Month: August 2018

New on SocTakes: Canadian Premier League primer

Canadian Premier League

Image credit: Canadian Premier League

Canada has announced that, at long last, the country is building a national, professional, Division I league of its own. Here’s everything we know so far about the league, the teams announced for next season and how the league will operate.

First up, the league itself. The Canadian Premier League will be the top league sanctioned by the Canadian Soccer Association, equivalent within their pyramid to MLS. Canada Soccer made the decision on May 6, 2017, and the league plans to begin play in the spring of 2019. There will almost certainly be eight teams playing at launch, with the slight possibility of 10 should a few more pieces fall into place sooner. So far, though, seven teams have been officially announced.

We’ll go through the seven officially announced teams first, in order of announcement:

York 9 FC – York Region, Ontario

  • Home stadium: York Lions Stadium (3,700)
  • Head coach: Jimmy Brennan
  • Colours: electric green, charcoal grey, black on black

York 9 was the first team to be announced, representing York Region in the greater Toronto area. The name is a reference to the nine cities and towns that constitute York Region, as well as the attacking No. 9 player. York’s choice of green is based on the forests throughout the municipality and the ownership by Greenpark Group. The team will play initially at York Lions Stadium on the York University campus, and is planning a 15,000-seat soccer stadium with a unique wooden construction. Head coach, general manager and co-owner Jimmy Brennan is a York native who played in England as well as MLS, received 49 caps for Canada and coached in both League 1 Ontario and the Toronto FC Academy system.

Cavalry FC – Calgary, Alberta

  • Home stadium: Spruce Meadows (5,000)
  • Head coach: Tommy Wheeldon Jr.
  • Colours: army green, Calgary red, black on black

Calgary’s Cavalry FC was the second team to be announced. This team is, to a decent extent, an offshoot of the PDL Calgary Foothills FC team, with general manager and head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. having spent the past five seasons with the PDL side. The name and colours are directly inspired by the Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiment of the Canadian Army with strong ties to Alberta and Calgary. The team will be playing in a brand-new stadium at the famous Spruce Meadows equestrian facility. The stadium is currently expected to seat 5,000 in a natural grass, modular facility, allowing for potential expansion in the future.

HFX Wanderers FC – Halifax, Nova Scotia

  • Home stadium: Wanderers Grounds (5,000)
  • Head coach: Stephen Hart
  • Colours: harbour blue, naval grey, aqua ocean

The Wanderers are playing up the maritime aspects in a big way, for obvious reasons. The colours and crest all draw heavy coastal symbolism, and the club motto is in Scottish Gaelic, incorporating the strong local Gaelic ties. As the largest city on Canada’s Atlantic coast, the harbour has been a vital part of Halifax since the city’s beginning. The name itself, “Wanderers,” is an homage to the Wanderers Amateur Athletic Club which operated for a century from 1882. The club will play at the Wanderers Grounds, home to the former Wanderers, in a new 5,000-seat stadium similar to the plans in Calgary. Head coach Stephen Hart, despite his Trinidadian citizenship and international status, is a fixture of soccer in Nova Scotia and has been for decades. He has also spent the better part of the past 20 years with the Canadian national programs.

Valour FC – Winnipeg, Manitoba

  • Home stadium: Investors Group Field (33,234)
  • Head coach: Rob Gale
  • Colours: valour maroon, wheat gold, earth black

Valour FC is the first announced team which intends to share ownership and a stadium with a Canadian Football League team, in this case the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Valour name is tied to Valour Road in Winnipeg, dedicated in 1925 to a trio of residents who received the Victoria Cross for acts of bravery in World War I. The maroon in the crest comes directly from the ribbon on the Victoria Cross, while wheat gold and earth black tie in to the Canadian prairies. The design in the middle includes both a combination V/W shape for Valour and Winnipeg, while the circle design is taken from the Victoria Cross. Head coach and general manager Rob Gale played amateur soccer in Winnipeg for a decade and has coached the Canadian youth international teams at the U16, U18 and U20 levels.

