Welcome to the first edition of Yahoo’s weekly MLS column, “23 Thoughts.” People that know me well know that while I’ve covered MLS professionally since 2002, when the league was a 10-team circuit teetering on the brink of extinction, my own athletic background is in a different sport: hockey.
And as any NHL fan will tell you, the must-read column every week of the season is Hockey Night in Canada reporter Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts. Along with Friedman’s random musings, it’s a treasure trove of inside information from one of the most connected people in the business. For years I’ve wanted to write an MLS version.
As a reporter, my job is to talk to people. Lots of people. And much of the time, the things I hear don’t make it into any story, which is a shame because often it’s fascinating.
So, starting this week, I’m going to drop some of those nuggets in this space while continue doing what I’ve always done, with is try to be fair, accurate and responsible. Here goes. I hope you enjoy it, and that if you do, you come back for more.
1. Originally this wasn’t going to lead the column, but it’s actually fitting to kick things off by talking about the fiasco that is the Columbus Crew’s possible – and at this point probable – relocation to Austin, Texas. On Wednesday night, Crew owner Precourt Sports Ventures made its latest public relations gaffe, unveiling the crest for the proposed Austin FC before the Crew’s fate, which could be determined by the Ohio courts, is even determined. It’s a terrible look, and I’m not just talking about the logo.
2. The emblem itself features a green oak tree complete with roots that symbolize “the creation of a powerful foundation for the club” per a press release, but it looks an awful lot like the “Respect your roots” tifo Crew fans hoisted last fall after PSV revealed plans to move the first club in MLS history on eve of the 2017 playoffs. Wednesday’s announcement came just days after Crew season ticket holders were asked to renew for a 2019 season that might not happen. It’s also interesting that Austin went with the tired and nonsensical “FC” after imploring media members for years to refer to the Crew as “Crew SC” following a 2014 rebrand. Who could blame Columbus fans from interpreting that FC as something other than “football club”?
3. The relocation of teams is an unfortunate reality in North American pro sports. MLS has moved a club just once in its 23-year history, less than the NFL, NBA or NHL over the same span. Still, if MLS lets the Crew walk, I believe they have a responsibility to make sure the Crew not only continues to exist in some form – perhaps as a USL side – but is given a clear path to return to MLS soon. Logos, records, etc. must stay in Columbus. There’s a precedent here; the San Jose Earthquakes history remained when the team became the Houston Dynamo in 2006. San Jose got its club back in 2008, when the Quakes returned via expansion. If the Crew moves, and with any luck they won’t, here’s hoping the same thing happens in Columbus.
4. If the Crew can’t make it in Ohio’s capital, what does that say to fans in places like Frisco, Texas or Commerce City, Colorado? FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids drew less fans than the Crew did last season. And Texas’s track record of supporting MLS isn’t great. Just five teams had a lower average attendance than the Houston Dynamo did in 2017, despite the Dynamo having a custom-built downtown stadium in the fourth-biggest (and the most diverse) city in America. Who’s convinced that Austin, in a venue situated well north of the the city’s core, will be a hit?
5. Regarding expansion, wouldn’t shock me to see MLS grow to 32-34 teams within the next 15 years. To be clear, nobody at MLS HQ has said that, even privately. But Cincinnati, Miami and Nashville are already locked in as teams 24-26, and ownership groups in Detroit, Indianapolis, Sacramento, Phoenix, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Raleigh-Durham, San Diego, and St. Louis are still interested. With the biggest World Cup ever headed for North America in 2026, it’s not hard to envision. If and when the league gets that large, could promotion and relegation happen within some sort of MLS 1/MLS 2 structure?
6. Though there’s been plenty talk about a change in format for the MLS All-Star game, it’s hard to beat the current set-up in my opinion. This year’s edition, in Atlanta earlier this month, was the best version yet. If you think players would get more out of a East-West matchup where nobody bothers to defend, consider what 19-year-old Red Bulls and U.S. national team midfielder Tyler Adams told me after he and his fellow MLS All-Stars met Juventus: “It gives you the confidence to go back into the national team,” Adams said. “The speed of play was much faster. Any time you play a team like that, they could be running through the motions for all we know and it’s still much faster because of the habits that they have. How they play on and off the ball makes it difficult. When you have the chance to step on the field with [Sami] Khedira, [Miralem] Pjanic and Emre Can, you can’t take that for granted. Those are three of the top midfielders in the world.”
7. Adams talks like he plays: fast, with a maturity beyond his years. How did he think he did versus Juve? “That game felt easy,” Adams said. “I was able to handle everything that was thrown at me, playing quick in tight spaces, playing forward and trying to create chances. When you play alongside guys of this caliber, they help you.”
8. Host Atlanta United and the city itself were the biggest stars during All-Star week. I got to catch up with very busy United president Darren Eales during my 48 hours in town. I’ll save most of what Eales said for a future feature on the club, which could well end up winning MLS Cup in just its second season. But here are some highlights.
9. Tata Martino has been linked to several managerial positions around the world, including the vacant USMNT job (although I don’t believe he’s a candidate for that post). Makes sense given his resume, and Martino’s contract is up at the end of the year. However, the club can activate a multiyear option to retain him, and they want him back. “I think he’s enjoying it – you see that by the way he laughs and smiles on the touchline,” Eales said of Martino. “For us, we couldn’t be more pleased with the job he’s done. I’m hopeful he’s here for many years to come.”
