Friday, October 28, 2011

MLS Conference Semifinal Odds: The Year the Game Differential Curse is Broken?

Will Henry and the Red Bulls continue the game differential trend
of years past and have the last laugh on Beckham and the Galaxy?

The Conference Semifinals are now set, and it is time for a bit of prognostication guided by statistical analysis.  I'll be using the model developed in this post from March, which examined which factors were significant predictors of success in MLS's two-legged playoff round format.  As a reminder, it turns out the differential in the number of games played and coaches experience in MLS are the only two statistically significant factors in predicting the outcome of the two legged series.

An Update on My Philosophy

After the Red Bulls' win on Wednesday night there was a far bit of discussion regarding the "CONCACAF Champions Leauge Curse.'  The curse - if there is one - says that teams that participate in CCL never win MLS playoff series.  The idea is that MLS squads get stretched too thin, especially as CCL group play stacks up at the business end of the MLS regular season.  By the time the playoffs start, these CCL clubs are sitting ducks for less successful clubs who eeked their way in to the playoffs and are better rested. Or so the theory goes...

I inserted myself in to this discussion on Wednesday night, and I wanted to clarify a few things as the 140-character limits of Twitter are a VERY poor communication medium on such a complex topic.  Here are my somewhat-informed opinions on the topic.
  • If the idea of a CCL Curse is that clubs who participate in CCL have never won a playoff series, it's flat out wrong.  As recently as 2009 this curse was broken.  The Houston Dynamo participated in the 2009-2010 CCL group stages due to the 2008 Supporter's Shield, and promptly eliminated the Seattle Sounders in the first round of those playoffs. 
  • What is correct is that an overall difference in the number of competitive matches played in a season (MLS, CCL, and US Open Cup) is a statistically significant predictor of the outcome of a two legged playoff.  Yes, even with the small sample size (64 clubs over 32 matches) it passes basic statistical tests.  The model developed in that March post showed that each additional match a club plays beyond their opponent's total number of matches lowers said team's odds of winning the series by 7.5%.
  • Historical data suggests that match differences of more than four mean the club with fewer matches is virtually a lock to get through.  The 2009 Dynamo are the lone example of a team bucking that trend - they had played five more games than the Sounders when they won that playoff series.  No other club with more than four more games played has made it through the two-legged round.
  • The occurrence of a large difference in the number of matches played between playoff opponents certainly has risen in the CCL era (2008+).  The number of matches contested by teams with a game differential of four or more has doubled in the CCL era (see end of this blog post for the raw numbers).
  • Clearly, the game differential statistic is not deterministic and is bound to change over time, perhaps even this year.  As Sarah Rudd at On Football has pointed out, LA, Seattle, and Real Salt Lake are all sporting some of the freshest squads in the playoffs given their superior squad rotation during the competitions throughout the year.  Larger MLS roster allocations than in year's past have also helped.  A minutes-played rather than a crude games-played metric would be preferable - perhaps it is something I can work on with Sarah this off season.  Nonetheless, it's scary that so much of past performance can be boiled down to one crude metric.
  • Most importantly, none of this is deterministic.  Teams beat the odds all the time, and the odds change with each passing year.  MLS constantly tweaks their playoff format and who qualifies for it, and they change the economics of the game as well which is key to squad rotation and having the best shot at multiple competitions.  The numbers only tell a story of what's happened in the past, and can only be one of many guides as to how things might operate in the future.
That being said, it's now time to move on to a little number crunching and predicting!

Semi-Final Odds and Predictions

First, here's a reminder about the model developed in April.  Data from the 2003 through 2010 playoffs was used to create a binary logistic regression model of what factors predicted success in the two-legged format that was then used as the preliminary round of the playoffs.  Factors such as seeding, season goal differential, and a difference in home/away performance ended up not being statistically significant.  Only two factors were statistically significant - difference in MLS coaching experience and difference in number of matches played.  The data from the eight teams in the four 2011 conference semi-finals have been applied to that model, and the results are presented in the table below.

There's a pretty big split in odds between the Eastern Conference and Western Conference squads, mainly due to the huge divergence in the number of games played.  Keep in mind that previous analysis has also shown that more experienced coaches actually fair worse than those with less experience when it comes to two-legged ties - this may be due to those same coaches being tied to more successful teams who play more matches, a possibility I will explore this offseason as well.

I don't see any reason to pick against the numbers in the Sporting KC/Colorado Rapids series.  Sporting KC has been in great form the second half of the season, and should use that form and rested legs to their advantage against Colorado.  In contrast to the LA/NY series, this one has the shortest travel distance for the two participants - 600 miles - which may provided an even bigger advantage to the winner when it comes to weariness in later rounds.

I'm going with the numbers in the Houston/Philadelphia match up and say Philadelphia wins the series.  To be honest, I don't have much individual information on either team, having not really watched them all season.  Far more observant and intelligent commentators can break this one down for you.  In the absence of my own observations, I'm sticking with the data.

The NY/LA match up presents an interesting choice for me.  As a biased Sounders supporter, I'd love to see NY take out LA.  To be honest, it might make the Sounders road a little easier if they were to make it through their semifinal round - the Sounders have only won a single league match against LA over the three years they have been in the league.  Plus, if the Sounders were to make it to the final they would host that match (and maybe I would get that beer I am owed by a certain NYRB supporter...). Both teams come in to this match up a little banged up, but LA clearly has been the more consistent team all year long.  They've also done a much better job at rotating players over the season as they've competed in multiple competitions, and will actually come in to this series with a more rested squad than New York.  Perhaps the numbers make this a close series, but it's very hard to bet against LA with the season they've had.  I'm going with the Galaxy.

