The Full 90

Full 90 Mailbag: How to pitch MLS to the American soccer fan

The atmosphere is usually electric at Sporting Park.
The atmosphere is usually electric at Sporting Park. Kansas City Star

With less than 10 days to go (fingers crossed) until the start of the 20th Major League Soccer season, this week’s mailbag is bursting at the seams with questions. No time for a preamble, let’s just get it going.

My platform to convince an American soccer fan to give MLS a chance…

1.) Soccer is excellent live. Soccer is, like college football, a spectator sport that in my opinion is best experienced in person. The atmosphere made by the supporters’ groups — and the beer that often fuels them — just isn’t the same as it is on your couch. It’s like a concert mixed with a really great party — and some soccer for good measure. (If you’re in KC, you’re talking about 20,000 nearly every game at pretty full volume. Good times.)

2.) We’re getting the band back together. The bulk of the United States men’s national team — Bradley, Dempsey, Besler, Jones, Altidore, Mix — is now part of the domestic league. If you have a vested interest in how the Yanks do in the next World Cup — or even the Gold Cup this summer — you should probably track the development of the spine of that team.

3.) This isn’t your older brother’s MLS anymore. Is your typical Colorado Rapids-Portland Timbers match as enthralling or technically excellent as, say, Barcelona-Manchester City? Of course not. No one should rightly expect that to be the case. But, the league isn’t necessarily only a minor-league feeding ground for European leagues either.*

*I don’t really buy the argument that American fans only want to watch the best athletes play in a particular sport. If that was true, why does college basketball exist? It’s currently a lower-quality, watered-down feeder league for the NBA. I say this, by the way, as a huge fan of college basketball AND the NBA.

Over the last few seasons, the expansion of the league and talent pool — not to mention a larger focus on developing team-specific styles — has led to an uptick in enjoyable (if not quite totally attractive) soccer. It’s not the drab, cynical and tactically un-savvy game you might have heard about from six years ago. (There are still those match-ups every once in a while, but watch an Aston Villa-Hull City match in the EPL some time and tell me it’s not all of those things too.)

The league has teams that play attractive (Los Angeles and Salt Lake), high-octane (Sporting KC and Portland) and with technical swagger (Seattle). And, just like in the EPL, there is a team that throws a ton of money into the transfer market in a desperate attempt to stave off losing season after losing season (Toronto). That’s always fun.

There are also a handful of very precocious young American talents coming into their own (like Tommy Thompson in San Jose and Wil Trapp in Columbus) and another handful of talented and young Latin American players helping transform the style of play in the league little by little (like Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo in Dallas). That’s not to mention established players like Kaka (Orlando City) and David Villa (New York City FC) joining to start the season and English vets Steven Gerrard (Los Angeles) and Frank Lampard (NYCFC) coming later this year.

For about 40 years, soccer has been America’s next big sport. While it might not get to NFL levels, it’s a lot closer to that hype than it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

I assume you mean these odds. I am flabbergasted that New York City FC has better odds (15/1) than Sporting KC (20/1), Portland (25/1) and Vancouver (30/1). I am not shocked that Los Angeles and Seattle lead the way with 3/1 and 9/2 odds, respectively, to win the title. Those are the two smartest picks.

However, if I wanted to potentially make some money, I’d look for two dark horses outside of the favorites: Columbus Crew (15/1) or FC Dallas (20/1). Both teams lost early in the playoffs — Columbus in a wild series to MLS Cup runners-up New England; while Dallas “lost” to Seattle on a single away goal. The Crew were a few pieces away last year (namely, a goal-scoring threat: enter Kei Kamara) and should get better under Gregg Berhalter in his second season. I think the same is true of Dallas under Oscar Pareja. He used a ton of youth last year, plays a fun attacking style and has a solid defense returning from last year. A full year of Mauro Diaz could be a huge difference maker.

After the first few preseason games, this is a much more interesting question than it first appeared. I’ll answer it in list form in order of most likely.

