez made a big difference to this team, as well as Marky Delgado picking up a lot of midfield slack to let Pozuelo be a little bit more free. Richie Laryea has also become the second coming of Dani Alves, but Toronto as a whole is still not as convincing as they could be.

Like you said, TFC didn’t sail smoothly in last weekend’s quarterfinal against D.C. until extra time. The xG was pretty even during regular time, but Quentin Westberg made some huge saves and Bill Hamid didn’t exactly cover himself in glory.

In terms of how nervous NYCFC should be, I’d say the answer is very. TFC has historically been excellent at Yankee Stadium, and even though they’ve been very up and down this year, their up is one of the top three teams in the league. From a Toronto perspective, how much trouble is Michael Bradley in if he’s sitting on his own?

Dummy Run: Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk about how TFC is a uniquely tough matchup for NYCFC, by which I assume people mean they’re uniquely good at playing this team during weeks when Jesús Medina and Ben Sweat are in the starting lineup and Maxi Moralez and Héber are not (twice this year!). But it’s also true that Toronto’s lineup when these teams met in the Bronx last month looked pretty different from the one they played against D.C. in the first round, so I’m reluctant to suggest the regular season can tell us much of anything about what to expect Wednesday night.

There’s no doubt that Vanney’s team has both the payroll and the talent to be one of the best in the league on a good day (and NYCFC had the misfortune to catch them on a very good day for that 4-0 spanking back in March). What we know will carry over from the September pass network above is that Alejandro Pozuelo’s wallet will continue to be the one that says Bad Motherfucker on it and Michael Bradley will be his trusty Vince. The Outfield’s Kevin Nelson suggested in last week’s playoff preview that Dome’s best bet might be to cut off Toronto’s offense at the base by manmarking Bradley out of the game, and given how easy the Canadian National Team made that look last week (in Toronto, no less) I’m inclined to agree.

Problem is, sitting back and shadowing the opponent’s six isn’t NYCFC’s style. They’re one of the league’s most aggressive pressing teams by any metric, which means that when the forwards jump a press trigger it falls on the midfielders to step up a line. And Keaton Parks, for all his sexy sangfroid on the ball, is not the guy whose tackling ability you want to pin your playoff hopes on.

On the other hand, with Maxi back in the squad NYCFC should look like a different team in possession, and defense isn’t exactly Toronto’s forte: they were shockingly easy to pass through this season and middle of the pack for goals allowed. They are—no offense—a little Berhalterish in their insistence that it’s possible to play possession soccer without an aggressive press to back it up. Why does Vanney prefer to defend that way? If you were tasked with breaking down this team’s defensive block, as the, uh, hosts will probably spend most of their time doing at Citi Field, where would you probe for weak spots?

Kieran Doyle: I think Vanney’s defensive choices come down to personnel up front. When you’re looking at a striker group of Jozy Altidore, Jordan Hamilton (before he left for Columbus), and now Patrick Mullins, you aren’t going to see a whole tonne [This is too cute to convert to house style. —Ed.] of pressing from the front. While all of those guys do a great job of getting shots in good areas (an area of particular focus this year thanks to the analytics department), they’re extreme minus defenders. Combine that with Bradley’s waning mobility and it becomes very difficult to press at all.

But Jozy Altidore is half-fit at best heading into Wednesday night, and TFC’s attack was on point with Pozuelo floating freely as a striker against D.C. Putting Pozuelo up top gives you a lot more mobility, and Delgado and Jonathan Osorio reverted to the shuttling roles they played in 2017, when TFC’s press was significantly more dynamic. Add in TAM winger Nicolas Benezet and Tsubasa Endoh as ultra-mobile wide attacking midfielders and you get whatever that D.C. match was. TFC were much more active defensively in the opposition half than normal, but you still saw moments when the press was broken and Bradley was forced to gamble.

Herein lies the hope for NYCFC: while they may not be a particularly transition-y team, if they can play deep and draw Osorio and Delgado too far forward, it becomes really attractive to catch TFC off balance through your wingers. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Dome is Pep Lite, but that’s something Guardiola’s teams have always been devilishly good at. Bait the overcommitment in the press and all of a sudden it’s Messi-Pedro-Henry or Ribery-Lewandowski-Robben or Sane-Agüero-Sterling running three-on-two with no defensive midfielder in sight.

My guess is Toronto will line up the same way, maybe with Gonzalez or Laryea returning for Laurent Ciman and Auro respectively. But Vanney is no stranger to tactical curve balls, especially for knockout matches. Don’t be shocked if they swap to a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 to match up with the NYCFC wingers straight up (which scares the life out of me).

Dummy Run: They wouldn’t be the first opponent to switch to three at the back to mirror NYCFC’s shape (and they’ve certainly got more experience with it than, say, the Galaxy did). But I think Dome’s actually more Guardiolaish than Guardiola when it comes to those fast breaks you just described: his team loves a slow juego de posición buildup but goes direct once they cross the halfway line. The idea is you still control the ball and the tempo and get to pick your moments, but you arrive rapidly enough to catch the opponent’s defense off balance.

NYCFC plays slow, then fast.

Or maybe it’s simpler than that: playing most of the season without wide wingers has basically forced NYCFC to play quickly in the attacking half, since they don’t have that safe outlet on the touchline that can buy the attack time to move forward as a unit. However they arrived at the style, it’s been effective, and it’ll be particularly dangerous if Alexandru Mitriţă can carry his recent form into the playoffs.