The final match up - Seattle/Real Salt Lake - is a bit tougher to pick.  Beyond my own bias, I also have watched nearly every Sounders match this season and have a good idea as to what makes them tick.  The spark plug in their offense - Mauro Rosales - is out for the first game and will likely only play a minimal role in the second game if he's even fit for it.  Without Rosales, the Sounders can look flat at times.  They'll also be coming in to this series with a heavy playoff history on their shoulders - one goal and no wins in four playoff matches.  For all their success, they've largely fallen flat in the playoffs.  It will be interesting to see if Sigi Schmid puts Sammy Ochoa in the starting lineup given his solid performances and several goals scored the last few matches.  The real question will be whether Seattle can produce enough offense without Rosales to win the series, and then get him back for the Conference Finals.  As is the case in the NY/LA match up, the match count is a bit deceiving in this one.  Seattle has done a good job at squad rotation as well, and thus comes in with a slight advantage versus Real Salt Lake (although it's much smaller than LA's advantage vs. NY).

I also think Real Salt Lake is a bit of a dangerous team.  They're playing with a chip on their shoulder, looking to continue to prove 2009's MLS Cup and this year's run to the CCL championship match weren't flukes.  This series may just be the best to watch out of the four.  I'll be at the second leg, and I narrowly believe I'll be watching the Sounders win their first playoff series in their three year existence.  If I'm right about this series, and LA wins their series, we may just see the whole match differential metric become statistically insignificant and finally stop talking about the "CCL Curse".

I'll check back in a week from now with odds on the Conference Final match ups.  Enjoy the semifinal round!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

MLS Wild Card Odds: A Historical Look at the Factors that Affect MLS Single Game Playoff Matches

The 2011 MLS Cup playoffs start tonight, and I thought it might be worth taking a statistical look at what it might take to get through the new Wild Card playoff round.

For those who don't follow MLS regularly, a bit of background is in order.  Unlike other soccer leagues, MLS does not use a top-of-the-table format to determine their champion.  In a nod to other US sports, they use a playoff to determine the champion, and yet in a nod to the global soccer community they don't use a single elimination model for the entire playoffs.  Since 2003 they've used a hybrid that has a two-legged tie in the first round, then a single elimination match at the higher seed for the second round, and then a championship match at a neutral site for the final.

This year they've added a single elimination wild card round for the bottom four teams in the playoff seeding, and the winners of those two matches will then move on with the top six seeds in the playoffs into the aforementioned proper first round two legged tie.  The playoffs then proceed as in years past - single elimination second round, then a neutral site winner-take-all championship.  If you're confused as to why the American professional version of the sport takes such a convoluted way to crown a champion, you're not alone.  I've already written plenty on how the playoff system needs to be changed, but it is what it is so we might as well analyze it.

The focus of this post will be on the factors that impact single elimination games given that the Wild Card matches are first up.  I'll return later this week with a post looking at the two-legged tie odds that come out of the Wild Card matches.

Like my previous posts on the MLS playoffs, I utilized a binary logistic regression model to determine which factors were statistically significant predictors of MLS single match playoff success.  Just like the previous series of posts, I only used data from the 2003 season forwards (data used within this analysis came from Climbing The Ladder's excellent player lineup database).  This presents a bit of a challenge in producing enough samples to identify statistically significant factors - each year of playoffs only had two matches of single elimination games, compared with 4 two match series in the first round of each year's playoffs.  To put things in perspective, the fact that we will have two rounds of single elimination matches this year (Wild Card and proper second round), the total number of single match playoffs will actually increase by 25% (20 samples at year end vs. 16 at start of 2011 playoffs).  Nonetheless, the 16 match samples are what's available today, and there was one statistically significant factor that stood out from my analysis of those matches.

The list of factors considered in the analysis are shown below, in order of least significant to most significant factors.  Only the last factor, the difference in the two teams' season goal differential, actually met the criteria of being statistically significant (factor had a p-value < 0.05).

  • Season Series PPM Difference
  • Seed Difference
  • Season Series GD
  • Difference in Coach Experience
  • Games Played Difference
  • Final 5 Games Point Difference
  • Venue Point % Difference
  • Home/Away
  • Difference in Season Goal Differential
In some ways, this list is a bit more reassuring than the similar one for the two-legged tie.  Notice that factors that intuitively should be more significant - home pitch advantage, the difference in percentage of available points earned by the home team at home versus the away team earned away, the difference in the number of points earned the final five games of the season - are more significant.  One wonders if an increase in sample size will be enough to make them statistically significant?Additionally, the data suggests we should ignore the two teams' regular season meetings - statistics quantifying such events take two out of the three least signficant factor positions. Either way, it seems there is a bit more justice to the single match format given how hard teams work throughout an entire regular season to earn points (especially at the end of the season) and thus get home pitch advantage for the playoffs.

A plot of the one statistically significant term, difference in season goal differential, is plotted below.  The range of differences considered was constrained by the maximum difference seen in the data set, which was seen in the 2007 playoff match between the Houston Dynamo and Kansas City Wizards.

The effects of low sample size show up in the plot via the wide gap between the dashed lines, which represent the bounds of the 95th percentile prediction interval for the odds of winning a match for a given difference in goal differential.  These lines will come closer together over time if current trends hold as further MLS Cup playoffs are contested.  The key takeaway from the graph is that for every unit increase in the Difference in Season Goal Differential between -10 and +10, a team's odds of winning a single playoff series increases by roughly 3%.

