Month: July 2018

New on SocTakes: UPSL explained

USAi Old Bhoys - UPSL explained

The USAi Old Bhoys and Carpathia FC duke it out during a May match in Indianapolis. Photo credit: Kevin Johnston/Soc Takes

On July 6, I posted a Twitter poll asking which of four ideas I should write up next. The people answered, with “UPSL explained” getting 50 percent of the vote. So, let’s do this.

The United Premier Soccer League is one of the more interesting, and downright confusing, leagues below the organized U.S. Soccer pyramid. It’s also a league that has drawn a fair bit of mockery and derision — some of it deserved — for the personalities of its leadership, operating principles and ridiculously rapid expansion.

Let’s start at the beginning. The UPSL was founded in 2011 as a higher-level alternative for clubs in the Los Angeles area to play in something beyond their normal local leagues. The league initially played a fall-spring season with 10 teams, and gradually began to grow throughout Southern California. In 2015, the league had grown to 30 teams across three conferences, with teams in California, Nevada and Colorado. The season had also grown to run from May through October. 2016 marked the introduction of the split season format, with separate spring and fall seasons played annually. For that year, the spring season ran from January through May while the fall season ran from July to December. The league also reached 47 teams for the fall season across five conferences, including the new Nevada and North Conferences.

The next major development came in 2017 with the addition of promotion and relegation. That spring, the SoCal Division of the Western Conference split into two separate leagues, UPSL Premier Pro and UPSL Championship, with promotion and relegation between the two. This same structure was then brought to the Colorado Conference for the fall season.

And this brings us to 2018.

For the 2018 spring season, the UPSL fielded a record-high 171 teams. Yes, one-hundred, seventy-one teams. These were divided into eight conferences (Central, Colorado, Midwest, Mountain, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Western), and further split into 20 divisions. The 2018 fall season is set to feature even more expansion, with the UPSL currently listing a frankly ludicrous 222 clubs. Yes. More than 200 clubs. More clubs than members of the United Nations.

Anyway, let’s get back into how the league actually works.

Don’t think of the UPSL as a single league with hella teams, think of it as a collection of regional leagues under the same organizing body. Teams only play those within their respective division in any given season, save for the addition of friendlies against other opposition. While this is true for the NPSL and PDL as well, it’s done to a much greater degree within the UPSL.

In several discussions with UPSL owners, including the owners of Keene FC and OKC 1889 FC, the biggest draw for clubs is the lower cost of entry. UPSL is significantly cheaper for new clubs than either of the “fourth division” leagues, and for community-run or small town teams, that matters. UPSL is also much more focused on hyper-regional alignments, making travel times shorter and travel costs lower. Just looking at the Texas-area teams in the three leagues shows this: It’s 540 miles from Fort Worth to Brownsville for those NPSL teams, 600 miles from Oklahoma City to Corpus Christi for those PDL teams, but only 225 miles from Oklahoma City to Keene, Texas for those UPSL teams. That adds up, especially for players who have families and day jobs.

This, to me, is the biggest strength of the UPSL’s growing footprint. Having your longest road trip at maybe three and a half to four hours is much, much easier than having six- to eight-hour trips to games. Or, as is the case for WSA Winnipeg in the PDL, trips as far south as St. Louis. That’s at best a 16-hour drive each way.

I’ve made the case on several previous occasions for the creation of “state leagues” like they have in Brazil, and UPSL has implemented something I would argue is actually better.

And now to a primer on the UPSL’s promotion and relegation. For the 2018 spring season, promotion and relegation was in use in two divisions, SoCal and Colorado. Both divisions are split into two levels, with the highest designated as Pro Premier and the second as Championship. There are plans for a third tier, which will be designated League 1, in Colorado and Florida, with the Florida Central Division splitting into two tiers for the 2018 Fall Season. That Floridian second tier will actually be designated as a third tier under the Florida Central League 1 name, with the higher league designated as a second tier. Confusing as it may be, it actually has meaning within the UPSL’s regulations for clubs, and allows the league to spread pro/rel to other regions based on identical standards.

In my discussion with Keene FC’s co-owner Matt Kahla, he mentioned one of the best arguments for pro/rel that I’ve ever heard. Since implementing promotion and relegation in California and Colorado, the number of blowout wins has decreased. Teams that go out every week and lose 5-0, 8-0, even 11-0, can drop down to a level where they’re playing much closer competition, and teams that win those blowout games can move up to a tier better suited for their level of play. It really makes perfect sense at the amateur level where the resources available to different teams can vary dramatically. With the lower costs to enter the league comes with it wildly varying ownership, and it’s been the case for years in amateur soccer where some teams have what others simply don’t.

To wrap this up before reaching full #HipsterManifesto, here are a few additional points that don’t really fit in anywhere else:

The UPSL has much higher churn than other amateur leagues, namely the PDL and NPSL. But that’s honestly not surprising, nor is it that much of a problem. There are thousands of teams across the country that want to move into a national league, and when a league makes it as easy and affordable as possible to join, there will be teams who stretch their resources thin in doing so. But, failure in the UPSL is much, much cheaper than failure in the NPSL or PDL, and a team going under isn’t likely to cripple the club permanently. Many teams that leave the UPSL simply return to their local amateur leagues rather than fold outright. While I do personally find it amusing that the “Former Teams” section of the UPSL’s Wikipedia article vanished, it really doesn’t matter that much with the way the league operates. And that’s not to say that new teams aren’t being vetted by the league. They just have lower thresholds to meet than they do elsewhere.

The UPSL put a team in Alaska. That team, Alaska City FC, has actually been around in the Alaska Soccer system since 2011, and has now become the first member of the new Alaska Division in UPSL. Yes, they’re planning a full division of teams in Alaska. Because why wouldn’t they? As long as there’s enough interest, and it sure looks like there is, it’ll work. The biggest reason why there’s no Alaskan representation in NPSL or PDL is because of the lack of local opposition. Having an entire division within the state makes that easier. There are already a number of youth soccer clubs across the state (well, the inhabited parts) that this division will undoubtedly draw from.

Several UPSL conferences use only a handful of venues. The SoCal Championship division has 10 teams playing at the Lake Forest Sports Park in Lake Forest, Calif. while the Florida South division has nine of 12 teams based at Ives Estates Park in Miami. The most interesting of these, though, is the Atlanta Caribbean division, where every single game is played at Southeast Sports Complex in Livonia, Ga. Most, if not all, of the eight teams in the division have strong Caribbean roots, and many of these teams have been playing in Atlanta-area leagues for years. But it’s still amusing to see only one venue listed for the entire division on Wikipedia.

The UPSL is also building a women’s league as well as a youth league. The women’s league, known as the WUPSL, has seven teams confirmed in California and Colorado, but will likely continue to grow at the same ridiculous rate as the men’s league. The academy league currently has 10 teams confirmed, all at the U18 level.

OK, so that’s enough rambling for one day. I hope you learned something new about this slightly odd, probably misunderstood and undeniably unusual league.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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How A Piece Is Written

Good morning, website.

It’s currently 4:26 AM on Monday, July 30. I’m set to fly to Atlanta in roughly fifteen hours. My brain is refusing to go to sleep, and now my knee is bothering me enough to make lying in the dark unsustainable.

Let’s try and persuade my brain to shut down for a while by pulling some thoughts from there.

I’ve wanted to discuss in some fashion how exactly I write the things I write. I’ve (mostly) standardized my process at this point depending on the sort of piece, and I keep four quasi-categories into which nearly everything I’ve written in the past year falls.

The first step, before anything is categorized, is initial concept. Each of the three primary ongoing outlets/projects (Soc Takes, this website, the YouTube channel) has a document in that folder into which all of my ideas get thrown. The Soc Takes file is the longest at the moment, which is to be expected. Whenever an idea strikes me that seems interesting or entertaining enough to pursue, it gets added to the list. The list is further broken into four sections: concept, for early thoughts with no notes taken; planned, for pieces that have notes and data but nothing yet written; draft, for pieces that are actively being written; and edit, where finished drafts are mostly ready for publication and I’m not likely to make any additional changes. I also keep a fifth section for published pieces mainly as a list to reference recent or ongoing projects. That section gets trimmed as needed.