FC Edmonton – Edmonton, Alberta

  • Home stadium: Clarke Stadium (5,000)
  • Head coach: Jeff Paulus
  • Colours: prairie blue sky, River City navy, white rabbit

FC Edmonton is actually the oldest team in the CPL, dating back to 2009, having played in the NASL from 2011-17. The professional side was shut down at the end of the 2017 NASL season due to uncertainty with the league’s future and a lack of viable options for 2018, but the club planned to restart a professional team at some point in the future. Enter the CPL, and of course, FC Edmonton is back with a new logo and head coach. Jeff Paulus has been with the FC Edmonton organization since 2011 as academy technical director and an assistant with the NASL first team. He’s now been appointed head coach of the reborn professional side under general manager Jay Ball. Clarke Stadium is expected to undergo some upgrades to build permanent locker rooms on-site and expand the seating to 7,000.

Forge FC – Hamilton, Ontario

  • Home stadium: Tim Hortons Field (14,000)
  • Head coach: TBA
  • Colours: spark orange, platinum steel, waterfall white

Hamilton was one of the first two teams initially approved, along with Winnipeg. The club’s branding is heavily inspired by Hamilton’s long history in steel manufacturing dating back over a century. Forge FC is another team that shares ownership with the local CFL side, in this case the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ Bob Young. For Forge FC games, Tim Hortons Field will have its capacity reduced by covering the top stands on both sidelines. Club vice chairman John McGrane is a former Canadian international who coached the Hamilton Steelers in the Canadian Soccer League in 1988, 1989 and 1991. The club has yet to announce a head coach or general manager.

Pacific FC – Langford, British Columbia

  • Home stadium: Westhills Stadium (7,500)
  • Head coach: Michael Silberbauer
  • Colours: starfish purple, lagoon blue, lighthouse white

The most recent club to be announced is Pacific FC, based on Vancouver Island. The club’s branding is inspired by the island, incorporating the native Douglas fir tree and shape of the island itself. The stadium is set to undergo renovations to increase the capacity through temporary modular pieces, and will eventually be replaced by a permanent expanded stadium. Head coach Michael Silberbauer is the only non-Canadian coach in the league. He’s a retired Danish international currently working as an assistant coach with FC Luzern in Switzerland. Club president Josh Simpson is a retired Canadian international from mainland British Columbia. The club is intended to represent Vancouver Island as a whole rather than any particular city.

Those seven are all officially confirmed for next year. The Ottawa Fury are expected to join them following the conclusion of the 2018 USL season and discussions are ongoing involving possible teams in Moncton, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Mississauga. Despite those conversations, though, it’s widely expected that the league will feature eight teams in 2019 and 12 in 2020. Each team will play 28 games — 14 at home — in 2019, playing each of the other seven teams four times.

For the rosters, the league will be operating under a salary cap for both the players and coaching staffs. The average player salaries are expected to fall between $40,000-$60,000. Every club must field a minimum of six Canadian players at any give time during a game, and at least half of the roster must be Canadian.

Players will come from five player pools:

  1. Foundational: professional Canadian players already playing “at a high level”

  2. Up and coming: players in developmental leagues, including League 1 Ontario, the PDL, and lower-division leagues internationally

  3. Home territory: players from the surrounding community of each club, comparable to the MLS Homegrown system

  4. Canadian universities and colleges: likely a draft of U Sports players

  5. Open market: Players signed from anywhere, without restriction on nationality

There will likely be some sort of draft for pool Nos. 1, 2 and 4, although league officials have described it as “more sophisticated” than a typical player draft.

That’s all we know at present about the Canadian Premier League. News of the eighth team — or just confirmation from Ottawa — is expected before the end of the year and player signings will begin early next year. The schedule is expected to run from April into October, potentially without playoffs. Media deals have yet to be announced, but are expected to include streaming options.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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New on SocTakes: Supporting Local Soccer: My trip to Little Rock

Little Rock Rangers

Image credit: John Lenard/Soc Takes

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — My third “Supporting Local Soccer” adventure takes me on the farthest trip yet: 338 miles and roughly five hours northeast from Dallas to Little Rock. I’m here to check out the Little Rock Rangers’ season-ending doubleheader.

This trip technically began back in November 2017. I was sitting around in Inkscape, as I typically spend my free time, and I ended up with an idea for a soccer flag for the Little Rock Rangers. On the ninth of that month, I tweeted that flag design and tagged both the team and the supporters’ group, the Red Watch. We kept talking via Twitter, which eventually led to Red Watch founder Ryan inviting me to Little Rock to catch a game. The game in question is actually two games, a season ending double-header. The WPSL side is set to play Oklahoma City FC, while the men’s team is taking on Tulsa Athletic. With the schedule arranged, it’s time for me to plan my trip.

