Questions: Playing Away | US Soccer Players

By Tony Edwards – San Jose, CA (June 21, 2012) US Soccer Players — In Thursday's column, Tony asks what separates playoff teams from non-playoff teams in Major League Soccer, returns to the individual versus system debate, and predicts which MLS team will make a run up the standings.

What's the most pronounced difference in MLS this season between playoff and non-playoff teams so far this season?

Performance on the road. Of the ten teams currently in the playoff spots, Chicago, Houston, Seattle, and Colorado have losing records on the road. Is this a case of the playoff teams being that much better than the non-playoff teams or is it quirks in specific games, once you get below the surface? Given that six teams in MLS have one or less wins on the road, this suggests the teams are that much better. With that in mind, it鈥檚 no surprise that those teams we mentioned are 4th or 5th in their respective conferences. 

So with Montreal's Saputo Stadium re-opening this past weekend, when is the next MLS stadium, in San Jose, scheduled to open?

Next season? 2014? Earthquakes President David Kaval isn't committing. According to an interview in the San Jose Business Journal, Kaval said the franchise is working on stadium designs and wouldn't give an estimated opening date, beyond 鈥渓ooking to break ground this year.鈥?/p> How much freedom do you give a creative player?

Jonathan Wilson's column in the Guardian might focus on Cristiano Ronaldo and Wesley Sneijder's influence on their respective national teams, but it's just as relevant to the US National Team and MLS clubs.

Wilson asks, looking at tactics and team-building, if Portugal and the Netherlands might be better off without the player who has been each team's best during the ongoing European Cup of Nations.  But how does any coach balance what a creative, attacking player, such as Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan, can bring to a team versus the needs to install a system that ostensibly puts each player in the best position to contribute to the team's ultimate success?

Which MLS team is poised to make the most progress in the playoff race over the next 11 games?

Jay Heaps's New England Revolution, who have 10 of those games at home. If the Revolution are going to establish themselves as bona fide playoff contenders, it has to happen during this stretch of games.  And yes, it鈥檚 worth wondering how hard it really is to come up with an MLS schedule that avoids this sort of thing. 

Which is the latest MLS club trying to build a link between its Academy and First Team?

Colorado, with the club announcing this week the signing of academy product Shane O'Neill to a three-year contract. Rapids techincal director Paul Bravo had high praise for O'Neill's play with the Rapids' Reserves.  O'Neill, who turned down a full scholarship at the University of Virginia to sign with the Rapids, is playing for a coach in Oscar Pareja who was known in Dallas for giving academy graduates a fair opportunity.

More Questions:

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Some Games Count More | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (June 22, 2012) US Soccer Players — At least briefly, Cristiano Ronaldo's performance in Thursday's Euro 2012 quarterfinal revives the best player in the world debate. Lionel Messi has the trophy, but it's Ronaldo with the momentum. It's also Ronaldo himself that made a very cogent point earlier in the competition – he's the only one currently playing games that count.

Sure, Messi put in a ridiculous performance of his own against Brazil a couple of weeks ago. That it was in a friendly setting at a neutral site takes some of the gloss off the game, but it was still Messi and it was still Brazil. Ronaldo? His game that counted on Thursday was against a woefully overmatched Czech Republic lucky to keep the game scoreless as long as they did.

The Czech Republic – Portugal game could've easily turned into another Euro example of the better team deciding to increase their degree of difficulty. In what at times looked like a tribute to the kind of soccer Holland played on the way out of this tournament in the group stage, Portugal tried their chances from distance, turned clear shots into tough angles, and allowed the Czech defense to look mightier than it ever was over those 90 minutes.

Part of that was fear, fear of Petr Cech in goal. Who can blame them? Facing a good argument for the best goalkeeper in the game, any team with sense keeps that in mind. Yet it wasn't just Cech keeping Portugal out. Portugal only put five of their 20 shots on frame, and that statistic discounts several of those shots that were almost on target. It's hardly worth mentioning that Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio wasn't credited with a single save in the shutout, that was always going to be the Czech Republic's game plan against Portugal. Let them shoot, let them shoot some more, and keep faith in bad decisions on their part and Cech in goal to keep the score close.