Right now, there are ten items in concept, two in planned, two in draft, and two in edit. Some pieces in concept might stay there for months, and others are simply scrapped altogether if I find that someone else has answered the same question.

As for the four categories, I group my pieces into research articles, wherein I’m finding and logging data (think Project 50/50 or the USL Progress Reports) and typically start in Excel; narrative articles, that typically begin with handwritten notes; rhetorical question pieces that are nearly exclusively opinion pieces where the conclusion isn’t the focus so much as the problem I’m debating; and rant pieces where I sit down and complain about something irritating me.

The rant pieces are the quickest to write and typically the shortest. A prime example of this is “Why is there still no Women’s Open Cup?” That piece, from start to finish, took maybe an hour. I sit down with either WordPress or FocusWriter on one screen and a web browser on the other, do enough research as I’m writing to illustrate my point, and wrap things up. One draft, edit as I go.

Rhetorical pieces generally take a bit longer, and I’ve tended lately to survey people online for their thoughts as I’m writing. The most recent example of this category is my piece on VAR usage and officiating. While it is branded as an opinion piece, I’m not positioning my thoughts as the solution so much as discussing what could be a better idea moving forward. That piece in particular took around two hours start to finish, and was written mainly as a reaction to the World Cup.

Narrative style pieces take the longest to write, usually as a byproduct of what I’m documenting. A good example is the Supporting Local Soccer series, the latest installment of which can be found here. That piece, along with the others in the series, began as shorthand notes taken on my phone during the game itself and from a rough outline written up later. Turning stream of consciousness notes into something cohesive takes more time, I’ve found, and that piece was in progress for weeks. It’s not difficult to write so much as time-consuming, requiring more involved editing and organization as I write than others.

The research pieces take the greatest amount of time from concept to edit, simply due to the amount of data I tend to work with. The USL Progress Reports, for instance, required quite a bit of data collection that then needs to be incorporated into a spreadsheet in which I run my calculations. These are honestly a lot of fun to write, and are the most educational to me personally. These always begin in Excel, and typically stay there until I have enough data to start writing something. Usually, once I start to see something interesting, I’ll write out an introduction and finalize a title for the project. I’ve taken lately to writing as I research, so that I’m splitting work evenly between Excel and writing.

Most of the time, I’m working on the ongoing research pieces, of which there are several in progress. I have one on MLS that began slightly as a joke but I’ve since decided to take seriously enough to log literally hundreds of games. It’s probably not necessary, but at the very least the data I’ve found is interesting. Another on the USL has led to 6 of 8 years worth of data logged in Excel. These won’t be finished any time soon, but are always fun to work on.

Whenever I get sick of processing data, I’ll switch to something completely different. Supporting Local Soccer in particular has been a welcome respite from thousand-row spreadsheets, although those take substantially more effort on the writing end. Every so often, something starts off as one category before growing into something much more in-depth that takes it into research territory, and I’m usually much happier with the end result. The rant pieces are almost never planned or scheduled, and simply happen as I get irritated about something.

For Supporting Local Soccer, every piece begins as notes on my phone which are then copied to my server. After that, I’ll take an hour or so to start elaborating on my thoughts and adding clarifying information to the raw notes. From there, it’s all about writing and organizing, and expanding from bullet points into a cohesive piece.

Anyway, this is already nearing 1000 words, so I’m calling this one done.

New on SocTakes: New stadium for Revs accidentally revealed?

NE Revs - New England Revolution

Photo credit: Amy Meredith

During a live event/press conference with the Miami Herald’s editorial board, Jorge Mas revealed that the New England Revolution are building a soccer stadium “right next to Boston Garden.” Jump to roughly the 1:22:00 mark in the video for Mas’ comment. Further research from Soc Takes contributor Ian Foster indicated that the Lechmere transit station is the focal point.

Looking at the area on Google Maps reveals a massive vacant patch northeast of the current station. That spot is the site of an ongoing redevelopment project known as Cambridge Crossing (formerly NorthPoint).

Cambridge Crossing has been in progress on and off dating back to at least 2005, although the current efforts primarily began in 2015. Per the Boston Globe last October, the developer, Divco, was “talking with potential tenants looking for large space in Cambridge.” It was also announced previously that Lechmere station will be moving to the new development, indicated on the original developer’s website for the project.

The new Lechmere station, expected to begin operating in 2021, fits nicely with the timeline for a potential new stadium for the Revolution. Currently, the Revs play at Gillette Stadium, which is southwest of Boston in Foxborough, Mass. They share the venue with the NFL’s New England Patriots.

So far, there’s been nothing publicly announced about a soccer stadium at Cambridge Crossing, but considering its location adjacent to the Inner Belt District where a previous stadium plan was discussed, this feels like more than just smoke.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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New on SocTakes: Supporting Local Soccer: My Keene FC experience

Keene FC

KEENE, Texas — My first Supporting Local Soccer post on visiting the Fort Worth Vaqueros went over really, really well, and in the aftermath, several teams reached out to me to visit one of their games.

One of these teams was Keene FC, a first-year UPSL team based in the city of Keene, which is tiny. The population is just 6,293 and the city itself comprises just 2.8 square miles. Keene High School, my current destination, has 323 students enrolled, making it roughly one-tenth the size of my alma mater. It takes me roughly an hour and fifteen minutes to drive the 65 miles from my house north of Dallas to the stadium. This is my first-ever visit to Keene, and almost certainly the furthest south I’ve been in the metroplex.

My route today

Keene FC plays at the Keene High School stadium, one of the more interesting high school venues I’ve seen in Texas. Keene actually doesn’t have a high school football program — incredibly rare in Texas — and the stadium is primarily used for soccer. The field is all grass, and surrounded by a black running track. The stadium sits roughly 400 feet north of Highway 67.

The first thing that strikes me as unusual walking into the stadium is the layout. Rather than walking through an entrance aligned midfield, Keene’s stadium has the entrance at the west end of the stadium along the goal line. I walk in past the combined field house/weight room/locker room/office building to the ticket window. After introducing myself as “the guy from Soc Takes,” the woman at the ticket window allows me into the stadium. The stadium looks clean and very new. A banner reading “#ProRelForUSA” along with the Keene FC logo greets me from the fence along the entryway.

Keene FC

Outside the stadium

As I walk in, I meet Matt Kahla, co-founder and co-owner. He’s the one that invited me tonight. He gives me a quick rundown of the team and the typical match-day experience. One thing he notes in particular is that the city of Keene is predominantly Seventh Day Adventist. This is why the team’s home games are almost exclusively played on Sunday afternoons, as Seventh Day Adventists observe the Sabbath from Friday evening through Saturday evening. Matt informs me that, as today is Father’s Day, the crowd is likely going to be lighter than usual.

The field itself sits at the bottom of a staircase which begins at the field house building. The single grandstand sits along the north sideline. It’s a typical metal bleacher grandstand, roughly 130 feet long and 16 rows deep. That gives it a capacity of roughly 2,000, just about perfect for a UPSL team. The view from the grandstand is spectacular. There’s a hill along the south sideline setting the field apart from the highway, and nothing but forest in the background. Rural Texas at its finest.

Keene FC

Pregame

Tonight is their ’80s night, where they’re pumping ’80s music through the PA system. I find myself lipsynching along to some of the songs playing as I wander around taking pictures. Unusually, the path to the grandstand takes me on the running track itself. I don’t think I’ve stood on a high school running track since my marching band days.

As I watch the players walk to the field for pregame warmups, someone catches my eye. Is that… is that Michel? Sure enough, FC Dallas alum Michel is playing for the visiting Dallas Elite FC. Interesting! Last I knew, he was playing for Miami FC. He was also captain of Rayo OKC in 2016, and famously scored his first MLS goal directly off a corner kick in Seattle. I make a note to check the rosters of both teams for any other MLS veterans later.

