Pitch Points promotes, relegates

Let’s round up the latest links relevant in the world of Nashville SC and US Soccer! With commentary! As always, feel free to share with a friend or share anything you’d like me to include on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

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Ghost of USL Future. USL President Jake Edwards has a Big Mood about where the United Soccer Leagues will be come the United States’ 2026 host year for the World Cup. The USL has made eyes at pro-rel talk since the launch of League One was announced, but Edwards was fairly unequivocal that he hopes it’s in the long-term plans if the lower league proves itself to be sustainable:

“A lot of focus and attention needs to go into building [League One] up over a short period of time. But we’ve got to get the right owners in League One, the right stadiums and infrastructure.”

I’ve said many times that an incremental move toward promotion and relegation is the way to go (while I still remain skeptical that the American sporting culture would ever support it at the top level in the country). I would like to see it in USL, not least of which because – and this isn’t the most honorable thing I’ve ever thought – if a League One club folds, it means a lot less in the grand scheme than somebody dropping from the top flight and eventually folding.

Edwards, like MLS commissioner Don Garber, has Bad Ideas about expansion, though.

“We’re looking at the ideal number [in the Championship] somewhere around 38 or 40, and that’s where we’re going to top out and cease expansion.”

Yo, that’s dumb. I don’t need to explain the size of our country to you (well, I shouldn’t need to). Limiting the size of the first tier makes some sense, but I don’t agree that the limits it imposes are worth the benefits in scarcity of supply, etc. Artificially limiting the second division in a country comes with all the downsides and essentially none of the benefits (aside from minuscule administrative costs compared to allowing them into League One instead).

(Meanwhile, Indy Eleven’s stadium proposal looks awesome, and I would like for them to have the opportunity to compete at the highest level possible).

I promise it will come around. This is a story about basketball. I really liked one of the quotes used in it as it relates to soccer, though:

“I guarantee you that he played so much basketball without a coach, or without a ref, or without a scoreboard. Just playing. Where out of bounds is the grass, or out of bounds is the street … there’s such a difference between guys who just play and guys who are manufactured by a trainer.”

We often talk about problems with player development in our country, and about how they come back to lack of coaching, poor scouting of underrepresented communities, etc. etc. Those are all valid complaints, and complaints I’ve made multiple times in this space. However, it’s also worth noting that just as huge an issue in our nation is a lack of a pickup soccer culture.

We hear every four years about about [Brazil/Argentina/France] is built on kids who grew up playing pickup games in the streets and turned into [Neymar/Maradona/Mbappe], and those who consume soccer outside the World Cup hear it occasionally, too. There hasn’t been an American who can up with that origin story, aside from maybe Clint Dempsey. There aren’t soccer Jordan Pooles out there.

MLS Playoff format change. This is the first year of a new MLS playoff format, something that will become relevant to Nashville in very short order (hopefully, at least). Does the new format actually improve higher seeds’ chances of advancing, though? Maybe not. The kicker:

The stakes just got higher for winning the Conference in the regular season. But in general the new format does little to change the perspective of most of the teams

I don’t like the expansion to an odd number of teams in the least, but it’s whatever. I still like the idea of using group play and a smaller knockout bracket, rather than what we’re seeing nowadays. It would make it easier to fit the playoff into a smaller calendar – which seems to have been the primary motivation for the recent change – and would appeal to the mainstream American sports fan in the same way that the World Cup does: it sets soccer aside as different, but in a fun way.

Danny Vitiello is popular. This may be the lowest-profile signing to get its own bullet in a pitch points, but hey, the available literature is the available literature. The Long Island Roughriders PDL program, UAlbany athletics, and a soccer-specific site covering NYC and Long Island(!) have all covered the keeper’s signing with the Boys in Gold.

That last one is mostly an aggregation from the other two (and Nashville SC’s release), but regardless, that’s a lot of ink.