This is by far the farthest I’ve ever traveled explicitly for a soccer game. It’s 345 miles from my house in North Texas to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. That’s a five-hour and 15-minute drive. My plan is to leave Saturday morning, grab something to eat along the way, stop at the hotel to unpack and unwind before the game, then head to the stadium. After the game, I plan to crash at the hotel and drive home in the morning.

Saturday morning comes and I’m packed for my trip. I’m traveling light; only taking a basic change of clothing, my computer, and the necessary cables and chargers that usually stay inside my bag. I’m not planning to spend a lot of time at the hotel beyond sleeping. I get in the car around 8 a.m. and start heading east. I’ve made this drive from Dallas to Little Rock at least a dozen times before, so I’m pretty comfortable with the route. Basically, just drive southeast until I hit I-30, then drive until I’m in downtown Little Rock. It always amuses me when my GPS app shows something like “continue on I-30 E for 290 miles”.

My first stop of the morning is in Rockwall, which is about 45 minutes into the trip. I stop for breakfast and fuel, and sit to watch the morning’s World Cup action. On the morning in question, Sweden and England are playing. I sit for around a half hour to eat and relax before getting back in the car and back on the highway.

From there, I don’t stop again until I’m in Little Rock at my hotel. I check in, unpack a bit and watch the remainder of Russia vs. Croatia. I text Ryan and ask about any pregame activities. He informs me that there’s nothing planned for today, but that there’s an excellent restaurant down the street from the stadium that I should try. The place is called “Big Orange Burger,” and the chicken sandwich I order is wonderful. From there, I drive the half mile to the stadium.

The Rangers play at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, a venue I’ve actually been to several times before for college football. It’s the second-largest stadium in the state, seating a whopping 54,120. Ryan has arranged press credentials for me for the day, giving me access to the entire facility. I meet a friend from Reddit, Ben, and we head into the stands. This stadium really is massive. It was renovated not long ago, and it definitely feels like a Division I college football venue. Maybe it’s the stadium, maybe it’s the team itself, but my initial impression walking in is that this feels professional.

If there is a criticism to make of War Memorial Stadium, it’s that the markings on the field indicate the primary purpose. There’s a football gridiron, thick white lines, bold “ARKANSAS” lettering in the end zones and all. The soccer markings are done in yellow, and look weather-worn and somewhat faded. They’re not the easiest to see. On that point, though, there may be some good news in the near future for the Rangers. There have been rumors saying that the stadium will undergo additional renovations with soccer as a focus, and the Little Rock Rangers would be considered a primary tenant.

The first game of the day is the WPSL game between Little Rock and Oklahoma City FC. Oklahoma City is a veteran of the league and one of the strongest teams in the Central Region. Little Rock isn’t. Quite simply, they just don’t have the same depth, and their roster is much younger and less experienced. It shows. OKC scores in the eighth minute. And then again in the 19th. And then again in the 25th. Little Rock is able to maintain that 3-0 scoreline through to halftime, but four minutes into the second half, OKC scores a fourth. A minute later, they score a fifth. The next 26 minutes see Little Rock looking its best, and they have a few threatening moments on the other end. That is, until OKC scores a sixth on the counter in the 76th minute. It’s a bit back and forth for the final fifteen minutes, but Little Rock only has one good shot that’s saved.

After the first game, I get up to wander around, check out the press box and investigate the various concession and merchandise booths in the stadium. I pick up a scarf and Ben buys me a beer from a local brewery. It’s a Bluewing blueberry wheat ale from Flyway. I’m not normally much for beer, but this is objectively not bad. For the second game, Ben and I join Ryan and the rest of the Red Watch to get the full local supporters’ experience. Ryan picks up a flagpole off the ground to show me. It’s my flag. I’ve seen the pictures on Twitter, but there’s something really surreal and incredible about seeing one of my creations made real. I grab an obligatory selfie with the flag, and legitimately consider signing it for a moment.

The Red Watch has a dozen or so members here tonight for the game. Ryan hands everyone present some streamers and a red Enola Gaye smoke grenade. This is my first time holding such a device and I can’t hide my excitement. Ryan also hands me a Red Watch scarf and it has that inky, new-scarf smell. The Red Watch is full of interesting and delightful characters, and we instantly hit it off. I’m surprised to find myself surprised at how tied in they all are to lower-division American soccer. It’s wonderful.