I eventually settle in at the top of the grandstand. The pregame ceremony begins with the usual ceremonies along with the playing of the national anthem over the PA. Keene’s jerseys are delightfully colorful, and I immediately want one. The visiting Dallas Elite FC is basically the same team as Dallas City FC from the NPSL but with different management.

Keene FC

First half

By kickoff, a few dozen fans have trickled in. I notice that the clock on the scoreboard didn’t start at kickoff, and only begins counting down after roughly five minutes have elapsed. With the stands so close to the action, I can hear the players on both sides whinging at the referee. One thing I notice is that the team doesn’t have anyone along the sideline fetching balls, and a few end up clearing the fence behind the grandstand.

It’s warm and windy today. I watch a bird trying to take flight against the wind, and the bird appears to hover in place mid-air for a minute or so. This is pretty much ideal soccer weather. It’s comfortable. My one regret is not bringing a stadium seat for the metal bleachers.

Keene FC

Dallas Elite is up 1-0 at halftime. It’s been a pretty back-and-forth game, and the Elite goalkeeper is the primary reason Keene FC isn’t on the board yet. This has been some very entertaining soccer. In my notes, I write that “stadium feels like the American equivalent of small English village stadiums.” I walk back to the field house building to check out the concession stand. There’s a nice variety of standard stadium fare, reasonable prices, and they actually accept plastic. Bonus points for that. I buy a bottle of water to top up my filter bottle.

I strike up a conversation with Matt and general manager Cody Long. We talk about the league, the season so far for the team, and I ask them how things have gone relative to their expectations. Matt says he’s been incredibly pleased with the reaction of Keene ISD superintendent Ricky Stephens. Stephens was immediately on board with the team, and offered up the stadium in the first meeting. The club has already found a number of prominent local sponsors as well as a cryptocurrency, Dimecoin. I make a note to check out their website later, and find that they’re actually the sort of cryptocoin I can get behind, focusing on the viability of smaller transactions and continual usage of the coin instead of speculation and investment like many others.

I ask them about their thoughts on the UPSL, and mirroring the sentiments I heard from Dustin with OKC 1889, express just how pleased they are to be part of the league. We continue talking about promotion and relegation, as UPSL actually has implemented it in a few conferences. Matt says that, one added benefit of pro/rel is that it essentially eliminates blowout games. Teams that keep losing 5-0, 6-0 get bumped down, while teams that win those blowout games get to move up and take on more suitable opponents. It’s an argument I hadn’t heard before, and it’s one of the most convincing arguments I’ve heard for the system.

Cody tells me that the team had to suddenly switch head coaches right as the season was about to begin, as the previously hired head coach got an offer he couldn’t refuse elsewhere. The team has thus spent the first chunk of its season getting comfortable with the new coach. That coach is actually out of town for this particular game, so his assistant is along the sideline.

In the second half, Dallas scores again, eliciting groans from Matt and Cody. Cody picks up his phone and actually calls the assistant coach to make a substitution. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen something like this, and I can’t hide my amusement. Keene draws a penalty late in the first half and buries it. That’s the last goal of the evening, final score 1-2.

As the players and fans walk the running track to the exit, I realize that maybe a dozen or so people there are traveling Dallas Elite supporters, primarily friends, family and significant others. I finish up my conversation with Matt and Cody and head to the exit.

Keene FC

This was my first experience watching the UPSL, a league I have been publicly skeptical of previously. Having now spoken with three different participating teams, my attitude has changed. I get it. It’s not really a “national league” as much as a collection of hyperregional leagues across the country, allowing teams that can’t afford NPSL or PDL a chance to move into a more serious organization. While I still have some issues with some of the league’s management, everyone I know involved in it is incredibly pleased to be there. This has led me to begin the outline for a “UPSL Explained” piece.

In the weeks since I attended the match, the summer UPSL season has ended for this conference. Keene finishes in fifth place, while Dallas takes second. Following the season, MLS veteran Jose Burciaga, Jr. has joined Keene FC as part owner and general manager. He was a long time fixture of the Kansas City Wizards from 2001 to 2007. He has already begun preparations for the upcoming UPSL fall season, which is expected to run from August into December.

For a first-year team, Keene FC is doing a lot of things right. They’re working to integrate with the local community, including respecting the Adventist sabbath, and their social media is nearly an even split between club matters and local community news. If they can find a way to get the local student body interested in the team, they’ll have a solid fan base moving forward. There’s a lot of promise here.

Obligatory

I hope you enjoyed this second installment of Supporting Local Soccer. Coming soon are my return to Fort Worth, my trip to Little Rock to check out the Rangers and my visit to Texas United FC in Grand Prairie. As always, thanks for reading, and if you have a unique soccer experience that you’d like me to check out, always feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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New on SocTakes: Investigating Dallas Sidekicks’ disappearance

Dallas Sidekicks

Image credit: Dallas Sidekicks

On Sept. 21, 2017, the Dallas Sidekicks of the Major Arena Soccer League issued a statement that they were taking the 2017-18 MASL season off. Since then, there has been no activity anywhere from the team. Nothing on Twitter, Facebook or the team website.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting any announcement from the team, not just because it’s my local MASL team, but because I was actually planning on covering their games for Dallas Sports Fanatic last fall and the league as a whole for Soc Takes.

At some point in time back in March, the web hosting expired, and the site was replaced with a generic expiration notice. And then, the site suddenly came back up in June.

I waited to see if that might lead to new activity somewhere online. After nearly a month, there’s been nothing. So, I got curious and decided to dig a little deeper.

I sent an email to the team’s season ticket address asking about potential season tickets for next season. I immediately received the following notice from GMail:

Dallas Sidekicks

I followed that up with an email directly to an acquaintance listed on the team’s staff directory. Same error message. I sent a third email, this time directly to the team’s general manager, and received yet another failed delivery message. Curious. A fourth message to the director of operations and a fifth to the team CFO led to the exact same error. None of the email addresses listed anywhere on the website seem to be active. I settled for filling out the contact form on the site, which appears to be operational.

At that point, I called the team’s number and pressed the menu option for general inquiries. This transferred me to the ticket sales line which went directly to voicemail. I left a message anyway, hung up and called again. I tried every one of the six listed options, and got only two possible destinations: ticket sales, or “front office 2.” Hmm. Normally, I could write this off as being outside of office hours, but this was at 4 p.m. on a Monday.

My next plan of attack was to call the arena itself, the Allen Event Center. The Sidekicks still list their office address at the arena. And yet, when I called, the woman on the other end said that the Sidekicks don’t have an office at the arena and she doesn’t know a way to get ahold of anyone.

The next step was to contact the league directly. I sent an email to one of the media contacts at the MASL and left a voicemail with another. I haven’t heard anything back yet, but the league is based in the Eastern Time Zone, so it was already nearing 6 p.m. at their office on Monday.

At this point, I’m curious to find out what on earth happened. I can’t find current information for any of the staff members listed on the website anywhere. No social media, not even anything on LinkedIn. The closest lead I’ve found for GM/head coach Simon Bozas lists him working for a bank based in California.

The last step I took was to check the Whois data for the team website. In looking for more info, I found a second, clearly unfinished site with a .net URL. I checked Whois data for both domains, and found that DallasSidekicks.com was last updated in 2015, while DallasSidekicks.net was updated in April of this year. Both domains are registered with GoDaddy, but a Traceroute revealed the two domains don’t point to the same server at all. One is in Absecon, N.J., and the other in Henderson, Nev.

So, I’ve reached a dead end for the time being. I’ll hopefully have more information soon and will update this story if/when that happens.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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New on SocTakes: Opinion: Officials should be less part of VAR decisions

VAR - officials

Photo credit: Oleg Bkhambri (Creative Commons license)

Video review has made its way to the 2018 World Cup and brought with it the same sort of controversy we’ve seen in league play. The system is still only used for four key events: goals, penalty kicks, red cards and mistaken identity.

