Benching Myself

Soccer is a never ending sport. On a match level, the clock never stops during play; on a competition level, there’s always someone playing globally.

The longest measure of defined time in soccer is the World Cup cycle, the four year period from the end of one World Cup to the end of the next. Experimentation yields to eventual stability, as qualification and continental competitions dot the timeline. It crests in the World Cup, and then it’s time to reflect and rebuild. Coaches move on, players retire, and we go again.

The end of 2015 marks the end of a four year cycle of my own: being a soccer writer. In those four years, I’ve gotten to do quite a bit. I’ve talked to legends, picked brains of coaches, and debated with fans. I’ve broken news, coined terms, weaved narratives, and written a few things that, even to my hyper-critical mind, are worth reading. I’ve co-hosted a podcast for a year and a half, gotten to do color commentary on a professional soccer match, and hosted pre-match coverage twice. And I’ve helped grow a small, passionate soccer community into a giant, passionate soccer community.

Which is why now feels like the right time for me to leave the soccer business, at least in the semi-professional sense. Effective today, I’m marking myself inactive.


“Wait! You can’t just do that! How can you just walk away from your job? And why would you want to, it sounds incredible! What kind of a spoiled prick are you?”

Slow down there, Imaginary Abusive Soccer Person Who Cares Enough To Raise Objections.

One of the most eye opening things that I discovered upon being inside the press box is that almost no one is there as their primary job. A sizable chunk have day jobs – IT guys, mechanics, small business owners, etc. There’s a subsection of journalists who do soccer, but usually either cover other sports (typically NFL or NBA) or do other things at their outlets (copy editor, webmaster). The sports journalism business is not doing great, and in a sport that still counts as “niche” in the US, soccer gets a very ad hoc press corps.

This was a shock when I first entered the box, but also relieving, because it meant I wasn’t going to be an anomaly. The soccer things I’ve done for the last four years haven’t been a job, but a really professional hobby. That likely sounds insane if you’ve never heard me say it before, but it’s not something I’ve been hiding. Anything you’ve read from me, any podcasts you’ve listened to with me on them – those were all done as an outlet, as stress relief from the rest of my life, as something to pour my energy into. I am not a professional sports journalist by trade.

What that all means was also this: I always have had the ability to walk away, if this no longer felt like the right thing to do.


The “why”, or even “why now” is tough to answer. I struggled with writing this post at all, because I don’t want to sound bitter, and I’d love to just fade away quietly. But walking away in silence is tough after spending such a long time writing and talking about soccer.

So let me boil it down to three quick things: one negative, one positive, and one sort of in the middle.

The negative: over the course of the year, I hit some major levels of burnout, to the point where seeing a game on my calendar lead to a groan rather than excitement. I made a joke in my last pre-season piece that I would be “covering all three soccer NYC teams to the utter detriment of his personal life this season”, and boy, was that prescient. I’ve worked 29 games this season, which is about 50% more than a typical season over the last four years. Podcasting has its own stresses, and /r/MLS hit that tipping point of subscribers where it becomes a constant battle to keep the place falling into disarray.

Emotional, mental, and even physical exhaustion were not uncommon, and it lead to me indulging some old personality traits in order to defend myself. I’ve made some unhealthy decisions and many times have not liked what I see when I look in the mirror. And so, I need a change.

Providence Park

The positive: I went to three soccer games this year not as a media, but just as someone in the crowd. And I realized, especially during the days where the stress was high, how much I missed that.

During our two week vacation to Cascadia, I got to take in Seattle vs. Orlando from just above the Emerald City Supporters. A week later, I stood with the Timbers Army and sang my way through Portland vs. Houston. And not long after that, I paid for tickets to go watch NYCFC vs. Columbus with a friend and wandered around Yankee Stadium, taking in the game from different perspectives.

After having to have been “on” for so many games (live tweeting, observing, checking replays, locker room scrums, arguing over social media, laying out narratives), it was nice to just be able to watch a game, to eat some overpriced stadium food, and to be able to go out before and after the match.

This french toast certainly made me happy.

The grey area: one of my favorite restaurants in Jersey City closed in November. The end of Thirty Acres in and of itself didn’t make me give up on soccer, but the story from co-owner (and generally awesome person) Alex Pemoulie describing the lifecycle of the restaurant got me thinking (emphasis mine):

So, that’s it. That’s the story of Thirty Acres. We took risks—some of them incredibly stupid, but all of them worth it. We are not the people that we were when we opened this restaurant. We know a bit more than we did then, but more importantly, we know how much we still don’t know.

