Jermain Defoe is a Microcosm of Why MLS Sucks

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On Wednesday, Jermain Defoe returned to BMO Field in a Sunderland shirt to play Toronto FC in a friendly – three days before a TFC travel to play a league match in Columbus.

There are so many things wrong with that sentence to any fan of Major League Soccer.

“It just felt forced,” said Phil Tobin, president of The Red Patch Boys, TFC’s joint-oldest supporters club.

“The Pan-Am games are on, the Defoe pandering – it’s too much, considering the huge August we have coming up. [I couldn’t justify] commuting for a meaningless game,” Tobin said.

It’s the first home game Tobin has missed in eight years.

If a day one fan like Tobin can’t justify watching his local team play against exotic opposition, why did TFC insist on hosting an all around uncomfortable affair?

The only reason the Englishman is back in the 6ix – Drake was a big factor the first time around – is TFC weren’t happy with just one friendly match against a club affiliated with Defoe. When he signed for the Reds in 2014, his contract promised two.

In typical MLS fashion, TFC made Defoe honour his original agreement designed to sell tickets: he’d have to play a friendly against Toronto with his new side at a later date.

This burning desire for MLS teams to acquire top, or near top-level talent and bend over backwards to accommodate is both debilitating and humiliating.

TFC’s capture of Defoe serves as a prime example. His announcement, dubbed the “Big Bloody Deal” is still on their main website in its full, desperate glory.

TFC fans however, are over it.

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The maligned striker returned to a cold reception from a two-thirds full BMO Field to slot two past his former club, and feel justified in his decision to leave.

Sure, TFC sucked for the nine seconds Defoe graced the team with his presence, but he shouldn’t be exempt from all blame.

Defoe only appeared 19 times in his single MLS season, scoring 11 goals.

There are 34 games in an MLS regular season, and even Steven Caldwell, a 34-year-old walking injury, managed to play 21 in the same time frame as Defoe.

He didn’t play often or well most of the time, but when he did, Defoe was easily the team’s best and most important player.

The only things that stood in his way were his body and terrible attitude. Defoe’s groin was held together by paper maché and yarn, wet from his own tears. He wasn’t having a good time in Toronto, and he wasn’t afraid to show it.

In swooped mother, agent and overlord Sandra St. Helen to kick up controversy. She raised a huge stink within the club, allegedly organizing Defoe’s return to England before TFC were even aware he wanted to leave.

Defoe’s car crash of a season in MLS served as warning to other clubs who were thinking of signing someone similar: don’t bloody do it.

Still, the league and its teams don’t listen. Frank Lampard was supposed to begin the season with new expansion club New York City FC, completing his transfer from parent club Manchester City on January 1. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Lampard may have said otherwise, but his head was turned. He’d been picked up by Manchester City, a top Premier League team that was willing to pay and play him when Chelsea didn’t. After four months, he wasn’t ready to give up his last chance at a European trophy.

Here we are in late July, and Lampard still hasn’t made his debut for NYCFC, this time due to a short-term injury.

Players like Defoe and Lampard who’ve spent their careers facing the best in the world and making millions in Europe have to close their eyes and dive head first into MLS, knowing it won’t be the same.

Right now, there’s nothing teams can do about that. The standard of play in MLS is lower than almost any other top-tier league in the world, but in the short term, it doesn’t matter.

The pockets of the league’s best players will be handsomely lined, and their pictures will be lit up in Times Square. So these stars are prepared to deal the step down,

It’s an unsustainable business model. If there’s one thing most sports fans aren’t, it’s patient. It doesn’t take long for ticket holders to get fed up with mediocrity. While the league’s popularity has exploded in recent year, MLS’ standard of play may not be improving fast enough to support itself.

One of the biggest obstacles to progress that the league has yet to tackle is money management.

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Right now, less than 1 per cent of the league’s players are making many, many more times the average. The worst part is it’s all allowed, and even encouraged by MLS’ regulations.