We often hear the defining criteria of “clear and obvious error” used to describe the instances where VAR is even allowed to be applied. From there, the referee is allowed three possible options:

  1. Change the call based on video evidence
  2. Review the video on the sideline
  3. Keep the original call

We’ve had debates over whether VAR impacts games, and on how it might affect the pace of play.

Instead, let’s look at that third option for the referee and think about whether the referee is part of the game itself. By game, I mean both the sport of soccer as a whole as well as the individual match.

When VAR was first discussed, there was a debate between giving power to the video booth and leaving power with the center official. We’ve ended up with a compromise that, to me at least, is the worst of both worlds. The key issues are the requirement of a “clear and obvious error” and the option for the referee to keep the original call.

The primary benefit of video replay is that it allows difficult, too-close-to-call decisions to be made easily and relatively quickly. In baseball and rugby, events that happen far too quickly for humans to accurately make decisions can be made in under a minute with the advantage of slow-motion playback. Yes, it does require a stoppage in play, but those happen anytime there’s a contested situation already. And instead of watching a player and/or coach squabble with an official, we can turn to tangible proof, figure out the correct decision and apply it. Problem solved.

Requiring VAR to be used in only those “clear and obvious error” situations means that center officials still control the game. But should this be the case? I honestly don’t know. This keeps a human element in the form of the four on-field officials which interfere with the outcome of a game. Decisions on yellow cards or free kicks are made with some amount of subjectivity. We, as spectators, have come to accept this as perfectly normal. But is it really normal?

Onto the focal point of this rant: the VAR procedure.

When a situation worthy of video review occurs — one of those “clear and obvious errors” — either the referee requests a review or the video booth decides it’s worth investigating anyway. This is all fine to me. If they don’t find anything on the replay, that’s it, they don’t need to signal the referee, and play continues. Still perfectly reasonable. But if there is an error, we get to those three possible decisions listed earlier up. Now, at this point, we know there must have been a “clear and obvious error” by the crew on the field in order to trigger this process, meaning that one of the on-field crew members has either gotten something wrong or missed something. Why, then, is there an option for the referee to overrule the decision from the video booth? They have access to all the footage and camera angles, so they have the best possible chance of making the correct decision, and they’re only investigating because there was an incorrect call already made.

Giving the referee that option essentially nullifies the entire purpose of video assistance. In fact, I don’t think they have the procedures right at all. To me, I would prefer that either the video booth gets to override the call on the field and the ensuing decision is automatically revealed in the stadium like tennis’ Hawk-Eye system, or the video booth makes the final call and passes it along to the ref, who merely relays it. One of those two should be the official policy. It shouldn’t be the referee’s decision. Currently, VAR technically only determines when a review is needed, and it’s wholly in the head referee’s hands from there.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

But again, this is my opinion and I honestly don’t know if it’s the right one. I keep thinking about this issue, and I need more data.

Finally, a small gripe comparatively, but one I think might actually be the most irritating. The video assistant referee is only allowed to use slow-motion playback for contact offenses — handballs, tackles and the like. Why can’t they use slow-motion playback for everything?

I’ll get to the point.

To me, the purpose of a team sport is to see how two teams of players do against each other. It should be down to their actions on the field and the decisions of their coach. The referee’s opinion shouldn’t be part of the sport itself. It’s not interfering with the game to me, it’s preserving it. It’s ensuring that the rule book is correctly and fairly enforced every single time.

I imagine that just about everyone reading this has some negative opinion of a particular referee. We all know a ref who made some ridiculous call or completely missed a penalty kick or something. This is the exact problem I’d like to see VAR address. Instead, it’s basically rendered useless by the FIFA/IFAB implementation.

Imagine the following scenario:

Team A is hosting Team B in a stadium with goal-line technology. Team A takes a shot on goal that slips through the ‘keeper’s hands, and a Team B defender attempts to clear the ball off the line. According to the goal-line technology, the ball fully crossed the goal line and the referee gets the signal to award a goal. But instead, the center referee decides that, despite what his technology tells him, the ball really was cleared off the line and it’s not a goal.

This is how VAR looks to me. I just don’t know if I’m right.

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New on SocTakes: USL Eastern Conference: Midterm progress report

Indy Eleven - Brickyard Battalion - midterm

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The World Cup has reached the knockout rounds with upsets galore and many a favored contender heading home early. But you probably knew that already.

Instead of using some weird metric to rank and/or predict the World Cup, I’ve been itching to get back to my bread and butter: USL analyses. Today, that itch has been scratched.

Back around the ides of May, I wrote a reasonably detailed, two-part progress report on the 2018 USL season about a quarter of the way through it. Right now, there have been 266 of 561 matches played, which means we’re at roughly the midway point of the season. And most importantly, it’s a period where the season has a 48-hour break for me to sit down, write, make spreadsheets, calculate arbitrary percentages and write. And for the really mathematically inclined, it means that every team has played, on average, 16 games. Plenty of data over which I can pore and jump to conclusions.

As before, the two primary metrics I’m tracking are points per game and average attendance, for reasons explained at length in the Q1 progress reports. Also, this report is being deliberately written as a two-part affair due to the sheer lengthiness of the previous two USL pieces. Hopefully it’ll be easier to swallow once I break this in half.

And with that, let’s jump to some Eastern Conference midterm conclusions.


Atlanta United 2

  • Points per Game: 0.733, 15th in East (-.017 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,134, 22nd in USL (-14.5% from Q1)

I’m pretty confident in my current opinion of Atlanta United 2: They’re not very good. Two wins from 15, an active six-game winless streak, plus they’re not showing much sign of improving any time soon. They’re only win since the season opener was a 5-4 late comeback win over Toronto FC II. Since then, they’ve been outscored 12-2. Removing that one score from their goal totals leaves them at 11 for, 27 against, with a -16 differential. That is unmistakably not good. Their current pace has them finishing on 25 points or so, which is where Charleston is right now. At least with the postponed game against Ottawa, they avoided making it another seven-game winless streak, and at least the fans are still showing up.

Prognosis: They’ll finish 15th, only ahead of Toronto II, and quite possibly drop to USL D3 for 2019.


Bethlehem Steel FC

  • Points per Game: 1.438, 7th in East (+.438 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 2,254, 25th in USL (+5.7% from Q1)

Bethlehem turned around their season after that five-game streak between wins, and have shot up the standings. They’re the most improved team on points per game in the Eastern Conference, and didn’t lose at all in June. They’re actually putting together their best season yet in terms of PPG. At this point, I’m pretty sure I have more confidence in Brendan Burke as a head coach than I do in Jim Curtin. Maybe the Union should look to their USL team for more than just player development. Off the field, attendance is up from Q1, but not up to 2017 levels. I’m not entirely sure what could be done on that front, but again, I don’t really know if that’s a problem in the eyes of management.

Prognosis: They sneak into the playoffs, but go out in the first round.


Charleston Battery

  • Points per Game: 1.563, 6th in East (-.326 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,141, 21st in USL (-12.6% from Q1)

Charleston went on a bit of a tear after some early shakiness, going unbeaten in nine games with a four-game win streak. They’ve since cooled off just a bit, but not to any worrying levels. Their goal differential is still in the positives, their defense is performing well and they’re firmly inside the top eight. Hell, they’re only three points shy of Pittsburgh. Ataullah Guerra is having one of his best seasons in the USL, while Joe Kuzminsky has not only won the starting spot in goal but already has six shutouts. Attendance has returned to roughly where it was last season, which isn’t necessarily bad, but does mean their early achievements on that front have been — at least temporarily — erased. But really, this team is performing at a level pretty close to where they’ve been for most of their history, so there’s no major cause for concern. They’re going to make the playoffs, like they usually do.

Prognosis: Nothing in life is guaranteed except for death, taxes, and Charleston making the playoffs.