And we did do it after all, we opened Our Dream Restaurant. It just turned out that in the end, once we had done it, it didn’t make us happy.

I can’t say the soccer journalism role never made me happy – it absolutely did. And even this year, there’s been some wonderful days. It just on a whole isn’t a positive anymore. It’s not filling a hole or gap I feel. And I’m ready to move on before the burnout and negativity overtake all the good memories and leave me resentful.


So what does this all really mean?

The most immediate is that I’m resigning as a moderator on /r/MLS, the community I’ve served as a moderator for four years. (There’s a post specifically about this from me over there.)

The next most pressing is that after a year and a half, I’m departing Seeing Red, the long running RBNY podcast. I look forward to being able to listening to the show again now that my voice isn’t a part of it. Mark and Eric will continue to be great, and listeners will get some relief from the whiplash hosting lineup that 2015 involved.

Lastly, I will not be applying for season credentials for any area team in 2016, and I won’t be writing regularly for Gothamist (or any other outlet) about soccer.

I’m not leaving “soccer Twitter”, and I’ll be back on /r/MLS, but I’m forcing myself to take a few weeks off after today, at least until the start of 2016. I need that space to decompress. But I will be back, at least as a voice in the crowd. Eventually.

(I should note that despite all of this, there are some question marks looming above my head, and so I can’t say that this is a permanent decision. If something earth shaking happens in the NYC soccer scene, I may still write a one-off for Gothamist. I hope to contribute the occasional non-soccer thing over there, as I’ve enjoyed writing on other topics – already talking with the food team about some future pieces. But returning to soccer is not part of my day-to-day plan going forward.)

I also must note that this is not secret code that I’ve taken a job with any club or league; that I’ve been sacked; that I’m buying season tickets for any club or joining a supporters group; that I’m leaving the NYC area; that I’m dying of some terminal illness; or that this means anything other than what it says above.


I want to close out with some thanks, because the one thing that kept me going with this very strange hobby is regularly being around some incredible people.

To Dave Martinez, who has mentored me for four years and occasionally gotten something worthwhile in return: thank you, thank you, thank you. I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I could without your support. I wouldn’t have understood half the things going on without your guidance. And I wouldn’t have grown as quickly as I did without your help. Thanks for the trust, the laughs, and the faith. You’re a rockstar. Let’s finally get that brunch soon.

To Pablo Maurer, a guy I met through a hastily planned “trash talk” piece between the soccer guys at Gothamist and DCist: you’re the most underrated and most under-appreciated guy in the business. I wish I had a tenth of the creative spark and drive you did. Thanks for everything – the FIFA games, the endless jokes, and the constant perspective. Let’s catch a game together next year and/or do donuts in the RFK parking lot.

To Katie: thank you not only for your support as I’ve been wrestling with this, but for the four years prior. I know it’s been rough at times. I look forward to being next to you at games again, not in front of you.

To Jen Chung, Gothamist’s fearless EIC: thank you for putting your trust in me, for letting me associate with such a great news site for so long. Your kindness, support, and advice meant the world to me. (Additional thanks to the rest of editorial for helping get my pieces out into the world.)

To Mark Fishkin: Seeing Red has always been your show, Mark. Thanks for letting me be a small part of it for a little while. It’s been an honor to be a footnote on its storied history, and I’m really looking forward to the show in 2016.

To Eric Giacometti: I was honored to ever have you come to me for advice. I’m not going to pretend for a second I mentored you in any capacity, because you’re already way beyond what I’ve done. Keep writing great things.

To Brian Tsao: had any other communications person been running the team when I came knocking, I don’t know that this would’ve happened at all. Thanks for letting me get my foot in the door.

To Malena Barajas: thanks for all the lunches and being someone to lean on. May you never be in crisis.

To MC Bousquette: never, ever change.

To the communications staff over the years at RBNY (Frank, Corey, Joe, Jason, Gordon, Scott, Molly, Paul, and the team who helped produce two Seeing Red Live episodes), at NYCFC (Marty, Sam), and at the Cosmos (Dee, David), thank you all. It’s a shame the fans will never know how hard you all work. Additional thanks to folks at other clubs (Chris Thomas, Jonathan Kaplan, Trey Fitz-Gerald, Daniel Robertson, Lizz Summers, Frank Stanzl) who worked with me over the years on AMAs.