So where does this leave Ronaldo in his latest game that counts? Superstar of the tournament for some, as much for a miss against the Czech Republic as his game-winning goal. His individual performance certainly changes the scope of Euro 2012, but that broader discussion of best in the world?

Quality of opponent is a factor even in a game that counts. The Czech Republic had one idea on display Wednesday, and Portugal seemed to go out of its way to help make that defensive theory work in reality. What does it say about the better club when they can't find a way early and often against this type of style?

I've asked two questions here, and my answers to both won't flatter Portugal or its superstar. Cristiano Ronaldo deserves credit for his individual performance and Portugal gets a minimum of another 90 minutes at Euro 2012. As for the broader conversation on who really is the best player in the world, the UEFA voters got it right for 2011 and it's the same choice for 2012.

That MLS Coach

I'm going to feign surprise that arguing against firing an MLS coach during a season for all but the most obvious reasons produced a few emails. Since all of them questioned my common sense, allow me to summarize. I don't understand the importance of the soccer coach on the practice field or during the game. Allow me to rebut.

The argument I made when you and I took over our hypothetical MLS club consisted of multiple caveats. The coach in question was doing his job was the biggest.

Confining this to Major League Soccer is only part of the point. Compared to other professional sports, an MLS coach does none of the following: calls plays from the sidelines (football and baseball), deals with unlimited substitutions (football, basketball, and hockey), and has timeouts (all of the other major team sports).

There's no soccer equivalent for a baseball manager visiting the mound, calling pitches from the dugout, or using an elaborate set of signals to tell his on-field players what to do. Even though soccer has set plays, there's no equivalent to the micromanagement of professional football. No soccer coach has the control of a hockey coach when it comes to line changes. There's no using timeouts to slow down the other team's run like in basketball or calling a timeout to design and implement a new play.

You can argue at least two things here. The first is that soccer coaches make substitutions. The second is that the soccer versions of a lot of these concepts are handled prior to the game on the training field. I would reply that we covered that by establishing that our hypothetical coach is doing his job. I would go onto stress that the role of the MLS (remember, were' specifically talking about Major League Soccer) is so limited to what coaches in the other major North American professional sports do during a game that it isn't at the same level of importance.

Why is this worth stressing? Simple, 'parting ways with the coach' in MLS doesn't have the same impact as it does not only in other sports, but in other professional soccer leagues. It takes more to affect midseason change in MLS, and it almost always has to involve restructuring the front office.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

More from J Hutcherson:

When To Part Ways With An MLS Coach The Philadelphia Change Five Things For Guatemala Five Things For Antigua and Barbuda

England Soccer | US Soccer Players

Once again, England is out and the media enthusiasm shifts back to its regular setting of sifting through a disappointment.  That鈥檚 part of the job when covering a team that has consistently not done as well as expected.  This time around offers its own set of explanations and missed opportunities, but it鈥檚 the same message.  When other countries in Europe are getting it right, England gets it wrong. 

This isn鈥檛 so much a 鈥榥othing to see here鈥?story as it is yet another example.  For at least two generations now, England can鈥檛 get it together for short-run high-profile tournaments.  They鈥檙e hardly alone in that category. 

Fortunately, with the Olympics, the start of the Premier League season, and UEFA World Cup qualifying, there鈥檚 very little time for the kind of labored teasing out of what exactly went wrong.  We鈥檙e likely going to be spared that aging question that rhetorically asks us why the country with the best league in the world can鈥檛 put together a representative eleven.  This is England after all, so the media won鈥檛 be able to help itself.  Whether or not the power of the press has any impact is a very good question, but it won鈥檛 stop the day after hand wringing we鈥檙e all used too by now. 

What we鈥檒l learn will likely be very little.  We knew going in that this was an England team in a coaching transition.  At this level, and even in the best of situations, that鈥檚 an obstacle that needs to be overcome.  In fact, England was looking at two transitions in a few short months 鈥?from fulltime to interim and back to fulltime.  Put any team in that situation and it鈥檚 not going to be smooth.