Charlotte Independence

  • Points per Game: 1.412, 8th in East (+.037 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 1,854, 29th in USL (+9.9% from Q1)

Charlotte has been weirdly streaky this season. They won the first two, didn’t win the next five, won the next four and haven’t won since. There was a lengthy four-game road trip in there, and they haven’t been shut out since early May, but they still need to find some wins if they’re going to make the playoffs. This team finished fifth in the two seasons prior and at their best this season have looked better than last year. They just haven’t been able to stay good for more than a few games at a time. Their goal differential is just +1, lowest of the current top eight. That said, Cordell Cato and Jorge Herrera have been nothing short of spectacular, both with eight goals through 17 games. The problems lie more on the defensive side. Attendance wise, though, things are very promising. Not only is this their highest average attendance ever, they even broke 3,000 at their most recent weekend home game. At the very least, new investment and increased fan support mean the team’s future is mostly secured. Now it’s time to focus on results and keep those people coming back.

Prognosis: Top five? Maybe. Playoffs? Probably. Worth watching? Definitely.


FC Cincinnati

  • Points per Game: 2.000, 1st in East (+.111 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 24,953, 1st in USL (+3% from Q1)

In the time since the Q1 progress report, FC Cincinnati has been granted an expansion franchise in MLS, and this is officially their final season in the USL. They’re definitely making the most of it. Cincinnati was the first club in the Eastern Conference to hit ten wins, they have a comfortable lead over Pittsburgh and Louisville, and they’re selling hella tickets as usual. Like, hella tickets. Like, their average attendance is a bigger number than the total attendance for 21 teams. It’s higher than MLS’s average attendance right now. Nuts. Emmanuel Ledesma continues to be one of my favorite players to watch, while Danni König has settled in nicely. Both have eight goals already, while Nazmi Albadawi has seven. This team is finally looking like the best team in USL on the field and not just in the stands. And what better way to end their time in USL than by winning the trophy?

Prognosis: Early favorite for champion.


Indy Eleven

  • Points per Game: 1.667, 5th in East (-.083 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 10,315, 3rd in USL (-7.9% from Q1)

Indy is still looking strong and drawing well. While their road undefeated streak is over, they’re still solidly a playoff contender, and their early season pace is essentially unchanged. Owain Fon Williams deserves to be in the conversation of best goalkeeper in the USL, while Ayoze, Soony Saad, Jack McInerny and Justin Braun have been part of a potent offensive machine. I subjectively find it better for teams to have multiple dangerous goal scorers rather than relying on just one or two guys, and this is a perfect example of such a team. And considering how quickly this team came together after last season’s chaos, they should feel incredibly pleased with the results so far.

Prognosis: Chad Irvine is a nerd.


Louisville City FC

  • Points per Game: 1.733, 3rd in East (-.267 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 7,454, 6th in USL (+5.9% from Q1)

Louisville’s head coach James O’Connor has replaced Jason Kreis at Orlando City, and this makes me feel uncertain for Louisville’s immediate future. In the interim, Luke Spencer, Paolo DelPiccolo, and George Davis IV have been appointed joint head coaches, and their first test comes this weekend. If these three guys can continue the system implemented by O’Connor in the interim, they’ll continue to be almost unstoppable. But that’s a tall order in an unusual situation. Off the field, attendance is moving up again, and the club will soon be breaking ground on their own stadium. As soon as they find a permanent replacement head coach, their future is secure.

Prognosis: If the Cerberus Coach works, they keep winning. If it doesn’t, they’re screwed for a little while.


Nashville SC

  • Points per Game: 1.733, 4th in East (+.233 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 10,012, 4th in USL (-14.2% from Q1)

Nashville started off strong and I speculated they might sneak into the playoffs. I’m changing that now: Nashville is going to finish top 4 and host a playoff game. Brandon Allen and Lebo Motolo both have five goals already, Ropapa Mensah has four and Matt Pickens is probably an MLS-caliber keeper. The dude has eight clean sheets from fifteen starts, and has played every single minute of his team’s existence. That’s nothing short of extraordinary. Nashville’s defense has been the second best in the entire league, allowing only 10 goals in total. With Boluwatife Akinyode, Justin Davis, Ryan James and Michael Reed, they’re shutting down the most potent offenses we’ve ever seen in USL history with ease. When Nashville joins MLS in 2020, I would actually be more surprised if they didn’t keep a lot of these guys. Same thing goes for Gary Smith. He definitely deserves another shot at MLS with the results he’s gotten. Attendance wise, the numbers have dropped a little bit, but they’re still averaging north of the 10,000 listed capacity of First Tennessee Park. Not much else to say other than Nashville is almost certainly going to keep winning a lot of games.

Prognosis: Don’t be surprised to see them in the championship game.


New York Red Bulls II

  • Points per Game: 1.294, 10th in East (-.261 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 772, 33rd in USL (-0.4% from Q1)

Performance wise, the Baby Bulls have slipped from their early season form. If I had to point to any result in particular, it’s losing 3-0 to Bethlehem, Pittsburgh and Ottawa. They won just once in the month of June. Strangely enough, they have one of the biggest discrepancies between home form and road form. All five wins have come at home, while they’ve managed just six points from nine road games. Normally, home field advantage comes from having a loud and passionate fanbase making it hard for visitors to get comfortable. I don’t think that’s the case here. Their average attendance is under 1,000 still, and it has essentially not changed since Q1. Here’s an interesting factoid: Don Garber was the first season ticket holder for NYRB2, since he actually lives not far from where they play. I wonder how many games he’s actually been to.

Prognosis: If a team loses in the forest but there’s no one there to see it, does it still affect the Eastern Conference standings?


North Carolina FC

  • Points per Game: 1.200, 12th in East (+.057 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,702, 17th in USL (+9.6% from Q1)

There’s a team that plays in Cary, N.C. that has been absolutely electric all year. They’ve only lost once, have a 13-point lead over their closest opposition, have a goal differential of +18, and are only getting better. That team is the North Carolina Courage in the NWSL, and they’re on the cusp of eliminating teams from shield contention roughly halfway through the season. Their male counterparts, North Carolina FC, have not been anywhere near as good. Daniel Rios and Kyle Bekker have been the two standout attacking players so far. Rios has eight goals in 14 games while Bekker has seven assists and 25 chances created. Alex Tambakis has been good enough in goal, and his defense hasn’t done much to help. The problem is that this team has two different forms. There’s the team that beat Ottawa 4-2 at home and looked fantastic all game, and there’s the team that was bossed around by Cincinnati for ninety minutes. On any given gameday, either team could show up, and that’s not how you make the playoffs. At times like this, I start wondering if Colin Clarke is still the right man for the job as head coach. He’s been in charge since 2011, coaching the team in all seven NASL seasons they played. It’s one of the longest spells for any active coach in USL. That said, the state of D2 soccer is in a very different place than it was in 2011, and I’m not sure he’s keeping up with the rising tide. I’ve talked with some NCFC fans about this, and the general consensus is that they’d like to see someone different in charge in the not-so-distant future. Right now, I agree. Can Paul Riley coach both teams? Asking for a friend.

Prognosis: NCFC isn’t very good. #analysis


Ottawa Fury FC

  • Points per Game: 1.200, 13th in East (+.200 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 4,714, 12th in USL (-11.5% from Q1)

Ottawa has been pretty average so far this season, and I honestly don’t feel like writing another lengthy paragraph that says the exact same thing I’ve said nearly a dozen times already. Instead, speculation time. Is Ottawa likely to join the Canadian Premier League? At this point, I’m definitely leaning “yes”, especially given recent rumours (like rumors, only Canadian) that there have been discussions on exactly that. I think it makes a lot of sense. They’re the only fully professional team in Canada that isn’t part of MLS, they’ve been very well run their entire existence, and they would be an immediately strong addition to the new Canadian league. We know that the Canadian Soccer Association wants a team in the capital city (they were part of the initial list of eight cities, and the other seven have been confirmed), and there’s not really any point to try and start a team from scratch when you have the Fury right there. Is it a step down from USL in quality? We won’t know until a ball is kicked in CPL play. And yet, my gut tells me it probably won’t be, at least not significantly. There are a lot of Canadian players putting up results throughout the USL, and I figure quite a lot of them will head closer to home if given the opportunity. I can only imagine that Ottawa would find the travel much easier throughout Canada than having to go all the way down to Tampa every year.