A lot of what I just said assumes that NYCFC will play the three-back system that saw them through some of their best stretches this season, but the truth is that with James Sands still working his way back to full fitness it’s possible Dome will decide to roll with the 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 he preferred toward the end of the regular season, sacrificing that third-CB anchor to get more of his talented attackers on the field at once.

Sounds like the big takeaway here is that it’s hard to know what to expect from either coach. So here’s my closing question for you: What does Toronto’s absolute best-case scenario look like for how this game might play out, and what’s the competing timeline where NYCFC just totally steamrolls them?

Kieran Doyle: I think the worst case is TFC rolls out a throwback performance from those mediocre 18 months and gets evaporated by a very good NYCFC team. Something like Ciman, Drew Moor and Eriq Zavaleta in a back three; USMNT Michael Bradley instead of MLS Michael Bradley; slow, plodding possession for Toronto; and transition after transition for NYCFC. In other words, a reverse of the 5-0 game at Yankee Stadium a few years back. (Conversely if Osorio and Delgado don’t cover the kind of ground they have recently to snuff out transitions, we could see Mitri running one-on-one against Ciman like a re-run of the Omar Browne debacle.)

If TFC come out and really zip the ball about and play with the tempo they have in the past 11 matches, it’s hard to see how they don’t advance. The best case looks something like lots of broken NYCFC presses and Pozuelo and company getting a free run at Sean Johnson through a scrambling back line, especially if Keaton Parks and Alex Ring are off their game.

Ultimately I think a lot of how this game will go comes down to who’s crisper in possession. If Toronto is slow, predictable, and negative, we’re in trouble. But if Bradley is breaking lines and stretching the field, it will become very difficult for NYCFC to find their rhythm on the ball. For New York City, if they can draw Toronto out then break quickly, game over. If they’re off their best and Marky Delgado gets to run around and kick people high up the field, they’re going to have a bad time.

Stylistically, I think this will be the most fun playoff match of the round. Two teams who do similar things in possession, who are absolutely going to punch each other in the mouth. All the best! ❧

Image: Roman, Red Jasper Ring Stone (Serpent Carries Off the Child Opheltes)

Atlanta Preview: Dueling Presses

A conversation with Tiotal Football of Dirty South Soccer.

Dummy Run: If anybody’s going to knock NYCFC off the top spot in the East, the smart money’s on your team, Atlanta United. An upset win tonight would put you guys in legit contention for the number one seed, and FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index thinks Atlanta’s a slightly better team overall. But as a contributor to Dirty South Soccer and American Soccer Analysis, you follow this team pretty closely, and you’re not optimistic about their chances at Yankee Stadium. What are you worried about? What’s Frank de Boer’s Atlanta United vulnerable to?

Tiotal Football: I have a few worries. The first one is something that I know you have little patience for, but I’ve never watched Atlanta United play a game at Yankee Stadium that looked like any other Atlanta United success. Mostly this is because there’s only been the one “victory”: that first leg of last season’s playoff tie where both teams pressed the crap out of each other for 90-plus minutes in brutally violent fashion and Atlanta grabbed a set piece goal. I’ve just never seen an Atlanta team that actually wants the ball look anywhere close to comfortable on that field.

Second, Josef Martínez is maybe the only Atlanta guy who was born to create havoc on that field, and I suppose he’s gone for a bit now after Saturday’s knock.

Third, I have no idea who is coaching this team. Following some extremely vocal-and-explicit-in-the-press-and-on-the-sidelines objections from the South American players, de Boer’s Louis van Gaal–flavored “cautious, spare-man-at-the-back, move the ball with superiority in numbers into the final third and then let your creators create” 4-3-3 of the early season has given way to an insanely more open and high-pressy 3-5-2 than we saw at any point last year. It resembles neither Tata Martino’s 3-5-2 stuff nor Frank de Boer’s Clockwork Oranje career. It’s very possible the inmates are running the asylum in Marietta, Georgia.

Fourth, I think Eric Remedi is a one-man turnover machine in midfield, and in the Bronx, that’s not a recipe for success for an away team. I would love to see Jeff Larentowicz steal a start for this one, even if he’s prone to intentionally getting ejected in chippy games against New York teams.

Having said all that, I don’t have a great feel for what New York City does, how it approaches games at home this year. I know they put up great PPDA numbers and have amazingly high possession figures for playing on a smaller field. Those two things seem very good. What should I expect? Who are these new very good guys you have this year?

(Also I just looked at Maxi Moralez’s bar chart and almost lost consciousness.)

Dummy Run: Whoever’s running the asylum, it’s working. Since switching to the 3-5-2 in mid-July, Atlanta’s got the highest goal differential per game in the league (1.09), third-highest expected goal differential per game (0.69), and, as you’ve written about, a scary high press. Julian Gressel’s at wingback again, kicking ass and laying in crosses. Josef is scoring again (these may be related). And that game in Atlanta last month was the most dominant any team has looked against NYCFC since Héber arrived this spring.

You asked about the new guys, and it seems safe to say Héber’s been the biggest difference-maker so far. He’s a well-rounded striker whose linking and holdup play were sorely missed when Dome Torrent decided to rotate him in Atlanta, and he’ll probably be missed again for most of tonight—he’s coming back from an injury and expected to play 25 minutes tops. But in Héber’s absence Taty Castellanos and Alexandru Mitriţǎ have continued to grow into their roles in this offense, and with Maxi Moralez healthy again firepower shouldn’t be a problem. The big question—as it always is with Dome—is what shape those players will take.

