Questions: Kljestan, Marketing, Relegation, Playoffs, Corners | US Soccer Players

By Tony Edwards – San Jose, CA (May 10, 2012) US Soccer Players — Five Questions time, and we join those congratulating Sacha Kljestan on a job well done in Belgium, consider the playoff systems in use in Europe, and look at a stat that flatters Toronto FC. 

How did Sacha Kljestan react to being asked to become a holding midfielder during RSC Anderlecht's run to the title in Belgium?

By becoming a champion. Anderlecht clinched the Belgian title this past weekend.  Speaking to The Sporting News, Kljestan has said more than once that fighting for playing time on a team expected to win is a challenge he welcomes. Kljestan's Anderlecht will feature in next season's Champions League third qualifying round, good news for a National Teamer in a league that doesn't get a lot of publicity stateside. 

According to an interview in Forbes with MLS Chief Marketing Officer, Howard Handler, what is 鈥渉is biggest challenge鈥?as it relates to MLS?

鈥淭o make sure that the casual fans know what a quality entertainment soccer is, and become part of the experience,鈥?Handler said.  This isn't a new point, and much like the article's title it dates back to the original North American Soccer League era.  And for good reason.  Getting people to a live game is a hurdle for most MLS clubs.  Getting them to come back is the next step. 

How many points does it take to avoid relegation in Italy, England, and Germany?

This season, if a team averaged a little more than a point a game, they were safe. This year, 40 points (in 38 games) means safety in Italy (Michael Bradley's Chievo Verona are not only safe, but could finish in the top 10), 39 points (38 games) in England means you're in the EPL next season (it is possible that Tim Ream/Stuart Holden's Bolton Wanderers could go down with 38 points), and 32 in Germany in 34 games (Hertha, Koln, and Kaiserslautern are relegated with 31, 30, and 23 points).

Speaking of Bundesliga relegation, what's with the playoff system?

Ask most Europeans, and they would point to playoffs as an American thing that has no place in their leagues.  Fair enough, but there are several examples of playoffs to determine who moves up and down in the European leagues.  Most of us are familiar with the English system where the top two lower division clubs are promoted with the 3rd through 6th spots entering a playoff. In Germany, there's a twist on that system.  Just like in England, the top two clubs are promoted, but the playoff only involves the 3rd-place 2.Bundesliga team and the 16th-place Bundesliga team.  That means Hertha Berlin (Bundesliga) play Fortuna Dusseldorf (2.Bundesliga) home and away to determine who gets the final Bundesliga slot.

That's straightforward compared to the Italian system.  There's a playoff to decide who gets the third promotion slot in Serie B, but only if the 3rd-place team finishes less than ten points ahead of the 4th-place team.  There's also a playoff in Serie B's relegation zone if teams are close on points.  We haven't even talked about the playoff system in Belgium that Anderlecht just successfully navigated. Enough examples that North American sports aren't the world leaders in convoluted playoff setups.

What are some reasons to be optimistic in Toronto?

They're second in corner kicks, with 51, after only 8 games played, (Kansas City leads the League with 63 in 9 games). Danny Koevermans (in half as many minutes played as most above him) is just outside the Castrol Index Full-Season Top 10 (he's 11th on the list through April 30). Their schedule for May and June includes a week off, then DC United, Philadelphia, a long break until June 16, then Kansas City, Houston, New England, Montreal, and the Red Bulls.

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Four Types Of MLS Games | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (May 11, 2012) US Soccer Players — Shaun writes: I was really disappointed with the New York – Houston game on Wednesday night.  To me, it was everything that I dislike about MLS.  Two teams bogged down, both unwilling to do the work to get the points. I would have much preferred it to end without New York being rewarded. This is a team that thinks a win answers everything, even if it’s a misplay by the opposing keeper. Unfortunately, I don’t think Houston is much better.  Will some team try to put on a show?

I only saw highlights of NY – Houston, and I’m not going to judge based on that.  However, your broader point is something I’m already hearing more of this season than last.  To me, there are a few types of MLS games.