Only three players per team are allowed to earn more than the league maximum, capped at $436,250 for 2015. These three designated players only count for $436,250 each on the cap sheet, but teams are allowed to pay each player as much as they can afford beyond the league max.

Essentially, teams have a blank cheque. Presumably, the three-player limit exists to avoid the sugar daddy problem currently plaguing football overseas.

Soon, homegrown talent will be good enough to make the jump overseas in droves, not just in isolated cases like Tottenham’s DeAndre Yedlin.

But without the cash flow to bankroll someone as expensive as Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey, keeping talent on home soil will prove increasingly difficult by the year.

So sure, MLS teams can continue to chase the world’s Jermain Defoe’s and Frank Lampard’s, spending cash by the boatful to stock their three precious slots with the gems of yesteryear.

In the end, it’ll just feel forced.

@BergkampSpin

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Say Yes to Racism or Embrace Sports Psychology; Pick One, Reap the Benefits

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Luis Suarez is the most recent and arguably most important addition to FC Barcelona’s attack that won the treble in 2015.

As one of the world’s best strikers, it’s natural that Suarez is a wanted man on the pitch. Alongside partners Neymar and Lionel Messi, defenders up and down Europe hunt the trio like Wile E. Coyote does the Road runner.

Unlike the bird, the equally looney Suarez has a well documented short fuse. It’s believed Barça explicitly wrote in El Pistolero’s contract that he isn’t allowed to spaz out like he did most famously on Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic.

Dazzling foot skills and temper tantrums have long been the stereotype of South American stars for years, but it turns out the popular criticism is also backed by numbers.

According to political scientist Sebastián Saiegh, co-author of National Cultures and Soccer Violence, Messi, Neymar and Suarez’ former national teammates were some of the most statistically violent players in the game.

The study looks at the average number of yellow and red cards earned by players of various nationalities across the world’s top leagues from 2004 to 2006. It found that players who came from countries with impressive histories of civil war since 1980, such as Argentina, Colombia and Turkey, were the most violent among their club teammates.

Comparing the years players spent maturing (ages zero to 18) with a country’s times of war, the study was able to pinpoint which nation produced the world’s most violent professionals.

Extremely strong correlation between civil war and violence on the pitch is one thing, but explaining why the phenomenon exists is more complex.

The study suggests a history of violence in a country affects local cultural norms, making violent conduct more socially acceptable, expected, or even desirable.

“Our speculation is that it’s how these players are socialized; what is acceptable in society growing up. Something they experience at home, school, what they watch on the news. Some argue that our study is flawed because it assumes that every player has the same type of exposure to civil war, which isn’t true; it makes the results of our study even more surprising,” Saiegh said.

What’s less surprising is a player’s salary also correlates strongly with how many yellow cards they concede.

“These guys are the targets for more fouls – look what happened to Neymar just a few weeks ago in the Copa America. He felt that the ref wasn’t protecting him properly, that the players are taking turns fouling him, so at some point he’s going to retaliate and get a card,” Saiegh said.

Given the ease of access to a player’s finances, the world’s best-paid players are inevitably more visible. They’re targeted by fans with humiliating chants, kicked to pieces by opposition, and generally shown a torrid time week in, week out.

Much like prejudice by paycheque, a player’s nationality can play as large a part in their treatment on the pitch. Unabashed racism from fans is the most obvious example of discrimination in the game, but the motivation behind players’ actions isn’t as clear, unless you’re someone like Suarez.

But what about the ref? Every fan has thought it. The ref is clearly out to get their team, and they can’t figure out why. While tough to prove, it is reasonable to speculate that players of various backgrounds receive different levels of sympathy from officials.

“There are refs who interact regularly with certain high profile players who are more easily recognizable. [Especially] In the case of international competition, it would [make sense] that he gives the Colombians more cards [over a more docile team – South Korea], based on his bias, yes. It’s definitely possible,” Saiegh said.

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At one point in his career, Toronto sports psychologist Paul Dennis consulted three teams of three different sports, all at once. He juggled his full-time position with the Leafs alongside the needs of Toronto FC and the Raptors.

