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The Big Pitcher - Atlanta: MLS’ Next, Hard Step

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

I was an Atlanta resident once, for four years during college. In no way did this experience provide me with the insight to speculate on the prospects or necessity of an MLS franchise in Atlanta.

I was also a baseball-crazed adolescent boy growing up three hours southwest of the Georgia capitol, and that, in its own limited way, does. I watched nearly every non-West Coast game, thanks to the team's increasingly bizarre national broadcast deal with TBS. Every relative knew some random, $15 Braves trinket was a solid birthday or Christmas option. I grew up wanting to be Greg Maddux. I still want to be Greg Maddux.

What I didn't do was actually attend Braves games. My family and I went once a year if I was lucky, usually around my birthday.

Much has been made of MLS pushing to expand its footprint in the Southeast, some of which wrongly assumes that Orlando and Miami count. Growing up, the closest MLS team to my tiny Alabama hometown was the Mutiny around six hours away, but at no point did this ever occur to me. The Mutiny may as well have been playing in the Bay of Fundy for all I cared; my sense of geography just didn't extend to Florida. By the time I thought to look for the closest MLS team, it was in Columbus, which...no.

It's understandable that everyone feels they have to dip the city and its nascent franchise into their own personal litmus test to determine its potential. Will a cavernous NFL stadium suffocate the atmosphere? Will a vibrant supporter culture spring up out of the sprawl? Will anyone want to play on its turf? Will they just shut the team down when college football season starts?

I have no idea how successful an Atlanta team will be out of the gate in 2017. What I do know is the league needs a team in Atlanta. That footprint that's been such a focus in the run-up to Wednesday's announcement matters. The MLS model of hopping from safe zone to safe zone has been an unqualified success during the last decade of post-contraction rebirth, which is why it's freaking everyone out a little that the league is starting to disregard some of those rules in the cases of Atlanta, Miami and NYCFC.

At some point the league is going to have to blaze its own path. If Atlanta isn't ready for an MLS franchise, then there's no better place start that process, not just for the metro area itself, but for the thousands of little me's scattered throughout the region starting to think they might be interested in this soccer thing. They don't matter much on paper in terms of the metrics most of us look at when we judge soccer markets: They won't buy season tickets or write new and clever chants for 2017.

But in the more stable position MLS finds itself in, it can afford to take a flyer on developing some of these youth prospects, and the long-term growth potential the Atlanta market represents.

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

The Big Pitcher: Uncharted Waters Edition

It's a submarine. Get it? Depth!

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Strap on your floaties, sports fans. We’re about to pull a Michael "Squints" Palledorous and jump right into the deep end. Just ask Phil Schoen:

 

 

Now wipe the excess sarcasm from your eyes and consider the main point here: from the qualifiers to the Gold Cup right through to Sarajevo, the theme of the summer for the U.S. Men’s National Team has been depth. New players have emerged and experienced players have reclaimed their spots on top, bumping those who were doing perfectly serviceably in the interim down a peg.

On the offensive side, the combination of players who are good enough to hold onto spots past their primes, young veterans who were given time early and are coming into their roles, and a significantly broader geographic base for young talent to come from means the pool of talent has expanded. When choosing from among them, overall quality is just one of the factors to be considered. (Though of course there will be a segment of the population arguing to just pick the best four guys, which is a good way to get in a bar argument with Jonathan Wilson).

What’s interesting is the variety the coaching staff has to choose from. We aren’t just picking between the Big Guy and the Fast Guy (Wave hello, Misters Buddle and Findley.), instead we can select any from the following cast: Eddie Johnson as the Big and Fast Guy, Altidore as the mercurial “I hate you I hate you I hate you Ohh Sweet Jozy where have you been all my life”, Donovan as the playmaker who’s a threat to score, Dempsey as the scorer who can make plays, Zusi as the white-gloved shuttler and silver platter service man, Fabian Johnson as the incutting havoc-wreaker and Aron Johannsson as the Footloose Wild Thing capable of spelling any of our Few Good Men just before the End of the Line, sending Tremors right up the spines of Iceland’s Frosty Nixons.

That’s not even counting the Not Ready for Prime Time Players Boyd, Bedoya, Corona and possibly Johannsson; the still super-young Second City Regulars Agudelo, McInerney, Gatt, and possibly Johannsson; the teetering on the edge of Dr. Doolittle-dom Herculez Gomez and Chris Wondolowski and whatever the hell Brek Shea is (Best Case Scenario: Robert Downey Jr. Worst Case: Jim Belushi). Even if we assume a number of the first two groups flame out before stardom, that’s still a pretty diverse cast to work with.

This means one thing for Jurgen Klinsmann: Decisions. And for the rest of us, the Internet’s favorite pastime: anticipating and then second-guessing those decisions. Hell, we’re still not over the Great Rico Clark Debacle of 2010. Can you imagine the collective outrage if the team starts to struggle with some of those guys on the field? Even if you assume that Jozy, Dempsey and Donovan are automatic starts, who gets the fourth slot? Who gets called off the bench late when the team needs a goal? How does that particular group of four, whoever it is, adjust if the midfield is getting overrun?

Or take another example: nothing we saw last week changed the bottom line on John Anthony Brooks, but if we believe him to be further ahead of the likes of Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson, then we’ll have to address the fact that the two best centerbacks in the pool compliment each other stylistically except for the simple fact that they both play – and have pretty much exclusively played – on the same side of a central pairing. That’s a clear example of player quality running into tactical reality, unless we also plan to play a sign on the left-sided channel asking strikers to please redirect their attacks toward the two gentlemen to their right.

Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of having two semi-competent and fully functional centerbacks seemed a pipe dream. The presence of depth means rosters can be retooled, revamped, and recycled more rapidly. We’re beginning to rebuild the airplane in midflight at faster and faster speeds, though often enough the new parts don’t wind up filling the same holes as the old.

The notion of “We’re set at outside back for the next ten years” runs right into Timmy Chandler’s waffling and the minor detail that Fabian Johnson’s actually not that great at left back. “Can anyone other than Clint score,” gets drop-kicked by Jozy. The still-waters-run-deep pool of consistency in the center of midfield becomes Michael Bradley and Pray for Rain. What will we do without Landon → Who needs Landon → Ohh thank God, Landon’s back.

These are the kinds of problems where it’s much better to have them than the alternative. Even if we're not quite drowning in talent yet, we're not scraping the bottom of the kiddie pool either. Bring on the W-M.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy".

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, USMNT

The Big Pitcher: Manifest Destiny Edition

An artist's rendering of Major League Soccer expansion plans (Either that or John Gast's "American Progress")

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Wednesday’s halftime announcement that Major League Soccer was hoping to add four additional teams to the league by 2020 has set off another round of the only game more fun than the actual games: Expansion Speculation! (coming soon to specialty board game store near you!)

In less than a decade the idea of twenty teams went from a pipe dream to an upper limit to a shelf from which to pause and survey the landscape before eventually and climbing into the upper reaches where no league has gone before (hush you NASL historians). But with so many potential owners and markets chomping at the bit did anyone really think, back when NYYMCFC Blue was announced earlier this year, that Team 20 was anything other than another signpost the league would woosh right by? Of course MLS has to keep expanding; otherwise, who will host the All-Star game after Portland, Montreal, San Jose, New England (just kidding), DC, and finally a “Biggest Thing in The History of the League’s History” blowout event against Galactic Champions Manchester City in New York?

Best of all for the league it’s a painless guarantee to make once they determined they wanted to move to that number anyway. If something happens between now and then that keeps the 24th team from starting in the league until 2022, 10,000 jackasses on Twitter will point back to this moment and wonder what happened, but the near-infinite number of potential excuses for the delay will insulate the league from any serious criticism. Even the decision making process will be easy: if all else fails, try a fight to the death, a nationwide 3-on-3 tournament or have Don Garber package four golden tickets into specially marked boxes of Adidas adizero F50 cleats. 