Applying this model to the teams in the 2011 Wild Card matches yields the table below.

I wouldn't necessarily take these odds to the bank given the wide gap in the 95th percentile prediction interval on the graph.  But with FC Dallas slumping as of late, it's not unreasonable to expect the Red Bulls to pull off a win.  The same could be said of the Rapids, who are looking to validate last season's championship run from the lower levels of the playoff seeding with a similar run in 2011.

What the analysis does indicate is the inherent fairness of a single match playoff if a playoff format must be used to determine the MLS champion.  Previous analysis of the two legged tie format showed successful clubs - those who compete deep into the season on many fronts and those with longer serving coaches - tend to be penalized more in a two legged format.  That format also effectively takes away all the advantages of a higher seed's hard work throughout the season, as the lower seed also gets to enjoy a home match.  Analysis of the single match format seems to indicate teams that do well throughout the season tend to do well in the single match format.  If anything, MLS should restrict the two legged tie to the wild card match and reward the higher seeds with single game home matches in the proper first round against teams who've played an additional two matches via their victories in the Wild Card round.  This would be a better balance of many people's desires to see consistent success over an entire regular season rewarded like it is other professional soccer leagues with the desire on other's parts for a US-style playoff.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

An Interview with Simon Kuper


Simon Kuper came to Seattle on October 11th to take part in a forum on the sport and promote his latest book, Soccer Men: Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses, and Neurotics Who Dominate the World's Most Popular Sport.  Sarah Rudd and I were lucky enough to get an interview with Simon prior to the event that evening.  The interview focused on Simon's latest book, as well as his best-seller Soccernomics and his award-winning first book titled Soccer Against the Enemy.

The full interview, forty minutes in length, is provided below.  It should be noted that the interview picks up mid-introductions to provide context for my opening question.

Sarah and I are grateful for Simon taking nearly an hour in total out of his busy evening to discuss a range of topics with us.  Special thanks goes to Simon's editor at Nation Books, Carl Bromley, who contacted me to help set up the interview.  Carl gets social media and the key role it can play in keeping great print media alive and engaging.  Other publishers should be so lucky to have someone like Carl.

The Interview

Sarah Rudd (SR): I think I read Football Against the Enemy 10 years ago [note: the book was originally published in 1994]

Simon Kuper (SK): Wow

SR: I just randomly picked it up when I was at Heathrow and it was a pretty amazing find. I'd never really read a book that sort of spoke about soccer so intelligently before.

SK: That's very kind. I wrote it about 17 years ago, so it feels like it was somebody else.

SR: Well it's held up well. I read it 10 years ago, and I still go back from time to time and re-read chapters. I love the chapter on Argentina and their Diego-worship. Certainly with the World Cup last year that was interesting.

Zach Slaton (ZS): I actually wanted to ask you about that book. It was, beyond Soccernomics, the second book of yours that I read. So I have a later edition, the 2010 edition. And you finished that book, to quote you,
"It's been seventeen years since I finished my journey around the world to research this book.  I will never do it again. Forty-eight hours in a Ukranian train, weeks without hot water, and conversations in languages I don't speak - I have had enough."
SK: Absolutely. I think it is really only the kind of book you can write when you're 22... 23... It's hard to imagine how different the world was then. So, I would arrive in Estonia, and you couldn't really contact people in Estonia beforehand because how would you find out their phone numbers? How would you find out who they were? Even making a call could be difficult.

So I'd arrive in a country, get some local money, and go to a pay phone. I'd put money in the pay phone, and call some numbers an anthropologist or some journalist had given me. First, they'd be speaking a language you didn't know. Second, they'd say "Oh, he died," or "Oh, he lived here 20 years ago." Just the process of actually finding people was incredibly hard.

Getting information on Cameroon or the Ukraine, if you were in London [at that time] you couldn't actually get information on current events in those countries. You could find out about the history, but [not] what [was] happening in Cameroon [at the time]. So I went to the Cameroonian embassy and the guy wouldn't let me in because he thought I was a creditor. I guess they had a policy of not letting in people they did not know, because they were constantly being pursued by creditors.

Essentially now you could write the book without going to such places.

ZS: So it's more the world that the book was written within and the challenges it presented that you would not do again. Not necessarily the actual travel itself. Do you think [the travel] was integral to the book?

SK: It made it the kind of book it was. But now look. Here I am in the Sorrento Hotel. It's very nice. I am a middle aged man and I like my comforts, so this is very nice. If I were doing Football Against the Enemy I'd be staying in the cheapest place in Seattle, and I wouldn't be able to take a taxi. So I'd have to work out the bus [schedule] to get to the Sorrento Hotel to interview somebody. Who'd be somebody like me, a middle aged man with a job who would feel good. And so the older man would think, "Why am I talking to you?" The whole process was just so physically and mentally draining. But you're trying to get at something else -

ZS: Well, I was trying to get at my second question which is you're viewed in this role with Hornby, Goldblatt, and a number of other writers who have helped to establish this field over the last 20 to 30 years of a serious, large scale, popular field of soccer commentary and scholastic writing -

SK: Fairly popular, not very popular [a wry smile appears on Simon's face and I can't help but laugh]

ZS: In Soccer Men you start off explaining that you don't need to justify this field anymore, but that sometimes we need to remind ourselves to not take this so seriously. So you're not having to freeze your rear end off anymore and go to the lengths you had to in Soccer Against the Enemy, but on the other hand you are one of those foundational writers in this field that does take itself relatively seriously. So how do you strike that balance?

