Category Archives: Soccer

The Mystery of Morales

Whitecaps Wednesday

After a disappointing loss to Toronto in their season opener, the Whitecaps have reeled off three straight wins and find themselves in good shape through the first month of play. Sure, they’ve had a flair for the dramatic, earning two of the three victories in stoppage time and the other just shortly before, but it’s tough to argue with nine points in four games – a win is a win after all.

And while the results have been by and large positive (more positive than I had predicted), the process certainly hasn’t been what Carl Robinson was expecting of his squad, which is both a testament to the talent he has brought in and an indictment on their efforts thus far. Yet, over the last three weeks, a rotating cast of players has provided just enough magic to allow the Whitecaps to come out victorious. Which is a far cry from where this team was last year.

Coach Carl Robinson of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Coach Carl Robinson watches on as his Vancouver Whitecaps steal three points against the Portland Timbers at BC Place. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Last season we saw a team that won and lost largely due to the performance of one man. As Pedro went, the Whitecaps went. And to start the 2015 campaign, it appears that perhaps Pedro has indeed went.

Continue reading The Mystery of Morales

Earnshaw scores in debut — again

Robert Earnshaw was on the pitch at BC Place for less than four minutes before he found himself on the receiving end of a brilliant touch pass from El Capitán Pedro Morales. Keeper Adam Kwarasey charged out to challenge, and Earnshaw used his first touch as a Vancouver Whitecap to chip the ball over him  into the back of the net. He celebrated thusly:

Robert Earnshaw celebrates for the Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Robert Earnshaw celebrates scoring the winning goal in a 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps FC win over the Portland Timbers. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

It wasn’t the first time he’d scored in his first appearance with a team. Earnshaw scored in his first game with the Chicago Fire last year, and potted a pair of goals in his home debut with dirty, rotten, stinkin’ Toronto FC two seasons ago. (It should be noted that Saturday’s game-winner was Earnshaw’s first-ever at BC Place — he was held scoreless in his MLS debut two seasons ago when the Caps blanked Toronto 1-0, a game in which he started and played 85 minutes.)

At 5’8″ and just 160 pounds, he’s not likely to overpower defenders like Nat Borchers or that bloody ginger beard of his. But holy hamhocks, can this guy boot a ball into a soccer net. Earnshaw now has a dozen goals in 32 MLS appearances. That’d be a fair clip for a hockey player, but in soccer, them’s all-star numbers. Don’t just take my word for it; the MLS website, for all its warts and biases, usually gives us stats pretty straight up, and it tells us, “[Earnshaw has recorded] a hat-trick in every professional division in England, including the FA Cup and League Cup competitions as well as internationally for Wales.”

Sam Adekugbe of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Sam Adekugbe jacks up the crowd after Robert Earnshaw’s late go-ahead goal. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

“I knew he’d get one chance,” said Coach Carl Robinson after the match, happy to steal three points in a game where his squad was badly outplayed by the opposition. “I know what Ernie can do, what kind of touch he has with the ball, so I just told him to take the chance when it came. I’m glad he did.”

Chances are the Welshman will do it again. Earnshaw now has 217 goals for clubs in England, Scotland, Israel, the US, and Canada, as well as the Welsh international side.

“It’s always exciting, especially in a debut,” Earnshaw said after the match, saying that even after 18 years of playing professionally, he’s still overwhelmed with emotion when he scores. “The feeling of when the ball hits the net, oh my God, it’s the best. The best.”

Here’s a video for your highlight-watchin’ pleasure:

Sports’ Biggest Fallacy

Whitecaps Wednesday

A win is a win is a win. Except when it isn’t.

“Now hold on a second, Russell! That doesn’t make any sense! How can a win not be a win?” Lend me your attention for a moment fine reader and I’ll be happy to explain.

After three months of inactivity, I've got the okay to pull the Rackets & Runners shirt (and the cheesy running selfies) out of mothballs.
Pucked in the Head’s fearless leader Jason Kurylo is seen here trying to outrun logic and reason. If you look closely, you can spot his overactive moistical gland in full production.

On March 14, we saw the Vancouver Whitecaps escape Toyota Park with a 1-0 result over the Chicago Fire. I watched this game while a wave of frustration bombarded me with each squandered scoring opportunity.

Sure, the Whitecaps notched their first triumph of the infantile MLS season this weekend. I’d suggest that many of you were in fact quite happy to see the Whitecaps find the victory in Chicago on Saturday. It’s not out of the question that you were placated by the fact that the Whitecaps FC had never scored a goal at Toyota Park. And many of you probably defaulted to using the aforementioned “a win is a win” cliché as some type of reasoning for arriving at your satisfaction in seeing the Caps win. (I’m looking at YOU, Kurylo).