By announcing an intent to bring so many teams in MLS gave hope to fans in nearly a dozen cities that their wait might soon be over. Mention just "Team 21" and everyone assumes Miami or Orlando, but now fans in San Antonio feel sure they’re going to get one; fans in St. Louis think fans in Detroit are holding out hope. In the 24 hours since the announcement, I’ve seen Sacramenton, San Diego, Charlotte, Atlanta, Ottawa, Edmonton, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis mentioned as possible destinations. While only a handful of all these are realistic candidates at this point the notion that there are franchises up for grabs could be a powerful motivating factor for potential ownership groups.

Even if just five of these cities end up as viable options there will still be decisions to make. For fans questions such as which fanbase deserves a team and what location would most enhance the league, both in terms of its reach on the continent and the creation of new rivalries and dynamics among the teams, are preeminent. On the league’s side the eventual destinations will instead be determined based on all the typical attributes like the owner’s deep pocketbooks, strength of a stadium plan, interest from the community and “where does David want it, again?”.

All other things being equal it seems the most likely legacy of the next round of expansion – just as the last round’s was the growth of the game in the fertile Pacific Northwest hotbed – will be an effort to reseed parts of the Great American Soccer Desert, those large swaths of the country, particularly in the Southeast without any sort of representation in the league. That for me was the most thrilling aspect of this hypothetical map that made the rounds a couple of weeks ago, seeing not just the potential for MLS growth but the knock-on effects that growth would have through the lower leagues. The possibility of teams at any level in Detroit and Cleveland, Nashville and New Orleans is exciting stuff. Hell, my 13-year-old self, trapped in small-town Alabama where the closest MLS team geographically was Columbus, would have been pretty thrilled at the idea of teams of any kind in both Atlanta and Birmingham. The idea that kids living there and in other parts of the country where previously MLS might as well have been another foreign league will have a team to follow is incredibly exciting.

Now all they have to do is find one of the commissioner’s golden tickets.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy".

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

The Big Pitcher: Holden Out for a Hero

(Photo Credit: Orlando Ramirez Icon/SMI)

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Apologies for the title, which will now be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

I can’t think of Stuart Holden without thinking of Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball standout drafted second overall in 1986 by the reigning NBA-champion Boston Celtics, who was supposed to bolster the team through the remainder of Larry Bird’s career and ease its transition into the era that would become dominated by Michael Jordan. Instead he died two days after the draft, the cause of death determined to be a cardiac arrhythmia caused by cocaine usage. The Celtics wouldn’t win another title until 2008.

What happened to each of them is obviously incomparable; no amount of freak injuries, just glance through this in case you’ve forgotten some of them, can ever equal a tragic loss of life. It’s the aftermath that we’ll look at here: what happens when someone’s potential remains potential indefinitely.

Bias’ death turned him into a lot of things: Totem for the War on Drugs and “One Mistake is All It Takes.” Cautionary tale for a generation. And, from a sporting perspective, a tabula rasa for an  audience raised to believe that potential was the equal of performance. Because the only way athletic potential ever dissipates is when it’s measured against the eventual proficiency of the athlete, Len Bias’ has remained undiminished for more than 25 years. Nobody knows what would have happened to him, and so everyone is free to assume the best, that he would have been the second coming of Jordan or the first coming of LeBron James.

What Holden shares with Bias is the sense not of wasted but of unrealized potential. Holden’s play had steadily improved every time he stayed on the field for a prolonged period of time, culminating in his 2010-2011 season at Bolton, where he was named the team’s player of the year despite missing the last two months of the season after Jonny Evans attempted to perform microfracture surgery on him with his boot.

That level of improvement made the gaps - practically three seasons worth in total – all the more frustrating, but because of them, there has always been the sense around Holden of a career interrupted. His ceiling has been harder to spot than that of say, Jose Francisco Torres or Sacha Kljestan. His passing would be a valuable asset to the team in any era, his stints on the flanks showcased his offensive ability, while the oft-cited tackles stat from the 2010-2011 season suggested the promise that he could put in the defensive work required to man the center.

Because of that, Holden’s been his own blank slate for U.S. fans for at least the last two years. He could be whatever we wanted. Shifting to a possession-oriented game? He’d be perfect for that. Central midfield trio playing too defensively? It’d be better if we had Holden in one of the slots. Just generally sick of Jermaine Jones? If only Stu hadn’t gotten hurt.

We don’t know how good Holden might have gotten if he hadn’t spent much of the least three years rehabbing from a series of increasingly unfortunate injuries, and so we were free to assume the best. In the minds of many U.S. fans, an alternate history of Holden’s career would look like this:

March 3, 2010 - Holden breaks Nigel de Jong’s leg in a friendly in Amsterdam.

June 12, 2010 - Holden, starting in place of Ricardo Clark, recognizes that Oguchi Onyewu has been sucked forward and follows Steven Gerrard’s run, intercepting Emile Heskey’s pass. USA 1-0 England.

June 26, 2010 - Holden takes his touch around Anthony Annan(?), instead of directly into him. USA beats Ghana 1-0, but loses to Uruguay on penalties after Luis Suarez stops a Stu Holden header on the line with his hands in the final moments of extra time.

June 25, 2011 - Holden interrupts Mexico’s Gold Cup Final comeback with a second-half hat trick and, for good measure, breaks Giovani dos Santos’ leg shortly after halftime. The US wins 5-3. 

December 12, 2011 - Holden, unencumbered by the burden of rehabilitation, discovers a cure for the avian flu.

May 13, 2012 - Bolton, powered by Holden, nip Tottenham to fourth place and are denied a Champions League spot only by Chelsea’s victory in the tournament. Ownerships loosens the purse strings, and the team signs Clint Dempsey during the summer.

May 19, 2013 - Bolton do the double. Holden appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the 49th time in three years, tying Michael Jordan’s then-record.

June/July 2013 - Stuart Holden secedes from the United States. The new nation of STU-S-A wins the 2013 Confederations Cup.

You may have noticed it didn’t exactly turn out that way, but because it didn’t, we’re still talking about Holden in terms of potential. Whether he’ll be ready to start in 2014, whether he’ll be good enough to start in 2014, whether even if he is both those things he’ll be considered as a complement to Michael Bradley rather than a replacement for him and offensive substitute. It’s a little odd to have so much uncertainty about a player who turns 28 next month, but then again when I read his birth date on Wikipedia I went to look it up on another source to make sure. Twenty-eight? Already?

If Holden stays healthy – knock on wood, salt over shoulder, spin three times, etc, or just have him play next season in a bubble – then eventually there will come a reckoning between that perceived, best-case scenario potential and the actual potential of someone who has played approximately a dozen meaningful games in the last two years. He’s making all the right noises about coming back better than ever, but the differences between Two good halves split between Guatemala and Belize would mean nearly nothing for 99 of the ASN 100. For Holden, it has people, including these guys, talking about whether he’ll be ready to start in Brazil.

Such talk is at the moment at least partially facetious, but only partially. It betrays a toned-down version of the same kind of optimism that would have had Holden earning a transfer to Bayern Munich and passing comprehensive immigration reform this summer if he had never gotten hurt.

These outsized expectations are Holden’s blessing and curse. We don’t expect him to live up to them, but we’ll always talk about how great it would have been if he had. No matter what he does for the rest of his career, the question will always hang over him: What if?

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, USMNT

The Big Pitcher: Stay on Target Edition

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Sometime a couple of years ago when Lionel Messi was still being talked about only as the greatest player of his era and not as either the greatest player of all-time or the guy who’s keeping Neymar’s seat warm for him, this theory sprung up that supposed that perhaps the reason he was having so much success was that modern defenses were so ill-constructed to stop a player like him. That the evolution of the center-forward position toward what we call the false 9 role would eventually necessitate a new breed of central defender to counter them: Faster, more agile and more comfortable judging when to step out of his line and deny space and when to stay and track runners.

Forwards who played like attacking midfielders would require defenders who played like defensive midfielders, to challenge them on their own terms rather than kicking the crap out of them as they ran by. Javier Mascherano became the obvious example, but for a moment in time it seemed as if every central defender under 6’2” was getting seared with the new-breed brand. They were the future.