10. Atlanta’s Josef Martinez came within inches of breaking the single-season goal record last weekend. I have no doubt that Martinez will shatter the 23-year-old mark Friday night in Orlando. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he bags a hat trick against the hapless Lions.
11. With the club in contention for two titles this year – Atlanta leads the Supporters Shield race by two points – it makes sense that Eales didn’t want to sell Martinez or midfield turbine Miguel Almiron this summer. What will he do if (or when) clubs come calling for those two this winter? “This season is this season,” Eales said. “I think we’ll just take it how it comes. You never know when that crazy offer may come in, and you’ve always got to be prepared.”
12. My understanding is that new USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart, who took over Aug. 1 after leaving a similar job with the Philadelphia Union, is quietly picking the brains of people he trusts on the sorts of qualities and qualifications he should consider when picking the next U.S. coach. We should learn more details about what Stewart has been up to his first few weeks on the job when the national team gathers in New Jersey ahead of its Sept. 7 friendly against Brazil.
13. I’ve been told consistently that whoever the next U.S. coach is, he probably won’t take over until late this year, in November or December. Here’s another possibility: the new man is named in the next couple of months but doesn’t start until the new year.
14. I’ve gone on record saying that Columbus’ Gregg Berhalter has the best chance of getting the job when all is said and done. I still think that. But I also find it interesting that there are conflicting takes about the relationship between Berhalter and Stewart, who were both on the U.S. team that reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002. Some have insisted that they’re close. But others say that isn’t the case, and that they weren’t particularly tight as teammates. “Gregg could be hard to get along with as a player because he was so demanding,” one said. “Then again, the national team could use some of that right now.”
15. D.C. United started the season with 12 of their first 14 games on the road while Audi Field was completed. According to coach Ben Olsen, the hardest part wasn’t the travel, but the four bye-weeks. “That kind of stunted our rhythm,” Olsen told me a few weeks back. “It’s really two different seasons.”
16. Olsen is a DCU lifer, having played for the club his entire career (minus a short loan to England’s Nottingham Forest) and serving as coach since 2010. Has he been able to appreciate the good things that have happened to the club lately, from the stadium opening to signing Wayne Rooney to plans for a new training facility? “These are all big steps for a club that, quite frankly has been sputtering along,” Olsen said. “But right now it’s hard for me to appreciate anything but three points.”
17. When Olsen told me Aug. 3 that he thought D.C. could make the playoffs, I wasn’t sold. Now, after winning four of five, they look like a team nobody will want to play should they qualify. “I’ve been in this league long enough to know that every year halfway through the season, there’s always teams that change and start to build momentum,” Olsen said. “More often than not, those are the teams that do well in the playoffs.”
18. Staying on coaches, it’s amazing how the Red Bulls have barely missed a beat since Chris Armas took over from Jesse Marsch on July 6. Sure, New York settled for a point at nine-man blood rival New York City FC Wednesday to kick off Rivalry Week. But overall, they’ve dealt with the midseason change better than NYCFC, who saw Dome Torrent replace Patrick Vieira in June.
19. Red Bulls front man Bradley Wright-Phillips’ movement close to the goal is such a treat to watch. I’m not sure seeing it on TV does it justice. BWP also seems to have gotten better technically over the last few years, which is not something you often say about a player in his 30s.
20. When I asked Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic about the club’s eight game losing streak — which they snapped with a 1-1 tie against Columbus Thursday — after last weekend’s stoppage time defeat in Montreal, I wasn’t expecting the video to go viral (by MLS standards). A club staffer apologized to me after Paunovic’s f-bomb laced rant, but there was no need. Not only did I not take it personally, I appreciated the unvarnished response: “We’re f-ing suffering,” Paunovic said. “If you want to dig in more, it’s terrible. It’s f-ing terrible.” In a world where clichés from coaches are the norm, Pauno’s emotion was raw and real. As a reporter, you can’t ask for anything more than that.
21. I never got the chance to ask Pauno how worried he is about his job. (In hindsight, that was probably for the best.) There was a rumor floating around a couple of weeks ago that the Fire would make a coaching change if they lost at home to the Red Bulls on Aug. 11. They did, 1-0, but Pauno stayed, so clearly those whispers were false. I could be wrong, but the sense I get is that Paunovic is safe until the end of the season at least.
22. Bastian Schweinsteiger sure isn’t blaming Paunovic for the Fire’s woes. “I’m convinced that the coach and his staff do a great job, and the players give their best,” Schweinsteiger, who has played under the likes of Jogi Loew and Pep Guardiola, told me. “I know it sounds weird because we lose and because of our position in the standings, but you know me, I’ve had some coaches, and I have to say this coaching staff does a really good job.”
23. I’d never met Schweinsteiger before last week, and I couldn’t help but be impressed with the way he patiently answered questions following that gut-wrenching 2-1 loss to the Impact. Asked if he’d ever lost eight straight games in his life, he just laughed. “Of course not,” he said. I’ve been lucky enough to cover David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and just about every other marquee name since the designated player era began with Beckham’s arrival in 2007. Most of them were great. But I don’t know that I’ve encountered a more down to earth superstar than former German World Cup-winning captain.
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