Continue reading Sports’ Biggest Fallacy

On the long-term stability of MLS

In December, in Don Garber’s state of the league address, the Major League Soccer commissioner made an astounding claim: MLS clubs were collectively losing over $100 million per season. The announcement was widely scoffed at, and seen as posturing ahead of the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations.

As someone who once flirted with an accounting career, going so far as getting a diploma before realizing how bored I was preparing myself to be for the rest of my life, I know that the profits or losses a company declares in its financial statements don’t necessarily equate to cash gains or losses. That said, it’s discordant to see MLS simultaneously crying poor and announcing multi-million dollar signings of players like Steven Gerrard, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. I’m going to do something in this article I don’t usually do: take MLS at its word. The league is in awful shape, losing over $100 million per year, and its solution is to keep buying increasingly more expensive players. Is this a good strategy?

Is the acquisition of players of Jermain Defoe's quality good for the long-term stability of MLS?
Is the acquisition of players of Jermain Defoe’s quality good for the long-term stability of MLS?

First, let’s look at who these expensive players are, and how much they’re making. We’re going to look at 2014 numbers, because it’s obviously too early to know what effect the latest crop of players will have on the league. Here is every player that made $1 million or more in 2014:

  • LAG – Landon Donovan ($4,583,333)
  • LAG – Omar Gonzalez ($1,250,000)
  • LAG – Robbie Keane ($4,500,000)
  • MON – Marco DiVaio ($2,500,000)
  • NER – Jermaine Jones ($3,252,500)
  • NYRB – Tim Cahill ($3,625,000)
  • NYRB – Thierry Henry ($4,350,000)
  • ORL – Kaka* ($7,167,500)
  • POR – Liam Ridgewell ($1,200,000)
  • SEA – Clint Dempsey ($6,695,189)
  • SEA – Obafemi Martins ($1,753,333)
  • TOR – Michael Bradley ($6,500,000)
  • TOR – Jermain Defoe ($6,180,000)
  • TOR – Gilberto Junior ($1,205,000)
  • VAN – Pedro Morales ($1,410,900)
    *It’s not clear how much of Kaka’s salary was paid by Orlando, as he was loaned to Sao Paulo, but again let’s take the numbers provided at their word.
Obafemi Martins is one of only 15 players in the league making over $1 million. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Obafemi Martins is one of only 15 players in the league making over $1 million. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Only nine out of twenty-one clubs had a million-dollar player on their roster in 2014. (We’re counting Orlando and NYCFC because the player’s union says they had guys earning salaries.) Only four had more than one.  In total, fifteen players, spread over fewer than half of the league’s clubs, accounted for just over $56 million dollars in salary, or over half of the league’s losses. Is the league likely to recoup these losses?

Let’s start with the largest cash infusion in the league’s history: its new domestic television deal worth an estimated $90 million per year. This type of money likely isn’t thrown at the league without the star power of some of the names in the above list. Subtracting the money from the previous TV deal, we can expect the league to offset about $60 million of its losses just on new TV money in 2015. More, if Sky Sports paid anything significant for the rights to broadcast two games a week in the UK. As terms of the UK deal, unlike the domestic rights deal, were not disclosed, I am assuming Sky did not need to pay much, and MLS was happy enough just getting their product on British television. We’re down to a $40 million shortfall.

Now things get slightly murkier. How much of an effect do players of this calibre have on attendance? This is difficult to measure, because winning tends to have a positive effect on attendance and it’s difficult to pin how much of a team’s success is attributable to its most expensive players. The Galaxy, for instance, brought in Robbie Keane in 2011 and saw a nearly 2,000/game bump in attendance, but they were riding a 2010 Supporters Shield victory, and won a second one in 2011. How much of that attendance bump is “oooh, Robbie Keane” and how much is “oooh, I like winning teams.” Let’s see how the rest of the clubs fared.

  • Montreal signed Di Vaio in 2012 and saw diminishing attendance for the two years thereafter.
  • New England’s attendance increased by about 1,850/game, but they didn’t win the Jermaine Jones lottery until September.
  • New York saw their attendance soar by about 6,000/game when they signed Henry in 2010. The arrival of Tim Cahill in 2012 did not have a similar effect; the club lost 1,800 fans that year.
  • Portland has seen attendance increase every year, but that’s as much due to capacity increases and pent-up demand as it is Liam Ridgewell.
  • Seattle experienced a small spike in their first half-season, and a small decrease in their first full season, after the additions of Dempsey and Martins. They’re up about 500/game in total.
  • Toronto lured back 4,000 disenfranchised supporters with their bloody big off-season spending spree in 2014.
  • Vancouver saw a modest 400/game bump after Pedro Morales was added.