SK: Phil Ball wrote a very good book about Spanish soccer about 10 years ago called Morbo, and he says in the introduction

 "The great thing about soccer is that nine-tenths of the poetry is in the fact that it doesn't really matter."
And everybody who's writing about it or is a fan REALLY KNOWS it doesn't really matter.

So I am watching Holland in the World Cup final. I really wanted them to win, but I also hated the way they played so I had these conflicting feelings. I was very torn up, but there is a voice in the back of you saying, "This is an escape. This is an escape. That's what this is." And what irritates me often is the hysteria of the commentary. The anger, the lack of humor about it.

Nick Hornby's book is great in part because he KNOWS it doesn't matter, and therefore he knows he has a problem. The book is partly, "What is my problem?" And if he were saying, "I love Arsenal! I hate Spurs! I'm so gutted we didn't win!" it would not be a fun book and it wouldn't be an intelligent book.

Soccer generates news all the time. There's always results, a press conference, or a trade. You have this huge apparatus which all three of us are obviously a part of in some way via commentary. Most people don't consume soccer - they consume soccer talk. Which is what we're generating now and hope that some people consume. To make that talk more appealing we sometimes make it sound more important...

ZS: More important than it should be?

SK: Well, I have a friend who listens to this phone-in show in England on Saturdays called Six-On-Six and people call in and say, "Oh, our manager, I can't believe..." These are middle aged men calling in. My friend always has the urge to call in and say, "Have you EVER thought it doesn't... really... matter?" And I think that's the kind of corrective voice...

ZS: And that's what you have to remind yourself?

SK: Well, I always find it very easy, but in my own pompous way I like to remind others. [again, a wry smile appears]

SR: Were you surprised by the reception Soccernomics got? Did you see any pattern in how well it was received across different countries?

SK: Very much so. It was much better received [in the United States] than in England. The sales were better, the interest was higher. I think Americans are much more atuned to using data - they don't think it's wierd, they don't think it's stupid. Moneyball educated Americans in part, but also Moneyball describes a trend that happens in all American corporations as you know better than I do.

In England people say that data can't teach you anything about soccer, and "I already know about soccer so if you're telling me something new about soccer it must be wrong". Whereas the American readers and writers that I spoke to were much more open to listening and open to new ways of thinking.

SR: In Soccer Men the profile of Jorge Valdano portrays him as a very literate man, but then he is quoted as saying "Reading books doesn't win games." Do you see that as part of the cultural divide where maybe Spain isn't ready?

SK: Well, he wasn't really talking about books on data. I think Valdano is old school, and he's a romantic. I gave him Soccernomics, but there really aren't any books on data in Spain. So he wasn't talking about those books. He was talking about reading Marquez doesn't win you soccer games. Which is probably true.

In terms of books on data, I think the big Spanish clubs are starting to move that way. They're slow, but I think Moneyball was very important because it shows you how cultural connections work. English clubs were the first to find out, so people you mentioned in your email - Mike Forde - started in San Jose. Damien Comolli lived in the Bay Area - he's not English but he ended up in England because he speaks very good English and that cultural connection goes through language. So if you speak English, you're more likely to find out about Moneyball. You're more likely to understand baseball in the first place, and to be able to see what it means and its lessons for your sport. So the lesson has actually been bigger in cricket because it's very similar to baseball. Everyone in cricket read the book and said, "Oh my god! Why didn't we ever do this?" And now they're all doing it.

Soccer has been a bit slower because it's less obvious link. But the link is with England, primarily. The Germans have a long tradition of sports science going back a hundred years. It's a bit different, but very open to the idea that you can use data. Klinsman is another key figure because he lives in California, so he brought that to Germany in 2005 when he was managing the national team. The link goes through America and through English-speaking people, which means the Italians and the Spaniards are a bit slower to come on board.

SR: So does that mean that English clubs can expect to win more Champions League titles?

SK: I said to Billy Beane, "It probably won't be as big in soccer as in baseball because it's a different kind of sport." And he responded, "Maybe. It doesn't have to be because if it gives you an edge you have to do it. Say you have 30% of transfers succeed, and say through use of data you can raise that to 35%. That's an edge." So it's not going to win you Champions League by itself, it's not going to do what it did for the Oakland A's ten years ago. But it is enough that you should do it.

SR: MLS soccer clubs are underfunded, so it seems like this would be an opportunity ripe for this approach. Yet only one or two teams have full-time performance analysts. Do you have any insight as to why they're a bit slower to adopt such an approach?

SK: Probably because they don't have any money. Say a performance analyst costs you $30,000 just in salary, that's significant.

The other thing I think is that data hasn't really made big inroads yet, it hasn't really been game changing in soccer yet. Nobody can show it has totally made a difference. Often it makes a big difference for the most resourced clubs, so far, because they actually have the money to do something with it. It's not just having the data, but it's also having the money to crunch the data. The clubs who make the most use of data are Arsenal because it is run by a data man, Bolton who under Sam Allardyce and somewhat in their corporate culture, and now Liverpool.

The smaller clubs you might have one guy with a laptop, his access to the coach is questionable. In the lower leagues there often isn't any data. You might not know who completed which pass. So far it's only been a few clubs at the top end, and they keep their cards close to their chest. We can't even necessarily see when it has made a difference, even when it has. I can say with a lot of confidence that at Liverpool and Arsenal it heavily informs their transfer decisions. At most big clubs like Chelsea it plays a supplementary role. It does make a difference, and I suspect it makes something of a positive difference.