Speaking of shapes, I want to talk for a minute about the very first sequence from the last time these two teams met, because I think it shows us some interesting things about how their preferred three-back formations match up. Here’s the clip:

So the first thing you’ll notice is that NYCFC is pressing super high from the whistle. Nothing too unusual there—like you mentioned, they’ve got some of the best PPDA and expected pass score against numbers in the league. But because Atlanta is playing with three center backs and two defensive midfielders, NYCFC’s press, which against league-standard 4-2-3-1s is usually more zonal and focused on channeling play toward the sideline to force longballs, naturally becomes more of a man-marking scheme: Taty on Leandro González-Pirez, Maxi and Mitri on the outside center backs, wingbacks marking wingbacks and so on. As Eric Remedi drops into a channel for Brad Guzan, Alex Ring is pulled way upfield to mark him, leaving tons of space behind.

The whole thing is wildly aggressive, and for a minute it looks like it’s going to work. NYCFC forces some risky passes and wins a couple balls in Atlanta’s half that look like they could lead to something. But when Mitri gets caught on the ball, as Mitri is prone to do, we see the weaknesses of the 3-4-3: Ezequiel Barco takes advantage of the empty channels on both sides of NYCFC’s narrow two-man midfield to lead a quick counter, Gressel has plenty of time on the wing to lay in a cross when Rónald Matarrita is slow to close him down, and we’re barely a minute into the game when Josef gets his first big chance. Lather, rinse, repeat: Atlanta’s transition chances from out wide would become a motif for the rest of the game. It was not fun.

There are good reasons to expect a different look from NYCFC tonight. Whenever James Sands is out the three-center-back thing has never quite clicked, and there’s been some grumbling around here that it’s time to get another body back in midfield. Besides, Anton Tinnerholm is unavailable due to concussion protocol, and the thought of sticking both Tony Rocha and Eric Miller in a back line against Atlanta United makes me physically ill. I’d be thrilled to see the team line up in a more assertive 4-3-3 tonight.

What about Atlanta? If Josef can’t start tonight, how will that change de Boer’s approach? What do your true loves Tito Villalba and Emerson Hyndman have to offer, and how might one or both change how this matchup plays out?

Tiotal Football: So, I think you’re going to see a 3-5-2 again, and I think it’s going to be the same neo-high-press we’ve been seeing, and while I think a Tito-Pity front two would be awfully fun, something tells me we’re going to see Brandon Vazquez.

It’s a shame because I do think Josef has grown to be the type of player who thrives in the chaos that I expect we will see from this game. If de Boer takes a page from Tata’s 2018 playoffs gameplan, I think we see a really messy and violent draw with more than a remote chance of a sending off somewhere.

But I think more likely he’ll try to play it straight, perhaps even too open in the midfield, and while there will be some give and get as both teams try to break each other’s press, NYC is going to be the more dangerous team. Sometimes you get lucky and Miles Robinson hero defends for his life and Brad Guzan comes up with three very big saves, but there are other universes where it gets bad really quick away from home, and there may be more of those universes collapsing upon Yankee Stadium tonight.

Dummy Run: Last question. What will you be watching for tonight with an eye on a potential rematch in the conference finals?

Tiotal Football: I’ll be watching to see which team is the most comfortable dealing with pressure. It seems apparent that they’re on a collision course towards a very disruptive high-pressy contest, with neither team allowed to play out of the back on goalkicks and that sort of thing. Perhaps we’ll see tonight whether one team blinks and changes its approach against the other’s press—that could set up a very different kind of playoff matchup. ❧

Image: He Sen, Monkey King on the Peach Tree

RBNY Preview: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about the Hudson River Derby*

*But were afraid to ask.

It’s derby day! We don’t have much time before kickoff and a lot has changed since the last time these teams met (remember Eloi Amagat?), so I sat down with a noted soccer expert (me) to get some answers about What to Watch For or whatever they say on those pregame shows.

Are the Red Bulls still good?

Debatable! On points per game they’re fifth in the East, comfortably above the playoff line. But by home-adjusted expected goal differential per game, which is better at predicting future performance, last year’s Supporters Shield winners are sitting in negative territory, one spot below last year’s Wooden Spoon recipients, the San Jose Earthquakes. That said, the Red Bulls have spent a lot of this season without key players like Bradley Wright-Phillips (injured/old), Aaron Long (injured/bailing out Tim Ream), and Kaku (drama), so I mean who knows.

Are they still, you know, the Red Bulls?

More or less, yeah. There are signs that Chris Armas has had them trying to play more with the ball, but an excellent breakdown over at American Soccer Analysis shows that while their longer possessions have gotten more dangerous, they’ve actually gotten less frequent, suggesting that maybe this team’s just not built for possession. The biggest stylistic difference from last season is that the Red Bulls are starting to discover that soccer fields have a left side, too.

Wait but what if Jesse Marsch had a reason for overloading one wing?

Right, so that’s the thing. For a team that’s all about playing direct and counterpressing, it makes sense to squeeze the game against one sideline where you can win the ball with numbers. Not surprisingly, the stats show Chris Armas’s more diffuse Red Bulls aren’t pressing quite as effectively they used to, especially in the highest third. But that doesn’t mean they’re not still very good at it.

Uh oh that clip looks bad. How will NYCFC adjust?

They might not have to. Notice Atlanta’s playing from a four-back set with their fullbacks barely a third of the way up the field. The Red Bulls have zero qualms about pushing seven or more players across the halfway line and trapping the buildup as it swings slowly from sideline to sideline, which is how they dismantled NYCFC’s 4-3-3 last May when Patrick Vieira insisted on building from the back.