This second game is a bit of a big deal. Little Rock is looking to secure a home playoff game for the first time in club history, and all they need to do tonight is win. Tulsa Athletic, meanwhile, has a chance to spoil the party and force the Rangers to travel to Oklahoma for the first round of the playoffs. The two clubs sit level on points with identical 6-3-0 records, just below FC Wichita.

I’m informed by the Red Watch members that this is definitely a rivalry. Tulsa and Little Rock have been playing each other since Little Rock joined the NPSL in 2016, and Little Rock has never won. The previous encounter between the two was a particularly ugly affair: Tulsa won at home 6-1. That blowout actually stands as the worst loss ever suffered by the Rangers. Tonight, they’re definitely out for revenge.

From kickoff, it’s chippy. Both teams have received a yellow card by the 20th minute. Every challenge is rough and physical. This is undeniably a rivalry, and every player knows it. The Red Watch responds by going nuts, making noise, banging drums and singing loud enough to get half the stadium involved. There might only be a dozen of them, but it’s absolutely plenty to feel like a party.

The crowd at large is definitely not bad, and there must be at least 2,000 people in the stands. I’m comparing this mentally to the game I attended in Fort Worth, and while it’s a tough call to say which crowd is larger, I’m giving the advantage to Little Rock. I shouldn’t be surprised given what I already knew about the club, but any team that manages to get that many people to an amateur soccer game in Arkansas is doing so many things right.

Back to the game. It’s now late in the first half and Little Rock is still out for blood. Somehow, this game is still scoreless, thanks in no small part to minor heroics from Tulsa’s goalkeeper. The first half ends without much additional faffery, and I use the halftime break to socialize with my fellow soccer crazies.

The second half begins with much of the same ongoing stalemate that marked the first. Both sides have their moments, but nothing particularly dramatic happens for the first 20 minutes of the second half. In the 65th minute, yellow cards are handed out to Little Rock’s Daishi Uekuri and Tulsa’s Adam Habib. These work a fair bit to calm both sides down for 10 minutes or so. The ball goes out for an Athletics corner in the 79th minute. After a minor skirmish in the box, Little Rock’s keeper makes a save, punts the ball 70 yards down the field and right to a charging Alex Guadron. He shakes three defenders, takes a shot from 12 yards out and scores.

Everyone goes nuts. Smoke grenades, drumming, streamers, screaming. The entire team comes over to celebrate right in front of the supporters. The kickoff is taken, and the Little Rock players push forward immediately. Tulsa is forced to bunker and counter for the first minute or so. And then, Adam Habib gets a second yellow for a clumsy challenge along the sideline. Little Rock now has a goal and man advantage, and 10 minutes to keep the lead. Easy.

From then on, Little Rock is clearly in full control of the game. Tulsa looks tired and they’re having a hard time keeping up while shorthanded. It only takes Little Rock nine minutes to score a second, and it’s a gorgeous chip from 10 yards out. This time, Tulsa’s ‘keeper actually gets a hand on it, but it slips through his arms into the net. Cue a second round of celebratory chaos.

One of the team staffers on the sideline walks over to the supporters and starts discussing something I never expected. We’re going onto the field. All of us. We watch the final few minutes of stoppage time from field level. It feels like an eternity. The final whistle blows and we storm the field. I run out to midfield, then drop back, pull my phone out and start recording. This is such a surreal experience. I’m high-fiving players and shaking hands. Everyone is standing and cheering.

Security gives us five minutes to celebrate before retrieving us from the field. I take a few minutes to chat with my new Arkansan soccer friends before heading out of the stadium and back to my hotel. What a night. I take a half hour or so to document my thoughts before heading to bed.

The next day, I wake up reasonably early, make a quick vlog about my trip and hit the road. It’s a nice, uneventful drive home.

The following Wednesday, Little Rock hosts its first home playoff game in club history, a rematch against Tulsa. The home side wins 1-0 with the lone goal coming in the 90th minute. Little Rock moves on to the Heartland Conference Final, where they face a dominant FC Wichita team. Little Rock manages to hold Wichita scoreless for 90 minutes, holds strong as the match goes to extra time and forces a penalty shootout. Andres Ochoa misses the third penalty for Wichita. Little Rock doesn’t miss any. The Rangers move on to the South Region semifinals, traveling all the way to Texas to play the Laredo Heat. The game is tied 1-1 after 90. Little Rock’s Donald Benamna, the hero from the first playoff game, scores in the 115th to send the Rangers to the South Region finals. Their opponent? Miami FC 2.