ZS: So you're talking to Arsenal supporters here, and you wrote an article a couple of weeks ago about potentially the advantage that Arsenal has and in Wenger's management of the data -

SK: had

ZS: - that Wenger had has diminshed greatly. From your opinion, what needs to happen with Arsenal? They seem to do relatively well with the meager transfer budgets they are managing, except for this last transfer window.

SK: They do ok.

ZS: Some would argue they've lost the plot. What do you see they need to change?

SK: It's a really difficult question. They are not going to sack Wenger, almost no matter what happens. I think they see that Arsenal are where they should be now. And for years Arsenal were above where they should have been because Wenger was a genius. Now you're in a situation where three clubs are richer, so naturally you're going to finish behind those three. Those three clubs have copied a lot of what they've done. Where do you find a new advantage?

I don't think Billy Beane has found a new advantage since the days of Moneyball, and I don't think Wenger will. It's very, very hard to do. I was thinking of Einstein - now I am not an expert on this at all - but I think Einstein for the last 20 years of his career just messed about. He was trying to get somewhere and he didn't get anywhere. Just a dead end. It's very hard to invent the wheel twice, and that's what Wenger needs to do. He needs to find something game changing, because all else being equal Arsenal will finish fourth. And when Arsenal finishes fourth, people like you will complain.

ZS: Actually, I won't complain.

SR: Not this year!

ZS: As an Arsenal fan, I'd say you're quite optimistic. I think they're going to struggle to finish fourth this year.

SK: Okay, well maybe one year on Wenger's career he'll underperform and finish fifth or sixth. For fifteen years he's very largely over achieved.

ZS: Clearly over achieved.

SK: So maybe this year, a transition year, difficult circumstances, good players leaving. Even if they finish fourth, the question people will ask is "Why don't they win any prizes?" Which is sort of an unfair question. They could have randomly won an FA Cup or a League Cup. They're sort of unlucky that they didn't, because they are in that zone as one of the clubs who can. It's wrong to expect more of Arsenal than that. They should be a team that gets in to the Champions League most of the time, because if you're fourth you can slip. But Wenger gets there every year. And they should be a team that occasionally wins a cup.

SR: Looking at Liverpool, they've splashed out fairly heavily on young, English players. Do you think they are overpaying for them because of an English bias, or do you think they're just able to see something that's worth putting this high price tag on these guys?

SK: They do overpay. I think they know that. Torres wanted to leave, so they got a brilliant price for him. Something like £55M. So they say, "Ok, we've got £55M. We've lost a really good player, so now we've got to build a new team because we have a new owner. The fans are very angry. We need to satisfy the fans now. " So they spend £25M on Andy Carroll, and you always overpay for center forwards anyways. Say the guy was only really worth £18M. You need him, you have a lot of money, the owner bought the club cheap and is willing to spend, so why not?

In some ways you can overpay, as long as you are aware you are overpaying. If you're Manchester City, you always overpay. But they're okay with that. And in some sense Liverpool are okay with that. It's only when you don't have any fallback or support options like Arsenal that you can't afford to do it.

SR: I thought it was curious that you included a profile on Freddy Adu in [Soccer Men]. He's recently come back to MLS this season. What are your thoughts on his career trajectory and where it can go from here?

SK: I think he should be aiming to become a week-in, week-out MLS player and take it from there. There's no reason to presume right now can be anything more than that given the failed years in Europe. So I would say start playing every week, and he gets better and maybe he could get good enough to play for the US. It would be great.

To go back to the Nike fantasies when he was 14 would be absurd. The last few years have proven that's not the player he became as an adult. Presumably no one expects of that him anymore, right?

SR: Right. We're all hoping that maybe he'll get it together, and like you said be a very good MLS player. If he were to go back to Europe I think a lot of people would be very excited, but would [also] be surprised.

SK: I don't think he is going to be the guy. I think there is going to be someone else, some American. I follow Dutch football, having grown up there, and people are really impressed with the way Altidore started. He's already had a better career than Freddy Adu. He might be closer to being that person. I would be very surprised if in the next five years you don't have an American outfield player playing for one of the Top 8 clubs in Europe.

SR: Have you been following Brek Shea's career at all?

SK: No.

SR: He's sort of the next hot young thing.

SK: Where is he now?

SR: He's currently with an MLS team called FC Dallas, but there are rumored bids to lure him to Europe. So he might be the next guy.

SK: How old is he?

SR: 21

ZS: or 22 (Note: Sarah was wright - Shea is 21)

SK: He's probably already too old to become a great player. There seems to be a problem with the way Americans educate young players in that you all come out at the top end with very competent, hard working, efficient offensive players. And nothing more. I would suspect that anyone who is in the American academy system and college - worse if you're in college - is never going to be that great player.

SR: So do you think someone like Giuseppe Rossi made the right decision to jump ship at age 13?

SK: Oh yeah, totally. He's really the best American player. Is there another player?

SR: Neven Subotic

SK: Right. There's another one. So you have various very good American players, and the problem is then to make sure they stay American.

SR: Well hopefully that is part of Klinsman's allure. Maybe he will convince one or two people they should play for us.

SK: I think it would go through a sponsor. I think you get next time Nike will do it they will choose a slightly older player because they're not going to make the same mistake and bet on another 14 year old. Then they say "Look, we really want you to play for the US." Because the sponsors really need a big American player more than anything else. "We'll give you bonuses based upon national team appearances. So you can earn as much playing for the US as playing for your club."

