At Northern Pitch, a look at what LA’s stadium plan means for Minnesota – including a one-act play in which Bill McGuire and Nick Rogers receive a special visitor. Plus, a look at how the NASL is pushing the MLS out of its “chosen league in a chosen land” comfort zone in the Week 12 MLS Preview.

Episode 106 of The Sportive got jubilant over the Timberwolves winning the draft lottery, but sad about the end of Letterman.

At SoccerCentric, I learned to love the Champions League, and wondered why more attention isn’t paid to Liga MX, the USA’s most popular soccer league.

I never really sat down to tell the whole story of Northern Pitch, our new Minnesota-focused soccer website, so now – almost two months after it launched – is as good a time as any.

I’ve been covering Minnesota pro soccer officially since mid-2012, and unofficially following the teams – first the Minnesota Thunder, then the Minnesota Stars, now Minnesota United – for a lot longer. This led to the SoccerCentric blog at startribune.com, where in 2013 and 2014 I did my best to churn out as much soccer coverage as I could while working for free. During that time, I also had lunch with my friend John Bonnes, of Twins Daily and KFAN / Gleeman and the Geek fame, about once every six months.

The first time we had lunch, I managed to pique his curiosity enough that he told me to “keep on me” about starting up a soccer website under the MinnCentric umbrella. So I bothered him for two years. And during that time, more and more people got interested in writing about, and covering, pro soccer in Minnesota.

So, in January, I sent out a feeler email to most of the local soccer-writing community, asking them to sit down and listen to John talk about what we might be able to do. Basically, the MinnCentric umbrellas takes care of the two most annoying things about independent sportswriting – IT infrastructure, and advertising sales. This leaves those of us who just want to write a chance to focus only on that, and even make a (very small) amount of money along the way – attractive, for someone like me who’d been writing for free for two years.

I didn’t know if anybody would be interested – and frankly, had they not been, the whole thing would have died. But almost to a man, they agreed to be part of the team – and that’s how Northern Pitch got here.

I could enthuse further, but instead I’ll just link you to what I’ve written for the site. I’ll be doing United game coverage, a weekly look at the MLS schedule, and the occasional column – but even better, there are nine other guys besides me, all of whom are pumping out unbelievably excellent content.

It’s been fun. It’ll continue to be fun. I’m thrilled it actually happened. And all it took was two years of pestering John about it.

For the first time in podcast history, all four of us physically gathered in one spot. The result was perhaps not our most cohesive podcast – at one point, two people were having two different conversations with other people who were not holding microphones – but it was just a blast to get everyone together.

I haven’t been posting updates here with stuff from the site – we won Best Sports Podcast from the City Pages, did you know? –  but head over to thesportive.com if you’d like more from us.

We looked things up on Wikipedia in this episode. Things must be spiraling downhill.

The Journal de Montreal’s banner sports headline today read (in French, of course): A TRUE MIRACLE. It was referring to the Montreal Impact’s win over Pachuca in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, in which Montreal’s Cameron Porter scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time to send the Impact through to the semifinals.

While Porter scored the goal, it was made by Minnesota native Calum Mallace, who created it with some defensive hustle, followed by an astonishingly good 65-yard pass to set Porter up. Watch the goal here:

Mallace, scrambling back on defense as Pachuca tried to kill the game, picked up a loose ball and raced up the center of the field. His pass landed perfectly, hitting Porter in stride but landing far enough that the keeper couldn’t come out to clear his lines, and Porter scrambled around the Pachuca right back and poked the ball under the keeper and into the net.

Here’s another view, from behind the goal.

That’s a heck of a pass.

Chicago and Los Angeles are set to kick off the Major League Soccer season on Friday night, but with the opening game just two spaces down on the calendar, and the league’s full Saturday slate barely 72 hours away, no deal has been reached in the ongoing CBA talks between the owners and the players’ union. The two sides negotiated late into the evening in Washington, D.C. last night, with owners and league officials departing before midnight and the players’ side staying past the early morning hours. The players’ frustration was evident; one source on their side was quoted as saying, “It’s shocking. The owners are almost wanting a work stoppage.” by the Washington Post’s Steven Goff.

The central issue of the talks appears to be free agency, with the owners unwilling to consider anything like the open competition for players that has become the norm virtually everywhere else in the professional sports world. At one point yesterday, the owners reportedly offered a modified form of free agency that would have offered freedom to only players who had played at least 10 years with their current team – a rule so draconian that exactly one MLS player, Houston midfielder Brad Davis, would have qualified. Later in the day, several sources reported that the owners had nudged this offer to include players who were at least 28 years old, and had spent at least eight years in the league – but that those players, while able to choose their new team, would have their salary increases capped at 10%.

For comparison’s sake, NHL players are able to reach unrestricted free agency at age 27, and after seven years in the league – and of course there is no limit on what kind of salary increase the player might make. Players may reach restricted free agency earlier, generally around age 25, in which teams must make qualifying offers to retain a right of refusal on any contract offer the player might sign; otherwise, the player becomes unrestricted. In baseball, age is not a factor; players are effectively indentured servants for three years, then have three years in which they may take contract grievances to an arbitrator, after which they may become unrestricted free agents.

Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that it is only in MLS where teams claim a right to players even after contracts expire. In every other sport, it’s taken for granted that once a player’s contract is over, and a team has renounced the ability to sign that player, then the player may sign with any team he chooses. In MLS, this isn’t true.

The few signs of hope on Wednesday morning, after three fruitless days of negotiating, were simply that the season hadn’t yet been delayed. Several sources this morning reported that players still planned to board their scheduled flights for this weekend’s games, leaving open the possibility that a deal could still happen. Montreal played its CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal as scheduled on Tuesday – with Minnesota native Calum Mallace providing the key assist late in the game to send the Impact through to the semifinals – and there was no indication that DC United planned to skip its own quarterfinal on Wednesday night.