The game in Miami isn’t much of a fair matchup, given what Miami FC did to the rest of the NASL in 2017. Little Rock’s playoff journey ends with a 3-0 loss far away from home, but it’s still their best season ever. And my friend Ben, who I invited to the game? He caught the local soccer bug hard, and is now well integrated with both the Red Watch and the Rangers team.

Thanks for reading the third installment in “Supporting Local Soccer.” I hope you enjoyed this piece as much as I enjoyed my trip. If you have a unique local soccer experience you’d like to share, reach out to me on Twitter. If you haven’t read the previous installments yet, check them out here and here.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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The Past 10 Days

“John, where have you been the past two weeks?”

Good question, website. The short answer is traveling.

Back in June, my Front Porch Soccer cohost Ian invited me to join him at the MLS All-Star Game in Atlanta, where he would be one of many MLS and MLS-adjacent media people in attendance. When he’s not staying up late drunkenly discussing soccer jerseys with me, he’s doing video-related work for MLS. While we were recording, I found a flight to Atlanta from Dallas for $109 round trip. That’s basically unbeatable. At that point, my mind was made.

I flew to Atlanta last Monday night (30 July) having used the weekend prior to make progress on a few ongoing projects and actually take a break from my normal schedule grind. Monday night I met up with Ian and his wife Kelsey at the hotel in Atlanta, which was actually the first time he and I had met in person. We’ve known each other for literally years, but only through the magic of the internet. I always love it when I meet an internet friend in person and the sorts of conversations and antics pick up immediately, and we spent the evening drinking rum and cokes and talking. The next day was the primary media day at the MLS All-Star Game digital HQ in downtown Atlanta, so we spent a few hours there. I got to meet Simon Borg along with a number of MLS digital media people who I’ve followed online. Very fun. That night was the Special Olympics Unified game, Homegrown All-Star game, and the big crazy party. Due to the continuous thunderstorms in Atlanta coupled with typical Atlanta traffic, I elected to watch the two games online instead of in person, and went to the party. What. A. NIGHT.

Here’s a brief list of people I encountered or talked with at that party: Alexi Lalas, Claudio Reyna, Jason Kreis, Diego Valeri, Dave Sarachan, the guys at American Soccer Analysis, Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt, and of course, Matt Doyle. We (Ian, Kelsey, and I) ended up playing mini-golf in this theme park party venue with MLS’s top immigration lawyer. Very, very cool. There was also an open bar containing jack and coke slushies, wine slushies, and all sorts of other amazing inebriants. By the end of the night, I stumbled out of the car back at the hotel and Ian escorted my drunk self to my room. I woke up the next day at 2pm.

Wednesday was the All-Star Game itself. Honestly, while I enjoyed the hell out of the game, and would definitely go to another one, it wasn’t the best part of the experience. But I must say, what a lovely stadium, and the rumors about concession prices are true. Just for signing up as a designated driver, I got free soda for the entire game.

Thursday is where things went awry. I was feeling the exhaustion of a very busy week, but my flight back to Dallas was leaving at 7:25. For some reason, I had that down as 7:45, and scheduled accordingly. Long story short: I missed my flight, paid $75 to Delta just to get past security, called my dad in a panic, and wound up on an entirely different flight plan. Instead of flying Atlanta to Dallas to Grand Rapids, Michigan, I would be flying from Atlanta to Chicago and then to Grand Rapids. I spent a little over three hours in the Atlanta airport. In Chicago, the gate agent informed us, the gathering masses, that the airline would be offering vouchers worth $360 for anyone willing to take the next flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids. Ten minutes later, that number jumped to $750 and I took it. That voucher alone more than covers the cost of my panic flight in Atlanta and the entirely new flight plan. I felt like the god of air travel was giving me some positive karma back. I then spent around 4 more hours sitting around O’Hare waiting for that later flight, and didn’t arrive in Michigan until 6:30PM (more than 6 hours later than intended). Whatever.