There was no superstar in waiting for this tournament.  England wasn鈥檛 going to suddenly discover they had a game-changer in their midst waiting for an opportunity.  In the new hierarchy of European soccer, a physical forward as your primary scoring threat can quickly become a liability.  The problem England faces is that Italy wasn鈥檛 noticeably better.  The real test waited in the semifinals, and now England will have to wait and see if Italy can give Germany a game.

Corner Rating: (with 1 having Italy fail miserably against Germany and 11 showing that Italy is the class of this tournament and salvaging some English pride) 5.

Last Week鈥檚 Corner: There have been enough rumblings that UEFA is over-reaching with their plan to increase the number of teams in Euro 2016, so we鈥檙e going to reduce our rating from a 10 to a 9.5. 

Italy’s Immediate Future | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (June 26, 2012) US Soccer Players — Prior to the start of Euro 2012, an Italian politician one-upped National Team coach Cesare Prandelli. As the latest Italian betting scandal unfolded, Prandelli said that not going to the European Championships 'wouldn't be a problem.' Italy's prime minister Mario Monti trumped that remark. While stressing this was his personal opinion, Monti said: "I wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea to suspend the game for two or three years."

Obviously, shutting down for a fundamental rethink on what having a professional league means for a country isn't feasible. Players trust that the system that's in place would still be there. Even though a European Union citizen can play anywhere in the EU, there aren't enough open opportunities for every professional player in Italy. It's not a practical proposition, but the theory behind it is worth discussing.

The concept that what's really needed is time doesn't work well with the overlapping calendars of world soccer. At domestic level, the offseason is short and usually filled with international duty. The result is the game consistently being on. That creates a forward momentum that doesn't really lend itself to studying recent history.

Why would it? With the European game moving from strength to strength on the back of increasing broadcast and sponsorship revenue for clubs and countries, all involved have the proof that a system works. Even UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations are more of an austerity hedge than a rethink of how clubs do business.

On the surface, it might not seem that way. Yet consider what UEFA's role of economic reformer leaves out. The transfer system remains in place. There's no template for how television rights are distributed domestically. There's no caps on salary, revenue sharing, or the other financial controls that are in place in the North American pro sports. All UEFA really has is the threat of not allowing clubs to play in Europe, and that becomes the motivation for toeing the line on a limited set of financial regulations. That they're mainly concerned with revenue is no surprise. Clubs can still spend, it's just a tweak on the level and it's relative to all the giants of Europe. By necessity, the scale changes with whatever those clubs do.

So what would happen if a league had the luxury of time to think about what they should be doing in the contemporary era of pro soccer? Obviously, Italy is a tricky example. The call for time is because of a gambling scandal. That's a basic credibility issue for any competition, one that flavors the entire discussion of what it means to have a league. Italy has been here before, and we already know their standard response. Since it keeps happening, we also know its limits as a prohibitive measure. Thus the prime minister publicly wondering if it's worth putting time on their side.

While not dismissing the motivation in Italy's particular case, here are a few things any league should consider. UEFA is right, how money is made and spent is at the top of the list. We know the flaws of the current models, everything from benefactors to supporters trusts. There simply aren't enough controls in either direction, making it far too easy to reset the spending of entire leagues and expose the financial frailties of clubs.

Something has to be done about that, and there are several options. The cap model in use in some North American sports, single-entity, revisiting the transfer system, and other over-arching structures that limit what clubs can do. It's worth noting that single-entity doesn't necessarily mean Major League Soccer's version. MLS single-entity is about player cost control and a hedge against North American style free agency. That model is good for owners, but there's the risk of alienating the viewing public when the opportunities aren't as good as they are in other leagues around the world. Remember, we're talking about an elite European league here.

Next would be revisiting what traditional league structures take for granted. That's been a recent development in Mexico, where they're streamlining their league. They've already changed their domestic calendar, dropping the regular season groups and replacing that with a standard league table. The next steps are in the works and reportedly include reconfiguring their relegation system as well as how players change clubs between seasons. Again, we're talking about identifying functional problems and offering a practical solution.