Prognosis: Oh, Canada.


Penn FC

  • Points per Game: 1.375, 9th in East (+.264 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 1,913, 27th in USL (+43.3% from Q1)

I’m a lot less confused and concerned by Penn FC now than in May. Their performances on the field have been much, much better, they’re on a five game unbeaten streak with three wins, and the fans are finally showing up. In terms of points per game, they’re the second most improved team from Q1 after Bethlehem Steel, and they’re now firmly in contention for playoffs. Lucky Mkosana has his mojo back, and is having his best season in years back in Harrisburg with five goals already. Tommy Heinemann, despite what Cincinnati says, is fit and functional, and he’s been doing really rather well. Richard Menjivar has emerged from relative obscurity to become a solid attacking midfielder, with three assists and 25 chances created. Both goalkeepers Romuald Peiser and Sean Lewis have been good, and the team has only conceded 18 goals. Attendance wise, my worries have been mostly alleviated. Their most recent weekend home game drew a crowd of 4,507 against Toronto II, and Penn FC won thanks to a ridiculously late 90+7 minute penalty. Even their most recent midweek game, a Tuesday evening game against Richmond, brought out 2,114 fans. That’s much, much better. If they keep this trend up on and off the field, they’re in excellent shape. Now if only their jerseys were the same color as their new crest.

Prognosis: Promising postseason possibilities for Penn FC.


Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

  • Points per Game: 1.867, 2nd in East (-.133 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 2,240, 26th in USL (+0.1% from Q1)

Pittsburgh’s unbeaten streak ended at 11 games in USL with a 1-0 loss at home to Nashville. They immediately regrouped and are on a four-game active unbeaten streak with just the one loss all season. They have allowed just seven goals. Incredible. They have more points at midseason than they finished with in 2016, and are eight points shy of last season’s total. Neco Brett and Kevin Kerr spearhead a powerful offensive core which combines local veterans, Bob Lilley’s old firm from Rochester and smart signings. Daniel Lynd and Kyle Morton have been absolute studs in goal, with a total of 10 clean sheets in 15 games. Ten! Even attendance is looking better, with a crowd of 3,652 at their most recent home game. And now, to hop on my soap box. PEOPLE OF PITTSBURGH! HEAR ME, HEAR ME! THE RIVERHOUNDS ARE A REALLY GODDAMN GOOD TEAM, AND YOU SHOULD BE GOING TO THEIR GAMES! HOCKEY SEASON IS OVER, BASKETBALL SEASON IS OVER, AND THE PIRATES ARE ASS THIS YEAR! THERE ARE NO EXCUSES, GO TO THEIR GAMES AND WATCH YOUR EXCELLENT LOCAL SOCCER TEAM IN THE MIDST OF A HISTORICALLY DOMINANT SEASON!

Prognosis: They might not lose again.


Richmond Kickers

  • Points per Game: 0.933, 14th in East (-.317 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 4,059, 15th in USL (-0.2% from Q1)

Leigh Cowlishaw has stepped down as head coach in Richmond, and the team has a new coach for the first time since 2000. Cowlishaw has been involved with the Kickers in some capacity ever since their inception in 1993, and was the longest-serving head coach in USL history. As a player, he was a constant presence from day one, and won the USISL playoffs and the Open Cup with the Kickers in 1995, playing in 148 games before his retirement at the end of the 1999 season. In his first season as head coach, the Kickers finished second in their division in the A-League, and won the regular season title the next year. He guided the club to back-to-back regular season titles in 2006 and 2007, complete with a playoff championship in 2006. The Kickers won the USL Second Division again in 2009, cementing them as one of the strongest D3 clubs in America at the time. Cowlishaw even temporarily came out of retirement in 2007, playing four more games from then through 2009. Most recently, the Kickers finished atop the USL Pro table in 2013 in a season where they only lost once. He has now taken the role as director of soccer, with yet another Kickers alumnus getting the head coaching job. David Bulow played 105 games for Richmond from 2006-13 while also coaching Richmond’s youth teams. While his coaching debut didn’t go that well against North Carolina FC, he has the endorsement of Cowlishaw, a solid roster, and nearly half a season to prove himself.

Prognosis: End of an era, but also maybe the start of a new one.


Tampa Bay Rowdies

  • Points per Game: 1.267, 11th in East (-.067 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 6,009, 9th in USL (-2.3% from Q1)

Immediately after I finished writing the Q1 report, Stuart Campbell resigned as head coach. Like, hours after I submitted my draft. Neill Collins retired to take the head coaching job, not as interim, but with some degree of permanency. At first glance, not much has changed in their results, with only one win in the last nine. That said, a number of games that might have been losses under Campbell have become draws under Collins, including two in recent weeks where the Rowdies scored in the last 10 minutes. With the recent addition of Stefano Bonomo, the Rowdies now have another proven goal scorer to help out Georgi Hristov and Joe Cole. They also signed Dominic Oduro (not that one, the other one) from FC Golden State Force after a solid run in the Open Cup. They might actually be able to salvage this season and sneak into the playoffs. Attendance wise, things continue to be excellent in St. Petersburg, and the plan to expand Al Lang even further looks like it’s happening even if the Rowdies don’t join MLS.

Prognosis: Let’s see how Neill Collins handles the transition from player to coach.


Toronto FC II

  • Points per Game: 0.188, 16th in East (-.063 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 926, 32nd in USL (-25.1% from Q1)

Nothing is going right for the Toronto FC organization in 2018. The MLS team looks nothing like the juggernaut from last year, and the attempts to fix it left their USL side even worse. In sixteen games, they have three draws without a win. Three points in 16 games. There’s no sugarcoating this. They’re approaching 2013 Antigua Barracuda levels of futility here, and are making last year’s hot garbage Timbers 2 look competent by comparison. While normally struggling MLS 2 teams don’t change coaches until the offseason, Laurent Guyot and TFC II have “mutually separated,” with a “director of high performance” coming in to take over the reserve side. In four games in charge, they’ve lost three and drawn one by an aggregate score of 6-13. Not a great start. News recently broke that they’re officially dropping to USL D3 for 2019. Maybe next year they can finally win a game.

Prognosis: Yikes.


My Western Conference midterm progress report can be found here. I hope you enjoyed this sprawling, rambling analysis of the USL Eastern Conference at roughly the halfway mark.

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New on SocTakes: USL Western Conference: Midterm progress report

lower-division soccer - usl progress report

Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes

The World Cup has reached the knockout rounds with upsets galore and many a favored contender heading home early. But you probably knew that already.

Instead of using some weird metric to rank and/or predict the World Cup, I’ve been itching to get back to my bread and butter: USL analyses. Today, that itch has been scratched.

Back around the ides of May, I wrote a reasonably detailed, two-part progress report on the 2018 USL season about a quarter of the way through it. Right now, there have been 266 of 561 matches played, which means we’re at roughly the midway point of the season. And most importantly, it’s a period where the season has a 48-hour break for me to sit down, write, make spreadsheets, calculate arbitrary percentages and write. And for the really mathematically inclined, it means that every team has played, on average, 16 games. Plenty of data over which I can pore and jump to conclusions.

As before, the two primary metrics I’m tracking are points per game and average attendance, for reasons explained at length in the Q1 progress reports. Also, this report is being deliberately written as a two-part affair due to the sheer lengthiness of the previous two USL pieces. Hopefully it’ll be easier to swallow once I break this in half.

And with that, let’s jump to some conclusions.


Colorado Springs Switchbacks

  • Points per Game: 1.333, 9th in West (+.061 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,603, 18th in USL (+15.9% from Q1)

Oh hey, the team that I said would be fine and likely competing for the bottom two playoff spots in front of larger crowds is doing just that. Colorado Springs has started to figure things out again and currently sits in ninth by less than .07 points per game behind San Antonio. The club’s goal differential is in the positives, the defense has looked solid and they’ve won three of their last five. While they’re still recovering from a relatively poor start to the season, there honestly isn’t much cause for concern here. Attendance is up 6.3 percent relative to 2017 and they’ve allowed the third-fewest goals in the conference. These are clear, positive signs.