We were in Grand Rapids for two nights for my cousin’s wedding, which was another excellent day, and we spent the rest of our time there touring their unusually prolific and exceptional craft breweries. I found one particular beverage, the Nitro Rubaeus from Founders, incredible. It’s technically beer, but doesn’t taste like beer, and I normally hate beer.

From there, it was on to Chicago for Saturday through Tuesday evening. In Chicago, we saw Hamilton, did some shopping, ate pizza at Giordano’s, and did the typical tourist things. I particularly enjoyed the Shedd Aquarium and the Art Institvte, and I went and lectured Anish Kapoor’s shiny metal bean on abuse of intellectual property agreements. While in Chicago, my body decided to being rebelling against me in stages. My preferred walking/hiking shoes (Salomon brand) had nearly three years of life on them, and the thunderstorms in Atlanta were the final straw. I ended up chucking them in a skip downtown and told my family to pack a pair of Van’s for me. This was a mistake. In Chicago, those Van’s were absolutely murder on my feet, ankles, and knees, and the strain of the excessive walking inflamed my hips to the point where I had to loosen my belt. I also managed to contract some sort of plague. Chicago started getting a fair amount of rain on Monday, and our flight back to Dallas on Tuesday was delayed from 8:45 to 9:59. We didn’t land at DFW until after midnight.

I woke up Wednesday morning still feeling that plague. A quick check with a thermometer revealed a fever right around 100 degrees to go along with my aching bits, cough, headaches, and sinus nonsense. I spent all day on the couch in front of my new birthday present TV (post on the new setup coming soon). This is actually the first I’ve written since my layover in O’Hare last Friday. I’m definitely not back to 100%. Maybe somewhere around 66? Regardless, I’m not going to attempt much work for the next few days while my body properly recovers.

Anyway, that’s where all I’ve been.

New on SocTakes: Improving MLS All-Star week

MLS All-Star week

Photo credit: John Lenard/Soc Takes

ATLANTA — Ah, All-Star week. That time of year when we get to watch a team of MLS star players take on some international powerhouse club, while the up-and-coming Homegrown stars play some major club’s youth team. It’s all a great time, and a great opportunity for MLS fans around the USA and Canada to congregate in one place.

However, it’s not nearly as fun as it could be, nor as fun as it should be. Let’s fix that, shall we?

But first, as is customary, a history lesson.

The All-Star Game has been an annual fixture of the MLS season since 1996. The first two years pitted East vs. West, akin to the other four major American sports leagues. For 1998, MLS adopted a USA vs. the World format, pitting two teams of league all-stars against each other; one comprising American players, the other foreign. The East vs. West format returned in 1999 (despite MLS adopting a third division, the Central Division for the 2000 and 2001 seasons) and continued until 2002, when MLS switched to the first All-Stars vs. guest format. That first game saw the MLS All-Stars taking on the U.S. men’s national team (though, considering full USA internationals Jason Kreis and Steve Ralston scored for MLS, I’m calling shenanigans). The first All-Stars vs. foreign club game was the 2003 edition, when the All-Stars hosted CD Guadalajara at the brand-new Home Depot Center. Following a one-off return to East vs. West in 2004, the All-Stars have taken on an international club in every subsequent game.

Why, exactly, am I so concerned with fun? Because throwing together the best and most popular players in a league or conference and seeing what they do together is just delightful. Want to see Zlatan, Tim Howard, Carlos Vela, Miguel Ibarra, and Diego Valeri as teammates on the field together? Hell yeah I do. It’s not going to be high-quality soccer, that’s a given. Great teams are great because of things like team chemistry and familiarity on the field. The All-Stars never have that, nor should it be expected. They’re there to go have fun together for our and their enjoyment. That’s beautiful.

MLS All-Star week

Photo credit: John Lenard/Soc Takes

So, here’s the first proposal: bring back the East vs. West All-Star Game. While it’s definitely fun watching our league’s best take on European giants, those invited clubs generally treat the game as part of preseason training. International superstars aren’t likely to push themselves too hard, as going down injured in what is essentially a preseason friendly could cost them a starting spot. It just doesn’t make sense for those teams to try and play with the same intensity as they would in league play. Meanwhile, the East vs. West games averaged nine goals scored per game, and players generally played out of their minds. That’s both more fun and more relevant to fans of MLS.