If that had been true, it would be fairly easy to see how the whole thing could become cyclical. Stocking a defense full of Roberto Ayala’s would reincentivize aerial bombardment and lead to the world Andy Carroll sees when he closes his eyes at night, a world in which when he died in a freak Sea-Doo accident on the River Tyne at age 39 his tombstone would read “A Man Before His Time. And After It As Well. Basically, He was the Opposite of The Dude.”

Instead, this generation of the new breed turned out to be much like the old breed, only slightly smaller. But the paradigm had been set, the future was in technique, in figuring out how to reach higher and higher levels or it or in grafting those higher levels onto bigger, stronger and faster players. The False 9 was an elegant weapon, for a more civilized age. Compared to that, the classic target man was treated as more of a board with a nail through it.

Which is why the contrarian in me thinks it’s an awful lot of fun to see them when they do thrive. A guy named Fred playing an integral role in front of Brazil’s $150 million trio of Neymar, Oscar, and the artist formerly known as Hulk. Super-targets Edinson Cavani and Stefan Kießling leading their respective leagues in scoring. Belgium somehow producing Romalu Lukaku and Christian Benteke at the same time. Edin Dzeko (hopefully) getting a chance far from the Eastlands.

In MLS, hardly the most technical league, what’s startling isn’t so much the number of teams still using target men, but the variety of ways in which they’re used. In Philadelphia we get the classic big man-little man strike partnership with Conor Casey and Jack McInerney. In Portland, Ryan Johnson serves as a focal point for the flittings and charges of his wingers and center midfielders. The Gordons, Lenharts and Sandovals of the league open space for their offenses by wrestling center defenders into nearby buildings, causing massive amounts of property damage. Even as the league has grown more technical, importing players with touch and vision – because size and strength we can take care of, it’s the stuff you can actually teach that we need (Blaise Nkufo nods.) –  the spots they’re taking aren’t those of the target men.

Same thing holds true with USMNT. In our search for Clint Dempsey’s best position last time around, we flirted briefly with the idea of ensuring that Dempsey stayed close to goal by suggesting simply playing him as our lone forward and letting his movement and instincts cause havoc for the defense. Let’s just all agree to pretend that didn’t happen; that team too can thrive with a target man.

Jozy’s an interesting case. He doesn’t always look like a target man, but it’s no accident that when he does embrace that role and engage with defenders in ways that aren’t just going to goal, he usually has a better game.

Even if he hadn’t scored the goals through May and June, it was clear U.S. fans were getting good Jozy. He was engaged. What’s depressing about this chart from the Jamaica loss last September isn’t just the low total number of passes (12 successful, six unsuccessful, to go along with 0 shots), but how far they had to go to be successful or unsuccessful. (The same was true against Mexico.) He was so isolated, the teammate he completed the most passes to in 2012 was Wilson the volleyball.

Thanks to either a sharp team talk from John Donne or a more-forward deployment for Clint Dempsey and new creative license for the outside midfielders (helped by Michael Bradley’s Veni Vidi Vici return to the fold post-Belgium), that wasn’t a problem in this summer’s games. The service helped, but so did the close support, allowing him to receive the ball with his back to goal and find ways to release teammates into space, play quick one-twos, and spray it out wide and break to goal for the return pass, restoring balance to the team’s possession vs. penetration equation.

Who needs the future, anyway?

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts

The Big Pitcher: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Clint Dempsey?

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Pop culture figures I personally have compared Clint Dempsey to in writing:

- Han Solo
- Yoda
- Dean Moriarty
- Arthur Fonzarelli
- Batman
- Indiana Jones
- Charles Bronson’s claustrophobic “Tunnel King”
- MacGyver

And now, kind of, sort of, Maria von Trapp

Basically, Clint Dempsey is the Patton Oswalt Episode VII pitch of American soccer. (This would make a fantastic web video, except Dempsey isn’t a convincing actor even when he plays himself in TV commercials.)

Through one and a quarter rounds of qualifying, Dempsey has scored seven of the USMNT’s 13 total goals, largely from a central attacking midfield/shadow striker role in Klinsmann’s 4-Pentagon-That-Rotates-from-Game-to-Game-So-That-A-Different-Player-Is-Always-Highest-1 formation. He is the only effective component in an offense that has been sputtering for more than a year now, the one player the team can depend on to put the ball in the back of the net, the best player on the team playing in his preferred position.

He has to go.

Not go-away-forever go. But go-somewhere-else go. Despite the impressive goal haul, despite his standing as the captain, despite the fact that he is often our only hope, building around Dempsey in the central attacking midfielder role is not a good thing.

This isn’t news to most U.S. fans; it’s something that’s been mentioned in passing for months across the soccer media spectrum, but has seemed the least of all possible worries about the team as long as he’s still scoring goals. Whether it’s a symptom of the team’s growing pains or a cause is something idly wondered about while fans and pundits continue their search for Dutch Jozy Altidore and play Elimidate with center back pairings. Who would even play there? (The answer is U.S. Soccer’s own Len Bias, 2010 Stu Holden.) Given the lack of other options, maybe it’s okay. It’s better than playing three defensive midfielders, right?

Well, yes, but not enough so. Best case scenario: With the offense running smoothly, (Q1: Is Michael Bradley playing? Q2: Is everyone saying nasty things on Twitter about the team and coach because of their last performance? If Y to Q1 and Q2, then yes, the offense is probably running smoothly.) Dempsey is able to play higher up and with the confidence that his teammates will get him the ball in the final third.

All other scenarios: The offense grinds its gears trying to get from second to third and Dempsey starts dropping deeper in search of the ball. This is a problem, because he all-too-often gets it.

Teammates know that Deuce is the best chance to make something happen when the offense is sputtering, but when Dempsey gets the ball at the center circle he’s merely a good player, not the leather-jacket wearing, Harrison Ford-channeling, fashion-chances-out-of-duct-tape-and-jumper-cables embodiment of American soccer id that he ought to be.

That’s not to say he’s been bad; he’s actually proved himself adept at keeping possession in Klinsmann’s offense, misplacing a total of six passes against Belgium and Germany combined. The bad news is just two of his 81 completed passes found someone inside the 18-yard box: the headed assist and a right-wing cross. The threat of his passing pales in comparison to the threat of his goal-scoring. He’s a finisher, not a playmaker.

Dempsey can be a creative force; it’s just his skill set is built much more around getting the ball around the last line of defenders and into the net, not through the midfield shield in front of them and to a player in good position. Some zones on the field are more difficult for offensive players to operate in than others. The best playmakers skirt the edges of them, dominating the seams. Dempsey abandons them entirely, searching out spaces deeper in midfield or towards the flanks, or pushing further forward where he can take one touch before getting off a shot. The issue, in other words, isn’t getting him the ball; it’s also getting it to the people in front of him.

Dempsey at his best is a ball-stopper; the qualities that we praise in him, the vaunted willingness to “just try shit,” requires that he take the ball and do something audacious and risky and likely as not to fail with it. We lament the fact that more of our players don’t do this, but we’re asking the one who does to complete 93 percent of his passes and lose the ball just four other times and to try to jumpstart the offense by moving further and further away from the area in which he does his best offensive work. That he’s the one who usually manages to score in these games anyway is a testament to his ability to convert the one chance that falls his way.

To run the offense through him as a central attacking midfielder is to neuter that instinct. Dempsey creates and takes his own chances so well that he gives you plan A production even when he is the plan B, Nearly every new coach Fulham cycled through during his time at the club started by benching Dempsey for the sake of whatever system they envisioned the team playing, then going back to him when it became apparent that they needed another, different kind of threat to ride out of the sunset and save everyone’s asses.  When he gets to play higher up in that role, it works out just fine. When he does take on more of a linking role, the result can be less than ideal.

Klinsmann’s been experimenting for nearly a year playing a goalscorer on the left to balance a more service-oriented player on the right – think how Brazil used Robinho under Dunga, starting high on the flank to take advantage of space left by a marauding fullback but moving into the gap between the right fullback and the centerback in attack. Klinsmann asks for more defensive discipline from this player, but has gotten serviceable performances out of non-wingers Herculez Gomez and Eddie Johnson, who’s so thoroughly converted in Klinsmann’s mind that he’s listed as a midfielder on the Gold Cup provisional roster.