But for the last few months Dome Torrent’s team has mostly preferred a 3-4-3 with wingbacks that can drift upfield to break the lines of the Red Bulls’ preferred 4-2-3-1 defensive shape. Expect Armas to keep his fullbacks tight on Rónald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm and force NYCFC to play through the middle. That’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition: the Red Bulls can be vulnerable to fast breaks, especially with Tyler Adams gone, but Alex Ring will be the first to tell you that trying to play “flick-ons and shit like that” through the middle of their defense is a dangerous game.

Hmm, any other options in possession?

Yeah, so one thing NYCFC’s done a lot lately is to enter the final third with long diagonal switches. That might not be a bad idea against the Red Bulls, whose heavy horizontal press has left them vulnerable to switches in the past. But it actually hasn’t been that effective for Dome this season: according to American Soccer Analysis’s Cheuk Hei Ho, NYCFC possessions that enter the final third via a switch of play are about 33% less likely to score that possessions that get there some other way. With Aaron Long back in action, the Red Bulls’ back line should be pretty sharp at picking out those cross-field aerials, so NYCFC might be better off relying on Héber’s holdup play through the middle.

Okay so what about when the Red Bulls have the ball?

Speaking of Alex Ring, he’ll be pretty important here too. In addition to spreading the buildup, Dome’s 3-4-3 sticks an extra defender in between the center backs, which is the first place the Red Bulls look to put the ball when they recover it. It’s probably not a coincidence that the only two opponents who’ve played three-back formations against the Red Bulls this season, Montreal and Orlando, both won at Red Bull Arena while holding the hosts to 0.67 and 0.65 expected goals, respectively.

But Ring is no James Sands: he’s noticeably less comfortable playing as a hybrid center back, and in the last few weeks it seems like just about every game has featured a halftime formation change to bump him back up to midfield. If Dome wants to start in a 3-4-3 today, there’s a decent chance we’ll see Ben Sweat or Sebastien Ibeagha (who spent some time at right back (!!) against Orlando on Wednesday) as the third center back.

Who else might start this one?

Your guess is as good as mine. NYCFC is basically a bunch of shapeless flesh sacks full of lactic acid after playing four games in less than two weeks, culminating in Wednesday’s crushing 120-minute loss … in Central Florida … in July. (I need a shower just typing that sentence.) Alexandru Mitriţǎ is definitely out (although that might not be that big a loss) and new signing Gary Mackay-Steven is probably in, at least as a sub (although that might not be that big a gain). Other than that, it’ll be a lot of gametime fitness calls.

Speaking of fitness, Bradley Wright-Phillips played his first minutes in three months last week. If he’s ready to start this one, that’d be a huge offensive upgrade from the Red Bulls’ rotating cast of random white guys from safety school Ivies.

Scary, right? But still not as scary as the possibility that Jesús Medina might see the field. ❧

Image: Pablo Picasso, Dying Bull

NYCFC 3-0 Seattle + Portland Preview: Position is Everything

How juego de posición can help NYCFC through a white-knuckle summer.

Everything happens so much. That’s a line from @Horse_ebooks, a Twitter account that got popular eightish years ago for spewing what appeared to be nonsense culled algorithmically from the digital detritus of the ebook boom. The fun part was that if you read them in the right frame of mind the garbled tweets started to look not random at all but more like Pascal’s Pensées for our internet-addled age, or “Zen koans which have been dropped on a computer keyboard from a great height.

In keeping with its dumb decade, @Horse_ebooks turned out to be a fraud promoting something—does anyone remember what exactly? wasn’t Russia involved somehow?—and we learned that actually computers aren’t funny and profound, humans are funny and profound, which was a crushing disappointment. Still, I love that tweet, Everything happens so much, and I think about it sometimes as our lives fill up with the artifacts of people and algorithms imitating each other poorly to produce frenetic messes like, for example, the Major League Soccer schedule.

In the 60 days from April 28 to June 28, NYCFC played seven games. Now we’re in the middle of a five game, 16-day sprint that will culminate with a cup knockout game in Orlando on Wednesday followed by a derby in New Jersey next weekend. Because this is MLS, this all happens right when our starters are straggling back from international tournaments and the July heat is turning the subway into a malarial swamp and at this point even the guys you’d almost forgot were on our supplemental roster look like their hamstrings might burst into flames at any second.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if we didn’t keep winning. When NYCFC hosts Portland this evening, both teams will be suffering from success, forced to juggle their lineups to compete in weekend league play and a weekday Open Cup quarterfinal with a whole two rest days between. The Timbers started most of their first string against conference rivals FC Dallas last weekend and will need them again to advance past LAFC—or, let’s be real, just to avoid being humiliated by five or six goals against LAFC—on Wednesday. Given that his Mabiala-Chara-Valeri-Blanco spine is wholly on the wrong side of 30, Gio Savarese just might develop a sudden enthusiasm for the #PlayYourKids movement around lineup time tonight.

As for Dome Torrent, he won’t have a choice. The list of NYCFC players on either the injured list or the bench at a continental final tonight is so long that the lineup practically writes itself. Taty Castellanos will get another run out at striker, where he’s showing devastating potential (just ask anyone in Philadelphia) even as he continues to learn on the job. Keaton Parks could go 90 for the fourth game in a row, a sentence that just a couple weeks ago might have caused me to levitate and speak in tongues. There’s even speculation that the teenage midfielder Juan Pablo Torres will continue his Sergi Robertofication and relieve Anton Tinnerholm at right back. We’re that thin.