To the MLS league communications office (Dan, Susan, Sal, and especially Jane) – thanks for dealing with my random inquiries over the years. It’s been a pleasure.

To everyone past and present at MLS Digital and KICKTV who I’ve gotten to know (Greg, Andrew, David, Matt, Ben, Hans, Amanda, Folg, Sarah, Abner, Erin, Chris, Billy, Kuba) – you all rock. Apologies for ending up at so many of your parties. (I swear, it was mostly accidental.)

To the /r/MLS mod team: thanks for an incredible ride. Too often people were quick to credit me for team decisions, but it’s always been a team effort. I promise not to jam the “report” button too often now that the “remove” button is gone from my toolset. If you’re in town, drop me a note – beers are always on me.

There’s a countless list of soccer reporters both local to NYC and across the country that are all people doing this not because of the paycheck (in cases where there is one), but because they love the sport. There’s too many of you to list without the guarantee of forgetting someone, so I will hedge and just say: thank you, all of you. It’s been an honor to be a peer.

To all the players and coaches: whether it was a locker room interview, an AMA, or a podcast appearance, thanks for sharing. I’ve learned so much about this sport.

And to the fans, the followers, the subscribers, the listeners, the debaters, the trolls: thank you for the discussions, the arguments, the feedback, the occasional love, and at the very least, listening to anything I had to say. It’s been a memorable four years, and I hope I brightened your world even a little bit.

If you’re still reading this, and want to share a drink and some stories, I’ll be at the Seeing Red Holiday Party tonight. Hope to see you there.

Media Lessons From The King

Today, Thierry Henry announced he would not be returning to the New York Red Bulls following the expiration of his contract. The move was not a surprise, but still has left many that surround the team a bit down.

So much ink has already been spilled about the legacy of the last four years: his talent on the field, his role with the club, his impact on MLS. He’s been an anchor since I returned to caring about the league in 2010, someone that I couldn’t believe I got to watch perform week in and week out.

But as I’m writing this on my personal site, I want to reflect on the other lasting mark Henry has left on me: he was the rare player that demanded more out of everyone involved with the team, including the media.

If you follow league beat reporters, particularly those who deal with RBNY routinely, you’re aware of his reputation when dealing with the media in the locker room. Some would label him “cranky”. Some declared him “rude”. An incident where he declined media availability after a 1-1 draw against Chivas USA in 2012 sparked a brief dust-up between media and supporters about whether or not beats had any right to speak to players at all.

Obligatory Picture Of My Stupid Face In Henry's Scrum

I won’t claim to “know” Henry from my three years of sticking a microphone towards his face, but I at least grew to have an understanding of him.

Thierry didn’t relish dealing with the media hovering around his locker, but he accepted it. (European locker rooms aren’t open to media, but MLS mandates the doors open 15 minutes after the match ends.) He was typically the last player to speak after a match, sometimes waiting a solid hour after the final whistle, which triggered its fair share of pissed off “You’re waiting HOW LONG?” text messages from soccer media widows. But Henry always seemed to have a level of professional respect for those of us who did stick around.

Thierry had his cliches – “as I said to you before”, “I don’t know if you remember”, and “not having a go at any one” being the three go-to for any Henry impersonation – but he genuinely considered every question. I can’t remember him being on auto-pilot or content with performances – he always latched on to something the team could improve on. If the team did badly, he was open about it. If the team won 4-1, he would complain about the conceded goal. If the team won 4-0, he would caution about celebrating too much, because he knew it wouldn’t be long before the team regressed.

His knowledge of the game was impossibly deep. He would run down talent on opposing rosters not that they had just faced, but that were coming up. He would commend systems and coaches elsewhere in MLS. He would frequently drop analogies involving NBA teams, the other sport he truly loved.

Following a recent home game, as he was getting ready at his locker, I watched him look up at the closed circuit TV, that was showing the annual NYPD vs. FDNY match. And he watched it just long enough, and gestured at the TV, that I could’ve swore he was analyzing the match.

Nearly as much as he loved challenging defenders on the field, he took a deep pleasure in challenging dumb or trite questions.

Thoughts on the match? “It was 90 minutes.”

Have you ever played in a game as crazy as that one? “I’ve played in a lot of games.”