You get the sense this role was at one point, specifically this point, earmarked for Brek Shea to grow into. Now in theory, it’s a way to get a third striker-type on the field while maintaining defensive shape and a semblance of width. In practice, when things are not going well, it’s another withered body to be dug up from under the touchline after being starved of service for 90 minutes. 

Now it’s time to give that spot back to Dempsey, who’s spent much of his career for club and country cutting inside from that area. Starting him out wide won’t keep him out of central goalscoring positions: the two Agents Johnson played their combined 79 total minutes on two different flanks yesterday opposite service men Graham Zusi and Brad Davis (somewhat frustratingly matching Eddie’s speed against the only German who seemed to have any interest in running, Dennis Aogo), but you wouldn’t know it from where they were getting the ball.

It may not be. All the reasons listed above could be used as justification for putting him right in front of goal, as a traditional striker or a false-nine, except the team would still lack for wing options to play around him or midfield runners to move into the space he opens up with his movement. To what lengths should we go in order to build a team around Clint Dempsey? Do we even have the parts to build that kind of a team?

And, most crucially, does Dempsey need a team to be built around him?  Or can he still survive, and even thrive, as the best Plan B in the business?

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, USMNT

The Big Pitcher - Gangs of New York Edition

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

The best case scenario for soccer in America now that MLS has dropped its 20th team into the most-populous metropolitan area of the country won’t be twice-, thrice- or quarce-yearly trans-Hudson-and-Hackensack skirmishes the league has been salivating over since it started adding teams again.

These games will likely feature as high a quotient of recognizable names as any MLS game that didn’t involve David Beckham. They will be broadcast nationally and hyped heavily. They will be, the league hopes, at the tip-top of the list of prime draws in a new age of MLS on television.

That will all be nice. This announcement feels like a pivotal point because the names involved are so big, and because NYC2’s approach has felt a little something like Sir Lancelot storming our castle. Whether they’ll kill everyone now that they’re inside isn’t a completely ridiculous fear, but this is supposed to be a happy occasion, so let’s look on the bright side, shall we?

If the Red Bulls-Other City games break ratings records, that will be a good thing for the league. If they don’t, it will be a disappointing setback, but Don Garber will not commit seppuku in front of the NFL’s Manhattan offices. Casualties will be limited. The league will march on.

But where this rivalry may have the opportunity to break new and interesting ground is in their impending soft war. Judging by the initial reaction to the announcement, New York’s second MLS franchise and its wealthy backers will not be greeted as liberators when they arrive on these shores. The people who will be in charge of the new team know enough about modern sports fans to know that slapping NYCCICCIPPI or whatever on a building and a T-shirt does not make that franchise suddenly of that community; the big bosses in England are already sounding notes to that effect.

The campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people will have to go further than having Joe Hart and James Milner star in a new American Gladiators reboot. (A. Why is it always those two who get featured in the breakout videos? Sergio Aguero took some cuts too. B. Hart has a nice swing; Milner needs to raise his elbow more, but gets surprising power out of just his wrists.)

Instead, you’d imagine the first phase would be to capitalize and expand on the charity and development efforts City’s been putting into the city for the last several years. Nothing reverses public opinion on an obscenely wealthy Scrooge faster than throwing some of that money around for someone else’s benefit.

What efforts like this do is create goodwill, which makes people like your organization more, and when people like your organization more, they tend to wish it well almost despite themselves, even when your franchise is owned by two of the entities that people on two different continents have come to hate more than all the others as totems of everything wrong with the relationship between modern sports and money. That might not be totally fair, but you can see where there might be something of a likability gap that NYCFC is going to have to make up.

No amount of advertising can duplicate the goodwill the Timbers organization and their fans generated when they took it on the chin from the Green Machine earlier this season, or when the Sounders had to be saved by Electron Boy a few years back. (I don’t mean to suggest that either of these organizations did it for the publicity, but with the kind of publicity they got even just within the soccer world, God, why would you not participate in something like this?)

Goodwill doesn’t solve all of a franchise’s problems – it’s not a replacement for exposure – but it does help create new fans, something the New York teams are going to be in the market for. Sky blue turf fields for everyone!

Unless they get darker blue fields instead. It can’t be in the Red Bulls’ best interests to cede the eastern islands to this newcomer, even if their power base remains in New Jersey. They already offer initiatives like the vaguely-named Urban Soccer Program and the usual but important MLS Works stuff.

This is where the escalation could bring about a boon in the soccer community, because if Red Bulls and NYCFC invest in more soccer development it means we’ll see a broader spectrum of programs that can do more to make an impact in the lives of the people they serve.

It isn't outreach in the way we typically think of it, but it's safe to attach a similar motivation to why the NASL Cosmos franchise have attached their brand name to one of the niftier ideas in sports, the city-wide championship of pseudo-national teams formerly known as the Copa NYC. If the Cosmos decide they’re going to try to keep pace with their MLS counterparts, then the possibilities become even more varied.

New York City is already a hub of soccer and social change programs, from Street Soccer USA, which hosts the finals of its annual national tournament for homeless players in Times Square, to America Scores New York, which teaches kids about soccer, social work and poetry in a safe after-school environment.

When the clubs start really putting some effort into the field, the city and the surrounding area will become a laboratory for these programs, exposing new audiences to the game and doing good work through soccer in ways that can be exported to the rest of the country.

The border war will be the big show when NYCFC hits town, but the most important battles may be fought far from the front lines.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts

The Big Pitcher - Open Season

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

There’s still a certain, in some places significant, portion of the sports-going population in this country who will look at you funny when you try to explain the U.S. Open Cup to them.

WIth apologies to the diehards who have been there since Bethlehem Steel was winning tournaments, the vast majority of us have stumbled into the tournament in recent years as supporters or rational soccer-watching beings. This alone is enough to engender some skepticism in the part of the population that believes sporting loyalties are passed down like color-blindness or gingerism, through the bloodlines. They don’t believe in the kind of willful generational shift the USOC has seen that has boosted interest in the tournament in recent years. 

Because make no mistake, people should be watching. The tournament has a lot going for it. There’s its history for one – the 100th edition this year! – but to say that we should care about the 2013 running because of all that history is an argument only a baseball person could love, and ignores the ways the Cup combines some of the elements we love most in our sports, including:

Single elimination format: Single elimination makes everything from Pinewood Derbies to Mortal Kombat better. We love it so much we spend the entire month of March voting , and by the year 2024, presidential primaries will be held as a series of four online votes rather than on a state-by-state basis as each party winnows its bracket of 16 contenders down to a lone presidential candidate.

Underdogs:  Last time I wrote about the difficulties involved in projecting a player’s performance at different levels of competition. Here’s a chance to find out firsthand what happens when some young amateurs or career lower-leaguers go up against teams a couple of levels up on the pyramid, giving those of us who ordinarily couldn’t care less about a midweek May game between two Midwest teams the slightest bit of a rooting interest to serve as a foothold into the match.

Rivalries: With those underdogs comes a whole new ecosystem of local or regional grudge matches. Last Tuesday, PDL darlings FC Tucson dropped in-state rivals and USL-Pro debutantes Phoenix FC in the first USOC game either team has ever played. Last season’s fourth-round featured a much-anticipated grudge match between eventual-finalists Seattle and their bitter regional rivals...Cal FC?

But caring about the USOC is still a learned response. As sports fans in America, we’re trained not to give a crap about assorted cups and prizes. Why should our team waste energy and resources competing for a trophy when trophies are what everyone gets at the end of the T-ball season for participating?

Our sporting landscape is littered with adjunct and inessential competitions: all-star games in every sport, 34 out of 35 college football bowl games, the AFC South. Quick, name the last three winners of the Maui Invitational? Do they still have the Maui Invitational? How about the World Baseball Classic; is that still a thing?

Even those of us who care deeply about the world of soccer hold onto some of these attitudes. If you’re like me, then more than one of the soccer people you follow on Twitter thought they were being super-clever when they congratulated Chelsea for winning the European NIT on Wednesday. That’s a little unfair – no one knows who won the 2013 NITbut even UEFA is making noise about trying to find more efficient ways of making money than a second-class tournament.