The surprise twist of rotation szn is that NYCFC has continued to be pretty damn good. That’s a testament to Torrent and Claudio Reyna, whose team is built, by both design and training, to survive these brutal stretches. Let’s start with the design part. New York City isn’t exactly famous for its income equality, and in its first season NYCFC played to type, blowing its budget on a few spectacularly expensive stars and filling out the roster with minimum-salary cannon fodder. According to American Soccer Analysis, the club still owns three of the top eight spots since 2015 for roster Gini coefficient, an econometric measure of how unevenly salaries are distributed, but each season’s been more balanced than the last. In 2015 the top 11 players on NYCFC’s roster earned 92% of the team’s payroll; last season 86%; this year 82%. Yes, that’s mostly because we’re not paying anyone Pirlo or Villa money anymore, but the reason we don’t have to buy stars is that the club’s been spending smartly on TAM-range players and scouting backups like Castellanos, Parks, and Sebastien Ibeagha who can contribute MLS-quality minutes come crunch time. The depth chart is sound.

No matter how good your squad is, though, rotating your lineup without sacrificing your style is a tough ask for any coach. Just ask Brian Schmetzer, who on Wednesday basically brought his USL reserve side Tacoma Defiance FC to Yankee Stadium disguised as the Seattle Sounders. But to write off the 3-0 whupping that followed would shortchange Dome Torrent, who was missing about half his starters too and playing key players out of position. What separated the sides was that, for all the everything that was happening, one of them still played like a team.

What’s the secret to Dome’s success? Hate to get all Spielverlagerung on you here but there’s a fancy foreign phrase you might want to start working into your soccer convos this summer: juego de posición. It’s one of the most abused tactics buzzwords in the game, and is invariably explained by gesturing at an inscrutably tesselated pitch map and mumbling something about “occupying specific zones in relation to the ball.” Honestly, though, the fundamental idea’s not that complicated: position matters more than players.

It’s very important for me to play positional because that is the reason they can understand in different shapes what is expected.

Dome Torrent, to ProSoccerUSA

Notice that’s position, singular, not positions. We’re not talking about who’s listed as a right-sided defensive midfielder or a left inside forward on the lineup card, we’re talking about how the team as a whole maintains its shape in possession, how players space themselves properly and stagger between the defensive lines to create short passing diamonds, line-breaking passing lanes, and a free man on the weak side when the defense collapses on the ball. Basically we’re talking about this:

Just imagine this with a bunch of super complicated-looking rectangles overlaid on it.

Big deal, you say, that’s just a formation! Which, I mean, yeah, that’s why formations exist—to give players a reference for how to arrange themselves in relation to one another, a mental geometry to shape their movements on the pitch. The thinking part starts when the ball gets rolling, and right here, about two touches after an NYCFC goal kick, you can already see how Maxi scoots over to the halfspace and up behind Seattle’s first line of pressure, Keaton moves into the central channel on a lower horizontal line, and Ring, Mata, and Mitri adjust their positions to complete complementary passing diamonds for Chanot to choose between. No more than three players may occupy a horizontal line, the tactical mystics mutter, while no more than two may occupy the same vertical zone. In other words: Stagger lines! Space yourselves!

The even harder part comes when your shape gets distorted, because that’s what soccer teams spend all their time trying to do to each other, and each player has to think on the fly about how to efficiently recover that shape. When you get right down to it, tactics are just a race against reaction times: you do a thing (a dribble, a pass), your opponent does a thing in response (two defenders leave their line to close down), and whoever figures out first how to exploit the spaces that open up controls what happens next. That’s why positional play is so useful, because players move around but positions on a pitch don’t. Instead of worrying about how to get back to your fixed place on the locker room whiteboard, just recognize the space where someone ought to be and do what needs to be done there. That all probably sounds super abstract, so maybe some video will help.

Look, this clip isn’t exactly Man City. The passing is slow, the recognition is slower, and it’s pretty obvious nobody’s thinking more than about one and a half moves ahead. But they are thinking about space! Isi’s checking into midfield, Mata’s tucking inside when the defensive mids are too high, Maxi’s pushing up the wing when Mitri drops, Ring’s streaking up a channel his teammates have opened for him. None of these moves comes in the instruction manual for their nominal role in the starting formation, but by learning to anticipate the spaces that teammates’ moves create, each player keeps the team in a good shape for what comes next. That’s the bottom line for juego de posición.

It’s important that NYCFC is starting to get the hang of this stuff by summer because positional play makes you versatile. If we’re being honest, a Maxi-Keaton double pivot has no business existing, Ring’s not great at dropping between the center backs, Taty’s still learning to be a striker, and as Dome pointed out this week in a Glenn Crooks article about positional play, Isi’s gone from a wide winger to an inside forward working between the lines. Playing guys out of position has caused problems for Dome in the not-too-distant past, but if he wants to get anything close to his best eleven on the field right now, players need to be flexible—and understanding team play helps that happen.

Soccer, even just minute to minute, is a chaotic sport. Soccer on an MLS schedule is plain crazy. The lesson of juego de posición is, in its own weird way, the lesson of @Horse_ebooks: to bring beauty out of this mess you’re going to have to apply some human intelligence to it. If you don’t, the everything will overwhelm you. ❧

Image: Eugene Delacroix, Studies of Horses

D.C. United 1-2 NYCFC + Philadelphia Preview: Is Alexandru Mitriţă Good at Soccer?

Just, you know, asking questions here.

First of all: yes. Obviously. If he wants to be.

But I mean, like, how is Alexandru Mitriţă good at soccer? What does he do so uncommonly well that Claudio Reyna stuffed a steamer trunk with crisp bundles of unmarked hundreds and set sail across the Atlantic in mid-February—this is, I assume, the only way to get to Romania—to ink a transfer contract in matching neck tattoos?

