Global Game, Common Roots
Tom's Soccer Letter #1
Remembering your roots
When the National Football Museum in Manchester added the “Rashford 1, Boris 0” banner to its collection this summer, it recognized the meaning of a moment that might be long-remembered as emblematic of the British government’s stumbles through the pandemic of 2020.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020 England and Manchester United star Marcus Rashford raised millions for the charity Fareshare UK that distributes good quality surplus food to vulnerable households.
In June he also campaigned tirelessly against the government’s decision to not provide free school meal vouchers to vulnerable families during the summer holidays.
His campaign was successful and the government was forced into a u-turn.
The banner tells the story of a footballer using his platform during the pandemic to speak out on important issues such as child poverty.
The banner was created by a group from Rashford’s community in Northern Moor, Manchester.
"There is a lad from Northern Moor who has not only become a great footballer, but has been able to make a change at the very top," they said.
"He has made the Prime Minister of this country change his mind about something which is going to help kids across the country.
"It is a reminder that people can tell their kids in Wythenshawe that might think they can't get to a position to make changes but this is a lad who has managed to do that."
Daniel Taylor at The Athletic takes a deep dive into Rashford’s life and campaign:
The voice at the other end sounded familiar and, to begin with, it was one of the few occasions since breaking into Manchester United’s team almost five years ago that Rashford has been slightly lost for words.
Sir Alex Ferguson was ringing to tell him how proud he was, as the club’s former manager, to see the way Rashford had used his position as a Premier League footballer to fight on behalf of the poor and underprivileged.
Ferguson spoke to him for 20 minutes. They talked about football because that will always be the thing that shapes their lives. They chatted about life and the occasional hardships it can bring. And the more they talked, the more they realised how, despite being separated by 55 years, they had plenty in common.
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Combining on the left wing
American soccer club announces shiny new partnership with European soccer team. It’s something we’ve seen many times - initial excitement and grandiose press release quotes forgotten as soon as neither team can figure out the benefit beyond the glasses of vino shared by the execs cooking up the idea to begin with.
So, why not do it differently - with a value-driven partnership? That’s the thought behind a new Oakland Roots SC and FC St Pauli collaboration, two clubs who put the drive for social justice at the heart of their identities.
To the xG and beyond
After they were smashed 5-1 by Stuttgart to continue a stuttering start to the Bundesliga season, the firing of coach Lucien Favre didn’t come as a huge shock.
At the New York Times, Rory Smith has a typically incisive overview of Favre’s tenure.
Dortmund has more than enough quality in its squad to beat Stuttgart at home. Its team should not reasonably expect, for example, to find itself trailing Wolfsburg in the table, as it was when it changed coaches. Dispensing with Favre, by those simple metrics, was justifiable.
But there is a cost to operating, as Dortmund does, as effectively a high-end finishing school for Europe’s next generation of stars. It means the squad must constantly be a work in progress, as players arrive, flourish and inevitably leave, to be replaced by some new prodigy.
It means the emphasis must always be on attack — that, after all, is where there is money to be made — and the style of play must always be fraught with just a little risk. It means accepting a degree of oscillation in performance, the sort of problem Bayern almost never has, over the course of the season. It means riding out the bumps in any young player’s road.
Though Favre struggled to maintain his authority as the season spiraled, for a team built on a foundation consisting of the best collection of elite young talent in Europe, was this a hasty decision?
This is the thesis behind Ryan O’Hanlon’s analysis on No Grass in the Clouds, looking at whether Dortmund likely would have reverted to over performing versus xG (If you don’t know what xG is to begin with, start here) - and thus getting better results - as Favre’s teams typically have. O’Hanlon goes beyond the xG metric and delves into the numbers that show Favre has an unusual method that simply works.
His teams have all seemed to prioritize this defensive-third possession both as a means of keeping their opponents off the ball and also luring them out to create space to eventually attack into. Despite averaging the slowest average possessions in Germany over the past two-plus seasons, they’ve also created 10.3 percent of their expected goals from fast breaks -- second behind just Bayer Leverkusen.
This seemingly contradictory style of play -- slow, slow, slow, slow, BAM -- does something that the xG models can’t pick up. Over his 349 domestic matches in charge at Hertha Berlin, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Nice, and Dortmund since 2018, Favre’s teams scored 582 goals against 482.9 expected and conceded 409 goals against 446.2 expected. At both ends of the field, his teams outperformed their underlying numbers by a significant margin. That’s four different sets of players across two different leagues; the Favre effect is real.
In the mood for some quality storytelling? Time to binge American Prodigy, by Grant Wahl.
The good news is we are primed for a lot more narrative audio storytelling. BlueWire Pods, the network hosting “American Prodigy” and a few dozen other sports podcasts, just landed a $1.2M seed round. After initially launching around conversational, sports-talk style shows, their content focus now includes tapping the power of deeper storytelling arcs, Front Office Sports reports.
For Blue Wire, the Adu podcast will launch a new series of narrative podcasts that the company plans on developing with “high profile journalists,” said Kevin Jones, Blue Wire’s founder and chief executive officer. The podcast network has more than 100 shows that reach millions of listeners each month. The company raised $1.2 million from Dot Capital in March and will look at raising a Series A soon.
Most of the podcasts work through a revenue share – as Blue Wire sells, markets and produces the podcasts. The narrative series will largely feature upfront payments, Jones said.
“He’s the most credible journalist we’ve worked with and we want to build out a serious journalism channel,” Jones said. “What if a writer of his quality did four podcasts a year instead of 50 articles? It sounds crazy now, but we’re trying to build a world where writers can come and build their stories in audio.”
“It’s hard to pull off by themselves and reporters are sitting on stories that deserve more than a long feature,” he said.