For us, the currency of success is championships. The only trophies that matter are the larger, more famous ones that come with titles, the ones that Yankees teams the world over can shove straight up their you-know-where. I grew up a Braves fan, and the regret I feel looking at this picture outweighs the pride. (Yes, we were spoiled and Atlanta is on the whole a terrible baseball city. But still.)

Which is what makes the USOC interesting from a sporting perspective: By existing in that gap between top-level championship and utter insignificance, it pushes us to ask what makes a competition matter in the first place. Is it the stakes or the audience? Whose caring matters more, the players or the fans?

There are some fans who care deeply about their team’s fate in the USOC, and some for whom it would be a nifty bonus, the cherry on top of a successful season. I don’t question the first group’s passion, though I do believe that passion stems more than a little from passive overseas peer pressure; namely, that our model soccer nations all have high-stakes cup competitions that supporters care deeply about, so clearly since we are becoming a soccer nation ours should be high-stakes and deeply-cared-about as well.

Here’s the thing: The U.S. Open Cup doesn’t have to matter for you to appreciate its benefits. It’s a well-constructed and wonderfully fun sporting event on its own. The next time someone looks at you funny, that’s all you need to say.

Tags: Big Pitcher, We've Got History

The Big Pitcher - Project Projection

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

One of the toughest things to do as a soccer watcher is to project. How will a player performing well on Field A for Team 1 will do if placed on Field B and Team 2?

Even the people who are paid to make these judgments at the highest levels have a far from sterling success rate. For us amateurs, it can feel like the height of foolishness even to guess whether the way-better-than-everyone-on-the-field girl at pickup is former-Division-1 or former-Division-III good, much less whether someone who’s scoring consistently in MLS will be able to repeat the feat for the U.S. team or in the Premier Bundesligue A.  

So then it’s a little satisfying to see a pair of players we had pegged for success three tiers down move on to MLS and do pretty well in their first two months in the league. Those of us who live in Austin got to see two of the young season’s promising rookies, Dillon Powers and Kekuta Manneh.

It didn’t take the Football Manager database to figure that out those two had futures at a higher level, not when they were the two best players on the field every time they stepped on it. (The Aztex had a third player drafted in the first round, Blake Smith at number 8 to the Impact. I get Smith’s strengths, but given the choice I would have taken Powers and ran with him, positional needs be damned.) We’ve covered their influence on the Aztex here before

Last year I saw Manneh do this in Houston live, mere minutes after he stepped onto the field for the first time and just hours after he actually joined the team. It was like those teams who show up for the finals of a rec league season with that one guy who hasn’t been to any of the previous games. And that guy starts juggling as he jogs around the field to warm up. Manneh Manneh indeed.

With Manneh and Powers it may have been easy, but this projection is supposedly one of our weak points as a soccer-culture. As the narrative goes, we see kids who are bigger, stronger or faster than everyone they’re competing against and decide they could probably cut it at the next level, while Lil Messi and Xavi Jr. ...sorry... while Young Schweinsteiger and Mini-Reus are left picking up the discarded Capri Sun husks. (I sense a wonderful Muppet Babies/JL8-esque web show coming on.)

Those physical gifts obviously help when making the jump. Manneh demonstrated with his assist Saturday that being significantly faster than your opponent is an advantage no matter how old you are. Similarly Kei Kamara, who’s off doing his best Iron Fist impression with Norwich City, has discovered that just because the Premier League is the “Best League in the World” (© 2008) doesn’t mean the defenders can jump any higher than they do in MLS. On the other hand, ask Brad Davis, or even Omar Gonzalez for a while there, about what it’s like to be too slow for international play. The technical skills that come with constant (and year-round) practice at a higher level are slowly learned, but speed kills on day one.

You’ve likely heard all the reasons our system has trouble picking out these gems: inexperienced coaching at the youngest ages, overemphasis on winning rather than player development, poor playing surfaces hampering touch, close control and passing. Because of that difficulty we seem to be trying option B: Teach everyone the technical stuff, and then siphon off the ones who picked it up and are still strong and fast. That’s what newly triumphant Germany appears to have done. Young Schweinsteiger (It’s pronounced Schweinst-ee-ger) would be playing forward and goalie and probably point guard and quarterback long after his more diminutive Spanish counterparts had been relegated to the number eight shirt on the Chess Club.

We do need to do more to find and polish those less-obvious gems, but for now it’s a strategy that makes sense for American soccer. If you’ve traditionally produced athletes, then why not take those known commodities and try to make them better rather than reaching for a kind of player we may not even be able to find?

The Austin Aztex begin their second PDL season next weekend in Oklahoma City. I have no idea how many future first round picks we’ll find on the field here this season, but I’m looking forward to trying to figure it out.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

The Big Pitcher - Fool’s Gold

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Last week, CONCACAF announced a plan to pit the winners of the 2013 and 2015 Gold Cup tournaments against each other in a playoff to determine who gets to represent the continent at the 2017 Confederations Cup. In practice, this is because otherwise none of the teams really cared about the 2013 Gold Cup, just as no one did in 2009 and so on and so forth.

They would bring weakened teams, allowing their starters to rest after World Cup qualifiers and rejoin their MLS teams or take a bit of a break before going back for the European preseason. This, in my opinion, was not a bad thing, and the reasons why have a lot to do  with Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez and that game last month at the Azteca.

Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez probably won’t play in this summer’s Gold Cup – not unless Jurgen Klinsmann wants to open his hotel door one evening to find a very stern-looking Peter Vermes tapping a length of pipe on his open palm while Bruce Arena slips on a set of brass knuckles behind him. But the emergence of a potential Besler-Gonzalez center back pairing is exciting not just because of their quality play in the harshest away environment this side of the lunar surface, but because at 24 and 26 the pair still have a fresh out of the box feel to them. Never mind that Geoff Cameron is only 27; this is the Tandem of the Future!

“Future” is the most dangerous word in international soccer; we look to it as if through a pair of binoculars, desperately trying to adjust the focus to get a clear glimpse while missing everything that’s around us. A section of the fanbase, and the wider sporting press, has spent the career of our Best American Player Ever (and the Guy Who Might Be Better Than Him) looking to the day when we’re going to produce the Best Player Ever. Now we might not even have replacements for the first two guys.

You can see why this is appealing. Only around eight teams per cycle stand a realistic chance of winning the World Cup. Underdogs, big underdogs, just don’t win the tournament, at least not since 1950, and what small surprises it has to offer involves things like “Italian defense” and “Diego Maradona.”

But is the World Cup the only prize that matters? We’re conditioned by American sports to feel that anything less than the title at the end of the rainbow is a failed season, but are 199 FIFA nations utter failures? And if not, then what are they playing for? A Final Four WC bid? (Curse you, Frings!) Continental supremacy and the five bonus armies per turn that comes with it? Other trophies, a stockpile Gold and Confederations cups and perhaps soon the occasional upset bid at the Copa America? How do you balance a team’s needs between today and a tomorrow that might never get here?

The years of reps Michael Bradley earned in the center of the park back when he really was a young, immature coach’s son prone to stupid cards have undoubtedly helped him become the steadying force he is today. The jury may still be out on the years of reps Jozy Altidore has received at the top of the formation (That hurts to say. I’m a big-time Jozy apologist). But even when the forward pool was at its shallowest, a good percentage of his early caps were dealt to him with the future in mind, with the expectation that they’d accelerate his growth into an even more fearsome striker in the future, that he and Bradley and that Best Player Ever In-Waiting (Repeat after me: This never happened.) would get the nation closer to winning a major tournament.

That’s what was sort of nice about having an off-year continental championship. There’s a benefit to playing games, real competitive games, where everything is made up and the points don’t matter. Coaches can take the kinds of chances on youth that would ordinarily be calculated risks in small doses and career suicide in larger ones. And fans can get a free turn at the binoculars, parsing the future without sacrificing the present.