It was a fair question to ask back when NYCFC made Mitri the third-most expensive buy in MLS history, before Alejandro Pozuelo and Brian Fernández bumped him down a couple slots, and it’s a fairer question now that he’s been in New York long enough to get recognized while walking his French bulldog. We’ve just about got a decent sample size on our little guy, and the results are—well, they’re mixed.

Here are some things Mitri is most definitely better than you at: shooting, dribbling. If this were the NBA, the Knicks would’ve signed him to a max contract by now. (There’s a chance they will anyway and he’ll wind up being their best guard in a decade.) On the other hand, here are some things that Mitri might not be better than you at, if you happen to be the median attacker in Major League Soccer: pretty much everything else.

That’s a little worrying! It’s not that Mitri’s stats are bad, exactly, it’s just that if you only had this chart to go on, you might not pay millions of dollars to secure his services over those of an MLS journeyman like Juan Agudelo. So do numbers lie, or is it maybe time to start thinking of CFG’s scouting department as that guy at poker night who meticulously calculates pot odds on TAM-range bets all night but then goes all in on a straight flush draw?

We’ve seen that play out before with Jesús Medina, who looked like a smart investment for about half of last year before suffering a six-week hamstring strain whose long-term side effects appear to include terminal amnesia about what to do when somebody kicks a soccer ball to you. At 24, with a stint in Italy already under his belt, Mitriţă was always going to be less of a gamble than a 21-year-old from the Paraguayan first division. But that also means he’s more of a finished product, with fewer growth years left to pin our hopes and dreams on. What we see from Mitri in the second half of this season might wind up being pretty much what we get.

But will his second half look like his first? There are reasons to be optimistic. For one thing, he’s coachable (at least if your coach isn’t filled with wickedness). Back in the spring Mitri had a little bit of a shot selection problem. Before picking up a knock in April he was firing off about five shots a game with an average chance to score of less than 8% apiece. Since working his way back to health, he’s upped that to 14%, increasing his overall expected goal output while lowering his shot count. Fewer possessions wasted from 30 yards out on the moral equivalent of shirtless bathroom selfies can’t be a bad thing.

One big reason it’s been easier to get into the box is the signing of one Héber “Air Bear” Araujo dos Santos, whose work at striker takes the heat off Mitri and gives him room to work between the lines. Back when D.C. United visited Yankee Stadium in March, novice center forward Taty Castellanos let Mitri’s moments of on-ball brilliance go to waste:

Fast forward to last week’s Open Cup rematch, and things looked very different. True, Chris Durkin and Antonio Bustamante, who can barely buy a beer between them, aren’t exactly a big-game-ready double pivot. But just watch the way NYCFC’s new attack picks them apart here:

Héber’s holdup play and counterpressing, Ben Sweat’s advanced wingback position, Maxi’s freewheeling midfield role: these weren’t features of NYCFC’s play for the first couple months of the season. Each helps free Mitri to get creative, and he does it in style, scrambling the lines, juking defenders, and looking for dangerous one-twos with Héber at the top of the box. Drifting inside is how Mitri eventually found a goal, thanks to some stellar service from the severely underused Keaton Parks.

But those exchanges with Héber also show a more worrying thing about Mitri, which is that he tends to dawdle and sulk off the ball. Look, forwards don’t need to be in motion all the time, and Mitri’s idol Messi famously walks better than most players run. But until he can show us that his frequent bouts of flaneurism are more about manipulating space than hanging a hapless Ben Sweat out to dry, the one low-gear guy in a high-gear press deserves to have his teamwork called into question.

Which brings us to the Philadelphia Union. The opponent at Yankee Stadium this evening won’t look much like the one NYCFC steamrolled in the playoffs eight months ago. An offseason revamp has Philadelphia atop the Eastern Conference table and neck and neck with Atlanta and NYCFC by your usual nerdy stats measures. But unlike Dome Torrent, Jim Curtin didn’t fight his way back to the top with help from high-dollar signings—the Union’s two biggest pickups, Marco Fabián and Sergio Santos, have had a limited impact so far. Instead, the team has relied on a new diamond-midfield system, some quality minutes from homegrowns like Brenden Aaronson, Ilsinho’s god-tier production off the bench, and pretty much total buy-in across the board.

Basically, it’s a team where nobody walks, nobody gives up on plays, nobody picks a shot because it’ll look sick on YouTube. Whether NYCFC’s going to be that kind of team in the second half is all on one $9 million man. But if and when Alexandru Mitriţă turns it on, look out. ❧

Image: Tapestry (Narcissus)

Major League Soccer Has a Bullshit Problem

On Anthony Precourt, Nazis, and a league that can’t say what it means.

Yesterday evening, a couple hours after Liverpool won the Champions League final and the rest of the world had stumbled off to drink about it, New York City FC and the Columbus Crew played a soccer game. It didn’t mean much, just another regular season fixture in front of a few thousand families and friends on the back acres of the Ohio State Fairgrounds. The only remarkable thing about the game is that it happened at all.

Last year, you may have heard, the Crew was saved. What this means is that after Major League Soccer spent fourteen months or so trying to relocate one of its founding clubs from Ohio to Texas at the behest of the team’s private equity bro owner, a sentient pair of Sperry Top-Siders named Anthony Precourt, it was forced to change course when this plan proved to be extremely unpopular with everyone not named Anthony Precourt. From a certain angle it was a feel-good story. A community banded together, flamed the shit out of the smug asshole who was trying to take their team, and won. The Crew stayed. It reminded us that fans have a voice.

It also reminded us, in case we hadn’t been paying attention, that MLS has a bullshit problem.