Prognosis: If they don’t make the playoffs, they’ll miss by three points or fewer.


Fresno FC

  • Points per Game: 1.158, 11th in West (+.067 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 4,962, 11th in USL (-12.5% from Q1)

Fresno is having a very whelming debut season. While attendance is down by a few hundred per game, the club has started winning. And yeah, they’ve started losing as well, but let’s focus on the winning because I’m going to be focusing a lot on losing further down this article. Fresno has gained a position in the PPG standings, moving from 12th to 11th, and honestly might make some noise come September. Their goal differential is in the positives and they’re still averaging roughly 5,000 per game. Yeah, they could be doing better, but this is a team that was hand-assembled by the one and only Frank Yallop, so take the little victories and build for the future. Also, I still don’t like the jerseys and think the secondary fox logo needs to be the primary logo.

Prognosis: They’ll finish roughly one-third the way up the table, which is to say probably 11th or 12th. But that’s fine.


LA Galaxy II

  • Points per Game: 0.941, 14th in West (+.275 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 1,148, 30th in USL (+5.6% from Q1)

Los Dos are finally doing proper soccer-related things both on and off the field. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still not a good team or even mediocre, but they’re marginally less depressing to look at than they were in May. And now, speculation time. We got word recently that Toronto FC II is moving down to USL D3 for 2019, which means that they now have the (R) for relegation listed on the standings. Here’s where I promote LA Galaxy II doing the same: LA Galaxy II should do the same thing. USL D3 costs less, and while it might not be up against the same opposition level as USL, it’s likely not that dramatic of a change and won’t be significant enough to impact player development either way. Kids need meaningful minutes, and as long as USL D3 adopts the same rules and regulations for the games themselves as USL, it’ll be fine.

Prognosis: Relegation, but the American style where you choose to do it of your own volition because freedom.


Las Vegas Lights FC

  • Points per Game: 1.133, 12th in West (-.117 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 7,523, 5th in USL (-8% from Q1)
  • Meme Game: Full Chelis

Here is a summary of all the important events involving Las Vegas Lights FC since Q1: Freddy goddamn Adu scored his first professional goal since 2015, Chelis got himself suspended again and I got into several heated debates over their home jerseys. I maintain, correctly, that they are beautiful masterpieces of kit design, and sit among the greatest jerseys ever worn in the history of the sport. Other people, who I will refer to as Bailey and Dan from the Dallas Beer Guardians for the sake of anonymity, claim that they’re either tacky or stupid or horrible or other negative adjectives that I honestly didn’t bother paying attention to because they’re simply incorrect. Anyway. There’s been a slight decline in PPG which is what happens when Los Dos blows you the actual hell out 7-2, but they beat Colorado Springs and Tacoma Sounders both 4-1. Just like I said before, this team is genuinely entertaining no matter what the score, and the party in the stands keeps on keepin’ on.

Prognosis: I wonder how long management tolerates Chelis’ actions before he gets la patada.


OKC Energy FC

  • Points per Game: 1.000, 13th in West (+.667 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,964, 16th in USL (+2.6% from Q1)

OKC doesn’t suck anymore! The eight-game losing streak came to an end just days after I wrote the Q1 report (although technically it was nine because they lost to NTX Rayados in the Open Cup in what was, frankly, an embarrassing mess of a game) by beating Colorado Springs 1-0. Since then, they’ve actually won three more games, and drew Tulsa, so there’s hope for them yet! In fact, those three wins constitute an active winning streak, beating the Portland Saplings, Rio Grande Valley Football Club Toros of Edinburg and Los Dos by a combined 6-2 scoreline. By points per game, they’re actually the most improved team in the Western Conference. Maybe Steve Cooke is finally settling in up there, or maybe they’re regressing to a much less horrifying mean. All I know is I no longer avert my gaze when Fotmob shows a notification from an OKC game, and this is a welcome change.

Prognosis: Honestly, who knows? I’d like them to make the playoffs but they need to continue not sucking for like, more than three weeks. Reply hazy, try again.


Orange County SC

  • Points per Game: 1.688, 4th in West (-.013 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,013, 23rd in USL (-2% from Q1)

Everything is quietly going really well for Orange County this season, which is to say they’re doing fantastic work despite few people noticing. But I notice! And not just out of guilt for forgetting them in the USL season preview. Thomas Enevoldsen has nine goals this season, tied for first in the league, while Andre Rawls is tied for second with seven shutouts. And they’ve not only been good, they’ve been consistently good. They haven’t gone winless for more than two consecutive games all season and they haven’t lost at home since March. All the important numbers are way, way up from last year, and they’re on track to surpass their 2017 points total at around 25 games. In the Q1 report, I speculated that Braeden Cloutier might be drawing the attention of MLS teams. I’m willing to expand on that to say both Cloutier and Oliver Wyss, a guy with a really long title that really just means GM, should be viewed as potential replacements for some of the underwhelming/disappointing management teams in MLS. While OCSC fans will rightfully want them to stay and keep things up as long as possible, I can’t help but think that these two might be doing a better job with that unnatural disaster in the Bay Area than the recently appointed powers that be.

Prognosis: This is a genuine top-five team. Unless something super weird and depressing happens, they’re making the playoffs easily.


Phoenix Rising FC

  • Points per Game: 1.944, 2nd in West (-.156 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 6,505, 8th in USL (-0.9% from Q1)

Phoenix Rising head coach Patrice Carteron, the winningest coach in Arizona United/Phoenix Rising history, is gone. He’s buggered off to Egypt to manage Al Ahly SC. Honestly, I can’t really see why the man he replaced, Hossam El-Badry, felt the need to quit. Al Ahly was comically dominant in the Egyptian Premier League last season, winning 28 of 34 league matches and losing only two. The club only lost the CAF Champions League by a single goal in 2017. As best as I can tell, the group stage elimination in the 2018 CAF Champions League was the death knell, but I don’t see how Carteron can really make much of an improvement here. Al-Ahly has won the league three seasons in a row with a grand total of six losses. But that’s an entirely different story. God, Egyptian soccer is stupidly unbalanced. More relevantly, his interim replacement in Phoenix, Rick Schantz, seems to be doing just fine. He’s coached Phoenix to four consecutive shutouts, including three wins, and the club hasn’t lost since May 26. Chris Cortez has been remarkably consistent, with three goals in the past six games alone. Phoenix currently has the best offense and highest goal differential in the conference. The club managed to somehow hold onto a 1-0 lead against Orange County despite playing down a man for 55 minutes. That red card alone is an anomaly, one of only three issued to Phoenix players all season. This a well-built, well-run and unusually well-disciplined machine. Off the field, the club continues to average north of the stated “capacity” of their stadium by over 300, and haven’t had crowds much below 6,000 at worst. Everything is still going right for Phoenix, and I don’t think the loss of Carteron is going to significantly damage their season.

Prognosis: Easy top-three team. Strong candidate for the top seed. Likely championship contender.


Portland Timbers 2

  • Points per Game: 1.529, 7th in West (-.171 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 2,696, 24th in USL (+46.5% from Q1)

The Saplings have seen a massive turnaround from last season. Not only are they playing properly good soccer, they’re even bringing in more people to see it than the previous two seasons. Cameron Knowles is proving himself as an above-average or better coach, and his team is on track for its best-ever finish. I don’t think the Timbers management told him that they need to make the USL playoffs, but it’s definitely a positive externality of proper management and coaching. It’s also a sign that the Timbers are going to continue to be good in MLS for a while. And this 2 team is one of the few I don’t expect to drop to USL D3, unless they decide to pinch as many pennies as possible.

Prognosis: Likely making the playoffs, probably as a 7th seed.