Josh Gatt could actually play on the right side, where at least the fact that he’s more one-footed than Long John Silver won’t lead to him dribbling across the center of the pitch into nine players. A John Anthony Brooks (Maybe? And even then he’d play with the U-20’s, but whatever) and Amobi Okugo centerback pairing isn’t the best second-tier centerback combination we could come up with, but it’s the most fun Fezzik-Inigo pairing of towering strength and skill on the ball on that side of the pool. Significant minutes for Juan Agudelo, who I never regret getting to watch play.

After the news of the new play-in game was announced, several well-connected soccer journalists suggested the U.S. and Mexico at the very least would still devote the majority of their efforts toward the post-World Cup tournament in 2015, fielding weaker teams at this summer’s event. Hopefully they feel the same way for years to come even after they see what tomorrow might bring.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts

The Big Pitcher: Open and Shut Case

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

The third season of this particular iteration of the North American Soccer League kicks off this weekend, and for those of us whose interest is more in the league as an entity than in the fortunes of any particular team, the big story to follow is, naturally, the schedule?

The league announced last fall that they would split their schedule this year, play one season in the spring, another in the fall, and let the winners face off to determine the league champion. Apertura and clausura. Inicial and final. Invierno and verano. A format widely used in Central and South America, and one destined for success even in the hemisphere’s northern latitudes. Right?

Maybe. Truth be told, I’m at a loss; I don’t understand the reasoning behind the switch. The pros thrown out in press releases from the league and its teams sound weak. The change seems to be happening because the apertura/clausura schedule format, like George Malloy’s mountain, is there. 

Is it the weather? Does the modicum of home-field advantage cold weather in late November might provide for teams in Edmonton and Minnesota make up for the league deciding that the comfort of those fans who might want to actually attend their games in October/November was less important than that of fans in San Antonio or Ft. Lauderdale in July?

Saying the break helps the league sync with the international calendar is a nice little jab at MLS, except the only dates on the international calendar that the NASL’s break will free its players for is the Copa America and every other Gold Cup. (Though if any NASL players want to wait til the break to join their national teams for the World Cup, they’ll be able to meet up with the squad in time for the semi-finals).

Is it an attempt at outreach, a way of drawing new fans in? I found arguments from half a decade ago suggesting MLS adopt the A/C model to draw in Latino fans who have grown used to the model watching leagues in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela and especially Mexico, which sounds like if Pepsi decided the best way to gussy up sales would be to start loading their product into red cans and boxes and hoping nobody noticed the difference on the inside.

Of course, sometimes marketing does work that way, be it subtle or painfully obvious. A change to something minor like the packaging can have a big influence on how a product is consumed, but when that does work it typically means there was something wrong with the package in the first place. Which, granted, some think might be the case.

To talk about the structure of the season in American sports is to talk about playoffs. (Say it with me, everyone. There I’m glad we went ahead and got that out.) Win or go home. History will be made. You can’t script October. Peyton’s a choker, etc. For the sake of excitement at the end of the season we discount excellence throughout it. In exchange for seeing the top teams reach a higher level of play at the end of the season, we discount slightly the early and middle portions of it.

That’s the Faustian bargain American sports, MLS included, have made: one part of the season for another. Plenty of soccer fans here think it’s a stupid arrangement for their particular sport, and plenty of others think that first group are stupid for thinking it’s stupid. We have a lot of this sort of argument in American soccer, and I have no more interest in debating single-table vs. playoffs than I do telling you which end to break your eggs on. But this third model that NASL is trying strikes me as a worst of both worlds approach.

NASL teams will play twelve games during their apertura,  There’s not a lot of time for teams to pull away from the pack, but at the same time, if someone falls into an early hole, a comeback will be nigh impossible. And so the best teams will be fighting tooth and nail for a spot in the league’s championship game, while the dregs and the mathematically-eliminated middle-class try to fine-tune themselves for the clausura, trying new players or new tactics with an eye towards winning in the future rather than the present. Which, considering each team plays the others only twice per -ura, could have big effects on what’s going on at the top.  

To be fair, this happens in sports leagues all around the world, but not seven games in, and not twice per year. Some teams will have renewed hope in August when they get their second crack at the championship. Many more will find they’ve been raised back up to 0-0-0 parity only to tumble to the basement again, continuing the cycle.

And the returns from this? A one-off championship, the Soccer Bowl, pitting a team that may have peaked four months ago against one that couldn’t beat them before they stopped caring. Potential for a classic championship, but one that lacks the momentum that builds during the playoffs or the stakes that come attached to something like the most valuable game in the world. 

What am I missing? What are the benefits? Those questions aren’t rhetorical; I really want someone to explain it to me.

What’s that? The Cosmos were only going to have their team ready in August anyway? Ohh. Never mind, then.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, North American Soccer League

The Big Pitcher - Hate and War

Photo Credit: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric BettsSenior Crystal Ball Correspondent

International matches have always been an opportunity to adopt a little of the jingoism my enlightened, 21st century perspective would never allow me to ordinarily feel. To hell with Brazilians, Italians are worthless, what have the English ever done for us (Apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health)?

This is a common and occasionally problematic phenomenon in international soccer, though not typically here, where the announcement of a friendly with Russia is 1,000 times more likely to set off a wave of Rocky IV references (guilty) than of proxy wars or missile crises. England still occasionally plays Germany, and when they do it seems half the populace genuinely believes it’s 1939 or 1982 while the other half is desperately waving their smartphones and pointing at the Gherkin to remind them that it’s not.

But Mexico is different, at least for me. I grew up in a part of the country that began experiencing its first big wave of immigration from Mexico and Central America right as I hit my teenage years. I heard people say and really mean of these new Hispanics coming into our small town the kind of things I would say jokingly about Belgians. Nobody I know hates Belgians, so that seemed safe. But cursing Mexicans for being Mexicans? That’s a little too close to real life. So for years, the passions of this particular rivalry seemed just a little too extreme for me. I rooted for a win and a good performance, not the utter destruction of the hopes and dreams of a nation of loathsome wretches.

Now it seems many, including Herculez Gomez, feel the rivalry is tilting that direction on its own. The cartoon villains and heroes - the Borgettis and the Lalases and the other guys who could just as easily have waged their never-ending battle for continental supremacy (Sorry, Canada) via a Saturday morning TV series - have fallen away. In a certain light, Rafa Marquez become less utter embarrassment to the game and more of the last of a dying breed, a lone-wolf commando deep behind enemy lines wreaking havoc on American soccer from the inside, a Sólido Serpiente with less stealth and more stock faces of righteous indignation.

Nowadays, the players each side collectively hates the most are really just the ones we each fear the most: Dos Santos and Chicharito, Landon Donovan and his weak bladder. Maybe this game seemed more subdued because Donovan were still off on the Spider-Man 2 phase of his career, hanging up the supersuit so he could try living life as just plain old Landon. (Even Spider-Man’s villains all like Peter Parker.) Or maybe it’s because it just seems a lot easier to work up the appropriate level of bile for a big-time international rivalry when the enemy looks like this rather than this

Part of it may be that that second face looks very much like one that could be starring for our team. The number of dual-nationals in the both the full squad and youth programs has risen to the point that stories like this one on Omar Gonzalez and mystique of the Azteca will either disappear entirely or proliferate to the point that they dominate the entire soccer media landscape, Agent Smith-style.

This could take the rivalry one of two ways:

1) A continuing cooling of temperatures like the one we’re experiencing now as players grow up together, play on youth teams in either country with one another and find themselves on the same teams in MLS, Liga MX or in Europe, or

2) The idea of two teams full of Giuseppe Rossi’s meeting in Gold Cups and WCQ’s for decades to come inspires fanbases to new levels of passion and vitriol. Either way, I’m excited for the first Mexican-media article about an American-born Mexican player and the aura that surrounds Crew Stadium.

Personally, I think one seems more likely. The goals of these teams have evolved over time., Being called the best team on the continent is something of a backhanded compliment for two fanbases who are hoping to see their teams move into the world’s elite. Mexican fans think they have a chance because they’ve won everything else at the lower levels; U.S. fans because we’re always holding out hope that the team’s just about to turn the corner. Beating each other will always be especially nice, but in order to be considered successful, they’ll have to beat plenty of other teams as well.