Let’s be generous here and say that those attendance bumps are permanent over the contract of the player. You’re going to get maybe 10,000 more butts in seats league-wide, on average, which translates to $12-15 million in extra revenue, depending on the average ticket price of the clubs doing the buying. In the best-case scenario, we’re still left with at least a $25 million shortfall.

Now how generous do you want to get with things like merchandise? Let’s assume every one of those 10,000 extra attendees buys a jersey for their new favourite player. At $140 for a customized jersey and (pure guesswork here) a 30% markup. You’re talking less than half a million dollars in extra revenue. In fact, you would need to sell 773,755 extra jerseys (at my guesstimate figures) to make up the shortfall.

Colour me extremely skeptical that the league is managing to approach breakeven on these players.

So how much of a problem does the league have? Its single-entity nature means the league can distribute its losses somewhat, and it’s probably only going to average a $1-2 million loss per club. The problem, though, is the league is setting itself up to be similar to a European league, with a small number of dominant teams at the top spending all the money and getting all the results. Look at the champions since the league started loosening restrictions and allowing multiple Designated Players: three out of the last four Supporters Shields and MLS Cups have been won by clubs with more than one millionaire salary. In the big European leagues this works ok. There are other things to play for. Relegation battles, cup competitions that the big clubs don’t always take too seriously, the prospect of Champions or Europa League play if you can get hot and sneak into the top five for a year. In MLS you have a race to the bottom for the right to draft next year’s stand-out NCAA player. Woohoo.

After the 2014 season, Chivas USA became the third franchise to fold in MLS' 19 years of existence. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
After the 2014 season, Chivas USA became the third franchise to fold in MLS’ 19 years of existence. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

I worry that we’re seeing the effects. The league has just folded its third franchise in only nineteen years of existence. Rumours are swirling that season ticket sales in Montreal were horrendously bad, though perhaps their dramatic upset win in the Champions League quarterfinals will improve that somewhat. A glance at the stands in Houston, Dallas, DC and even Philadelphia shows that many clubs can’t even sell out their barn for opening day. The TV numbers league-wide remain terrible.

This is a league that once enjoyed modest success and growth with their devotion to parity. Nine different teams won the Supporters’ Shield in the league’s first thirteen seasons. Eight different clubs won MLS Cup over the same period. There was a reasonable chance that even if your club sucked one year, it could be good again the next. The league has gone away from  that and it’s not at all clear that a lack of parity is in the best interests of anybody but a select few clubs.

Too Much, Too Soon

The Whitecaps started their 2015 season off with a bang. And ended their first game with a resounding thud. It was a tale of two halves, at least I think that’s how soccer games work, and on this day, the fans at BC Place saw two entirely different Whitecaps’ teams depending on which 45 you watched.

The first half looked like what we have had been told to expect this season from the blue and white – a fast-paced group, intent on spreading the ball around and utilizing their speed to overwhelm their opponents. The Whitecaps’ attack produced a number of quality chances, yet were only able to capitalize on one of them.

Marie Hui sings the national anthem prior to the Vancouver Whitecaps season opener. Sadly, the home team lost their 2015 home opener to the dirty, rotten, stinkin' doughbugs of TFC 3-1. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Marie Hui sings the national anthem prior to the Vancouver Whitecaps season opener. Sadly, the home team lost their 2015 home opener to the dirty, rotten, stinkin’ doughbugs of TFC 3-1. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Coach Carl Robinson liked what he saw, but post-game he conceded that perhaps that type of phrenetic pace isn’t one that can be maintained over a full 90 minutes. That, coupled with a tactical change at the break by Toronto head coach Greg Vanney, turned the game upside down and what appeared to be a potent Whitecaps attack suddenly looked more like a woodpecker taking a steel pole to task. Not much progress and one helluva headache.

Toronto took control in the second half, watching the Whitecaps attempt the soccer-equivalent of the dump and chase time and time again. The TFC defenders took a few large steps backwards and simply watched the balls come, abandoning any semblance of chasing. Yet the Caps seemed content to fire away and perhaps oblivious to the fact that it simply wasn’t working.

Let’s take a look at the highlights, the lowlights, and the limelight in the Caps’ 3-1 loss on Saturday.