Americans Abroad. The big news of the past couple weeks has been a record-shattering transfer for US international Christian Pulisic: his $73.1 million is not just the largest for an American (by a huge margin), it’s one of the top 25 transfer fees ever. There are two confounding factors here: 1) the numbers are on a consistent upward trend worldwide, particularly in recent years, and 2) Chelsea is certainly spending to get a talented winger, but they’re just as much spending to develop business in the American market. Is it possible for Pulisic to live up to that hype? On-field, it may not be as unlikely as you think.

Meanwhile, fellow USMNT winger Timothy Weah has gone on loan from Paris Saint-Germain to Scottish Premier League juggernaut Celtic. He’s expected to be a game-changer with his speed, which sounds like a potential striker role along with the wider position we’re accustomed to seeing him play with the Nats.

American “prodigy” (ESPN’s word, not mine) Ben Lederman has had a rough go since moving to Barcelona as a youngster, for reasons both external – Barça was punished by FIFA for violating player registration regulations, preventing him from playing for the youth setup for a while – and just because it’s difficult to break into such a setup. A cautionary tale that “move to the highest level possible,” while it sounds good on the internet, is not always the best fit for every player. Finding the right move (which sometimes includes staying domestic) is far more important.

Former US international David Wagner was sacked by Huddersfield Town this week, meaning the German-born manager is out of work. He intends to take some time off, but it’d be cool to see him come to the States. He has limited experience (outside of MNT camps) on this side of the pond, so the connection you might expect aren’t there, though.

Etc.: Not a ton of new information in this radio appearance from NSC Technical Director and Nashville MLS GM Mike Jacobs, as long as you’re paying attention to the day-to-day. … Nascar at the Fairgrounds will require upgrades to the track. … Former Nashville SC CEO Court Jeske takes a gig with the USL. … The company that puts on the International Champions Cup has purchased a Latino-focused multi-platform company – the one that puts on Alianza de Futbol in the United States each year. … Donate donate donate. … I like Peter Vermes. … NSC defender Justin Davis joins the FiftyFiveOne pod for a nice long discussion.

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Pitch Points plays in Germany

Welcome to Pitch Points, wherein I round up some of the interesting links around the world of Nashville SC and US Soccer. As always, if you have something you want me to share, let me know in the comments or through social channels on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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Photo by Reto Stauffer (Creative Commons license).

Bundimericans. The Bundesliga’s official site is perhaps not an unbiased source when it comes to why the Bundesliga is a good fit for young Americans, but the point remains: it has proven to be in recent years. One of those reasons is fairly obvious:

There are several factors that make the Bundesliga more suitable for American players than Europe’s other top leagues, and one of them is purely administrative: it is easier to get hold of a work permit in Germany than in the UK, where non-EU players are required to have featured in a certain percentage of their country’s recent competitive matches to obtain an endorsement from the English FA.

I wonder if that’ll change when the Brexit fully extricates England from the EU. The British are going to have a ton less access to top European talent (in the way they currently have limited access to American talent), and while that won’t bring about an untimely death of the Premier League, of course, it could certainly help the other four of the Big Five leagues strive to surpass it in global reach.

Of course, our most well-known export to Deutschland in recent years will end his German adventure in the Summer Transfer Window. Christian Pulisic is headed to Chelsea. The style/fit is one thing Pulisic cited for being interested in the move, and how he adjusts to what many consider a higher level of play will be one of next season’s most interesting storylines.

Ayre Force One. Quick quote or two from Nashville MLS CEO Ian Ayre, though the entire article is behind a paywall that’s probably not worthwhile for somebody who’s overseas. The difference between building an MLS club versus heading a Premier League team is obviously a large one. How Ayre navigates it will write the story of the club’s early days.

Speaking of whom, a little bit on how the CEO role was diminished with the hiring of a sporting director, which partially facilitated his departure from Anfield. Ayre announced he was leaving the club no so long after that, and retired even earlier than was scheduled. The personnel on the front-office side – and what he learned about how that should be structured from his trials and tribulations at Liverpool – will be informed by his time there.