For any European league, that should include looking at the amount of games on the calendar. How many games are enough to decide a champion? How is fixture congestion best avoided? What really matters to the fans paying to watch your product? This can quickly become an appeal against history and tradition, but we're in this conversation due to problems in a league's recent history and a tradition that few want to see continue. That's Italy's big picture problem. They won't have the luxury of time, but that shouldn't mean leaving the possibility for real change completely off the table.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

More from J Hutcherson:

The Era of Soccer Specificity Some Games Count More When To Part Ways With An MLS Coach The Philadelphia Change

Questions: On Form | US Soccer Players

By Tony Edwards – San Jose, CA (June 26, 2012) US Soccer Players — In Tuesday鈥檚 edition, Tony looks at forwards finding form and teams losing it.

Which player has scored the most goals as substitute this season?

No surprise, Alan Gordon of San Jose with five. Playing the middle of a three-game stretch in a week (Wednesday in Colorado, Saturday in 95-degree Salt Lake, Tuesday evening against Seattle in the Open Cup), Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop made significant changes to the lineup Saturday night, opting for Ramiro Corrales playing left midfield in a 4-3-2-1 formation, supported by Justin Morrow playing fullback behind Corrales.

Ostensibly Yallop lined up his team this way to give more support to his defense and clog Salt Lake's attack.  As it worked out, Salt Lake's midfielders and forwards ran riot and, with better finishing (and refereeing), should have won easily. No one picked up Salt Lake's attackers as they came from deep and only desperate goal line saves (yes plural) from defenders provided the platform for another dramatic San Jose win.

Which MLS team got called out by its own coach and goalkeeper this past weekend?

Here鈥檚 what Whitecaps keeper Joe Cannon said after Los Angeles strolled to a 3-0 victory on Saturday: 鈥淗opefully some guys got some autographs tonight, because that might be the only thing you got out of it,鈥?he said.  His head coach was equally troubled, saying he thought his team was 鈥渁lmost star struck at times.鈥?#0160; Meanwhile, the Whitecaps remain higher in the rankings.  For only picking up one of six points this past week, is solidly third in the Western Conference.  If Frank Yallop's Earthquakes weren't in first place, Rennie would be getting more attention for Coach of the Year.

Which forward is getting the 'new coach' bump?

Philadelphia's Jack McInerny, who had two goals in 73 minutes on Saturday. Statistically, the 19-year-old American had a mediocre game, with only 11 successful passes, compared with 6 successful ones.  10 times he was tackled and lost possession.  Overall, he had less than 50 total touches during his time on the field. But the most important statistics are two shots on goal counting for two goals.

How many shots did Chivas USA have against FC Dallas on Saturday?

Over 90 minutes, Chivas had two total shots, with only Juan Agedelo putting his on goal.  Making this more troubling is how much of the ball Chivas USA had with eight corner kicks and more than 330 passes.  Say what you will about Chivas keeping a clean sheet in the game, and yes Juan Pablo Angel didn't play, but two shots over 90 minutes is not getting the job done.

Which MLS team has the longest winless streak?

While Seattle鈥檚 7-game winless streak is getting more attention, FC Dallas is suffering through an 11-game winless streak.  Dallas has the second worst goal difference in the League and has not won away from home all season.

More Questions:

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MLS New York | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (June 27, 2012) US Soccer Players — It isn鈥檛 really a surprise to anyone that鈥檚 ever been to the former World鈥檚 Fair site in Flushing, Queens that Major League Soccer is targeting it for a soccer stadium.  The link was already there even before the New York Mets built their new stadium.  Previously home to Shea Stadium, now home to Citi Field and the US Open tennis campus with the 22.547-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium, the site makes too much sense to be left out of the conversation. 

Now, it鈥檚 the focus for MLS expansion.  In the New York City model, it鈥檚 stadium first and then investor-operator.  Though the importance of the New York market shouldn鈥檛 be lost on anyone, MLS is pressing the point by taking the lead. 