Do you enjoy the new away jersey the club just released? “I don’t know, I haven’t worn it yet.”

An intricate question about his position moving wide left as he used to at Arsenal? Gets swatted down because he insists he didn’t play there at Arsenal.

My own personal dressing down (which I was surprised to find I still had the audio for) came after a softball about what he had seen from the reserves during a friendly he didn’t play in. He had often loved talking up the younger players who didn’t get a lot of field time, but apparently not as much as he loved giving me crap about trying to gain insight from a friendly:

What Thierry taught me, more than anyone else in the RBNY locker room, is the value of asking a question with a non-obvious answer. You can’t lose the germane questions entirely to get an interview rolling, but unless there’s something I can’t answer in my head, I’ve learned to just listen.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing in his final year with the club was how focused he was on the team, and not himself. As the “What are you doing next year?” questions came up nearly every week, his answer was always the same: “We’ll talk about that after the season ends.” Even in the announcement today, the thought was the same: he didn’t want to take the focus off the team’s performance. He didn’t want a farewell tour, teams bringing him gifts, endless fawning media tributes. He wanted to put his head down and be one of the eleven guys on the field.

There was an article in the club’s corporate magazine that had perhaps my favorite quote that wrapped up how he saw himself:

I keep on reiterating to everybody, I didn’t save anyone’s life, I’m not a hero, I’m none of those things. I was just out there to play the game and while I understand I gave some people joy and I ended up loving the club I played for most of my career, I didn’t go to war to protect my country. That’s worthy of elevation to the status of ‘hero’, you know? I just want people to remember me for playing some soccer and that’s all. Another player will come along and erase all those records but as long as people can recall me in some way it means that I’ve done something right.

Thanks, Thierry. It’s been a pleasure.

Calculating My 2014 MLS MVP Vote

(Trigger warning for non-soccer friends: this is all soccer.)

The end of the season MLS award voting is a bit of a struggle. With rather nebulously defined categories, voters (of which I am afforded a ballot through my media role) is forced to scratch their heads a lot. We try to figure out what level of adversity justifies the “Comeback Player Of The Year” award. We read through team-supplied biographies of various charitable efforts to work out who deserves “MLS WORKS Humanitarian Of The Year”.

And “Most Valuable Player”? It’s hopeless. Player “value” is subjective to the individual person, and so what makes one player valuable to one voter may not matter at all to another. And it’s been particularly difficult in 2014, with no clear frontrunner across any of the 19 MLS teams. Yet it’s serious business: one Twitter user declared me a “fucking idiot” for not having their favorite player in my short list.

So inspired by the Grand Ginger Of Major League Soccer (who advocates for having a formula for deciding your MVP, despite Twellman’s objections), I decided to create my own algorithm this year to help me figure out my vote.

First, I had to select a player pool. Defensive metrics are nearly impossible to come by, so I limited the list to forward and midfield players, trying to get at least one per team (with a few exceptions: sorry Colorado / Montreal / San Jose!). The twenty names that ended up on the spreadsheet were:

Quincy Amarikwa (Chicago); Will Bruin (Houston); Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York); Erick “Cubo” Torres (Chivas USA); Jermain Defoe (Toronto); Clint Dempsey (Seattle); Landon Donovan (L.A.); Dom Dwyer (Kansas City); Fabian Espindola (D.C.); Ethan Finlay (Columbus); Thierry Henry (New York); Robbie Keane (L.A.); Sebastian Le Toux (Philadelphia); Obafemi Martins (Seattle); Lee Nguyen (New England); Pedro Morales (Vancouver); Joao Plata (Salt Lake); Luis Silva (D.C.); Diego Valeri (Portland); Gyasi Zardes (L.A.)

Independently from the players, I had to select what stats mattered to me, and how much each counted.

I started with the most critical thing you can do as a player: win games for your team. So game winning goals were given a weight of 4 points each, and game winning assists would earn 3 points each.

Next, I wanted to reward offensive production in general, so non-penalty goals earned 2 points (even if they were the same as the game winner). Non-game-winning assists were worth 1 point.

Then I wanted to consider what actions an offensive player could take that would damage their team’s ability to win. I could only think of two that were easily measured: missed penalties and red cards. Red cards being the more serious of the two, I subtracted two points for each red and removed a single point for a missed penalty kick.