ZS: In Soccer Men you've made the point that players are not good interviews, but that you like to profile them. However, one of the more interesting things for me personally was the interview with [Johnny] Repp and [Bernd] Holzenbein. The thing that got me was where you were approached at the end of it and were told "this is one of the most memorable moments of my life" -

SK: This friend of mine I had brought along with me.

ZS: Can you describe what that evening was like, beyond what you were able to write down. It seems like it was...

SK: You know, we had beers and I can't remember every word they said. It wasn't like they were incredible revelations. It's not like I suddenly saw what it was all really like. It wasn't at all like that.

It was just two very pleasant guys who were free to talk because they weren't playing for anybody. It was an away day for them. They had gone to Rotterdam, someone had put them in a nice hotel and we listened to them. They liked each other as well, even though they couldn't really understand each other very well. It wasn't so much that things were said that I went away thinking "Oh, my god!", it was just the camaraderie, the amiability, the niceness.

You're with these guys and I think it was more for my friend. I had met these guys before so it wasn't the first time I had met them. Although it was rare to be in such a relaxed setting. For my friend to be sitting there and to be getting beers and having a nice time, like you do with friends, and he's thinking, "Oh, my god! I am sitting here with Johnny Repp!"

At one point we were trying to work out would Repp go home, would he drive home that evening? Would my friend have to take the train home that evening? And we're all sitting there in Rotterdam and Repp said to my friend, "Noooo! We'll all stay here! You'll sleep on my floor." So this friend of mine, the icon of his youth is saying "Sleep on my floor, we'll have a great time!" That, for me, was sort of the stunning aspect. All the walls were broken down. No more divide.

ZS: Almost like as much as you said in that chapter where you went to some of these forums where people who were maybe not even alive during that World Cup final were putting up these walls between [Repp and Holzenbein] because of the roles they played in what you may say was a very serious juxtaposition of the conflict over the War. You obviously had this interplay between the German and the Dutch sides that used to come up, maybe not as much today. All that breaks away - you have these two guys who can't understand each other, one of them is offering to have one of the guys sleep on his floor, is that one of those moments where everything fades away?

SK: It's true that for Dutch fans the Holland/Germany World Cup is good vs. evil match that we lost. The Germans of '74 were villains. For the players it was obviously quite bitter. There are talks of "I had a header that just went past the post. I still dream about that." Then you're with the guy who beat us. In fact, dived for the penalty - we say he dived for the penalty, Holzenbein. And he's just a nice guy.

You realize we build them up as legends, we build them up as myths in our minds about who these people are. By the time they're 55 it's just really pleasant. It might differ per country. I wonder if anyone will sit around with David Beckham like that when he is 55. I somehow doubt it.

ZS: I think you make the case in the book too that these guys brought something to the table just in their conversations that you don't normally get in an interview with a soccer player. You mention that they're able to do this because they're freed from the professional involvement, they're freed from the professional responsibility. Have you found that in other players that you've interviewed? That the only good player interview you get is when they're an ex-player?

SK: Mostly, yeah. In the same book there's Bruce Grobbelaar. I think he was just kind of pleased to meet me, because he had somebody to talk to who was sort of from England where he had spent twenty years. I just wanted an interview. I would have been happy for twenty minutes, and instead we spent this whole night drinking in Cape Town. And I did actually sleep in his spare room!

He drank about four hundred times more than I did. We were completely wasted at the end. And I was trying to make notes, it was an interview. He knew I was interviewing him. He's drinking, I am very far gone and I am taking notes. Then we go back to his flat and he says, "Oh, we'll have one more drink outside!" And then I sort of go into a coma in the spare room, and the next morning he drives me in to town and I go off. It's probably the nature of the person, but also probably being out of the game. They're actually quite keen to have someone come and listen to their stories.

Also, it's more interesting when you can talk about your whole life, when you can look back on your whole life. With Lionnel Messi, if he were here, it'd be more like, "Did you play well? Can you win? How's your knee? Were you angry with the referee? What do you think of what Mourinho said?" It's very sort of the moment and boring, and you don't have much reflection. Plus you're 22 years old, so you don't have as much to say.

SR: So is that why you sort of loathe the autobiographies of so many young players?

SK: I don't know about loathe. I mean I loathe Ashley Cole's autobiography.

When I was ten I read these books as well, and there's a problem when you're twenty five and not willing to reveal the truth. And you're not a reflective person by nature because most people aren't.

SR: Do you think players are more honest as time elapses? Sort of like how Diego Maradona finally admitted that he did actually use his hand in 1986.

SK: Yeah, because when you're in the bubble it all feels very important. I remember I was with these journalists waiting in a mixer for players to come off the pitch. Villareal had played in Paris. It was a nothing game, 0-0, and I was waiting because I wanted to speak to this one Dutch player and ended up with two minutes with him because the press lady whisked him away. Irritating. It's one of those moments when you think, "What the hell am I doing here?" Villareal, a provincial team, there are about 40-50 Spanish journalists who come along, and the rule there was lots of mics, and radio stations, and talking into the radio while we're waiting for the players. Just the self importance!

And then the Spanish players come by. "Come to me! Come to me!" He interviews the Spanish player, and the Spanish player says a few words into local radio that is live as we speak. Just this huge apparatus for something that is utterly meaningless. And the joy of the access to the player - the player comes to the microphone and he says a few boringly meaningless words. And yet in that envrionment who is going to say anything else? And if you do say anything interesting you're punished for it.

So yeah, much better to be in a bar with someone twenty years later.

ZS: Who was your favorite player to profile or interview in this book?

