Friday Newsletter: Why I Love the MLS and NWSL Playoffs
The U.S. Division I pro leagues still need to figure out ways to make their regular seasons matter more, but the playoffs are awesome.
This is a huge weekend in the soccer world, with the planet’s most storied club rivalry game (Real Madrid-Barcelona), the most compelling club rivalry in recent years (Liverpool-Manchester City) and three other dynamite matchups in Europe (Leeds-Arsenal, Union Berlin-Dortmund, Bayern Munich-Freiburg). If it feels like club soccer is trying to get everything done in October ahead of next month’s World Cup, including the Champions League group stage, that’s because it is.
But I want to save some love for the MLS and NWSL playoffs, which are also taking place starting this weekend (earlier in the calendar than usual due to the World Cup). Say what you will about the not-always-high-stakes regular seasons in both leagues, but all that goes out the window once the single-elimination playoffs get going. From Saturday to Monday, I will be watching eight playoff games: six in MLS and two in the NWSL.
And thankfully, none of them overlap. Seriously: this is what my calendar looks like:
Why do I love the MLS and NWSL playoffs? Let’s break it down:
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• Desperation soccer is compelling soccer. Too often regular-season games don’t feel like the stakes are very high. That’s not the case in the playoffs. In fact, things can get downright wild when teams know their season is over if they lose the game. And crazy things can happen, like Roy Miller taking a decisive free kick instead of Thierry Henry or teams melting down once they realize things aren’t going to go their way.
• The games are more appealing to a national audience. MLS and the NWSL have had success building local interest, but they have yet to become attractive to national audiences, at least in the regular season. The playoffs are different; it’s all one national tournament, so MLS fans in, say, Orlando should have more interest in LA Galaxy-Nashville than they might during the regular season.
• Dumb little storylines get magnified into big deals. Which, frankly, is always kind of hilarious. My favorite this week is everyone at Inter Miami getting so worked up about New York City switching the location of their playoff game to Citi Field.
• You never know who might become a playoff hero. Also known as the Rodrigo Schlegel/Trinity Rodman Rule.
OPENING THE MAILBAG
The latest pod discussion with Chris Wittyngham mentioned that it is unlikely that Julie Ertz and Sam Mewis will return to the national team. I’ve heard that hinted at elsewhere, but there never are any details provided. Ertz is now a mom and Mewis has an injury that doesn’t seem to be improving. Are you hearing that neither is ever going to play soccer again at all—club or national team? Can you provide any more details on either of them?
I totally understand the importance of your question: Ertz and Mewis were integral parts of the World Cup run in 2019—and, in Ertz’s case, 2015. It’s kind of crazy that in ESPN’s Top 50 global players list just 19 months ago Ertz was No. 8 and Mewis was No. 1.
I tend to err on the side of caution, so what I would say is that it is impossible that 2019-quality Ertz and Mewis will be part of the U.S. World Cup campaign in 2023, and right now I do not expect they will be on the U.S. World Cup team. With Ertz, I wonder if her situation might be similar to the players from Germany’s 2014 World Cup-winning team, so many of whom retired from the sport at an unexpectedly young age. Did that career triumph change your goals and how you saw the end of your career playing out? In Mewis’s case, there are real questions now being asked whether her playing career is in jeopardy due to her injuries. I’d love to see them dominating on the field again, but I don’t really expect it at this point.
What’s holding up more info on the 2023 MLS/Apple+ deal? The price point is critical to success. When is the optimal time for the league to announce the package specifics?
I don’t have any inside information on this, but I wouldn’t expect there to be much coming out until after the men’s World Cup and the winter holiday season are over. The focus for MLS right now is the playoffs, and then everything is about the World Cup, and then people will be busy with Christmas and New Year’s. So I’d look for something in January as the ramp-up to the new season starts.
It seems very optimistic to imagine the Paulsons selling the Portland Timbers and Thorns during this offseason. But what are the odds of a sale happening in the next 365 days?
From what we’ve seen, it’s very clear that Merritt Paulson does not want to sell either team. And from what we know about MLS rules, it does not look like the framework or support from fellow owners is in place for the league to force a Timbers sale like we saw with Dell Loy Hansen and Real Salt Lake. The questions from my perspective are: 1) Would public and sponsor pressure force the Paulsons to sell the Thorns or both teams? 2) Would NWSL owners push them to sell?
Any chance Vlatko Andonovski will be replaced before the World Cup?
I don’t think it’s impossible, but I do think it’s highly unlikely. My sense is it would require shambolic USWNT performances against Germany next month, which I don’t think will happen at home. If Andonovski wasn’t going to be let go after the disappointing Olympic performance, then U.S. Soccer was basically saying: We’re giving him the World Cup and will make a decision on his future after that.
Of the Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, and the EPL, which do you think is the most likely to end up with a surprise winner this season?
It depends what you mean by “surprise winner,” because I’m inclined to say Serie A based on the view that Napoli would have been seen as a “surprise winner” before the season. Obviously, there’s still a long way to go in all these countries, and current Bundesliga leader Union Berlin would certainly be viewed as a surprise after Bayern Munich has won the last 10 league titles. That said, I’m still convinced Bayern will win in Germany, PSG will take France and Man City will win the Premier League. That leaves Serie A, where the two teams that wouldn’t be surprises are Milan (currently fifth) and Inter (currently seventh). Can they rebound? Of course. But the way first-place Napoli is playing is absolutely glorious right now.
With the controversial World Cup approaching, how have you found your more “independent” journalistic status changes your ability to cover it? Have you spoken to other journalists (off the record) about hurdles they are encountering that you have not (or vice versa)? Is there a big change in the broader approach after lessons were learned (rather late) about how sportswashing helped Putin maintain control and advance his violent and dangerous goals after the 2018 World Cup?
Great questions. I’m definitely independent on the writing side now compared to when I was at Sports Illustrated. But I would also say that in my years at SI (when it was under prior ownership) I was never prevented from doing any journalism for political reasons, not wanting to offend an advertiser, etc. Where things are different is I’m my own assigning editor now, so I don’t have story pitches turned down. I’m not sure that today’s Sports Illustrated—whose current owners are literally running the brand of David Beckham, who has a lucrative deal with Qatar—would have approved my story about going to Qatar and interviewing migrant workers about the new laws there.
One thing I never had to worry about at SI was being credentialed by FIFA to cover the World Cup. It’s a little more up in the air when you’re independent like I am now, but I got confirmation of my World Cup credential this week. U.S. Soccer recommended me to FIFA for a credential in large part because I spent the money to report on the ground for all 14 U.S. World Cup qualifying games.
I don’t know of other U.S. journalists who are facing any particular hurdles covering Qatar. However, we did get confirmation on Thursday that Fox Sports, the U.S. English-language broadcaster for the World Cup, says it will not be covering anything connected to Qatar’s migrant workers, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, etc.
It’s not surprising that Fox is ignoring the elephant in the room, but it’s also one of the reasons I chose not to extend my contract with Fox in 2019 after what I had seen at Russia 2018 and at other points in my time there. That company is just not a good fit with journalism.
Some great games to see this weekend. Enjoy!
'That company is just not a good fit with journalism.'
Keep it spicy Grant! This is why I subscribe
That company ( Fox ) is not compatible with democracy, either.