OTF Boot Room #1

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Welcome to the Boot Room.

Way back in the nineties, I worked my way through undergrad as an equipment manager for Illinois State’s football (the other football) team. When I wasn’t on the practice field or traveling around the country to away games, I spent most of my time working in the equipment room. For we managers, the equipment room wasn’t simply where we labored, it was a sanctuary and gathering place. We’d hold court while players and coaches came in to shoot the breeze, engage in banter, and sometimes talk about serious matters, whether personal or professional.

In soccer, the equipment room is called the boot room, hence the title of my new column. OTF Boot Room is my space to talk about whatever’s on my soccer mind, whenever I feel like sharing. So thanks to OTF Editor-in-Chief, Brian Battle, for having me back. As some of you know, I created this blog, so it’s good to be home.

Chicago Fire: New Boss Same as the Old Boss?

Last Saturday, I finally got around to having a look at the new Fire, as I figured the last preseason match against Portland would be somewhat indicative of what’s to come in 2016. I was pleasantly surprised. Chicago was disciplined and organized. They actually looked like they had a plan and were executing it. They looked in control for long stretches of play. They even played a 3-5-2 and pulled it off. After two seasons of utter incompetence, I was rubbing my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Initially, my impression of Nelson Rodriguez was that of just another company man, an MLS functionary who came to town to serve Prince Andrew and his little henchman Atul. Nelson talked too much. His corporate speak turned me off. He publicly insulted and humiliated Eric Wynalda at an industry gathering. “Charlatan” was the word floated around by folks in the know. Rumor had it well-known names turned down the Fire head coaching job because Nelson liked the sound of his own voice a bit too much. And if you saw that MLS fluff piece from the combine with him and Pauno, it followed.

But then Nelson shut up and Pauno got to work. Together, they seemed to maximize value at the MLS Draft (which becomes more difficult each year as NCAA offers diminishing returns), made some good moves (including dumping Harry Shipp), and began to craft a squad with intent.┬áThen the soccer started. And if last Saturday is a true, early indicator of the type of soccer Chicago Fire intends to play, and the tactical system Nelson and Pauno intend to commit to, then I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and look ahead with optimism.

That said, I know who still owns and operates the franchise. But if those two guys stop meddling in the soccer side and let the General Manager and Head Coach work, I think it’s fair to say I, along with most fans, would prefer to ignore them. Call the owner and COO necessary evils, I guess. They’re not leaving any time soon. And after all, we just want a team that will fight and win. You know, like the old days.

CCL: Clean Sweep?

Despite all the rhetoric, the results out of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals once again show us MLS isn’t progressing, at least relative to competition outside the borders of the USA and Canada. Last night, a very expensive LA Galaxy side got pole-axed 4-0 in Torreon by a Santos Laguna side not considered to be top quality in Liga MX. Meanwhile, the following social media gaffe (which may be yet another indicator that MLS isn’t concerned with real competition, with measuring itself against ‘the other,’), was tweeted after LA went down 3-0 at the half, set off a bit of a firestorm and, as happens most years during CCL quarterfinal time, brought MLS’s continued CCL failures to light:

CaptureAs you can imagine, many Galaxy fans weren’t pleased with such cheeky ambivalence, including one of its largest supporters groups:

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Granted, what Frank Klopas did with Montreal Impact in 2015 may refute the argument that MLS isn’t progressing against the highest standard in North America. But, they took the competition seriously, allocated proper resources to it, and it showed. And they did this in the face of restrictive rules and regulations born out of the single entity.

In the context of CONCACAF Champions League, MLS franchises, unlike independent clubs, cannot act on their own to ask their players to take more time during what constitutes the MLS offseason to prepare for CCL quarterfinal competition. Why? The union won’t allow it. Why is there a union? Because players are forced to collectively bargain in the face of a collusive monopoly. I guess players could voluntarily get together on their own to do extra training, but that’s not sufficient.

By the time late February/early March rolls around, Liga MX clubs are 6-8 matches in to their Apetura season. Meanwhile, MLS franchises have only been together for roughly 5 weeks. Now, if MLS franchises were independent clubs, they could, on their own, take measures to better prepare for quarterfinal competition in the face of scheduling differences. Russian clubs competing in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League do this. They’ll go somewhere warmer for two months to train and get some friendlies. And if you think about it, facing that fact, the Galaxy result is even more perverse considering they have the climate and facilities to train year-round.

DC United also got knocked out of CCL last night (by Queretaro), which leaves Seattle traveling to Estadio Azteca to take on Club America (2-2 aggregate, America leads on away goals) and Tigres headed to Real Salt Lake up 2-0. Barring extraordinary happenings, we’re looking at a clean sweep for Liga MX. Which brings me to my point.

MLS can’t have its cake and eat it too. It can’t, on the one hand, run around propagating how much it’s improving unless it qualifies the statement. Improving against what standard? Its own? Moreover, MLS can’t continue to sell the idea it will be one of the best leagues in the world in seven years’ time. If time stopped for the rest of the world, maybe. But the reality is the rest of the world doesn’t stand still. They keep getting better too.

Scott Fenwick founded OTF Soccer back in 2012. You’ll find him here in the Boot Room every now and then, and on the Twittermachine @sfenwick75.