SK: The hero of my youth was Cruijff, and I thought once about writing a book about him. What you have there is a condensed three thousand word version. That was where I had the most thoughts, the most I wanted to say.

I enjoyed writing about Lothar Matthäus because I had access. He was a way of working through the German player myth, and I thought there was something kinda funny about him.

ZS: That was a very interesting chapter in the book where he almost didn't recognize what he symbolized. Or was it that he refused to recognize?

SK: I think athletes generally have a problem with... to us they become symbols of something. They can't see that. They think, "I'm a person. I'm a professional."

So there is this great Paul Simon story where he's in a restaurant in New York, and he sees Joe DiMaggio in the restaurant. Of course he's waited for this moment for years because he knows that DiMaggio must know about his song. He's a bit nervous because he thinks DiMaggio might not like it. At one point, DiMaggio comes over and they start to talk and DiMaggio's fine about it. He's like, "I think it's sweet that you sang that about me. But what do you mean 'Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?' Everyone knows where I am because I am on the TV ads. Everyone knows where I am. So why did you say 'Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?" So Paul Simon wants to respond, but then he realizes Joe DiMaggio can't see himself as a symbol. He just thinks "I'm this person with this job." And he doesn't understand what he meant to Paul Simon as a kid.

ZS: I've heard you're working on Soccernomics 2. I don't know if you have another working title for it. What's going to be the vision for it? Is it a new book? Is it more of a revision to the existing?

SK: It's about half way. It's about 25%+ new. So we want to warn people that they mustn't expect to be buying 100% new text because that would be deceiving the consumer. But on the other hand, there's a lot of new stuff. So even if you've read Soccernomics 1.0 you should read it (the wry smile emerges for a final time).

There's going to be new chapters on "Why Spain?". Match data, using Moneyball-type data on pass completions to assigned players, which is happening now. We've ellaborated on the question, "Why do clubs never disappear?" and why do they never go bust. In every chapter we've added a lot of updates.

ZS: That last point you made, "Why clubs never disappear. Never go bust." One of your latest articles in the Financial Times talks about the ramifications of the European Court's decision on licensing of TV rights. How do you think that's going to impact the requirements that UEFA is going to ask clubs to meet? You famiously made the point in chapter 4 of Soccernomics that clubs aren't businesses. They aren't run like businesses. They have a life of their own. How much do you think [this court decision] is going to impact their ability to operate like a business? There are some pretty doomsday scenarios, which you down play down in the article. But not being able to carve up the television pie the way the Premier League wants to is going to greatly affect their ability to continue to grow TV revenue.

SK: I think they will continue to grow TV revenue. Because [this decisions affects] just Europe, and Europe isn't a growth market. They'll grow it here, and in Asia as growth markets. Europe is static. People watch the Premier League.

I think the big risk is piracy, the sort of Napster-scenario for soccer. I didn't have time to write about it in that article, but already you can get hold of the match you want to watch on the internet if you're clever enough. It's not a great experience today, but it will be great in five years time. So then you get the situation of "Why should I pay my cable provider? Why don't I get it from this Chinese provider or some other Internet means?" Once people can get Premier League matches for free, which is what happened to the music industry, what do you do?

Even if you were to shrink revenues by 90%, so you go back to the level you had twenty years ago. Twenty years ago you still had clubs. You'd be fine. Everything shrinks then. All the wages would shrink. I don't see that happening. I am very confident that all of these clubs are going to outlive all of us.

ZS: But you see this as not just being a Premier League problem? Certainly the Premier League has a bit more risk here, but you're making the case this would be Europe-wide.

SK: Yes, but only a few TV rights are of interest. The Premier League, the two big Spanish clubs, the Italians. Nobody else gets really significant TV revenues.

ZS: In the article you made the point to have the English clubs make themselves immune to that potential reality and go after other forms of commercial revenue. You made the point that in Germany, Bayern earns so much money -

SK: Yeah, Bayern earns nearly double what Manchester United earns from sponsorship, even though Bayern doesn't have many fans outside of Germany.

The Premier League's brand is amazing as we all know. So even in Seattle here we are talking about Arsenal. And you can have this exact same conversation in Soweto and Shanghai because people know about the club, but very few of them watch. If in certain markets you target advertising, and you target reach, and you target selling shirts, that might be a smarter way.

In China and India they've screwed up. Very few people watch. In China people watch the Champions League on terrestrial TV and it's huge. Nobody buys the channel with the Premier League.

SR: Do you think the Premier League might follow the model of Spain and try to alter kickoff times to cater towards the Asian market?

SK: We already do. A 12:45 PM kickoff in England is evening in Asia. I can't see it starting earlier, you know nine in the morning. You may get more games going to 12:45.

So far, the UK TV rights are still bigger than foreign TV rights. Foreign TV rights don't matter that much yet. The trend is like this - UK is like this and foreign rights are like that (second hand held flat but above second hand held at an incline).

SR: Do you think it is difficult to balance the two growth markets - Asia and the United States - when they're such opposite ends of the time zones?

SK: Yes, but you have nine air time games every weekend. The Champions League is a problem for the US market.

SR: It's lunch time for us during the week, so we can pop out for a little bit.

ZS: I think the bigger challenge we face here, that MLS faces here is that a lot of people are willing to get up here in Seattle at 7 AM to watch a match rather than sometimes go watch any MLS match other than the Sounders.

SK: Yeah, nobody watches the MLS on TV. It doesn't really matter because American soccer is this mosaic, and it doesn't depend on MLS.

ZS: So you don't see that being a critical roadblock at all, or an enabler either way?