“It was easier with the Leafs. I was with the team for every game. My work with TFC was whenever I could fit it in. When athletes are struggling with their emotions, they need constant encouragement and counselling opportunities, and I couldn’t be around for that,” he said.

Dennis acknowledges the main reason TFC wanted his help was to “fix” a “problem athlete”, similar to the maligned Suarez, not help the team. In his time working with the club, Dennis knew there were skeptics within the organization.

“They should’ve hired somebody full time. Some teams don’t understand what role a sports psychologist plays in a professional team. It’s not for a lack of resources, they have the money. I think it’s a philosophical decision that has to be made, but they don’t see the value, so they don’t do it,” Dennis said.

Mental health is an issue largely overlooked in the world of sport, and especially so in a game as maddeningly traditionalistic as soccer. Embracing psychology as a beneficial tool in soccer has always been taboo, and not just in North America.

“Some people say if you need a sports psychologist you’ve got a mentally weak team, which is ridiculous, because you’ve got a nutritionist and strength coaches, so why not hire someone who works with the mind?” Dennis said.

It’s a valid point. Worldwide, soccer is heavily criticized for its reluctance to change. Fans gripe about the inflexibility over safe standing in England, slow adoption of game-enhancing technology across leagues.

Maybe the next problem will concern recruitment outside how much an addition will cost and where they’ll play.

Players with discipline issues are an inherent risk to a team. Volatile players walk a thin line between utility and liability for their sides, those that use conflict as a means of success are the most difficult to change.

“There are some that realize that their violence pays. They intimidate opposition, refs; they use their aggression to their advantage. They have this instinctive ability to hurt people, and they like it, so why change? I’m not able to help that type of person,” Dennis said.

There are obvious drawbacks to violence in soccer, but top managers still value what a hard man brings. Dennis agrees that while there’s a better balance to be struck between slide tackles and skill, it’s a tough sell to teams who find success in rough play.

“These types of individuals have the power to influence the mindset of the opponent, they’re always looking over their shoulder and that throws them off their game. The intimidation factor is huge, and so is the fear of injury. [It’s] enough to occupy the mindset of athletes to the point that they are completely distracted, and their skill level is neutralized. It’s a part of sport, sure,” he said.

As it stands, clubs have two options to improve. Stop signing the game’s most violent players, or just pick their brains.

@BergkampSpin

We Need to Talk About Jack Wilshere

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Jack Wilshere is the last piece of a puzzle that Arsène Wenger has lost. Wilshere is nice to have, but nobody’s quite worked out what to do with him yet.

It’s a good thing Arsène Wenger is a patient man. In the past 10 years he’s created midfield maestros and dealt with morons. In the decade Arsenal have spent under Emirates Stadium’s shadow, Wenger’s commitment to youth development has been a two-edged sword.

For every Cesc Fabregas to rise through the ranks and validate Wenger’s unwavering faith in project youngsters, a gaggle of Denilson’s and Pedro Botelho’s served as boat anchors to Wenger’s balloon of ambition.

The youth to come good in the current line up include Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs, Hector Bellerin, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, and Serge Gnabry, with more knocking on Wenger’s door. All have found good amounts of playing time in periods of fitness, and have established themselves as valuable assets to the team. However, it could be argued that none possess the raw talent of Wilshere.

Wilshere’s situation is enigmatic. There’s no doubting his high ceiling or his commitment to this club, but there is a question mark above his head regardless. Where does he play in our current system? Does he play instead of, or in addition to the players making up our starting nucleus?

In every potential position for Wilshere, there seems to be a more suited option. Francis Coquelin has been on form to the extent that he’s undroppable except to be rested. Aaron Ramsey hasn’t reproduced his scoring form from last season, but he’s proven himself valuable in possession, and helping Hector Bellerin defend the right flank.

The person standing tallest in Wilshere’s way is Arsenal’s shortest player, Santi Cazorla. The Spaniard goes against the archetypal grain of deep-lying midfielders, but his size hasn’t stopped him. Cazorla has been instrumental behind Mesut Ozil, distributing the ball from deep and chipping in with the odd defensive effort too.

After returning to full fitness, Wilshere has made all of his appearances as a substitute except for his start on the weekend against Sunderland, where the Gunners fell flat.

Despite the circumstances, Wenger seemed to praise Wilshere through gritted teeth when he spoke to media.

“Jack Wilshere gave a lot, he did alright,” Wenger said. “He had some good movement.”

Expecting much from a player severely lacking match fitness at the tail end of a season where Champions League qualification is guaranteed seems unfair. Yet, that’s exactly what everybody wants from Wilshere, because his capability of excellence is well documented.

It’s this expectation, both at club and national level, that will either make him great, or give him a nervous tick.

What Wilshere needs is time, and lots of it. Wenger himself said it could take years for Wilshere to get back on track.

Fortunately for Wilshere, time is on his side again. Arsenal’s season ends in two games, and there’s no major tournament for England to attend. He has the entire summer to recuperate, train, and be ready for pre-season.

Unfortunately for Wilshere, time has also sent him back to square one. It’s up to him to prove he can still cut it on the world’s biggest stages – his sensational performance against Xavi and Iniesta is no longer relevant.

Arsenal fans should be excited for the new Jack Wilshere, a player who doesn’t know where he fits in yet.

I am @BergkampSpin

BergkampBits: Wembley, Wembley!

After Monday’s defeat to Swansea, the cold, hard truth hit Arsenal fans in the face like fresh cod.

Arsenal are not going to win the league this year. Arsenal are not going to win the Champions League this year. This much has been obvious for quite a while. Still, second place was for the taking on Monday; sadly it wasn’t meant to be.

There’s still a good chance we can clinch 3rd, and avoid the late summer CL qualification round. I’d very much like not to watch us struggle with one of those insane Turkish outfits again.

Still, the CL is months away, and hardly a worry. I’m much more excited about our second consecutive FA Cup final, and the celebration it merits.

I am @BergkampSpin

Arsène Wenger Needs a Reality Check

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Arsène Wenger’s body language in his post-match interview painted the picture of an aggrieved and flustered man.

Wenger used words “lucky” and “too easy” to describe the match, discrediting Swansea’s defensive work ethic and Łukasz Fabianski’s solid display returning to the Emirates.

Yes, statistically Arsenal dominated the match, and yes Swansea’s goal came with a bit of luck. However, this result speaks more to the club’s shortcomings than it does its misfortune.

There are many character flaws that the Gunners have managed to shake this season, but conceding against the run of play isn’t one of them.

Naiveté in knife-edge games has cost Arsenal dearly, and will continue to until Wenger can instill a sense of perspective in his players.

Wenger’s words in the post-match press conference didn’t match his actions on the touch line.

“When you cannot win a game, don’t lose it. We knew exactly what could happen. It was not even a break,” he said.

Wenger knew Swansea could score on the break, and yet he stripped his side of its most important defensive asset well before stoppage time.

Criticize Jose Mourinho all you like, but if Chelsea are playing for a win or draw in a match they’re dominating, he won’t take off his only DM.

Yet that’s exactly what Wenger did, swapping Jack Wilshere for Francis Coquelin with 20 minutes left to play.

With that substitution, Arsenal’s midfield was comprised solely of attacking players. While this imbalance in midfield can’t be directly attributed to a goal scored just outside the six yard box, it couldn’t have helped. The back four were hopelessly exposed without Coquelin’s shielding presence.

Wenger needs to learn from the teams that frustrate us. At times his insatiable appetite to win is more trouble than it’s worth.

A scrappy 0-0 at home wouldn’t have made much difference in the race for second, but throwing the kitchen sink at Swansea only to leave the pitch empty-handed is demoralizing.

At some point, Wenger needs to swallow his pride and learn to play ugly when the situation calls for it. We’ve seen this season that conservative play coupled with a sense of perspective wins championships.

I am @BergkampSpin

Arsenal 1 – Spurs 2: I’m Not Mad, Just Disappointed

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North London is red with embarrassment, and rightly so.

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has clearly seen the tapes. Most teams who press diligently in the middle of the park have had their way with Arsenal’s back line; think back to our loss to Borussia Dortmund, and the draw with Liverpool. Midfielders Nabil Bentaleb, Moussa Dembele, and Ryan Mason knew they were to be nothing more than workhorses; to let the more creative Christian Eriksen and Eric Lamela do the dazzling.

This was a game where I think our structure, more than our execution, was wrong. His performances since returning from injury have been outstanding, but I’m still not convinced that Mesut Ozil should be used in a wide position with any regularity. We know that Ozil thrives off having multiple outlets, so having him occupy one of the positions that he usually looks to pass to isn’t helping anyone. I can’t be hard on him. He put in a decent performance, and scored a great goal. Oli wasn’t fooling anyone with that shot gone wrong, though.

On the other side of the pitch, Danny Welbeck did well to compete his opposing full back Danny Rose, and was responsible on the defensive side, notably denying Harry Kane a clear chance at goal in the first half.

Defending against Spurs’ barrage for 90 minutes was no easy task, but considering the amount of chances they had on goal, I think our back line could have done much worse. Young right back Hector Bellerin did well for the most part, maintaining composure in one or two compromising situations, but there were instances where he played himself into trouble that was wholly avoidable.

Maybe it’s a sign of his youth, but Bellerin seemed naive to the fact that Spurs were keen to overload his flank, yet he continued to be sucked towards the middle of the pitch. Compress to stretch, Hector. Surely they taught you this in Spain? I know he’s only 19, but that game should serve as a bit of a reality check for him, He’s not totally ready.

Elsewhere, there wasn’t much to complain about. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were adequate at the very worst, and Nacho Monreal did well at both ends of the pitch when possible. David Ospina looked a little shakier than we’re used to, but I suspect he toughed out that early knee injury. It showed in his haphazard distribution – which is usually top notch – through the course of the match.

I can’t say it was our back five that was the problem. The real issues were in the engine room.

If our deep midfielders can’t cope with pressure, why aren’t we using a more compact shape, transition from defence to offence? Why did Welbeck and Ozil stay wide when everyone could see we had trouble breaking out of our own end? You know times are tough when we’re back to the school of thought of lumping it down field 50 yards for Olivier Giroud to wrestle with two centre backs, in the futile hope of keeping the ball.

We were disjointed, and it was ultimately our downfall. For the amount of chances Tottenham created, we did quite well only to concede two, and score one. I don’t think that’s being unkind.

It’s unfortunate, but we will lose to them the odd time. I won’t cry about it now, as we’ve got a lot of games left in this season, and silverware to defend.

Arsène summed things up quite well after the match, and offered a bit of perspective in the process:

“It leaves us with a big disappointment to swallow first and then to prepare for the next game. We have played two more away games than Spurs, who have played 13 at home and 11 away. We have played 13 away and 11 at home. It’s down to our home form now – we know we can win away from home but it will be a battle until the end,” he said to media.

The best part about early games is the amount of time left in the day to forget them when you lose.

Onwards and upwards for Tuesday against Leicester, and beyond that, there’s still plenty at stake. Nothing’s over ‘til it’s over.

I am @BergkampSpin.

Are Arsenal Finally Set?

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January has gone quite well. Exceptionally well, actually. Arsène Wenger has managed to address two squad issues, trim our roster up front, and pick up a more than respectable points tally along the way.

This is the point where our season is really going to kick on; equal parts necessity and squad rejuvenation dictate. Everything about the Premier League has been quiet since the turn of the year. Chelsea look weaker by the day, we’ve found a head of steam, and City are being found out a little bit without Yaya Touré.

The only real surprising thing that remains neglected is United’s position in the table. They’re ahead of us by one point. That’s a bit sad, considering how well documented their so-called calamitous season has been.

Am I making a mountain of a molehill? No. Yes. Maybe. All I’m saying is that there’s plenty of room for us to improve, and right now, we’re showing every sign of doing so.

A lot of that is down to having a fit squad again. Imagine having to pick between Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil to play number 10. Ridiculous luxuries are afforded to us when our roster is healthy. We’ve now arrived at the point where we’ve got at least two very good options per position. Finally, finally, finally.

Be it Francis Coquelin making the DM role his, Ozil hitting form straight after returning from injury, or Laurent Koscielny starting to look back to his old best, there are very few negatives to look at, as the squad stands. That’s good, because we’ve got three competitions to compete in.

I won’t turn my nose up at the Champions League just yet; stranger things have happened. Monaco are by no means an “easy” opponent, but when you consider prior opposition, you can’t help but feel good about our chances. I’m banking on us reaching the semis before we end up with Real Madrid. No pride in bowing out to them, really. It’s the FA Cup we should hold at highest priority, anyway.

I say that, because we’re not going to win the league. A third place finish is what I’m hoping for, I’d say that’s more than attainable looking up and down the table right now.

If we manage to do all that, and maybe add a DM in the summer, I’d say we’re a complete squad. I mean totally complete, not little bit competitive, or little bit short – complete.

That’s a strange thought, because you’d swear Arsène was always little bit sadistic in his approach to the fans. We’d always enter the season with some sort of handicap. You’d always wonder just what exactly he was playing at.

We’d have no centre backs (we have a good one this year… on the BENCH!), or they’d be Johan Djourou and Seb Squillaci. We’d have one good striker who’d be injured half the season, and Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh as backups.

We actually used to employ Manuel Almunia.

I can go on and on, but the point is that Arsène always found ways to sprinkle a little bit of banter into our season.

I’m almost sad to see it go.

I am @BergkampSpin.

BergkampBits: A look at our win against Villa

Sunday’s match was absolutely brilliant. Everything clicked. I thought I’d make a video to commemorate the odd time it’s actually stress-free being an Arsenal fan. I call this segment BergkampBits. All the stuff you want, nothing you don’t. Enjoy.

I am @BergkampSpin

Villa Thrilla from Bergkamp Spin on Vimeo.

Arsenal Might Sign Some Guy You’ve Never Heard of.

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I’m going to go out on a limb, and put stock in Twitter transfer rumours for just a moment. Mostly in this one, because Cadena Ser is mentioned as the source for this bit of news. They’ve been pretty spot on for us lately, accurately reporting both the Özil and Sánchez sagas.

Another thing going for this rumour, is it’s a bit out of the blue. I have no idea who this player is, and it seems as though he’ll have to apply for a work permit to complete his move. Very Arsenal indeed.

Could Joel Campbell be involved as a makeweight in the deal? It would kill two birds with one stone. I feel bad for Joel, he really seems to have a good head on his shoulders. He’s just not looking like being anywhere near as good as the players ahead of him. Shame, but right now he could be a very useful bargaining tool.

It makes me wonder why we haven’t heard talk of asking around the Premier League. Surely there would be some takers, and the added bonus of getting a player with experience in England would be invaluable at this stage in the season. Just food for thought.

I don’t want to hurt my head with the ins and outs of a transfer that’s yet to materialize, so if you want to learn more about this guy, have a look at what Sid Lowe had to say about him on ESPNFC. It’s worth the read.

Elsewhere, there really isn’t much new in the world of Arsenal. Even the club website are struggling for content. Right now the headlines read:

Giroud: “You have to be good at scoring goals in front of goal”
Walcott: Alexis is quite good
Ramsey: Coquelin is really good
Ramsey: Cazorla is really quite good

I’m not complaining. Okay, maybe a little. But if this is what winning two difficult games consecutively does to our media presence, I think I’ll get over it.

Follow me: I am @BergkampSpin.