Personnel. MLS Multiplex covers the Cameron Lancaster signing. Speedway Soccer has its profile of the USL’s single-season goal-scoring record holder. It’s almost easy to forget how exciting a signing this was, only a couple weeks removed from its announcement.

Another signing (and one that I think was both under-heralded at the time and remains so) is Kharlton Belmar. At least from a fan perspective, seems like it made sense for Sporting KC to unload him to Nashville, to allow Swope Park to give minutes to younger kids. That’s always the intriguing tightrope walk that MLS2 sides between trying to win and trying to develop players for the first team.

What’s in the USL’s future? The league made vague hand motions toward “pyramid structure” and what that might mean in the long-term when announcing its rebrand, but this story is as definitive as I’ve seen in suggesting (from an official league source) that pro-rel is not only something they’re aware of, but actually interested in, if feasible.

Discussion of a new cup competition that would include all Championship and League One clubs to launch in 2020 has already begun, with long-term potential for promotion and relegation between the two professional divisions.

It remains vague, yes, but does demonstrate a willingness to consider in the long run. Obviously I’ve been a skeptic on the topic, but a limited scope (like between two USL divisions) beginning at a lower level is certainly a path toward a long-term future including promotion and relegation.

Etc.: It appears Ramone Howell is playing domestically in Jamaica during the offseason. … MLS Combine is this week. … One Pittsburgh Riverhounds game to catch? When they host Nashville SC. … Doesn’t directly relate to us, but the 2019 MLS schedule will be released this afternoon. … Ropapa Mensah held a mini-tournament in his hometown over the Christmas season. … University of Tennessee senior Khadija Shaw has an incredible (at times heartbreaking) story, and was The Guardian’s female footballer of the year. … How will NYCFC compensate for the loss of MLS all-timer David Villa? Nashville SC will be among the first to find out Feb. 22.

Taking a closer look at Nashville SC’s 2019 schedule

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It’s some FTP Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

With yesterday’s release of the 2019 USL Championship schedule, we now know the dates and locations for Nashville SC’s games. Let’s take a closer look at the slate for some takeaways.

First off, here’s a chart showing the percentage of Nashville’s games played at home (blue line) over the course of the season, with a running five-game average (red line), as well. Of course, the average team will play 50% of its games at home consistently, since each game has a home team and road team.

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Nashville’s season is one of some pretty big swings: three of the first five games at home, but then only five of the next 15 (including a three-game homestand in late May), and then the rolling five-game average doesn’t get back above 50% home games until mid-August. This is a schedule that is heavy on home games to start the year, but sees the team become road warriors in the mid-season. Then, eight of the last twelve (and five of the final six) are at home to bring the year to a close on a strong streak.

How much rest will Nashville SC get between games? There are some interesting takeaways there, too. There are seven mid-week games (and one Sunday game), but fortunately most of those come in the friendly confines of First Tennessee Park. From Eliot McKinley of American Soccer Analysis:

As you can see in Eliot’s first tweet, Nashville is right on the median line for mid-week games, and while they have the second-most games on three- or four-day rest in the league (only Seattle Sounders 2 has it tougher, thanks to 10(!) games on three days’ recovery), they also have the second-highest number of long gaps (10-plus days) between games, behind only Indy Eleven. Of course, some of those long gaps will be filled by US Open Cup games: Nashville’s four USOC dates last year were May 16, May 23, June 6, and June 20, while this year’s long gaps include May 25-June 8 (a likely USOC gap) and July 6-July 17 (a possibility if NSC is still in the competition).

Eliot’s second tweet shows that Nashville’s weekday games are primarily concentrated at home, which is a better situation than having to travel in the mid-week. The downside of that is that the two away games in the midweek are both drivable for NSC supporters, with the games in Memphis and Birmingham. However, expecting folks to be able to go on roadtrips on a weekday is sort of a tough ask. It looks like USL intentionally put drivable games on the midweek (NSC also hosts Birmingham and Louisville for weekday games), but without regard for a concept of fostering an away supporter culture.