SK: Well, it hasn't blocked you guys. In 2011 why would you need watch to watch Real Salt Lake rather than Manchester United if you lived in Seattle? Ideally the composite US fan would support a US team and Manchester United, and that's often the case. It's not like it was 100 years ago where the only games you had access to were local.

I see that in India, in China. Why should they be very interested in their local clubs? They're not! In India I hosted this conference on soccer and how it could grow. They have the same issue - they really like soccer, just not Indian soccer.

ZS: Do you see a challenge though for American growth? For being an exporting nation of talent? You mentioned we're due for a break through, a forward-playing player in a large European league. Is there any faster way to develop US soccer internationally, or when it comes to our national team based upon some of the concepts you've talked about in your books previously?

SK: I think the key for the US in that you have the raw material, the 25 million of people who play some soccer. You have loads of players. So the question is not, "What happens when they're 22 and in the MLS?" because that's already too late. They're never going to be a great player. It's what happens when they're six to eighteen, where the US doesn't seem to be optimizing. To some degree that's natural because you have a generation of coaches and parents who didn't know the game. That's changing now. I think you need to work out how the rest of the world is doing it, which is really [found] in Ajax and Barcelona. Because it's not happening here.

ZS: I think that's all I had.

SK: Well, very nice to meet you! Thank you very much.

SR & ZS: Thank you very much!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

More than Just Honoring Kasey Keller: Reflections on a Successful Season

Tonight the Seattle Sounders will play their last regular season home match of an already successful 2011 season.  I will be in attendance at what is being billed as a fan and Kasey Keller appreciation event, especially given that the Sounders have locked up the second seed in the West come playoff time with RSL's draw last night against Colorado.  This certainly isn't the last home match overall, as the Sounders are guaranteed to host at least one home playoff match in the conference semifinals, and perhaps a second via the conference finals if Los Angeles stumbles in their semifinal.  However, all of tonight's pageantry should be viewed by supporters as a chance to appreciate this season as any of the next home events could be tinged with a loss and the uncertainty of an offseason.

From a personnel standpoint, this has been the best season of the three the club has played in MLS.  The club certainly overachieved its first few years, finding good young players in Freddy Montero, Steve Zakuani, and Mike Fucito.  They combined them with solid, established lower-division players like Osvaldo Alonso, Roger Levesque, and others.  The experienced leadership of Kasey Keller led the way.  What wasn't present was a cohesive team focus and work ethic.  Tempermental DP's in Freddie Ljungberg and Blaise N'Kufo seemed to never fit in with MLS' style of play nor the Sounders, leading to less-than-optimal team balance and esprit d'corps.  Alvaro Fernandez, the third DP picked up after World Cup 2010, struggled to find his groove in the half season he played in 2010.  Overall, the team impressed the Seattle faithful its first two seasons, but was not one someone would look at and consider championship material.

Throughout the 2011 season, that perception has certainly changed.  When Steve Zakuani went down to a horrific leg injury in the Sounders seventh match, every supporter must have been wondering how the team would do the rest of the season (especially offensively).  No one would have predicted they would finish as the league leader in goals and second overall in goal differential.  Fernandez would begin to earn his DP money, sitting at the top of the Castrol Index as of this writing.  Freddy Montero, after a slow start, would end up leading the team in PP90 with 16 goals and 10 assists as of this writing.  The man who spurred all of this offense, Maura Rosales, was a bargain basement buy at the beginning of the season and now leads the team in assists.  Throw in Osvaldo Alonso's tenacious, tackling defense and Kasey Keller's outstanding play in goal and this team has a feel about it that it didn't have the first two seasons.  It is a team that feels like it can win an MLS Cup.

As good as the players have been, the results have continued to improve as well.  The Sounders won their third straight US Open Cup this season, something that hadn't been done in four decades in the competition.  Their first US Open Cup championship allowed them to compete in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League tournament, where the Sounders underimpressed with a 1-0-5 record for a total of 3 points.  The second US Open Cup allowed them to return to the CCL tournament this season, where they have done much better by compiling a 3-1-1 record and qualification for the knockout rounds next year.  In league play, the Sounders have improved greatly as well in 2011.  See the table below for key summary statistics.  Where the Sounders have excelled this season is in greatly improving both their offense and defense over previous seasons.

Perhaps the most impressive element of the last year has been the continued fan support.  The club has broken its own MLS attendance records the last two seasons.  This season has seen an average attendance of 36,932, a 2.10% increase over 2010.  Tonight's match will see 62,000+ packed into Century Link field, representing one of the largest crowds in the history of MLS.  The Sounders have set the US Open Cup attendance record two years running.  Let's put this all in perspective - the Sounders total attendance in 27 matches this year outdrew all but two of the teams in the NHL (41 games), all but two of the teams in the NBA (41 games), and would put them in the upper half of attendance in the EPL, Serie A, and the Bundesliga.  There is no quenching the thirst of the fandom in Seattle.

It is a match like tonight's where the entirety of the season must be appreciated.  The mass of people must be taken in.  The quality of the team to be appreciated.  Reflection on an already successful season must be made.  Yes, it can get better than this.  An MLS Cup and the rare chance at a CCL Cup are still a possibility - very real ones with how well the club has been playing this year.  But to condition success this season upon winning those cups would be greedy at this point.  By any measure, the club has greatly improved this year and is building a record of which it can be proud.  Enjoy tonight, whether you are at the CLink or watching on Fox Soccer.  Very few people living in America get to enjoy this game and a club so much.