Before anyone mistakes this for a Billy Haisley article, let’s discuss what the operative word here does and doesn’t mean. Bullshit is a term of art. As defined by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his 1986 essay “On Bullshit,” pretty much the definitive treatment of the subject, it is not quite the same as lying. The quintessential form of bullshit is a statement “grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection with truth—this lack of concern for how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit.”

Frankfurt is aware that his word has a much broader range of usages, and that “the expression bullshit is often employed quite loosely—simply as a generic term of abuse, with no very specific literal meaning.” When Haisley files his five hundredth Deadspin post calling MLS bullshit, he could mean to communicate nothing more than that the soccer is bad. But the fuller version of the Deadspin critique of MLS, the only take the site has ever had on top-flight men’s club soccer in the United States, is that the league is fundamentally phony, devoted to gaslighting a bunch of Capri Sun-sucking American rubes into believing our soccer is not bad. That’s more like the kind of bullshit Frankfurt is talking about.

Maybe at one time MLS was bullshit in the Deadspin sense. Maybe, for teams languishing at the bottom of the table while their billionaire owners put their payroll toward Tim Howard’s retirement account or their stadium nest egg toward massage parlor handjobs in Palm Beach, it still is. Lately, however, the league’s pollsters and focus groupers have reported that what fans really want is to watch domestic soccer that’s more competitive on a global scale, and against all odds MLS has responded with a series of reforms that have—gradually, haltingly—started to make that happen.

But better soccer means more money. And if there’s one thing money loves, it’s bullshit.

The vast and varied chronicles of Anthony Precourt’s bullshit could fill volumes, and probably whenever soccer historians get around to it they will. So let’s just stick to one example that illustrates the general concept.

From the moment he acquired the Crew in 2013, Precourt had his sights set on Texas. Even as he publicly “emphasized that he [was] completely committed to keeping the team in Columbus,” his company negotiated a clause in the purchase agreement that would allow him to move the team to Austin. Predetermined conclusions have a way of fostering bullshit. When Precourt Sports Ventures announced in 2017 that it was “exploring strategic options” including “potentially relocating the Club to the city of Austin, Texas,” the statement quoted league commissioner Don Garber bemoaning the sorry state of the club’s “business metrics.” Which metrics, exactly? The only one the statement identified was attendance, and the prescription for improving it was to move the team to “a downtown stadium location or . . . a site that is a destination for the entire community.”

But downtown stadiums, as other MLS clubs have learned, aren’t always easy to come by. The search for a stadium site soon broadened to include McKalla Place in far north Austin, which PSV president Dave Greeley wasn’t thrilled about. “A major issue is immediate access,” he told the Austin American Statesman in February of last year. “Short of drone deliveries, I’m not sure how you get fans in there.”

Three months later, of course, PSV unveiled a plan to build a stadium at McKalla Place. It would offer “access for all Austinites, who can come to the soccer park on any day of the week and enjoy walkability, push a stroller, throw a Frisbee in the park area, not just to attend a soccer match,” Greeley announced. “What’s great about this site, is it’s a multi-mobile [sic] transportation venue. That means you can get here in so many ways: bus, rail, you can drive, you can park remotely and walk, you can take a ride share, you can ride your bike.” Somehow drones seemed to have dropped off the list.

So which one is it, an inaccessible wasteland or a bikeable, frisbeeable paradise? The thing about bullshit is it doesn’t matter. Neither of Greeley’s statements evinced any particular concern for how things really are. Each was intended to produce an effect, first to persuade Austin to offer Precourt a better site and then, when that failed, to convince the city that the deal left on the table was the best of all possible worlds. Don Garber went along with it, expressing his excitement for a deal that will see Precourt’s new Austin expansion team play twice as far from downtown as Columbus currently does. This, too, is bullshit.

If you’re looking for bullshit, there’s no easier place to find it than in a well-drafted statement. “The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept,” Frankfurt writes. Indeed, the better the PR team, the better the bullshit. The best produce “carefully wrought bullshit” (a phrase which Frankfurt points out is kind of at odds with the whole excretory metaphor).

But sometimes what makes a public statement bullshit is what’s not in it. A cousin of the lie by omission, this kind of bullshit involves a refusal to say what the speaker means, or to take any kind of position on the subject the statement purports to address. If you do it right, you can craft an entire statement like this without ever having to decide what you believe in the first place. That’s where NYCFC has so far come down on its problem with what have variously been described as “far-right-wing supporters,” “hate groups,” “white supremacists,” or, in the most common shorthand, “Nazis.”

Rumors of skinheads in NYCFC’s supporters’ section have been around since the club’s first season, but the latest flare-up started, inevitably, on Twitter. Last October, just before the playoffs, an activist named Shaun King tweeted this to his 1.1 million followers:

It may have been well intentioned, but this tweet is bullshit. Who were these violent bigots? Who’s the “we” who identified them? Unless the skinheads were holding their chapter meetings in the Yankee Stadium bleachers, why was the tweet about NYCFC instead of, say, whatever far-right organization was sponsoring their gang assault outings? King knew but didn’t say, and by his silence he made sure that the association between “NYCFC fans” and “violent white supremacists” would become a generalized one. Anybody who’s ever attended a sporting event in the same stadium as strangers they might not want to get a beer or, you know, attend a Charlottesville rally with later can see the problem with this kind of mass guilt by association.

But an organization with “FC” in its name is, by its own styling, a club: not a fungible NFL or NBA franchise but something spiritually descended from soccer’s Old World membership associations, the kind of clubs where people used to actually do stuff besides go to games. An organization like that represents something. It has a responsibility to its community, starting with defining who exactly the community is and what they stand for. Without that, the whole idea of a football club is bullshit.

