USL PRO: Dom Dwyer’s dominance caps controversial title week for Orlando City

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It’s only appropriate that Dom Dwyer defined USL PRO’s Saturday title game. It was the Sporting KC player’s one-game loan to Orlando that had made the biggest headlines in the lead up. After starting the season with the third division team, the MLS forward was loaned back to the club three days before their title game against the visiting Charlotte. Come Saturday night, his four goals and an assist had let the Lions to a 7-4 over the Eagles, giving them the third division title.

In front of a stellar crowd of 20,886 at the Florida Citrus Bowl, the Lions claimed their second title in three years. Unfortunately, the overarching story is the controversial way they went about it. Had Dwyer faded into the background and failed to have an impact on the match, we could overlook the fact that adding a first-tier talent to a third-tier squad days before the season’s final game prima facie unfair. Rather than spend a season molding a team that could stand on its own at year’s end, Orlando added a game-defining player three days before the title game – a player who immediately went back to his principal club.

The wrinkle here is that Dwyer spent 13 games with Orlando at the start of the season. Unfortunately, he was not on their roster for the last half of the season, nor was he there for the playoffs. This wasn’t just akin to a player returning from injury at the right time. Dwyer was part of another organization on Tuesday, sent to Orlando on Wednesday, and defined the season’s most important game on Saturday.

To their credit, Charlotte seems to have taken the high road after the game, per these quotes from the Charlotte Observer:

“We didn’t play real well defensively and we know they’re very good in attack,” Charlotte coach Mark Steffens said. “I look more at the seven (goals allowed) than the four (goals scored.) You can’t win giving up seven …

“When we went up 3-2, we had to do a better job of holding the lead there,” Steffens said.

“We know they’re potent in attack. They’re unbelievable. I can’t even say we played poorly, they’re just good,” he said.

That’s very gracious of Steffens, and perhaps he’s part of the camp that feels that because Dwyer was a part of Orlando at the beginning of the season, the Sporting prospect had a place in the game. With four goals and an assist, he certainly made the most of his opportunity.

“Credit to Orlando, they’re a fantastic team,” [Charlotte’s Christian] Ramirez said. “They just have a will to not give up. We did everything we could.”

And Orlando’s entire team, Dwyer included, deserve credit for their performance on Saturday. But Dwyer with playing such a big role, it’s difficult to see USL PRO’s title game as anything but compromised.

The result marked an end to a newsworthy week for Orlando City SC, whose huge Saturday crowd flashed some of the MLS credentials owner Phil Rawlins hopes will give them a place in Major League Soccer. The Orlando City owner is confident securing a new stadium will win his team quick approval to be among the four teams MLS adds by 2022. Coming off a season where they averaged 8,197 people per game, many see Orlando as the most MLS-ready market out source:  there. Even the league’s website got in on the marketing (image right, quote below):

“If you were a skeptic about Orlando’s appetite for soccer in their quest to become the next MLS expansion team, the scenes will likely impress you.”

But this, from the Orlando Sentinel, cast some doubt on the Lions’ numbers, with the paper reporting massive inflation of attendance figures at the same time the organization is trying to secure public funding for a new stadium:

Orlando City Soccer Club recently celebrated a milestone: Average attendance at its games surpassed 8,000. But city turnstile records show average attendance was less than half that — at 3,987 …

But there are more than just bragging rights at stake for the Orlando City Lions. The team is lobbying Orlando and Orange County officials for a soccer-specific stadium that would cost $85 million, most of it from public money. It would seat about 18,000 people.

According to Sentinel reporting, on Aug. 11, a club record announced crowd of 10,697 only saw 4,004 pass through the gates. On Aug. 30, a playoff semifinal crowd announced as 8,912 saw 6,731 at the Citrus Bowl.

So did 20,886 really show up in Orlando on Saturday?

Inflation is not uncommon throughout sports, particularly in MLS, where it’s rare venues sell out. Inflation while lobbying for financing to help build an $85 million project? That’s something a lot more troublesome. If the Sentinel’s reporting’s true, the consequence of Orlando City’s exaggerated reporting could be to mislead the public, potentially asking people to believe the team’s a bigger draw than the turnstiles report.

These words from the club don’t help matters:

“We have tried to be as accurate and honest as we can,” team executive Brett Lashbrook said. “I think it’s in line with the industry practice, and in fact it’s more honest than other leagues …

“We are confident that our official attendance figures are an accurate and honest portrayal of the number of people attending our matches,” Lashbrook said.

How can that be? The turnstiles say one thing, but Lashbrook says another. Is he implying there’s massive fence jumping? Perhaps a secret entrance the city is unaware off? Is OCSC leaving a door open, and four thousand people are using it?

The city operates the Citrus Bowl and scans tickets as they come through the turnstiles. Their reporting reflects this. Perhaps Orlando City’s numbers reflect tickets sold (and, very likely, given away), but when you’re tying to fund an 18,000-seat venue, how many people actually come to games it pretty important, as is representing accurate numbers, when it comes to seeking public financing. Orlando is reportedly asking both their city and county to chip in $20 million each toward the cause, but the constituents of neither place may be getting the right information on how valued OCSC is as a community resource.

It’s all a campaign, once in which Saturday’s title may play a significant part. According to other reporting by the Sentinel, Orlando expects local funding to be approved with 30 days. Having a title-winning team generating goodwill in the community won’t hurt their case, even if their final victory came in large part because of curious Dwyer’s addition (see the headline on the linked piece to see how the two stories are already being connected).

The whole situation should also raise eyebrows at MLS. Whether it will or not, we’re unlikely to know.

Orlando’s argument for being one of Major League Soccer’s next four is that they’re ready. They have the fans. They’re going to get the stadium. They have the organization in place.

After the Sentinel’s reporting, however, OCSC’s claims don’t seem as well-founded as we’ve been led to believe. With markets like Miami, Atlanta, Tampa (among others) potential destinations for MLS clubs in the southeast, understanding the true Orlando picture will become all the more important.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

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In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

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In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.