Like those damn, dirty Dutch. I never did like the Dutch.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending the Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, USMNT

The Big Pitcher: So Strange a Style

 

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Here’s a question for people who have been following the league a lot longer than I have: Is this the most varied that the MLS has had on the pitch in its history? Don’t listen to El Chelís: There may never have been as many styles working in the league at one time as there are right now.

In a broad sense, Chelís isn’t wrong: many MLS teams do play a lone striker up front with a deep-lying forward or advanced playmaker underneath him and two wide-men somewhere in front of two fullbacks. Chivas decidedly don’t, and their 3-5-2 is probably going to have to get its own column one of these weeks.

But it’s also a gross oversimplification. There are a lot of ways a team can play that way, but to characterize the league as such does miss the on-field diversification MLS has gone through as a result of its rapid expansion and the introduction of new talent with different skill sets and new coaches with ideas to take advantage of them. It doesn’t feel like we’re so far removed from the days when you could have your 4-4-2 in any color you like, so long as it was black. The games don’t bleed into one another; instead, three weeks in, some styles are as indicative of their particular teams as their shirts.

Take the darlings of the early season, the Montreal Impact and their cover version (parody? loving homage? bastardization?) of Roma’s old 4-1-4-Totti formation: a lone front man dropping deep – or in Marco Di Vaio’s case, deep and toward the flanks – allowing the next line of four midfielders to surge into open space onto passes from that forward or their talented midfield pivot. No one else in the league plays quite this way. Di Vaio’s chalkboards in particular make for a fascinating study, and I’m continually amazed by his ability to step back into midfield right past the boundary of a defender’s attention then surge by him as soon as that defender turns off (This example against Portland shows he doesn’t always have far to go).

Can they keep it up? Can their elderly legs do it on a hot, muggy Saturday in Houston? We’ll never know. They somehow get Houston in Houston on a Friday night in October, by which point half their creaky starting XI might be dead from natural causes.

Vancouver too escapes the worst of the Texas heat, getting the Dynamo this Saturday when the high in Houston is just 78 degrees. Their hot start comes with the use of a not-uncommon 4-2-3-1 formation, but the way they can mix and match their athletes and their playmakers in that formation gives them a variety of ways to attack opposing defenses. They haven’t even had to break out what might end up being the league’s best non-Goonies Plan B offense: give the ball to Daigo and have their squadron of speedsters run Hail Mary’s to open up space.

Porter’s Timbers adhered to Claudio Reyna’s Platonic ideal even as the side shifted into something more defensive in Seattle. (I like when Valeri moves into tiny pockets of space and thinks he’s open while his teammates look at him squatting in the same space and conclude he’s well-covered. You imagine with time they’ll figure it out.) RSL 2.0’s changes are more like a 1.5 patch than a new edition as long as the Rimando-Beckerman-Saborio core is intact, but they’ve been one of the league’s leading examples of a team-specific style for years now. Sporting KC may be grinding their gears as they shift from a philosophy that revolved around position to one of possession, but 69% against Toronto and 73% against Chicago suggest that the only thing they have left to figure out is the goal-scoring.

New York’s pressing means the team occasionally slips into a horseshoes and hand grenades approach to defensive positioning, but their team defense through three games is better than expected, relying less than nearly everyone expected on Dax McCarty as their own frantic Brain, scrambling to keep the various bolted-on components of their Inspector Gadget-squad from handcuffing themselves to a lit bomb or helicoptering while upside-down.

This variety is a boon for MLS. A match’s quality isn’t derived only from the quality of the players on the field. Stylistic clashes turn otherwise unspectacular teams into intriguing opponents for one another no matter what game you’re playing and are a big part of the appeal of a sporting event you may have heard a little about this month: the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (Quick: Count the number of times they say “tempo”).

When teams see as many varying paths to victory as they do right now, the real winners are going to be the fans who can appreciate the idiosyncrasies they’re going to be watching. No matter what El Chelís sees.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending the Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

The Big Pitcher - On The Level

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

There’s a surprising lack of doom and gloom around MLS so far this year.

It’s true that American soccer fans are known for their level-headedness and taking a “wait-and-see” approach before jumping to conclusions about their teams (Pause for laughter). And yes it is early. But by God, the season’s started, why do so many fanbases still seem to have hope?

Perhaps I just read too many fan previews and familiarized myself with too many best and worst case scenarios now unfolding. If you put an infinite number of MLS bloggers in front of an infinite number of laptops, then eventually one of them will generate a preview that exactly mirrors the season.

Every death knell seems matched by an equal and opposite peal. Okugo and McInerney will win us the Cup in 20XX! With Gordon or Lenny on the field no way Wondo misses all those gift-wrapped chances against Salt Lake! Hey, at least we play Chicago next week!

This is a not-statistically-significant window into what parity looks like. Teams that were supposed to have continued their dominant runs have struggled. Teams that little was expected of have surged. Good teams that were thought might have some early roster turnover- and injury-induced hiccups have had some early roster turnover- and injury-induced hiccups.

Twelve of 19 teams have won one game. Only two have lost twice, and Colorado’s missing seemingly half its roster while Chicago has just proven everyone’s theory that Arne Friedrich’s name is inscribed above Austin Berry’s on last year’s Rookie of the Year trophy. Even Chivas USA have thwarted the impression that their season was going to end up looking like this and have started earning praise for their play:

In short, no one’s dreams have yet been dashed, which may not seem that surprising two weeks in but considering Barcelona and Bayern were somewhere between 7 and 13 points ahead at this mark in their respective seasons it certainly seems like another tick in favor of MLS. This is what the league as its structured is designed to do, from the draft before the season to the playoffs after it: Give everyone a chance for as long as possible.

But is parity worth it? Keeping certain teams financially and competitively within reach of the rest of the league is obviously of benefit to those rest of the league teams, but which way creates more fans for the league as a whole? Would it be worth introducing some peaks and valleys into the topography of the league’s playing field if it means more people would tune in for its biggest games?

More people watch games with big names and big-market teams, but for MLS last year the boost from that was small compared to factors like how good its lead-in program was. Some people watch MLS because of the teams that happen to be playing. A lot of people don’t watch because they haven’t yet been convinced that the league is worth their time.

This is a different way to ask the same question from last week: Will lopsided additional spending lead to more fans? And the answer from evidence we’ve seen overseas is probably yes. It’s no coincidence that the teams that were spending the most money on on-field product at the time when satellite television and the Internet began to open up the big European leagues to the rest of the world each and every week are the ones who picked up the most fans in the new global markets; you don’t see as many fans of Leverkusen or Valencia as you do of Real Madrid and Manchester United. Hell, you can find more “long-time” fans of Manchester City than you can of Porto or Monaco or to a team and being stuck with it of the other teams that actually had their glorious moment in the European sun.

But by the same token, the less successful, less rich clubs remain ill-positioned to take advantage of these new markets, and so are left further and further behind.. Their fan bases talk (a little facetiously, sure) of the burdens of their fandom, of being born and raised with this love that they can’t shake, no matter how much more appealing the Manchester sides of the league may look. The bulk of the money doesn’t trickle down, and neither do the bulk of the fans, leaving those who have grown up loving their team as the primary support system.

MLS isn’t ready yet for that kind of dichotomy. Too many American soccer fans are still picking their first MLS team; since they weren’t born into or adopted early by a fan culture, then why wouldn’t they take the option of flocking to the banner of a hypothetical sistemas solares superteam? Our theoretically American love for the underdog isn’t enough to keep people from rooting for the Yankees or the Lakers or Duke. The supporter nucleus will survive intact, but the people they’re supposed to be spreading the love for their team and their game to will be less open to the message. The parity days are already coming to a close as wealthy teams realize they can gain their competitive advantage by using all three DP slots or investing large sums of money into youth development to reap additional Homegrown rewards, but the league rightly realizes that it needs time for the foundations to solidify before it upends the competitive balance.