(The backlash on these two games specifically has been a little over the top, but it’s still poor planning by a league that direly needs to court the types of folks who would drive three hours on a Saturday for second-division soccer but can’t do so on a Wednesday).

Let’s also take a look at quality of opposition over the course of the year. Using the 2018 season’s final USL Power ratings, here’s the caliber of opponent for each game (blue) and a five-game rolling average (again in red) as the calendar plays out:

Screen Shot 2018-12-20 at 10.08.49 AMA reminder on what the numbers represent here: “0” is completely average given the location of the game. Higher numbers mean the team is better than average, lower mean worse than average. I gave all expansion teams a value of zero for the time being, though I’ll have further analysis on the year-to-year quality of new franchises at some point soon and assuming they’ll be average is probably charitable.

As you can see, during that middle road stretch, Nashville SC has some of its easier games. The home stretches at the beginning (@ New York Red Bulls II, @ Pittsburgh Riverhounds – obviously not part of the home slate) and end (v. Pittsburgh and Louisville, both at home – against two of the top three road teams in the East last year) are where the tough games really lie. Less fixture density and travel fatigue should set up nicely to have NSC at its peak performance for those ones.

Assuming all teams are about the same quality that they were last year (another unfair assumption!), you chop Cincinnati off the top end of the Eastern Conference, both Toronto FC II and Richmond off the bottom and Penn FC fourth-bottom, and slide Nos. 14 St. Louis and 19 Swope Park Rangers (of 35 USL teams in 2018) into the East, then add expansion teams in Birmingham, Hartford, Loudoun, and Memphis. Unless the expansion teams are better than expected, simple year-to-year improvement for Nashville (having a returning core of 14 players and the improved chemistry resulting from that continuity) would probably be safely assumed as a top-4-ish team in the East. Indeed, they were around that range for much of the year before a late swoon in 2018.

Playoffs?

Less-heralded than the schedule release itself but also important, USL also released a change to the Championship’s playoff format, largely facilitated by an increase in the number of teams. Last season, 8/16 in the East and 8/17 in the West (45.7% of the league) made the playoffs. With three-team net growth – the four departing East teams mentioned above, and seven total expansion teams – the playoff in each conference has expanded to 10 teams. That’s 55.6% of the league now making the playoffs.

Seeds 7-10 will participate in a de facto play-in round, with the 7/10 winners taking on the two-seed in each conference and the 8/9 winners facing off against the top seed. Hopefully from a Nashville perspective, this will only be relevant to us because the first-round opponent will have already participated in a playoff game (meaning NSC is a one- or two-seed), not because the Boys in Gold are scrapping to stay above the seven line and avoid a play-in game.

Nashville SC 2019 schedule released

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UPDATE: 1/16/19 Feb. 16 game at Birmingham Legion added.
UPDATE: 1/15/19: Feb. 27 game at Lipscomb added.
UPDATE: 1/4/19: Feb. 9 game against Louisville City FC added.
UPDATE: 12/21/18:
Feb. 6 game against Montreal Impact added.

We’ve known for a few days when and where Nashville SC will play a couple of its games, and now the whole shebang is available. In chronological order:
Continue reading “Nashville SC 2019 schedule released”

USL Alignment 2019

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Courtesy USL

The cat is somewhat out of the bag at this point (though yet to be officially confirmed), but the alignment of the USL Championship is still hypothetical, and will certainly affect Nashville SC in 2019.

With four teams departing the Eastern Conference – Cincinnati to MLS, Penn FC to an indefinite hiatus, Richmond and Toronto to USL League One – there will obviously be some changes. The Eastern Conference had fewer teams than the West in 2018 (16 compared to 17), and there are seven new teams entering the league this year:

  • Albuquerque, N.M.
  • Austin, Texas
  • Birmingham, Ala.
  • El Paso, Texas
  • Hartford, Conn.
  • Loudon, Va.
  • Memphis, Tenn.

