Friday Newsletter: The Best MLS Cup Final Matchup Ever?
Plus I answer all your Mailbag questions
Hey! It’s been a good week here. Before we dive into the Friday Newsletter, which is mainly a Mailbag this week, I wanted to share with you the trailer (just released Thursday) for Good Rivals, the three-episode documentary series on the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry that will premiere on Prime Video November 24.
I’m a producer on it, and we have spent more than a year putting the series together with Meadowlark Media, Skydance Sports and Ocellated Media. There’s so much good stuff in it, and I can't wait for you to see it. Here’s the trailer:
Is this the best MLS final of all time? These two clubs have seemed to be on a collision course all year long, and both play high energy football. I’m sure looking forward to seeing an entertaining final.
Who knows if it’s going to be a classic final once the whistle blows, but in terms of having the two best teams, I do think this is the best MLS final matchup heading into the game of all time. How crazy is it that 19 years have passed since the last time two No. 1 seeds met in the MLS final (Chicago-San Jose in 2003)? I remember being fired up for that game, but this one has the two preeminent teams over the course of the regular season (LAFC and Philadelphia), and they play different styles (LAFC’s possession vs Philly’s pressing). You know the atmosphere is going to be rocking, and there are some well-known names (Vela, Chiellini, maybe Bale) as well as criminally underrated players (Gazdag, Sánchez, etc.) Plus we’ve seen some fireworks before when these two teams have met each other.
What is really going on between Qatar and the American Outlaws?
Reports first emerged from the Netherlands last week that Qatar was paying for the trip of a lifetime—travel and accommodations for up to 50 fans from every World Cup country to visit for the tournament and receive free match tickets. The catch was that the fans had to sign a code of conduct saying they would not disparage Qatar and even report criticism of Qatar that they were seeing on social media. The New York Times had a story on Thursday that said a board member of the American Outlaws, the biggest U.S. supporters group, accepted a trip to the draw in April and helped sign up fellow members and others.
When I communicated with an American Outlaws board member earlier this week, before the NYT story came out, I was told that they had not signed the code of conduct (with the pledge to report criticism to the Qataris) and had not even seen the code of conduct. Since the NYT story came out, the American Outlaws released a statement:
Qatar has spent a lot of money over the years providing free trips and accommodations to journalists, influencers and fans from around the world with the obvious hope of getting favorable publicity from those people in return. It’s supposed to be Journalism 101 that it violates ethics codes to accept free travel and accommodations from the people you’re covering, but more media outlets than ever do accept those freebies as the media landscape has gotten more difficult financially.
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Anyone who’s read my stuff knows I don’t accept free trips from the groups that I cover. If you’re a fan, though, an offer like the one from Qatar could seem pretty appealing. And there’s no way Qatar could enforce that you report the critical social media posts you see. Generally, though, it’s a bad sign for a country when you have to pay people to say nice things about you, and extremely transactional.
I never played soccer at anything approaching “competitive.” But I played enough basketball to know anticipation of what others are about to do is vital for team success. Much as I’ve disparaged Tim Ream over the past few years, he is the CAPTAIN of the team in 7th place in the most competitive league in the world. And the relationship he’s formed with Jedi Robinson might really help the U.S. in a couple weeks. Any chance we’ll see that partnership on the left side?
At this point, I wouldn’t mind seeing it for the reasons you mention. There’s a lot of flux at the centerback position right now injury-wise, obviously. But I still get the sense that Gregg Berhalter does not want to bring someone to the World Cup who hasn’t been involved with the team this year, and Ream falls into that category.
There’s been quite a few “small” injuries for USMNT players recently. Do you believe that’s a method for them to avoid playing games to make sure they’re healthy for the World Cup?
I don’t. Just don’t see a player going that far to down tools for their club team.
With the recent news about Qatar sponsoring fan groups, do you think social media is going to be a disaster for this World Cup with paid fans reporting on fans who aren't happy and likely inauthentic behavior (bots swarming journalists to shut down criticism of Qatar during the games)?
With the way Twitter is going during the Musk Era, it’s hard to predict anything on that platform for the elections or the World Cup or anything. As I wrote last week, I’ve held on to the idea that there are more positives than negatives on Twitter, even in 2022, but that’s getting harder to hold onto. But if Qatar is ready to pay people to say nice things about it, then you’d better believe they’d pay money to have bots posting nice things on social media about the country.