This gave me a raw score for each player. How did it look? Here was the top ten:

  1. Robbie Keane (79 points)
  2. Lee Nguyen (71 points)
  3. Bradley Wright-Phillips (68 points)
  4. Tie, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins (61 points each)
  5. (see #4)
  6. Landon Donovan (59 points)
  7. Tie, Dom Dwyer and Gyasi Zardes (58 points each)
  8. (see #7)
  9. Thierry Henry (53 points)
  10. Diego Valeri (52 points)

For most pundits, this is a cut and dry confirmation of what many had been saying: Robbie Keane’s production was ridiculous, and he was an easy vote for MVP. (Grant Wahl offered his case for Keane winning MVP today, which partially lead to this post being written.)

I, unsurprisingly, am not most pundits.

I get very hung up on the word “valuable”, and after rolling it around in my head for a while, I couldn’t overlook one thing: the pay scale in MLS is quite notoriously out of whack. This is, after all, a league where a player on one side of the locker room may be making $6,000,000 as a base salary (like Toronto FC striker Jermain Defoe), while his teammate across the room may be on the league minimum of $36,500 (like Toronto FC midfielder Daniel Lovitz).

So I wanted to apply a “salary factor”, one that would adjust the player’s performance in light of their salary. This took a little while to figure out a reasonable system for, because with the range so great, it could very easily tilt the scale too far away from designated players.

The formula I came up with looks like this:

Factor = SQRT(SQRT([Player Base Salary] / [League Median Salary]))

The league median in 2014, per articles I dug up, was $80,000. Taking the fourth root stabilized the values into a range from 0.89 (for Ethan Finlay, making just $50,848) up to 2.94 (for Jermain Defoe). Dom Dwyer sits right at $80,000, so he was the only player to not have his raw score modified by the multiplier.

Is the factor uniformly fair? It’s debatable, but my general impression is yes. The Keanes and Defoes of the world should be better than the guys making a sliver of their salary. (Again, I’m obsessing over value, and I get that’s not for everyone.)

Here, then, are the rankings of all 20 players scaled by salary:

  1. Lee Nguyen (58.38 points)
  2. Dom Dwyer (58.00 points)
  3. Gyasi Zardes (51.88 points)
  4. Joao Plata (50.66 points)
  5. Bradley Wright-Phillips (47.71 points)
  6. Ethan Finlay (43.68 points)
  7. Luis Silva (37.88 points)
  8. Will Bruin (36.49 points)
  9. Fabian Espindola (35.89 points)
  10. Diego Valeri (32.89 points)
  11. Erick “Cubo” Torres (30.66 points)
  12. Robbie Keane (28.85 points)
  13. Obafemi Martins (28.76 points)
  14. Quincy Amarikwa (24.72 points)
  15. Sebastian Le Toux (24.07 points)
  16. Landon Donovan (21.85 points)
  17. Clint Dempsey (21.79 points)
  18. Thierry Henry (20.26 points)
  19. Pedro Morales (15.79 points)
  20. Jermain Defoe (12.91 points)

There’s a lot of interesting occurrences in here, particularly when it comes to LA’s attack. Donovan (4 GWG / 5 GWA) and Keane (5 GWG, 6 GWA) both produced big numbers, but when Gyasi Zardes is in the same ballpark (6 GWG / 0 GWA) for a fraction of the salary ($125,000 compared to Landon’s $4.25M and Robbie’s $4.5M), it’s hard to argue they’re not getting tremendous value out of their academy product.

But overall, the math confirmed what my gut had been feeling: that Lee Nguyen put up incredible numbers (no one was even close to his nine game winning goals) at what is almost a criminally low salary. (Never mind that he’s not an attacker and produced those numbers as a midfielder.)

So: my first choice vote (you get two choices on the ballot) for the 2014 MLS MVP for Lee Nguyen.

I have no doubt some will want to argue that my weights are wrong, that I’ve overlooked a key metric, or that I’m just dumb for using a spreadsheet to determine who to vote for. And that’s cool, but I’m not looking to argue – it was my vote, one of who knows how many in the media vote, which will only count for 33% of the total vote scoring.

For those that would prefer to argue about this, a request: write your own algorithm. The process is illuminating about what does and doesn’t matter to you when it comes to player performance. (And if you want to lobby people with the votes that count the most, aim for a club’s sporting director/coach/GM/communications director, as those 76 votes combined count as much as the entire media vote.)

As for my second choice? Well, I can’t follow a formula all the time.