Along the current geographic lines of the league, the reasonable destinations for those would mean three to the West (Austin, El Paso, Albuquerque) and four to the East (Birmingham, Hartford, Loudon, Memphis) – with a couple of those basically non-negotiable, leaving only Austin, Birmingham, and Memphis somewhat questionable.

Those destinations would level out the conferences if not for those four teams leaving the East. As it stands, if we slot them where they look like they belong, the East has 16 teams and the West 20. Shifting two teams from the West to the East makes sense, and it’s apparent that the obvious pair – Swope Park Rangers and St. Louis FC (which I believe has not spent consecutive years in the same conference) – will make the switch. 18 in each conference, boom.

How does that affect Nashville SC’s travel? While it depends on who NSC has three-plays against (more on that in a sec), here are the driving distances between First Tennessee Park and the home stadia of the old/new conference teams:

Old Team Distance New Team Distance
FC Cincinnati 274 Birmingham Legion 194
Penn FC 720 Hartford Athletic 1006
Richmond Kickers 612 Loudon United 669
Toronto FC II 759 Memphis 901 212
Saint Louis FC 323
Swope Park Rangers 568
Old Total 2,365 mi. New Total 2972 mi.

That’s adding two new teams but reducing the average distance from 591 miles to 495 miles. In more practical terms, it removes one day trip (Cincinnati), but replaces it with three (Birmingham, Memphis, Saint Louis), including two that are shorter than Cincinnati had been. Especially for fans who are interested in seeing Nashville SC in away venues – and I’d love for there to be more of them, especially this season before MLS makes that a whole lot more difficult – that’s a trade you have to be willing to take. Along with Louisville City, Indy Eleven and Atlanta United 2, that’s six gamedays that can include a there-and-back drive (everything else almost certainly requires an overnight stay).

NSC’s three-play teams last year were Atlanta United 2, Charlotte Independence, FC Cincinnati, and Louisville. That’s the team that set the points record in the league, the team that was defending champion (and is again), and two who are… not that. With the league sticking to a 34-game schedule and the Eastern Conference expanding to 18 teams, that means there should be no three-play teams in the league this year. A second trip to Birmingham or Louisville or Memphis (the three closest and therefore most likely had there been three-play scheduling this year) isn’t in the cards outside of a friendly or Open Cup match.

That’s a blessing and a curse: two home games against Cincinnati was a fun thing. Two away games at Louisville was also a fun thing (even though one of the games was not super-fun). It does make for a more equitable league, wherein teams can earn their place in the table a little more fairly – on account of playing Cincinnati and Louisville three times, Nashville finished with one of the toughest schedules in the East, despite the relative weakness of Charlotte and Atlanta.

Pitch Points is annoyed that #stadium_stuff is back in the news

Rounding up the latest across the internet in links that are interesting and relevant to soccer in Nashville, the US National setups, and beyond. If there’s anything you’d like me to share in a future post, you can always let me know on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram – and hit those socials with a follow while you’re there – or drop anything in the comments.

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how dare you disrupt this post-industrial wasteland with nice new buildings! Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

#stadium_stuff. Save Our Fairgrounds has inexplicably been allowed to continue their frivolous lawsuit against Metro trying to stop construction on the MLS stadium. If you had any questions about whether they’re actually concerned for Nashville, or just want their way or the highway, with the citizens of Davidson County on the hook for the legal costs… well, you shouldn’t have needed more evidence, but now you have it. (As an aside, maybe they should link up with their spiritual companions in the NASL leadership? Spitballin’ here).

Meanwhile, Nashville’s NPR affiliate has a (very very brief) story on the Community Benefits Agreement, with a throwaway quote from the author of Field of Schemes saying “yeah well this is just another way to get people on your side,” which, yeah? That’s the, uh, point?

Elsewhere in #stadium_stuff, this is actually old news (Mortenson-Messer awarded construction bid), but pending the outcome of SOF’s frivolous lawsuit, we have a timeline:

According to city documents, final plans should be submitted to the MLS by Feb. 25, 2019, with construction starting the following June. The stadium is scheduled to open Feb. 19, 2021.