As it turned out, King’s “many” white supremacists were a couple of NYCFC supporters among a group arrested for beating up protesters at a Proud Boys rally in Manhattan. Without even trying to untangle the extremist group affiliations involved or to figure out who was a “skinhead” versus an “ultra-nationalist” or whatever, anyone could see that these were not guys you’d want to be in any kind of club with. At least one of the NYCFC fans had literally marched in Charlottesville. Very fine people indeed.

Now maybe this is going out on a limb, but it seems like the reasonable thing for New York City FC to do at this point would have been to loudly and repeatedly reject any association with these groups or their ideologies and promise to keep their members out of the supporters’ section. Like, this is not a final exam stumper in public relations school. Instead, for months NYCFC said as little as possible. Club execs declined interviews and issued a statement referring to a “zero tolerance policy for hate related offences of any kind at our matches or events” and asking fans to “report conduct that does not fall in line with our Club’s core value of inclusivity to our Fan Services team 855-776-9232 (Option 3).” Stirring stuff, right? That sneaky British “c” in “offences” really drives home the authentic expression of New York values.

You probably know the rest of the story. On opening day of the 2019 MLS season, the Huffington Post dropped a long article on “fascism in the stands” at NYCFC games. Don Garber responded Garberishly, telling reporters that “our job is not to judge and profile any fan” (which the league’s own Fan Code of Conduct made clear was bullshit). NYCFC, for its part, tweeted a tiny-print image referring again to a “zero tolerance policy” at games, without any hint of what the statement was responding to or what, exactly, the club really stood for. Then it went silent again.

It’s not hard to see what was going on here. At bottom the league’s studied neutrality was “Republicans buy sneakers too,” except instead of Republicans the response was calculated not to alienate any customers who might happen to sympathize with actual Nazis. More charitably, though, you could view Garber’s claim that “getting into profiling who people are” is a “slippery slope” and NYCFC’s blinkered focus on conduct at games as a perspicacious refusal to engage in creepy stuff like monitoring fans’ social media conduct. When you get right down to it, there’s a reasonable case that policing fans’ conduct at games is all the club, as opposed to the supporters’ groups, should really be doing about the Nazi problem.

But there’s still the question of what NYCFC is saying—or not—about its values. Pointing to policies isn’t enough. Compare the club’s statement to one from Chelsea calling racist fans “an embarrassment to the vast majority of Chelsea supporters who won’t tolerate them in their club.” Better yet, look at how NYCFC’s own supporters have tried to cut through the club’s bullshit. A few weeks after the Huffington Post article, NYCFC posted a video about a guy named Omari who’s made himself the team’s unofficial pigeon mascot. The video itself was good, just a fan talking about community and inclusivity and stuff, but in context it was easy to read the “Everyone Has a Voice” packaging as more spineless both-sidesism from a club still struggling with the Nazi problem. So Omari took on himself to spell out what the video didn’t say.

That is what not-bullshit looks like.

Why does bullshit matter? The philosopher Max Black, in his essay against “falsidical humbug,” quotes Montaigne’s reason for hating lies: “We are human beings, and hold together only by speech.” Every conversation, every sentence, is an act of community. Every effort to undermine communication likewise undoes community. “It seems reasonable to conclude,” writes Black, “that a liar is, in a radical way, sapping the foundations of social institutions, all of which depends upon the general effectiveness of speech.”

But liars at least care about how things really are, even as they try to fool you about it. Bullshitters are worse, devaluing not just speech but the significance of truth itself. They’re the real boogeymen of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” the speechifiers whose careful turns of phrase are “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” They’re the sophists Socrates was always chipping away at with a thousand and one variations on the question Black recommends as our first defense against humbug: “Do you really mean that?”

Soccer shouldn’t have this problem. The best part about sports is that they are, as the novelist Harry Crews once put it, “that which does not admit of bullshit.” Bodies in motion can’t dissemble. “If you tell me you can bench press 450, hell, we’ll load up the bar and put you under it. Either you can do it or you can’t do it—you can’t bullshit,” Crews said. “Ultimately, sports are just about as close to what one could call the truth as it is possible to get in this world.”

In the 76th minute of last night’s game, Taty Castellanos scored a goal to draw NYCFC level with the Crew. It was a line drive into the side netting from thirty-plus yards out, a real “either you can do it or you can’t do it” kind of strike, no bullshit about it. The 13,704 fans announced at Columbus’s not-quite-downtown stadium fell silent. In New York we did the opposite, jumping around and yelling and hugging in the Upper East Side bar where I hang out with friends I would never have met if not for this club.

On the other side of the bar, maybe thirty feet away, one of the violent bigots from Shaun King’s tweet was doing the same with his friends. They weren’t Sieg Heiling or assaulting antifa protesters or anything like that. They were just celebrating a goal, singing Spanish songs their supporters’ group imported from Latin American soccer to MLS. The Latino skinhead guy looked happy.

And you know what? I’m sort of okay with that. People with awful pasts have to keep existing somewhere, and if you can look past the sport’s bloody history of hooliganism and see MLS for the safe and honestly pretty wholesome family entertainment it currently is, it’s possible to imagine that watching a soccer game might be the healthiest place for a guy like that to be. Yet that history is real, and racism is real, and ignoring them is dangerous. MLS and NYCFC need to start being a lot louder and less equivocal about this community and the one that marched in Charlottesville being very much an us-or-them choice. Anything less is bullshit. ❧

Image: Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test