When it does, fans may find themselves longing for the good old days when teams still had hope even two weeks into the season.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending the Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

The Big Pitcher - Video Killed the Designated Player

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric BettsSenior Crystal Ball Correspondent

In the evolution of modern sport a league’s success was no longer defined by the quality of its play or by the size of its live attendance, but by how the networks–or more accurately the great national advertisers–saw it. For in American sports in 1980 there was no God but Madison Avenue and A.C. Nielsen was His prophet.
-David Halberstam, The Breaks of the Game

I’ve lost count of which numerical iteration we’ve all agreed that MLS has just entered (MLS 2000!), but I agree with the sentiment. Once again the league feels like it’s reached a threshold, readying itself to boldly go where...well, every other major American sport has gone before. More than thirty years ago Halberstam captured the moment in basketball history that American soccer, and specifically MLS, is preparing to embark upon now: Convincing a statistically significant percentage of the population to devote two to eight hours a week for 35 straight weeks (plus playoffs) to watching this particular sport on television.

If you spent any time on Twitter in the week before the season’s openers this past weekend then you likely saw at least some fragments of this discussion. This is the growth area now that attendance is becoming less of a worry across the league as a whole. (Though not, perhaps, for certain specific teams. I’d provide a link here, but I bet you’ve seen the pictures already.) To reach its manifest destiny by 2022, the league is going to have to start drawing more viewers, and thus more money, from television.

But if everyone agrees on the destination, then it seems very few can agree on the route to get there. Are higher ratings an inevitable product of continued growth, something that will come with time and sunlight and the continued TLC of hardcore fans spreading their interests to the masses? Or is there some kind of catalyst that can accelerate this growth, such as a marquee name coming over to one of the league’s biggest markets and...never mind.

To brainstorm the likely, or at least the most often-suggested framework for how this increase in viewers will come about is to take your brain for a ride into some kind of circular-logic Magic Roundabout of doom. In brief: More people will watch as the games get better, resulting in more money from television revenues, allowing the league to purchase or retain or grow in a secret lab (nestled high in the Cascade Range) a better quality of player, which in turn will make the games better, leading more people to watch. And so on and so forth; right round baby right round.

The trouble for the league, and those people who think that more can be done to improve it, is where exactly do you break this loop in order to inject your catalyst?

Do you raise the talent level over time by diverting a sustainable amount of money into development, allowing teams to bring in a higher quality of young, cheap players? Or do you encourage teams to spend first by raising the salary cap, bringing in (hopefully) better players and hoping that the resulting Quality → more viewers → more money, which will help some of the smaller market or more apathetic teams teams catch up either financially or competitively, depending on how quickly they started spending. 

Or is there something that can be done on one of the other nodes? It makes sense that Quality would be the single biggest factor driving watchability, but it isn’t the only one. Some of those people who hike their big-boy britches up before asking “Why would I bother with the MLS when I can watch the best teams/players/global marketing conglomerates from around the world instead?” also willingly tune in to college basketball or football games that don’t involve their alma mater, which basically means they’re full of it.

Truth is, it doesn’t matter if they don’t watch because their delicate soccer palates can only handle the smooth flavors (like a lobster-mango ceviche) of Lionel Messi or because they’d rather devote their limited available sports-viewing hours to the ever-declining level of play put forth by indentured 20-year-olds being shouted at by men in hairpieces. Both of these are competitors with MLS for a limited number of eyeballs.

If the site you’re reading this on and its proprietors were really committed to growing American soccer, they’d tell you to deliver a six-pack to your buddy’s house an hour before the game, turn all the televisions in their house on to whatever channel it will be airing on, then go home and do the same at your place, perhaps stopping at the neighbor’s if you see a window propped open or a door ajar.

The point is that MLS got more fans into stadiums because some of those fans convinced others that the experience of being in the stadium, the atmosphere and the sense of speed and the copious amounts of beer available made it the best way they could spend their evening. Now MLS has to convince millions of more fans over the course of the season that the game itself is worth consuming, even if it is more double cheeseburger than ceviche.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending the Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

The Big Pitcher - Taking the Longer View of MLS, the National Teams, and American Soccer

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

The most frustrating moments in sports are the ones that fail to live up to the narrative we’ve envisioned for them.

This is different that the devastation of a crucial or undeserved loss. It’s the last-second shot rolling out of the rim, the field goal wide right, the team coming together in the second half only to blow it in the last week of the season. These storylines are how we process sports; when they’re thwarted the reaction is similar to a failed plot twist or a discordant note. And for that reason it’s a particular kind of disappointing for American soccerfolk that the U.S. men’s team isn’t living up to its destiny as the 1952 Hickory High School boys basketball team

The expectation was that it would all suddenly make sense, that the first year and a half before qualifying got serious were Klinsmann’s Norman Dale moment, taking some early hits in order to lay down the foundations that would lead to future growth. The pupal constrictions of the team’s post-Bradley the Elder metamorphosis -- four-passes-before-you-shoot and Jermaine Jones and whatnot -- would after a time fall away, preferably via spectacular montage. All the lessons that had been learned during that time would suddenly become apparent; once we finished moulting, we’d have Attacking Soccer: unique and beautiful and capable of upsetting South Bend High in the state finals.

Our own Jimmy Chitwood?

Instead, we’re getting to the point where our own personal Jimmy Chitwood is going to have to come back and tell the supporters at American Outlaws town meeting that he doesn’t know if it’ll make any change but he figures it’s time for him to start playing ball to convince us that we have any hope.

This is in all likelihood (hopefully) a temporary despair. With so few actual markers with which to gauge progress, the national team narrative feels like one of big swings. We’re the best we’ve ever been...ohh God, we’re not going to qualify. Deviations in form become breakthroughs and regressions. Danny Williams goes from Timbuk3 to Sex Pistols in a cap and a half. Jermaine Jones gets body swapped with Andrea Pirlo sometime over the winter break.

Those big gaps, and the big changes that occur within them, can be murder on the timeline of fandom, making every interval feel as though more time has elapsed than actually has. Ask anyone who covers the team how many variations of the “When will Johnny Footballer Be Ready to Start for the USMNT?” question he or she gets over the course of a typical week. (“I know he’s 18 now, but by the time Brazil gets here he’ll be 19.25! He should be an impact sub at least by then!”)

Because of its global reach, soccer has the largest and most sophisticated narrative of any sport on the planet. There’s the global ur-narrative -- Lionel Messi Lionel Messi Lionel Messi African Cup o-MATCH FIXING! -- built on top of a host of interconnected national and regional narratives that are themselves built on top of a host of smaller narratives: men’s and women’s national teams, lower divisions and young up-and-comers, cup competitions and derby rivalries, on the field, off the field, in the locker room and in the nightclubs, parking garages and personal fireworks testing facilities of some of the sport’s luminaries. At the center is the the league, the sports world’s storyline-generating World Tree.

To follow sports today is to be keep up with some combination of all of these narratives, harvesting the stories we think we’d enjoy and leaving others to wither and die. We pluck particular strings, follow certain conduits, construct a shelter that gives us our own frame of reference for viewing sports by blocking out the sheer magnitude of the narrative that we’ve decided we don’t care about.

It can be overwhelming, and in fact we’re so used to it being overwhelming that the relative paucity of new national team news has created those now-familiar overreactions to every new result and performance and led to the formation of a cottage industry in tracking the progress of Americans playing overseas. But no matter how many minutes Brian Sciaretta tells me Fabian Johnson is playing for Hoffenheim, I can’t help but tie it back to the question: What has he done for U.S. lately? 

So it’s kind of a relief as an American soccerperson to once again have the familiar rhythms of the league-in-progress to look forward to, a statistically-significant sample size on which to eventually base the conclusions we’re going leap to after the first game (though why wait that long when there have been so many preseason opportunities). This year’s offseason has been perhaps the busiest in the league's history; now we get to enjoy the fruits of those labors. Some of the storylines we put our hopes in will thwart our expectations, but more will quickly pop up to take their place. What we’ll be talking about at the end of the season will be something we can’t even envision today.   

Unless Jimmy comes back. Then we’ll have a pretty good idea.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending the Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer