Men's Summer of Soccer

-@dodd7

As was previously discussed two weeks ago in a post recapping the Women's Summer of Soccer, every summer will now be known as a "Summer of Soccer". 2016 was no exception, as Major League Soccer (MLS) continued its rapid ascent in the American and global sports scene. The North American Soccer League (NASL) and the United Soccer League (USL) continue to grow and fight for legitimacy. The CONCACAF Gold Cup was full of drama and set up a USA vs Mexico match-up in October after Mexico claimed the title.

MLS

Summertime in Major League Soccer is often the doldrums of the season due to the sweltering heat in cities such as Orlando, Houston and Dallas. The new season smell has worn off and the playoff race hasn't heated up. This summer felt different. Every transfer window seems to outdo the previous one in the current MLS era but the 2016 summer was particularly ambitious.

Signings

Players that were signed in the transfer window or were making their debut this summer included Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Giovanni Dos Santos, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Gonzalo Veron, and Tranquilo Barnetta and those are just some of the most recognizable names. The flashy new signings also demand impressive salaries. CBS Sports compiled a list of the top 15 highest paid MLS players and more than half of this group has been in MLS for less than two seasons. Five of them debuted in MLS just this summer if you include Didier Drogba who signed with the Montreal Impact after the MLS Players Union released their salary information.

Top 15 MLS player salaries in 2015:

  1. Kaka, Orlando City: $7.16 million
  2. Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC: $7.11 million
  3. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC: $6.5 million
  4. Steven Gerrard, L.A. Galaxy: $6.33 million
  5. Frank Lampard, New York City FC: $6 million
  6. David Villa, New York City FC: $5.61 million
  7. Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC: $4.75 million
  8. Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders: $4.6 million
  9. Robbie Keane, L.A. Galaxy: $4.5 million
  10. Giovani Dos Santos, L.A. Galaxy: $4.1 million
  11. Jermaine Jones, New England Revolution: $3.05 million
  12. Obafemi Martins, Seattle Sounders: $3 million
  13. Andrea Pirlo, New York City FC: $2.31 million
  14. Shaun Maloney, Chicago Fire: $1.58 million
  15. Omar Gonzalez, L.A. Galaxy: $1.45 million

Big name, big money signings are crucial to team performance as well as selling jerseys and earning national television time slots but shrewd signings such as Sebastian Lletget for the LA Galaxy and Roman Torres for the Seattle Sounders often do as much for a team's title hopes.

As was previously mentioned, notably absent from the above list is Didier Drogba who reportedly will earn north of $3 million, placing him at roughly 11 or 12 on the list from CBS Sports. The Drogba saga became the latest failed signing for the beleagured Chicago Fire franchise. The Fire had the rights to sign Drogba but the Ivorian Striker preferred the French speaking Canadian Metropolis. Add to that disappointment the departure of #14 on that list, Shaun Maloney, and the Jermaine Jones coin flip saga from last summer and the situation in Chicago certainly looks dire. 

All-Star Game

Good news for the league seemed to be plentiful this summer. The influx of impressive signings also certainly helped the MLS All-Stars also notch their second win in a row against European competition, defeating the Tottenham Hotspurs 2-1. With talent levels increasing league-wide, the format of the All-Star game came under scrutiny. In the week prior to this year's showcase event, Pablo Mastroeni and Clint Dempsey discussed a return to the old East vs West format. One that would allow for more players to be recognized and each team to be represented.

Ratings

Recently, Christopher Harris wrote about the rising ratings for MLS on World Soccer Talk. Although somewhat unexpected, the large rise is certainly welcomed by television and MLS executives. Three marquee match-ups shown on ESPN showed impressive growth. The Seattle Sounders vs the Los Angeles Galaxy on August 9th had 549,000 viewers on ESPN and 183,000 viewers on ESPN Deportes. On August 23, Los Angeles played New York City FC with an audience of 452,000 viewers an increase of over 200,000 viewers from when the same two teams met in April. Finally, the Seattle Sounders played the Portland Timbers for an audience of 438,000 on August 30th. 129,000 more than watched the same matchup in April. Rising TV ratings are incredibly important to the financial stability of the league as was made obvious by the latest TV deal signed early this spring that will earn the league roughly $90 million per year. The rise in viewership on ESPN can certainly at least be partly attributed to the games being hosted on ESPN and not ESPN 2 but the new signings and the general momentum of MLS also have a role.

Standings

Below are the current standings (as of 9/11/15) in MLS from mlssoccer.com

Eastern Conference

# Club PTS GP PPG W L T GF GA GD HG HGD RG RGD
1 D.C. United 44 28 1.57 13 10 5 35 34 1 27 9 8 -8
2 New York Red Bulls 42 25 1.68 12 7 6 43 28 15 22 14 21 1
3 Columbus Crew SC 41 28 1.46 11 9 8 45 47 -2 32 9 13 -11
4 New England Revolution 40 27 1.48 11 9 7 38 36 2 24 15 14 -13
5 Toronto FC 37 26 1.42 11 11 4 45 44 1 22 10 23 -9
6 Montreal Impact 31 24 1.29 9 11 4 34 37 -3 23 8 11 -11
7 Philadelphia Union 30 28 1.07 8 14 6 35 45 -10 18 1 17 -11
8 Orlando City SC 29 28 1.04 7 13 8 33 50 -17 18 2 15 -19
9 New York City FC 28 27 1.04 7 13 7 38 46 -8 26 0 12 -8
10 Chicago Fire 27 27 1 7 14 6 34 42 -8 19 4 15 -12

Western Conference

# Club PTS GP PPG W L T GF GA GD HG HGD RG RGD
1 Vancouver Whitecaps FC 48 28 1.71 15 10 3 40 28 12 23 10 17 2
2 LA Galaxy 46 28 1.64 13 8 7 49 33 16 36 27 13 -11
3 FC Dallas 44 26 1.69 13 8 5 38 30 8 23 11 15 -3
4 Seattle Sounders FC 41 28 1.46 13 13 2 34 31 3 22 10 12 -7
5 Sporting Kansas City 41 26 1.58 11 7 8 40 35 5 23 8 17 -3
6 Portland Timbers 41 28 1.46 11 9 8 29 32 -3 19 10 10 -13
7 San Jose Earthquakes 38 27 1.41 11 11 5 33 31 2 12 4 21 -2
8 Houston Dynamo 35 27 1.3 9 10 8 35 34 1 24 9 11 -8
9 Colorado Rapids 33 27 1.22 8 10 9 25 29 -4 17 -2 8 -2
10 Real Salt Lake 32 27 1.19 8 11 8 29 40 -11 19 7 10 -18

The top 6 teams from each conference will make the playoffs and with roughly 6 weeks left in the season the playoff and Supporters Shield races are heating up.  

NASL-USL-NPSL

This summer also continued to be an exciting time for the lower divisions of American Soccer. The United Soccer League (USL) has continued its torrid streak of expansion since rebranding and partnering with MLS. Expansion teams in Cincinnati, Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and Reno have all been announced this summer and plan to begin play in 2016. Orlando City and Sporting Kansas City have also been rumored to be fielding USL teams in 2016 but formal plans have not yet been announced.

The North American Soccer League (NASL) also had some expansion news but not all of it was positive. Expansion sites in Oklahoma and Virginia were both announced as dead in the water after extensive delays and debate over when they would arrive. However, in late spring they did announce the addition of Miami FC and in June the arrival of Puerto Rico FC was announced. 

Recent comments made by NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson in The Telegraph indicate he has a few more cards up his sleeve in the coming months. In regards to future expansion Peterson said, 

"We expect to make some announcements this year regarding new teams in the league based on the West Coast," Peterson added. "So we start to get to a number of 15, 16 or 17 and from there we have to be careful what we do with the last three, which is a great place to be for us... We don't have a hard deadline but within around 18 to 24 months we will be at our 20 teams and have a nice footprint on the East Coast and West Coast and we're going to fill it in the centre of the country and in Canada as well."

Perhaps most intriguing about Peterson's interview with The Telegraph is his discussion of promotion and relegation. Pro/Rel has long been the goal of the NASL and while that particular road has been somewhat difficult, the NASL Commissioner may have a new strategy involving the National Premier Soccer League, generally considered the fourth tier of American soccer.

"Maybe we've got to start to look at aligning with other leagues to start to put the pieces in place. It takes a lot of time to build this out and you've got to build levels that teams can move from one to another. So it's not building down that worries me, it's building up. Do you start with a fourth division, then put in a third, then a second and a first?
"There's different ways to do this but you have to identify existing organisations like the NPSL or other leagues in this country that have an interest [in promotion and relegation] and then start to figure out where you're going to go. But it's going to be a process and it's going to take a bit of time but it's not impossible and it would be the best thing ever for the game here."

What the future holds for lower division soccer in the US is still unclear but it certainly seems there are several possible routes. Whether that is a minor league system dominated by the USL or the die-hard soccer fan's coveted promotion and relegation system proposed by the NASL will be determined in the years to come.

U.S. Men's National Team

In stark contrast to the Women's National Team the men had a largely disappointing summer. The CONCACAF Gold Cup was the premier event this summer for the USMNT and a semifinal defeat to Jamaica was certainly not what they had in mind. After starting the summer with impressive away wins at The Netherlands and Germany and with Mexico struggling the Gold Cup certainly looked like theirs to lose, and they did. After one goal victories over Honduras and Haiti and a 1-1 draw against Panama the US headed into a cupcake Semifinal against a plucky Cuban team. The United States easily ended the Cubans run by a score of 6-0. With their only real test so far coming against the Panamanians, and by most accounts not passing that test, the Semifinal against Jamaica was perhaps primed for an upset. 

The Jamaicans got out to an early 2-0 lead due to goals from MLS players Darren Mattocks and Giles Barnes. The US could only get one goal back in the second half thanks to Michael Bradley. The defeat to Jamaica marked the first time the US would not play in the Gold Cup Final in over ten years and the first home loss to a team from the Caribbean since 1968. 

Jamaica moved on to the Final to face Mexico who just barely snuck by Panama in controversial fashion. Mexico defeated Jamaica 3-1 in the final and were crowned champions of CONCACAF. Most importantly, this set up a clash between the US and Mexico on October 10th for the right to represent CONCACAF in the 2017 Confederations Cup. The United States earned their spot in the playoff due to their 2013 Gold Cup championship. The Gold Cup loss represented the first large-scale failure of the Jurgen Klinsmann era. One that was highlighted by controversial squad selections, particularly the choice to completely change the back line that was quite successful in the 2014 World Cup. 

Earlier this week Jurgen continued his odd squad selections and playing people out of position by starting four center backs and playing Bedoya as a holding midfielder against Brazil and were thoroughly outclassed in a 4-1 trouncing. Later that night, Mexico looked strong taking a 2-0 lead into the 85th minute against #1 ranked Argentina before conceding two late goals to finish with a draw. With Mexico looking strong and the US stumbling into their hugely important playoff on October 10th the pressure is beginning to pile on Jurgen and the USMNT. If the US manages to defeat Mexico the fans and media pressure will certainly ease but if they fail to qualify for the Confederations Cup once again there will be a loud call for a coaching change after a dismal 2015. 

The 2015 summer of soccer has ended but the fall will be packed with action. The US Olympic team begins qualifying, the Confederation Cup playoff looms, and the MLS will crown a champion. 

Let us know your favorite moments from this summer in the comments section.

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