I would assume we get public release of the final-final plan within a week or so of submission to MLS, and the stadium is scheduled to open in plenty of time for the second season in the big leagues.

MLS to Copa Libertadores? This would be interesting, essentially a combination of the current Copa Libertadores (the South American club championship) and Concacaf Champions League (North American version of same). It’d be similar to Copa America Centenario on the national team side of things: cooperation between the two confederations.

The travel might be… interesting… but there are certainly ways around that. I’ve advocated for some time that the continental North and South American nations band together to form a new confederation (while the Caribbean teams band together to form their own, which would feature a lot fewer 10-0 scorelines against the USAs and Mexicos of the world – each group finds its level with a new confederation, essentially), and any cooperation is a symbolic step toward that, if not an actual one.

TFCII piece. The Athletic also covers life in the USL($), though (and this is not the fault of the author, their TFC beat reporter), I’d wager that MLS B-sides have a pretty different experience from independent teams at both ends of the spectrum. It also frames life in USL in a way that I don’t much care for – though I don’t think it was the intention of the author to slam the league – it’s just been interpreted that way.

It’s one thing for college players to have crappy life on the road where they’re not paid and coaches (more in revenue sports, but college soccer coaches are well-compensated, too). Somebody – the labor! – is getting the raw end of the deal there. In a minor league sport where the players are making about as much as possible while the team is barely surviving (or in many cases, unable to do so)… I have more of a problem acting like somebody is being wronged, except inasmuch as everyone is being wronged by the market’s lack of making soccer profitable. Obviously, I would love for there to be a world in which guys can making a living playing second-division soccer in the United States (and teams should obviously thrive to do as much for them as they can). But the reason we *don’t* have that isn’t some greedy-owner situation, either.

MLS2 sides and independent USL clubs also have very different organizational goals and finances from each other… perhaps it could be considered an indictment of Toronto FC from top-to-bottom ($28 mil in salary among MLSPA members) more so than the USL system.

NPSL Pro. The long-rumored/planned/whatever professional division of NPSL will launch in 2019. The teams:

New York Cosmos, Detroit City FC, Milwaukee, Chattanooga FC, Miami United FC, Miami FC, San Diego Albion, Cal United, Cal FC, FC Arizona and Oakland Roots.

At least two of those are extremely expected (Detroit and Chattanooga), while there’s a notable exception in Jacksonville, though there’s a note at the bottom of the story that they’re still exploring the professional opportunity while keeping one foot in a commitment to the amateur variety of NPSL.

My thought? Cool! More opportunities for soccer – and particularly professional soccer – in our country is always a good thing. Much like I’ve said the anti-NCAA (the college soccer pathway, not the objectively evil organization) zealots are wrong: the more pathways, the more opportunities for the sport to become profitable and the more opportunities for development. That’s good!

I do question the viability long-term, especially in markets with at least one MLS team (New York, Miami) and the smaller markets with USL competition (Chattanooga, Cal FC), but I hope they’re successful. Not sure how I’d feel about every non-MLS/USL-affiliated professional league failing over time. It would say bad things about our soccer culture. (No problem watching the fake NASL fail over and over again, though. Screw those guys, even if two of them are involved in this project).

fh. Good stuff on Dos a Cero (and its death?) from The Athletic($). … The basics of the Dortmund bus bombing story aren’t exactly new. That doesn’t make the story any less wild. … World Cup tactics and the return of the counter-attack. … Louisville City helped energize the area’s soccer community. We’re seeing that in Nashville as well, though perhaps starting from further behind. … Memphis’s USL team announces first signings. … USMNT losing prospects to Mexico as players head to the land of their heritage for opportunities. … This agent-fee story is probably way more interesting to a Europe-focus audience. … Nissan will host a Gold Cup semi next Summer. Holy cow I’m out here clearing oooooold links. … USYNT’s Konrad de la Fuente one of the 60 best 2001-born players in the world.

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