Fair enough, all things considered.  Though what happens with the team in northern New Jersey 20 miles away from the proposed site in Queens is a serious issue that goes well beyond playing up a potential rivalry, MLS has openly committed to the concept that New York is not New Jersey.  That鈥檚 not the National Football League position, and it speaks to a new understanding for what the League wants for itself. 

As it stands, the Red Bulls are playing a New York-based team up as a very good thing.  Maybe they鈥檙e right.  It鈥檚 easy enough to make the Chivas USA situation not the example for two teams in the same city.  Though their scope changed dramatically almost from the day they took the field, Chivas USA was designed with a focus on a link to the parent club.  The name is unavoidable, after all.  In direct competition at the gate with the Los Angeles Galaxy, Chivas USA has never had much of a chance.  It鈥檚 the old second tenant relationship that we used to see in the multipurpose stadiums all over the country and still see in some arenas.  Even across sports, one team will always be the bigger draw.  LA is famous for that scenario, and it doesn鈥檛 necessarily transfer to the Tri-State area. 

There might be enough of a buffer between the Red Bulls and a New York City team to legitimately put the focus on the positives.  After all, it鈥檚 not like the plans for MLS NYC call for a massive stadium that by nature would need to draw from all professional soccer fans in the region.  There鈥檚 still a scale here, helped by the insistence on soccer-specificity.  This isn鈥檛 the old Metrostars still trying to fill the Meadowlands while a New York located team shares a 40k-capacity baseball stadium in Queens. 

It鈥檚 also not MLS attempting to plant a stadium as close to New Jersey as is theoretically possible.  That was the real problem with Pier 40.  In Queens, the two stadiums aren鈥檛 a walk to the same commuter train.  That extra ten miles should mean a significant difference between the two brands, certainly more of a buffer than attempting to build a stadium on the Hudson River. 

That鈥檚 the LA problem looming large.  There鈥檚 no buffer between locker rooms in the same stadium, and both teams have to wonder what their attendances would look like if they were the only topflight soccer team in town.  As expected, that鈥檚 led to rumors linking Chivas USA with a move away from the Home Depot Center.  Again, it鈥檚 a question of a buffer.  How far is far enough to limit the impact of the other club while still remaining viable? 

With soccer-specificity now a moving target, we already know the dangers of building in suburbs and exurbs.  MLS as an entity now works with a better set of information than they had when moving teams from established stadiums to new and usually outlying areas.  Flushing is much closer to what the Dynamo has built in Houston.  It鈥檚 the proximity to sites that the greater metropolitan area already associates with seeing live professional sports.  In that situation, it鈥檚 not just soccer selling itself and that becomes a significant advantage. 

Still, the Red Bulls have to be a major concern.  This is an investor-operator that spent and spent again to do right by their vision for professional soccer in this country.  Major League Soccer owes it to the team already using New York in their name to not allow what comes next to overshadow what their existing New York team has already built. 

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

More from J Hutcherson:

Italy鈥檚 Immediate Future The Era of Soccer Specificity Some Games Count More When To Part Ways With An MLS Coach

Rangers and the Immediate Future of Scottish Soccer | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (June 29, 2012) US Soccer Players 鈥?After discussing Italian club soccer in theory earlier this week, it鈥檚 worth paying attention to what鈥檚 happening with Scottish club soccer in practice.  The quick version is that Rangers as we knew them went out of business on June 14th.  As is usually the case when this happens, they plan to reincorporate and continue on as a professional club.  No surprise there, but the question for the rest of Scotland鈥檚 clubs is where the revamped Rangers will be playing.

As it stands, enough of the clubs are taking the position that it鈥檚 highly unlikely Rangers will be playing in the Scottish Premier League in 2012-13.  Even after a points deduction for entering administration during the course of last season, Rangers still finished 2nd.  That鈥檚 as much of an indictment of Scottish soccer outside of Glasgow as anything is.  With that in mind, it isn鈥檛 exactly surprising that those same underachieving clubs would be willing to break up the Old Firm no matter how temporarily.  With only one of the giants of Scottish soccer in the Premier League, someone has to finish second and claim a Europa League spot this coming season. 