1. Amadou Dia. He looked pretty good at right back against Seattle, even though he’s a natural left back. He gives Vermes some speed and athleticism behind Chance Myers (who has a history of not playing every game). Looked very comfortable with most of the starters.

2. James Rogers. The most recent KC signing had a tremendous goal in the second half against the Sounders. You can’t teach speed and he could be a valuable weapon off the bench. Though, I’m not sure he’s technically or tactically ready for major minutes.

3. Connor Hallisey. He could move up in the rankings as he plays a position (left wing) of need for KC and could see a lot of minutes spelling Bernardo Anor late in game. Lots of technical ability, but he’s pretty small.

4. Saad Abdul-Salaam. Haven’t seen quite enough yet for me to bump him up the list yet.

I addressed Marin in my preview of the goalkeepers. I think Sam McDowell brought the line fans will want to hear: “Sporting KC asked former keeper Jimmy Nielsen to scout Marin in Chile, and Nielsen sent back rave reviews.”

Off the top of my head, no, I can’t think of any player that has been directly restricted because the league doesn’t have free agency — mostly because the players have been quiet during the five seasons that the re-entry draft has been in place.

But I can think of a few local examples of a player’s movement being restricted by MLS rights. The first is Herculez Gomez, a player who fell out with Kansas City and made a good career for himself in Mexico. However, if he ever wants to come back to MLS, the team will have to acquire his rights from Kansas City. (Basically, unless a team accepts a transfer fee for a player, it owns that players rights for as long they want too.)

Another is that of Luis Gil. When he decided to join the league after trying his hand in Europe, Kansas City won a weighted lottery for his services. However, he told everyone who would listen that he wanted to play in the Western Conference closer to home. Since KC held his rights, Peter Vermes was able to extract a second-round pick in the 2011 SuperDraft (and took JT Murray, who didn’t make the roster), an international spot and (most importantly) a minority percentage of any future transfer fee for Gil.

If the league allowed open free agency, Gomez and Gil would’ve been free to seek employment with whatever team would pay them. While that’s not restricted or blacklisting a player, it’s definitely putting the team/league in an advantageous position in negotiating.

As for your second question, it’s incredibly hard. The CBA is such a nuanced topic that it can’t be boiled down to simple winners and losers — which is what is expected from today’s modern media. The convoluted league structure has made my head hurt on numerous occasions.

There are a few to choose from here — Paulo Nagamura, Seth Sinovic, Jacob “The Answer” Peterson, Jimmy Medranda. But I’ll go with Ike Opara because I think people have forgotten just how good he was in 2013. When KC let Aurelien Collin leave, I had a lot of people ask me who KC would sign to replace him. I always answered: They don’t need to sign anyone, they’ve got Opara.

He’s healthy and playing in Tucson during this tournament, and Vermes thinks he’ll be ready for March 8.

Ah, a much different question than the previous one. Also one that could have a lot of answers. Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer were KC’s most consistent players in 2014 and are both super important to this team. Matt Besler. Luis Marin. Roger Espinoza. Those guys are all important. But I think if KC wants to reach great heights, it needs full throttle Graham Zusi on top of everything else.

He creates the attacking space for Kansas City — he’s also the best crosser on the team and if he moves over the right wing could again be a threat for double-digit assists. If he can also rediscover his free-kick form from 2012-13, that could give Sporting KC a dangerous set-piece weapon again.

Yeah, I’m still a 6 out of 10 on this one. I think you should start explaining what “federal mediation” means first though. And then explain it to me so I can explain it to everyone else.

This is a tough question to answer because they’ve only done one game together so far. It’s hard to have instant chemistry AND a feel for the game AND the right timing after just one game.

I worked with Nate last year doing pre-game radio for Sporting KC. We talk about soccer a lot — he knows this game and this team. My belief is that he’s going to be fine in the long run. He’s a professional and will (hopefully) resist the urge to become a total homer on the broadcast.

Well, considering that I’ve been a terrible movie buff recently and haven’t seen either movie, I’m going to punt and say “Guardians of the Galaxy.”