Media outlets are both overtly and covertly pushing the storyline for the upcoming Premiere League season. This weekend NBC Sports re-ran 2012/2013 matches dubbed “Premier League Classics” on Saturday and Sunday mornings, concluding with the type of program that annoys, agitates, aggravates, alienates, and simple patronizes America soccer fans, “Premier League Club Guide.” Despite the feelings vested fans of the PL have about preview shows that sell beer breakfasts, tavern choirs, and 2pm (ET) hangovers to new audiences, it surely demonstrates NBC commitment to its $250 million TV deal.
Selling story lines and narratives are essential to attracting and retaining viewers throughout the long season. Every sports executive, producer, and league official knows a good story brings ratings. Watch the hype machine go in full gear for the next NBA season for Dwight Howard’s return to the Staple Center, Nets travel up to Boston, and the Miami – San Antonio rematches.
The return of Clint Dempsey was one of the stories mainstream sports fan noticed. MLSsoccer.com has been milking it all week and likely will continue all season. Unfortunately, the casual sports fan goes to ESPN and Yahoo Sports for breaking news, neither of which has a large stake in MLS in comparison to their other properties. MLS floods visitors with their agenda and the other outlets frankly could care less about the league. MLS agenda aside, here are the story lines that I believe will drive the final three months of the regular season:
Sixteen teams are within 7 points of a spot of the MLS Cup playoffs
The salary cap rigs the system to insure some parity. You may whine that it kills the chance for a super club, but MLS does not play in the UEFA Champions League and there is limited interest in CONCACAF Champions League. That’s both from US fans and the TV rights holder who keep the championship on cable rather than broadcast TV.
The margin between the top teams and those that qualify are slim. Last year’s MLS Cup finalists, LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo, were seeded 4th and 5th in their respective conferences. This season, no one can hold the top spot for long regardless of conference. The first seed in the East has recently traded hands between the New York Red Bulls, Sporting KC, and the Montreal Impact. In the West, the hot hand holds the top spot. The uneven schedule and CONCACAF CL Group Stage are going to test depth and perhaps force some teams, such as Montreal, to pick between a playoff push and CL advancement.
Is this the year New York wins silverware?
The New York/New Jersey Metrostars/Red Bulls are the only original ten still in existence to not win a US Open, Supporters’ Shield, or MLS Cup. Despite their high profile Designated Player signings and big market location the franchise trophy case is bare. The current squad has been the most well rounded since the arrival of Thierry Henry. They found bargains with consistence starters Eric Alexander, Jonny Steele, and Brandon Barklage. With the recent departure of Juninho, the offense looks more fluid and Dax McCarty spends less time putting out fires and more time heading in game winners.
The summer transfer window brought much needed depth, although the team still struggles to win without Henry and Cahill (see @Columbus). They brought in some insurance with Ibrahim Sekagya, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and David Carney. The schedule is on their side with 6 of their last 10 at home (averaging 2 ppg) and one road game at Chivas. This puts them in prime position for the Shield. Going past the regular season however, RBNY’s dismal road record makes it hard to bet on them winning the Cup.
Which team used the summer transfer window to put them in the hunt?
The most popular answer is Deuce to Seattle, and while he might be the best player to join a new club, other teams filled greater needs. The LA Galaxy are finally at full strengthen with Keane, Donovan and Gonzalez, but the big addition is the Panamanian goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Current keeper Carlo Cudicini is Galaxy fans favorite punching bag. He has the worst saving percentage among keepers with 16 plus starts, and last weekend allowed 3 goals to a Dallas squad that haven’t scored in their previous 5 games. If only they could take back the Mike Magee trade.
The Colorado Rapids signed their first ever DP, fellow Panamanian Gabriel Torres. With the team’s leading scorer, Deshorn Brown, on a measly 6 goals, Torres will be asked to help boost Colorado’s offensive production and keep them in the playoff hunt. They are currently middle of the pack on both goals scored and allowed. If Torres can provide performances similar to what was on display at the Gold Cup, and with Jaime Castrillon and Martin Rivero returning from injury, Colorado can improve their post season positioning.
The most interesting transfer (outside Clint) is the return of Charlie Davies to MLS. New England has yet to recover from their slow start. When healthy, Juan Agudelo has been a spark for the Revs. Perhaps Charlie Davies can provide the same dimension to their attack. Davies is a replacement for Agudelo rather than a running mate, with the latter set to move to Stoke City at season’s end. If Agudelo can get right, the Revolution could be the team with the most upside.
Can Mike Magee be the second MVP this decade to play for two clubs in the same season?
In the opener for the Galaxy, Magee nabbed a hat trick against his current team, the Chicago Fire. He has played 10 games for both teams this season. The right winger scored 6 goals with the Galaxy and another 8 with the Fire. He carried the LA attack while AWOL Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz recruited a army of Cambodians in his hide out down the Nung River Landon Donovan was on holiday in Cambodia. LA was 5-3-2 before the trade to Chicago for Robbie Rogers’ rights, then he led a struggling Fire team to a 6-2-2 record in the ten games after the trade.
This situation mirror’s Dwayne De Rosario’s MVP season only because of the trade. Mike Magee’s performance dipped slightly before the trade, but not to the same lows of De Rosario on the Red Bulls. Additionally, Magee is in no way the runaway favorite for the MVP, but a Golden Boot and playoff berth does make for a good story.
Home Field will decide the Cup
At this point every team has played at least 10 road games, and one thing is clear, road wins are far and few between. Sporting KC is the only team with a winning road record (5-3-3), both Real Salt Lake and the Philadelphia Union are at .500. If Vancouver and New York can’t figure out how to win on the road neither will go far in the playoffs. Both teams, currently in 2nd place in their respective conferences, are -6 in road goal differential and lost to basement dwellers (Vancouver lost @Chivas and NY @Columbus). Of the current playoff teams, the Red Bulls are 2nd and the Whitecaps are 3rd in road goals allowed. Even though the away goal rule is not used in the MLS Cup two leg format, a bad road performance will guarantee an early exit. These last few months will give these teams a chance to correct their ailing road worries.
It is without question these narratives will follow the league until the end of the regular season and beyond. It might also be comforting to fans that Seattle is not the center of the MLS universe.
About the author:
Jay’s first memory of professional soccer was watching a flaming haired pirate in a blue shirt with white stars menace a golden shirt lion on the field of roses. Since then, he has followed the game from the cradle of US soccer, Northern Jersey. Tracking the progress of the sport in the states through the international team and Major League Soccer he has become a student of tactical football, the business of sports and the cultural impact of the game. Jay enjoys the view from the ivory tower but is not afraid to be in arm’s length of the ultras in the South Ward. You can follow Jay on Twitter @rescindedred.