Are you surprised that Gerard Piqué is retiring so abruptly? What do you think his legacy will be, and how does he stack up among some of the best CBs of all time?
I am surprised that Piqué is retiring this early at age 35. His playing level drop has been precipitous, but I still thought he had something left in the tank. During an era when there have been fewer genuinely world-class centerbacks in the game (see my discussion about this with Vincent Kompany in my book) Piqué was one of the very best, a World Cup and Champions League winner who read the game extremely well. Despite his idiotic behavior leading to his split with Shakira, I’m not concerned for his future. He’s already making a lot of money from his business interests, and I expect someday he will be the president of FC Barcelona.
There has been concern voiced about USMNT MLS players not having a competitive match for over a month before the World Cup. Gareth Bale hasn’t gotten on the field for LAFC since October 2. How big of a deal is it for Wales that Bale has played sparingly? Is it realistic he could be in the starting XI against us?
I think it’s a huge issue that Wales’s best player hasn’t played in this long. He was integral to their qualification in March, and one of his big reasons for coming to MLS was to be ready for the World Cup. It’s kind of wild that neither Bale nor Christian Pulisic—the two biggest stars for Wales and the U.S.—are absolute locks to start when the two teams meet each other on November 21.
Rumors continue around the idea of Messi to Inter Miami when his contract is up at PSG. What do you think the reputation of MLS is worldwide among agents and GMs (or whatever they are called internationally)? Is MLS viewed as more of a place to acquire players or deposit players?
The report this week from The Athletic’s David Ornstein that Messi could well go to Miami (and has been in talks with the team) stood out to me because Ornstein is based in the UK and it’s likely that his sourcing is connected to David Beckham’s people. MLS’s standing globally is changing all the time. The Miguel Almirón deal to Newcastle a few years ago showed that MLS can be a pit stop for good young South American players on their way to Europe, and that trend has continued. But there will always be interest from European-based stars in their 30s to come to MLS. I think MLS is pickier about who those stars are that it wants, though, than it used to be.
What is the key piece to a club trying to replicate the Philadelphia Union model? I’m happy that us suffering FC Cincinnati fans got a piece of that puzzle in Pat Noonan, but I don’t know if he is THE piece, especially for if/when Brenner and Vazquez are sold.
I think it’s multiple pieces if you’re looking at what Philadelphia has done smartly. They clearly have a strategy that includes investing heavily in youth development, recruitment that is extremely targeted toward a certain type of player for their system, and smart hires in Jim Curtin and Ernst Tanner in positions that matter. Is it possible for Cincinnati or any other club to do that? Yeah. But you have to be smart about it.
The CBS Champions League coverage from Brooklyn was really fun; one of the best things they did was use the studio team to do tactical breakdowns on the pitch. What do you think the future is for more in-depth analysis presented in a really accessible way for the American audience? Not that every setup will involve Thierry Henry and Peter Schmeichel talking out 1v1s, but it was really useful.
You might know how much I loved what you’re referring to:
One great thing about so many different U.S. broadcast platforms now carrying soccer is that they can all have different approaches to how they want to present things. I think we’re moving toward more discussion of tactics and the craft of the sport, but with an entertaining aspect to it, and CBS hit that extremely well in the example above.
Regarding NWSL championship: Is it unfair for fans to expect that a league championship match will have VAR (in prime time, on a major network, in an MLS stadium that does have VAR)? Is it that NWSL referees are not trained in it?
The feeling is the NWSL didn’t have VAR for the rest of the competition, so they shouldn’t add it for the final. The league will have VAR next season.
What's your pick for a "big" team to flop in Qatar and not even get out of the group stage, a la Germany in '18 or England in '14? France is always a risk to implode and the winners of the last WC often fail badly in the next one but, jeez, do they have talent.
France. It’s going to be France. Which means Australia or Tunisia will find a way to advance ahead of them, which is wild.
Do you think the employment reforms in Qatar will stick after the World Cup ends?
I’d lean toward thinking they will. There are too many respected people from the United Nations and International Labour Organization who would be embarrassed if that happened. But you never know.
Have a good weekend!
Grant Wahl, film producer!
My bet is Pulisic starts. And this Bale thing is very odd. He comes to LA to be match fit, yet he doesn’t fit into the matches!
Great questions and answers, as always...can't wait to see the documentary!