So, East vs. West. That’s one fix. Let’s also take that format and apply it to the Homegrown Game, where we get to see a full 90 minutes of pure homegrown talent. For one, it gets these young players in front of a lot of eyeballs, and for two, it’s a contextually relevant game both in terms of MLS experience and youth national team experience.

Onto the rest of All-Star week. Let’s bring in a skills competition. Why not? It’s always great fun watching NHL players do crazy stuff every year, and the Home Run Derby is a borderline religious experience in the Church of the Almighty Dong. And there are a number of relevant skills competitions we could have in the All-Star Game. Here are four ideas I have already:

1. The 35-yard shootout

Back in early MLS, games never ended in draws. If both sides were level after 90 minutes, games went to a shootout. Here’s a video so you can see what I mean:

Players started 35 yards from goal, and had five seconds to beat the goalkeeper. Keepers were able to come forward and defend, while kickers got to dribble up the field and prepare a shot. They’re wildly entertaining to watch even today. Compare these to the very similar shootouts in hockey. Let’s turn this into one of our skills. Take the starting ‘keeper from each conference’s All-Stars, and put them against maybe four or eight field players from the other conference. And if a defender or even a ‘keeper wants to give it a go, that’s even better. Hell, if Zlatan wants to play in goal and Luis Robles wants to try and score on him, let that happen. I’ve been — quite loudly — arguing for these shootouts to supplant penalty shootouts in MLS and the U.S. Open Cup for years. If that dream is to ever become a reality, we need more people to learn or remember just how great those 35-yard shootouts are.

2. Long-range bombs

We all love a ridiculous strike from midfield that flies over the ‘keeper’s head and into the back of the net. If we didn’t, those goals wouldn’t win Goal of the Week every time they happened. And if you think you don’t like those goals, watch this video right here:

That should change your mind. Ever wonder who’s the best at that? Well I certainly have. Let’s find out together. Get some great players to take the shot, and have a designated keeper and defender to try and keep it out of the net. Shooters stand from the long end of the half-way line, run up to the ball, and just blast that sucker at the goal. This would be MLS’ Home Run Derby.

3. Crossbar challenge

It seems like everyone’s doing one of these nowadays, so what the hell, welcome to the Skills Competition. If you’re unfamiliar, the crossbar challenge is a sort of free kick competition wherein the goal is to hit the crossbar instead of the back of the net. It’s a bit odd, and definitely confusing to watch if you don’t know what’s going on, but it’s also good fun. The players seem to enjoy it, too, and there are dozens of videos of prominent players giving it a go.

4. Trick shot challenge

Again, why not? Partially suggested by my friend Valerie, and definitely inspired by hockey. Let players try and score a goal in whatever ridiculous way they please. Props? Yes. Inviting whomever onto the field to assist? Yes. In the NHL, this turned into a big chaotic mess, and it was delightful. They’ve since introduced measures to restore normality in all the wrong ways, so let’s have their fun for them.

At this point, I think I’ve made enough of a case. MLS All-Star week could be way more weird and entertaining than it is currently, and in conclusion, I should be in charge. Thank you and goodnight.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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New on SocTakes: New league announced: US Premiership

US Premiership

Image credit: US Premiership

On July 30, the US Premiership officially launched via a pair of Facebook posts. The first was a bit light on information, but the second revealed that the organization has purchased the Texas Premier Soccer League, a semi-pro league affiliated with US Club Soccer, and that the owner and head coach of the Bay Area Hurricanes (based in Houston) is serving as South Texas Regional Commissioner, although this is somewhat unclear in the post.

Additional research by Beau Dure on Twitter indicates a partnership with the American Soccer League, an eight-team league based in the northeast. A cursory check shows that the American Soccer League website and the US Premiership website are on the same server and running the same Soccer Max engine. In a brief phone call with the league, we learned that the US Premiership is owned by Soccer Max Websites, a content management system for soccer teams and leagues based in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Information on two teams can be found on the American Soccer League website at present: Miami United FC, which played in the NPSL in 2018; and Miami Soccer Academy. Neither of those teams have ever played in the ASL, and Miami United CEO Roberto Sacca has no knowledge of the US Premiership. Curiously, Miami United is found in one of three news posts on the US Premiership site, which raises further questions.

I’ve reached out to Soccer Max Websites for additional info which will be shared as it arrives.

Thanks to American Pyramid Blog where we learned of this story on Twitter.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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