Lessons in not calling your team Something FC
Big Foot. As your CMO. Yes, that’s a winning PR stunt for Appalachian FC. The new team in Boone, North Carolina, rises from the ashes of a suddenly shuttered college program and has received investment from Michael Hitchcock, a former GM in MLS.
“Growing the sport is what I’m all about, so when Appalachian State cut men’s soccer — a popular, historic program — I thought, ‘That’s not good for the growth of the game and if I can do something about it, I want to,’” Hitchcock says.
(Hitch, if you didn’t know, is a veteran exec in the American soccer industry smart enough to set up a punishing travel schedule for himself to check in on team investments in, uh, Napa Valley, Trinidad & Tobago and Puerto Rico amongst others.)
(The girl on the right looks suitably concerned by this whole thing…)
Beyond the cute mascot hook, Appalachian FC has real heart to it, Leander Schaerlaeckens explains.
While most everybody involved had landed on their feet, a town with a long and deep relationship with its men’s college team and a burgeoning soccer scene was now bereft. An obvious void had opened up.
“It’s a sneaky passionate group of soccer fans up there,” O’Keefe says. And the thing was, with attendance for a soccer team standing at a robust 500 and plenty of summer tourism, not to mention a ready-made stadium that was now underused, there was potential to provide an alternative. It doesn’t take a great many more fans to show up to make a minor league team financially viable.
So O’Keefe and Hitchcock partnered with a group of local business owners and entered their new club into the 96-team National Premier Soccer League, unofficially seen as the nation’s fourth tier. Appalachian FC plans to begin play in May 2021.
Zlatan’s 2020 might be over already, but he’s ending it having somehow only managed to burnish his reputation, adding to his legend as a 39-year-old bossing Serie A: “Milan is Zlatan,” Udinese’s Dutch defender Bram Nuytinck pronounced recently.
Tifo’s new feature on “How Zlatan became Zlatan” attempts to explain that rootlessness itself has driven his inimitable success - from his upbringing as the child of migrants in immigrant-rich Rosengård, Malmö, to his peripatetic professional career.
Grassroots for good
There’s an awful lot said about soccer clubs bringing people together and the good that can do. Making that actually mean something entails using the sport’s reach as a positive force in the community - that’s never more meaningful than when fans themselves use their collective power to make a difference.
The Football Supporters’ Association highlights several of these efforts, from Liverpool to Hull, ranging from replica kit fundraisers to workshops and Zoom socials.
I venture to say the lower reaches of the American soccer pyramid might just have the hottest design streak going in the global game. And this look from Portland, Maine, is for a club that doesn’t even exist yet.
And elsewhere in lower league branding: say hello to NISA’s Flower City Union, in Rochester, New York.
Can’t wait to see what my friend Peter Wilt cooks up in Chicago next . . .
Before soccer became the favorite sport of your barista - in fact, before you even knew what a barista was - Michael Lewis was there covering American soccer. Absent from MLS Cup this year, what a nice touch by the league to mark his spot in the press box, respecting his decision to stay safe and stay home in 2020.
Full stack soccer club development
It’s probably fitting that a team in LA is brash enough to say they will “change the game forever,” though when you have half of Hollywood investing in you, that’s fair enough for Angel City FC. And it’s notable that just months after Angel City announced themselves to the world, more female ownership has followed already in the NWSL.
An approach that is distinctly different from your average soccer club start-up is evident in the front office Angel City is looking to build: with job descriptions pulled straight out of Silicon Valley.
Angel City FC is a lifestyle brand and community platform as well as a sports club. Because of this, two of our most important business lines as we lead into 2022 are membership and ecommerce. We are looking for a proven growth leader who can thrive in a fast paced environment and take ownership of our membership and commerce platform to help us scale.
The ACFC technical lead is not only charged with defining and developing the core infrastructure of Angel City’s software stack, but also for developing a world class platform that can be utilized to scale our core businesses of membership and commerce.
Coming out of this pandemic and thinking differently is, of course, going to be critical for the sports and entertainment industry. Following how Angel City FC navigate this with their tech-driven approach to planting roots will be one to watch.
Sneaking into history
Joie de vivre has taken over Columbus: and so it should, following a fairytale finish to life at MAPFRE Stadium - winning MLS Cup at home, just a couple of seasons after the success of #SaveTheCrew. That makes this read from Hanif Abdurraqib on savoring the moment particularly meaningful. There’s something special about one of the OG teams winning MLS (for the first time since 2014) - these clubs have lived history now for fans who have been along for the ride.
Now that the statute of limitations on my teenage misdeeds is likely up, and now that I have certainly repaid the stadium ten times over with the number of souvenir cups I have purchased and lined my cabinets with (in lieu of more appropriate plastic drinkware) I must open with an admission: In the earliest days of my relationship with MAPFRE, I would sneak into the stadium.
This was a little bit easier back in 2000 when the team was exciting, but not an MLS Cup contender. If you could get past the gate on a night where the stadium wasn’t at capacity, all one had to do was wander. Stand around for a while until it became clear what seats weren’t going to be occupied. I remember that first home game of the 2000 season, sneaking out a breathtaking win over San Jose in a couple of overtimes. In the summer, there was Dante Washington – my favorite player – racking up a couple of assists on the way to dominating New England.
I was late to the sport as a player. I’d grown up on the eastside in an incredible era for eastside basketball, and I was lucky enough to live across the street from a part where all the best players came out to play. My interest in soccer arrived around the same time the Crew did. It felt like we were aligned. I had waded into the uncertain waters of a new interest, and there was a lifejacket to keep me afloat. And yes, I had more mischief than I had money, so I saw the team up close the only way I could.