Sure, we can pretty that up a bit by talking about competitive ideals and sufficiently punishing a club for running afoul of tax laws in pursuit of trophies.  Then we can remind ourselves that we鈥檙e talking about a league that needs all the help it can get.  Celtic and Rangers in whatever order you like are the Scottish Premier League for the rest of the world.  The other clubs are in large part making up the numbers.  Their fans might be right to respond with 鈥榶es, and?鈥?but it doesn鈥檛 take away from what the Old Firm appeal really means.  That鈥檚 more money for all involved.  Since we already have a working example of what happens in Scottish soccer when a club feels the need to over-reach financially, what does reducing the broader appeal of the league really accomplish? 

Don鈥檛 mistake this for absolution of what Rangers did to maintain their level of success.  Professional soccer is a financial competition as well as a sporting one, and Rangers lost financially.  That moves the issue to how much of a loss is appropriate.  Sending the message that a club can do whatever they like, get punished to the point of bankruptcy and liquidation, and the re-form without missing a game that counts is troublesome.  At the same time, the broader state of the league has to be considered. 

Wednesday is the latest deadline for Scottish soccer to make a decision.  Right now, the new Rangers could be playing anywhere from the First Division to the Fourth, with the Premier League currently out of the question.  Rangers as a club is facing rebuilding a squad quickly, with the European Players Union FIFPro backing player claims that their contracts are with the now liquidated club, not the new entity.  You can鈥檛 fairly talk about Rangers during the 2011-12 season without giving credit to the players who stayed on board, gave up money owed them, and salvaged a bizarre season.  Most professional players in Europe might have to worry about relegation during their careers, but a major team going bankrupt?  That鈥檚 not business as usual. 

It鈥檚 also not going to be business as usual for the rest of Scottish soccer in 2012-13.  There鈥檚 a somewhat draconian response that starts Rangers at the bottom of the fully professional tier.  To some, that鈥檚 sufficient punishment for financial wrongdoing.  Yet there鈥檚 still that nagging problem of what鈥檚 really being punished.  Scotland as a league system suffers from lack of ambition.  Rangers and Celtic spend to chase each other domestically and for Europe.  The other clubs spend to finish between 3rd and 11th in a league with a dozen teams and a single relegation spot.  Only two teams outside of Glasgow play in stadiums that hold over 20,000.  It鈥檚 as if there鈥檚 two games in play, what the Old Firm considers success and what counts as a win for everyone else.  With this in mind,  piling on top of Rangers only accomplishes so much.

The real work here is making sure that fairly punishing Rangers doesn鈥檛 endanger Scottish soccer as a whole.  The fans of other clubs have spent lifetimes having to hear how the Old Firm is a special case and good for the rest of the league, but it鈥檚 not an empty statement.  Even as they鈥檙e linked with moves to England and a North Atlantic league, Rangers and Celtic pull the Scottish Premier League to a higher level than it would otherwise have.  Without Rangers, things change.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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MLS New York Italy鈥檚 Immediate Future The Era of Soccer Specificity Some Games Count More

What We Learned from EURO 2012 | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (June 29, 2012) US Soccer Players 鈥?It's easy enough to allow Sunday's lopsided Euro 2012 final to overshadow the entire tournament. Yes, Spain once again showed it's them and everybody else at European level and likely the world. We get that, but what else can we take from the European Championships?

The Attention

What makes the enthusiasm surrounding the success of the European Championship so interesting in the North American market is the lack of control. The event is never going to be overly concerned about making it as easy as possible for an American broadcaster. There's no direct connection. Last I checked, our country isn't eligible and only a handful of American players holding the requisite passport can even theoretically appear in the tournament. Yet we're presented with another soccer success in this country.

What does this mean in the big picture sense? Well, the next time the rights to this tournament are on the market the price will likely be higher. Other than that, is American appeal for a big time tournament really all that surprising? For that matter, if properly marketed would the Copa America tournament also attract viewers interested in seeing some of the best players in the world in games that count? One would assume so.

Taking that for granted, let's consider what this means in practice. Tournaments with the best teams and players will attract an audience in a country that isn't directly involved. Again, go figure. After all, this is the United States where multiple sports have demonstrated the market for a major event.