Real Monarchs SLC

  • Points per Game: 2.313, 1st in West (-.132 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 1,895, 28th in USL (-10.2% from Q1)

Let’s talk about Mark Briggs for a quick tangent. Mark Briggs, head coach of Real Monarchs ever since Mike Petke got promoted last March, is currently on administrative leave due to his ongoing domestic assault case, and has been since May 29th. Since then, the team has been coached by RSL legend Jamison Olave, and the efficient machine that is the Butterflies continues to win games. The team is currently on a stronger pace than last year’s runaway season, and that’s legitimately terrifying. They’ve only lost three times this season, and never by more than two goals. Olave now has three wins from his first four games in charge with a 6-3 aggregate scoreline. This team is the strongest in the league, and it’s not even all that close. To match the Monarch’s points-per-game pace, Cincinnati would need to be more than five points better than they currently are. Their defense is the second best in the conference, their goal differential is third best and they’re the only team in USL with more than 10 wins. Everything that Dell Loy Hansen has done to grow his organization is working nearly perfectly. And yet, no one is turning up to games. Not really no one, but still, not very many people considering the stadium seats 5,000 in a suburb with 51,000 people. I don’t understand this at all, unless their marketing for USL games is worse than what FC Dallas does here.

Prognosis: Hide your kids, hide your prospects and hide your draft picks ’cause they’re scoring on everybody out here.


Reno 1868 FC

  • Points per Game: 1.647, 5th in West (+.347 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 4,402, 13th in USL (+13.1% from Q1)

Reno started the year in decidedly not-good fashion, and then, on April 21, they decided to stop being not good and to start being good again. It worked. Reno is now on a 13-game unbeaten streak and they’ve won three of their last five. They’ve gained five positions in the Western Conference points-per-game table since Q1, tied with only OKC for biggest mover. And yet, there aren’t many standout individuals on the team this year, save for maybe Antoine Hoppenot. He’s tied for second place in the assist leaders table with 7, which is pretty good, but still indicative of the lack of reliance on any one player in particular this year. This is exactly how a team should be built, in my mind, so that on any given day they can get a positive result. Attendance wise, they’re still down relative to last year, but up from Q1 to halfway. I’m still not worried about that.

Prognosis: Another championship contender, assuming their inevitable regression isn’t too mean.


Rio Grande Valley FC Toros

  • Points per Game: 0.750, 16th in West (-.139 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 5,203, 10th in USL (-8.1% from Q1)
  • Name: Too long and kinda stupid

I no longer think RGVFC is unlucky. At this point, I’m pretty sure they’re just bad. They’ve won just once this season, which was preceded by a three-game losing streak and followed by an active 10-game winless streak. They’ve been shut out in four of the last five, and they’ve scored a grand total of four goals since their lone win in April. They have the second-worst offense in the conference, with no signs of improvement any time soon. The only positive note, if one considers this positive, is that they lead the league in draws with nine. Nine out of sixteen drawn. Gerson Echeverry has not inspired much confidence in his coaching abilities. But hey, the fans are still showing up, so at least they have that going for them, which is nice.

Prognosis: Tie Fighters engage.


Sacramento Republic

  • Points per Game: 1.611, 6th in West (-.189 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 11,444, 2nd in USL (-1.1% from Q1)

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to mourn the loss of Sacramento’s sellout streak. Born on June 18, the year of our lord Two Thousand and Sixteen, the sellout streak lived a bright and vibrant life that was tragically cut short on Saturday, the 23 of June, just days after its second birthday, due to 99 tickets which went, unfortunately, unsold. While our hearts may be filled with sorrow, may we draw comfort from the timeless adage; the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Following the ceremony, there will be a reception to celebrate the sporting achievements of the departed, including sixth place in the points-per-game table at a pace surpassing that seen the previous season.

Prognosis: Press F to pay respects.


Saint Louis FC

  • Points per Game: 1.294, 10th in West (-.106 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 4,156, 14th in USL (+5.5% from Q1)

Saint Louis is a bit of an enigma this year. After an early six-game unbeaten streak, they went six without a win, followed by two shutout victories before going winless the next two. There’s only been one blowout loss, the 3-6 fiasco against Los Dos in which Efrain Alvarez and Ethan Zuback both scored hat tricks. I want to say that things will probably be fine, and given their blowout-averse tactics, that’s probably warranted, but I’m still not sure. They definitely need to stick with Anthony Pulis for at least the rest of the season, barring some unforeseen spiral of death. This team hasn’t had much in the way of consistency from year to year, with four different head coaches in four seasons, so maybe Pulis the Younger just needs more time to settle in. The decline in points per game isn’t all that dramatic, either. In the stands, things are definitely moving in the right direction, with their two most recent home games drawing 5,432 and 4,284 respectively. If they keep that up, they might find their stadium a bit on the small side by season’s end.

Prognosis: It’ll be fine. Probably.


San Antonio FC

  • Points per Game: 1.400, 8th in West (-.044 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 6,985, 7th in West (-0.2% from Q1)

San Antonio has remained consistent, with only a resurgent Reno bumping them down one spot in the standings. Points per game wise, they sit a bit lower than I expected, with that four-game unbeaten streak ending at five games, and have won just two of their last six. That said, they weren’t shut out in any of those six, so the offense is clearly working to some degree. But that degree has only been good for fifteen goals in fifteen games, simply not good enough when they’re conceding slightly more than a goal per game on average. They still have a decent shot at the top eight, but I’m a lot less confident in their soccer than I was at preseason or Q1. Honestly, I think if San Antonio doesn’t make the playoffs, Darren Powell might find his seat becoming hotter. Off the field, attendance has barely moved, with that 0.2 percent representing a grand total of 13 fans per game. They even cracked 7,000 at the start of June. All good there.

Prognosis: I wonder how Alen Marcina likes Des Moines.


Seattle Sounders 2

  • Points per Game: .786, 15th in West (+.008 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,483, 19th in USL (-0.9% from Q1)

Sounders 2 have remained consistent throughout the first half of the season. The only problem is that they haven’t been consistently good. They’ve won just one of their last eight. The team looks completely different at home versus away, with all three wins in Tacoma and two total points on the road. Seattle is level on points with Tulsa right now, which is definitely not a good place to be. John Hutchinson hasn’t seemed as completely lost as Ezra Hendrickson was last season, so maybe they’ll improve. But my money’s on both of those numbers staying more or less the same for the remainder of the season. At least the people in Tacoma seem to like it. Just need to finish that new stadium and rebrand.

Prognosis: Can they break the spell of the typical?


Swope Park Rangers

  • Points per Game: 1.750, 3rd in West (+.083 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 933, 31st in USL (+1% from Q1)

The Swope Park Rangers still don’t play in Swope Park, but they still get results. Paulo Nagamura is catching on quickly in his first head coaching position, and his team has been both consistent and good. The club remains undefeated at home thanks to Kharlton Belmar. He alone is responsible for more than a third of Swope Park’s goals, tied for the USL lead with nine. I doubt he spends much more time in the USL, as that’s the sort of performance that warrants a call-up to the first team. Off the field, the Rangers have drawn fewer people all season than the league’s average attendance by over a thousand. That’s pretty bad, and looks even worse on broadcast. Maybe a drop to USL D3 and a return to Swope Park could help those numbers.

Prognosis: If Belmar stays, they keep winning. If Belmar leaves, who honestly knows?


Tulsa Roughnecks

  • Points per Game: 0.647, 17th in West (+.092 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,228, 20th in USL (-2.7% from Q1)

It took Tulsa 16 games to win their first of the season, leaving Toronto FC II as the only team in USL without a win. That’s positively dire, and cost head coach David Vaudreuil his job last week. At their current points per game pace, this season might end up worse than their 21 loss campaign in 2016. There’s no positive way to spin this. Tulsa is barely playing soccer at this point. Michael Nsien at least began his interim spell with that one win, and if he can salvage something of this season, he might actually get the permanent coaching job. It’s borderline impossible to do worse than Vaudreuil did here this year. Attendance wise, Tulsa is down from Q1 but not by much. More worrying is the 16.2% drop compared to 2017. Things need to change in Tulsa.

Prognosis: Blow it up and rebuild.


I hope you enjoyed this sprawling, rambling analysis of the USL Western Conference at roughly the halfway mark.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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