Assuming players do indeed make their scheduled flights, the decision process could be delayed all the way up until Friday afternoon. But with the sides still so far apart on the free agency issue, very few seemed optimistic that a deal was possible – let alone imminent.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

I have come up with what is surely my craziest theory of all time.

Fact #1: Some have wondered why Major League Soccer has not yet awarded a franchise to Minnesota, or made a decision between the Minnesota United and Minnesota Vikings ownership groups. After all, the Vikings have a deal to play in a new stadium in place, and while United has not announced such a deal, MLS has recently announced franchises without them – specifically to both NYC FC and Miami.

Fact #2: For 40 years, the NFL Player’s Association has been filing lawsuits against the NFL in Minneapolis federal court. The Rozelle Rule – football’s version of the reserve clause – ended there, and free agency for NFL players began there. In 2011, during the league’s latest round of labor strife, once again the players trooped to Minneapolis to sue the league. Minnesota, and in particular Judge David S. Doty (a familiar name to sports-law followers) are seen as labor-friendly courts.

So, here’s my theory: MLS is waiting to award Minneapolis a franchise because to do so would eventually give the players standing to sue the league in Minnesota court.

Crazy? Yes! Wrong? It’s virtually certain to be! Legally ignorant? Of course!

I have enjoyed this interlude.

 

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This week on the Sportive, we spent a lot of time talking about the KG trade, plus the Wild’s difficult schedule, the Cosetta’s expansion, the movie Beerfest, and other such important topics. Sometimes we think we should plan better, but maybe it’s for the best that we don’t.

At the beginning of 2014, just eight of the 23 eventual members of the USA’s squad for the summer’s World Cup were playing in Major League Soccer. Since then, though, the great repatriation has hardly ceased. Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey were in MLS by the time the 2014 season began. Jermaine Jones and DaMarcus Beasley made the trip weeks after the World Cup ended. Two more team members, Mix Diskerud and Jozy Altidore, sealed their own big-money MLS contracts in the 2014-25 offseason – and suddenly far more than half of last year’s national team are now MLS players.

No one would begrudge any of the six their chances, of course. Altidore was the butt of jokes among Sunderland fans, and will instead have a chance to repair his image in Toronto. Jones was the USA’s breakout player at the World Cup, and took his chance to cash in by moving to New England. Beasley wanted to move back from Mexico for one last throw of the dice in America. Dempsey got an offer he couldn’t refuse in Seattle. Roma got $10 million for Bradley, and Bradley got the chance to move back to North America.

Suddenly, the USA has gone from shipping its best players abroad, to paying them big money at home. Dempsey ($6.7 million) and Bradley ($6.5 million) were the Major League Soccer’s two highest-paid players last year, a strike against the notion that the league’s Designated Players are mostly over-the-hill stars from Europe. Jones ($3.25 million) clocked in to the top ten list of highest-paid players after he signed, as well. Even less big-name players, like Matt Besler and Graham Zusi in Kansas City, got big raises – both now make just over $600,000, where Besler used to make $200,000 and Zusi slightly less than $400,000.

Before last year’s World Cup, the Pew Research Center published an infographic, showing where the players at the World Cup played their club soccer. Perhaps not surprisingly, impoverished yet soccer-rich countries shipped the most players abroad; just nine of Africa’s 115 representatives played in their country’s own domestic league, as did just four of the 46 from Eastern Europe and the vast majority of the South and Central American players. At the time, the USA – with 13 players abroad – was solidly in the middle tier, with other first-world but second-class soccer countries like Australia, South Korea, and Japan.

On the other side of the ledger, though, were two countries with interesting lessons for America. One was England, which had only one player abroad – and that the third-string goalkeeper, Fraser Forster, who had only gone as far as Scotland and thus hadn’t even left the borders of his own country. The other was Russia, who uniquely among the 32 nations had brought not a single player who played in a league from outside his home country.

There are similarities between the two leagues. England hosts the world’s highest-profile club league, and the vast television riches collected by the Premier League mean that young English players can stay near home and yet get paid better than anywhere else in the world. Russia, too, has seen an influx of oil money in the domestic game, with big clubs from St. Petersburg and Moscow pouring cash into players’ pockets, keeping them at home to play in one of Europe’s mid-tier competitions. Even rich, highly competitive leagues like Germany (six players abroad) and Spain (nine) sent players outside the country’s borders.

Money pouring in, players wanting to stay home and make big money instead of fighting for scraps overseas – this has to sound familiar to US national team fans. On the one hand, a league like England brings in so many overseas players that national-team fans fret that young players might never get to develop; on the flip side, Russia did so poorly at the 2014 World Cup that the country’s soccer association is seriously considering splitting off the national team into a neo-Red Army side and having them play in the domestic league – in hopes of combating the middling level of competition in the Russian league by building team unity.

The latter worries sound familiar to American fans, who have long argued over whether it was better for American players to go abroad or stay near home. National team coach Jürgen Klinsmann has added fuel to the fire by publicly encouraging young American players to head overseas to test themselves with the big clubs, rather than being content to stay in MLS; his World Cup squad, which included four German-born, German-trained players, was enough to signal to most just how he viewed the American development system.

It’s hard to argue with a player who wants to move home and make big money. But it’s also hard not to look at England and Russia, both of which have struggled mightily on the national stage, and wonder if the combination of money and the lure of home might contribute to the same kind of national-team problems that Russia and England are currently facing.

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Usually, we have sports to talk about on the podcast. Somehow, though, we avoided them almost entirely on this week’s podcast. I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not.