The Revolution Will Wait

We saw very little over the course of this tournament that suggests we're seeing yet another innovation in style of play. In fact, we had enough pundits describing the limit of tactics to suggest a trend. As that line of thinking goes, the highest level of professional soccer has reached a point where the game is canceling itself out. That's an easy enough point to make when score lines stay low.

At the same time, there was an equal insistence that we were seeing amazing games. Though half the semifinals didn't live up to that standard, there were enough examples to support playing up the quality. Even when the games weren't producing a barrage of goals, enough was happening to suggest something special.

What this lacked in revolutionary moments that would cause coaches all around the world to reconsider their options, it at least somewhat made up for in style. I might be in the minority here, but I think we will see the next step in pro soccer fairly soon. The Spanish pass around isn't an end, it's a suggestion and someone somewhere will take them up on it. There's the chance that we see another opening of the game tactically as teams adjust their style. Though it would be nice if this was more than simply finding yet another passing lane to crowd, it's still likely going to be up to the skilled teams to prove their game over and over. We haven't seen that from our European friends, an understatement if there ever was one.

Teams and Players

What I do think is becoming even more of a clich茅 is the insistence that the best player be there in the crucial moment with his foot on the ball. This is more than Cristiano Ronaldo waiting to take a penalty. It's the basic insistence that at this stage of the game's development it will be that one breathtaking player that will be the difference. Soccer rarely matches the commercials, where games are decided on that one breakaway where the great player deftly avoids a disparate sliding tackle to blast a shot that forces everything a goalkeeper has and still ends up in the back of the net. This is a sport of attrition, after all.

The problem with tournament play is what comes next. Even when a player manages a breathtaking game, there's the next one and potentially the one after that. Though it's tough to talk about role players when those playing the roles are among the best in the world, that's what is distinguishing the top European teams. They have options in ways that in previous iterations would be limited as they worked to get the key attacking player the ball.

There are, of course, very good teams that still play that way but their influence is beginning to wane. That should be the bold type lesson from the semifinal stage of both the Champions League and the European Championship. It's hardly the end of the superstar among stars, but expectations need to be adjusted.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

More from J Hutcherson:

Rangers and the immediate future of Scottish soccer MLS New York Italy鈥檚 Immediate Future The Era of Soccer Specificity

MLS Coach Comments | US Soccer Players

If you've watched your share of Premier League soccer, you've seen the manager stand in front of a backdrop with a blend of club and sponsor logos trying to say as little as possible.  If the referee had a bad game, we'll hear all about that.  There will likely be a nod along with a sympathetic journalist allowing the great man more than enough room to belabor the fate of his team.  What we normally won't see is a manager straying from script, offering anything close to actual insight, or taking a risk. 

What's on display is a canniness that can also be witnessed on this side of the Atlantic.  Though the locker room is open and players are required to talk in Major League Soccer, we still get the coaching hedge.  Don't say too much.  Stay safe.  Make sure you leave yourself room to back out of whatever controversy might arise from your comments.  After all, for the coach and his club this is a public relations exercise. 

Courtesy of the other North American sports college and pro, we have ample examples of what happens when a coach decides it's time to set the record straight.  The National Football League gives us the coach lecturing the media on their own failings.  Baseball gives us the classic example of the manager publicly blowing his stack.  MLS has learned from both of those, and we have the coaches that don't feel the need to measure their responses.  At least a couple aren't hesitant about lecturing the media.  Yet, for the most part, the MLS model is one of restraint. 

Is this good for the game?   Well, it's certainly not good for stories about the game.  The canned quote is an old concept, but there are still MLS coaches that think that's the best way forward.  Talk as much as you want, say as little as possible, and hope those recording your words get the idea.  We see it week after week in the quote sheets the League sends out.  Some coaches take risks with their words, others seldom get past the obvious. 

Though we don't have a statistic, it's normally the better coaches taking the most risk.  Maybe they're also the most secure, but it's certainly more entertaining than yet another attempt at managing the media.