Continue reading Too Much, Too Soon

The March to March – Part 6

Whitecaps Wednesday

Another Wednesday, another Whitecaps. Put those two things together and you have a sentence that makes editors break out into cold sweats, and Whitecaps Wednesday. So welcome, and please, make yourself at home whilst I stride this towel over to Jason with which to wipe his moisty brow.

Jason, when confronted with grammatical errors and slightly before the moistiness sets in.
Jason, displaying his reaction when confronted with grammatical errors and pointing to his moistical gland, which moisties his brow.

This is the latest edition of the March to March, bringing the total now to six. SIX! Can you believe it? I don’t even own six pairs of underwear (what proud, decent man does though), yet here I am punching out a sextuple of Whitecaps Wednesday pieces. You probably can’t even count them all on one hand anymore! And if you can, colour me impressed.

August is a busy month for Caps, who manage to squeeze five games into five weeks. That means five airtight predictions in which you can only yearn to store your favourite sandwiches. Click on to read on, friend.

Continue reading The March to March – Part 6

The March to March – Part 5

Whitecaps Wednesday

Whitecaps Wednesday spent last week in Harrison Hot Springs, dodging village-wide gas leaks and a hearty collection of bed bugs (thanks Ramada Hotels). Luckily, the Caps just officially released what most have expected for a while now: a brand spankin’ new kit, so the previous one, now infested with little creepy crawlies, has found a new home in the firepit.

bed_bug_stuffed_f1559
Truth be told, Jason wanted me to include an actual photo of the bed bugs I discovered wile on vacation. I couldn’t expose my valued readers to that, so here is the least repulsive bed bug photo I could find from a google image search. You’re welcome.

When we last checked in on the Whitecaps, they were mired in a long stretch of games away from Vancouver and, despite dropping their last game of the month, managed to acquit themselves well overall. July sees them in familiar territory, that is away from theirs, as they finally wrap up their road trip before heading home.

Read on for results!
Continue reading The March to March – Part 5

The March to March – Part 4

Whitecaps Wednesday

The international offices of Pucked in the Head were unceremoniously attacked last week by an audiophilic zombie, leading to chaos and turmoil throughout the agency. The confrontation eventually led to the production of a podcast and a brief hiatus for our beloved Whitecaps Wednesday, but it is with great pride that I report everyone here remains just as screwed up as they were prior to the zombie’s arrival. No more, no less.

As for today, the fourth installment of the “March to March” series trumpets the return of Whitecaps Wednesday, in which we will examine the Whitecaps’ matchups throughout the month of June.

Whitecaps FC ambassador Carl Valentine walks the sidelines shaking hands of the Southsiders supporters group on 15 June 2013. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Whitecaps FC ambassador Carl Valentine often visits with supporters at BC Place. He’ll be a little more stationary throughout June this season. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Vancouver heads out on the road, where they will remain for an extended period of time, in order to allow the 2015 Women’s World Cup the use of their hallowed, lawsuit-initiating turf. Read on to find out how I expect month four of the Caps MLS season to play out. Continue reading The March to March – Part 4

Punctuation is hard

Earlier this week, Footy Headlines posted this leak of the 2015 Seattle Sounders jersey.
Earlier this week, Footy Headlines posted this leak of the 2015 Seattle Sounders jersey.

According to this post at Footy Headlines the Seattle Sounders are taking a proactive approach with their 2015 kit. Rather than allowing opposing teams’ supporter groups to come up with Sounder-bashing wordplay, they’re on the offensive with self-mockery that’s positively aces.

Either that, or their design team doesn’t know jack about the most basic rules of English punctuation. I mean, sure, Seattle is purty, but that doesn’t mean you can get away with this. It’s harassment, pure and simple.

Seriously, you green SOBs, say it with me: “commas save lives”. Take a class, or something. You’re just making it too easy for the rest of us.

Commas save lives.
Commas save lives.
The Seattle Sounders are apparently playing the self-mockery card this season.
The Seattle Sounders design department takes a Cormac McCarthy approach to punctuation to hilarious effect.

The March to March – Part 3

Whitecaps Wednesday

Welcome once again to Whitecaps Wednesday – and the 3rd installment of Pucked in the Head’s “March to March” series. If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that the Whitecaps have managed to pull five victories from their first nine games.

Now mired in their busiest stretch of games (but not the most frenzied – we’ll see that in Part 4), we take a look into the third month of the season and forecast the results of their five May matches.

Buckle up quick, as their month kicks off with an away fixture in Portland, the first of two Cascadia matches in a three-week stretch.

Continue reading The March to March – Part 3