Corner Rating: (with 1 MLS coaches staying to script and 11 an open dialogue) 6.

Last Week's Corner: Well, Italy got past Germany and then failed dramatically in the final.  There's no point in updating the corner rating since we know what happened. 

Chicago At Work | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (July 3, 2012) US Soccer Players 鈥?Major League Soccer has seven games on the schedule over the next two days, and another opportunity for a team or two to separate themselves.  Up first is an unlikely choice.  Houston plays Chicago in a game that could give us enough to argue one or the other as the true contender in the Eastern Conference. 

Why are we putting that on teams currently ranked 4th and 5th?  The unbalanced calendar is part of it.  Chicago and Houston are four points apart with 16 games played.  DC has two more games in the bag and won鈥檛 be playing Tuesday or Wednesday.  Should Chicago win and Sporting Kansas City lose against Montreal on Wednesday, New York would have the best record in the East for teams that have played 17 games.  So again, why the focus on this particular game?

It鈥檚 the recent results attracting the attention.  Chicago has three wins in a row while Houston has only taken seven points out of their last five games.  Should Chicago win again, they鈥檝e shown two things quite clearly.  One, that they belong in the conversation for Eastern Conference contender, and two that Houston is a team in trouble.  Ok, there鈥檚 a third.  Chicago would show they鈥檙e playing a more effective style of soccer than Houston. 

The Fire this season hasn鈥檛 been a good team.  They鈥檝e won games through a pragmatic understanding of what it takes to get three points in this League.  They鈥檙e an MLS-specific team in that regard, offering very little that translates past this League this season.  If that continues to produce results, it should be taken as a warning by the rest of the League. 

Chicago isn鈥檛 a DC in waiting.  They lack the designated player injection that is currently turning DC from overachiever into odds-on contender.  What they have is that stubbornness that they鈥檒l find a way to take three points.  This was Chicago coach Frank Klopas after Friday鈥檚 1-0 win over Kansas City.

鈥淭hey push numbers forward, we talked a little bit about that in the game in that the transition and the ability to play away from the pressure would help. We wanted to push forward to try to win numbers right away. If the first pass was played away from pressure we would find space. I think the ball just came out and we had numbers forward and then we had transition numbers up 3v2.鈥?/p>

What Klopas is describing is the theory put into practice that produced Marco Pappa鈥檚 goal.  For long time MLS watchers, it鈥檚 the kind of thing you鈥檇 expect to hear from a Tim Hankinson or Fernando Clavijo describing how something almost worked for their Rapids or Revs teams back in the early 2000鈥檚.  The thinking is sound, but the application can be flawed. 

Good teams in theory might as well be a slogan for Major League Soccer.  We鈥檝e seen designated player teams struggle, multiple visions for what an MLS team should be fall short, and good ideas that simply didn鈥檛 work.  Meanwhile, there are teams that seem to win enough games in spite of themselves.  There鈥檚 no obvious cohesion and no real sense that this is the team to beat at any point in the season.  Yet there they are in the playoffs. 

Meanwhile, there are teams like Chicago.  Pappa, their standout attacking player is a midfielder who is 16th in the scoring chart.  Their goalkeeper, Sean Johnson, is 12th in the overall keeper ranking. Chris Rolfe and Dominic Oduro are still working out their strike partnership.  This should be a team showing signs of life one week only to struggle the next.  Yet right now, Chicago is as in sync as any team in MLS, including those running up the goals in shutout performances over the weekend. 

Houston is the next test, a team and a setting that needs to be handled in a way that won鈥檛 be the same as what got the Fire points against Kansas City.  Houston is tough to judge.  They have a sizeable home field advantage still in the works.  Their forwards are good enough to cause problems for any team in the League.  What this means for Chicago is making the tweaks that count rather than falling into the trap of tinkering.  For Houston, it鈥檚 as simple as showing they鈥檙e a better team than the one that couldn鈥檛 beat Toronto and Montreal. 

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

More from J Hutcherson:

What We Learned From Euro 2012 Rangers and the immediate future of Scottish soccer MLS New York Italy鈥檚 Immediate Future