The first is one team really wanting it and playing accordingly.  Real Salt Lake is the clubhouse leader on this approach, going into just about every game under Jason Kreis with the idea that those three points should be theirs.  This isn’t something that’s taken for granted in any league, so all credit to them.  The problem is when that effort isn’t rewarded, the team looks more suspect than they otherwise would.  It’ a risk vs. reward issue that I would argue scares off the bulk of the teams in MLS who are more suited to playing for the draw on the road and the win at home. Remember, Kreis’s RSL has played this style from day one, and they weren’t rewarded for it early. 

The second is the technician teams.  These are the ones that tell you what they’re going to do, and are then stuck with actually having to go out and try to do it.  We’ve seen more of this type of game this season.  At least one team wants to put on a coaching clinic.  When it works, it works.  It doesn’t take a whole lot to figure out that a team is taking advantage by pushing its defenders way up the field, compressing and exploiting space, and basically highlighting the flaws of their opponent.  When it doesn’t, things can get silly very quickly.  A skilled team loses by multiple goals to an opponent that’s relying on very basic moves in a traditional setup. 

The third is the grind out style where two teams are happy for it to end in a draw, but will take an opportunity that presents itself. We see this all over the world, club and country, and it’s nothing new. Too much of this, and it drags the league as a whole down. It’s the clich茅 of the Scottish Premier League, for instance.

I’m going to add a fourth, and that’s the disadvantage games. One or both teams don’t have enough of their core to keep their shape, and that as much as anything decides the game. I started with two mainly positive styles and ended with two mainly negative for a reason.  Over the course of a season, there will always be an interplay between these styles.  You want the balance to end up with the quality teams winning more than they lose and carrying the league up from the median.  The MLS problem is that there’s enough of the negative styles to keep the league at a median or, even worse, drag it down. 

It’s certainly possible to pick games to watch week after week that disappoint.  Part of the problem with our current ‘must see’ culture in American soccer is sometimes there really is nothing to see.  Stack up enough examples, and it would discourage any fan.  Hopefully, you’ll have some luck in getting that 90 minutes of engaging soccer.  MLS certainly provides that on a regular basis, even though it can be tough to find when looking at a schedule. 

Jeremy writes: You’ve mentioned this before, but why isn’t there a better highlights show for American soccer? I feel like I’m still having to do too much work to follow the teams and players I care about. We have several soccer-specific channels, and none of them get the highlights right. Is there a web channel I’m missing?

Though I’m sure there are people doing good work shaking their heads yes to the last part of your question, I agree with you. I have yet to see anything that’s better than the old Premier League highlights show that Fox used to run on their regional sports networks, but that’s been gone for at least a decade. In fairness, that show had two hours to get everything in and was limited to one league. And again, in fairness, it didn’t last. It’s hard to know if there’s really enough of an audience for this sort of thing even in the SportsCenter-centered world of American sports. I wouldn’t jump from want to criticism if you follow. Let’s just say it would be nice if there was a single show that covered the obvious choices for the American soccer fan on a daily basis with that American fan in mind.

Anonymous writes: "I really appreciated you writing about the positive side of summer friendlies. I look forward to seeing the touring clubs. I was disappointed to see that Philadelphia Union coach Peter Nowak said before the game started that he would rest is regulars, even when Schalke’s coach said he would do the opposite. It would’ve been nice to see the real Union against Schalke.  But hey, they won right so that explains not putting out a best effort for the paying fans."

Once again, I return to MLS commissioner Don Garber’s point when Seattle fielded reserves against Manchester United last season.  If you’re going to schedule the games, take them seriously.  It’s always going to be disappointing when an MLS team chooses not to, and there’s limits to the argument that it’s good experience for reserve players. Those reserve players aren’t going to play a team like Schalke, Schalke’s reserves, or Schalke’s youth team with points on the line.  Neither will Philadelphia’s first team, but the expectation is that’s who starts against a prestigious opponent.  Give Schalke all the credit here, regardless of the final score. 

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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The Importance Of Club Friendlies Toronto Plays Against Parity What The European Clubs Do Next Watching The Quakes

Defending The Playoffs | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (May 14, 2012) US Soccer Players — Maybe I’m alone in this, but my response to the final day of the 2011-12 Premier League was that playoffs are still the way to go.  Part of that was probably because I spent the better part of the afternoon watching playoff games in the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League’s version the day before.  Honestly, Manchester City’s almost collapse really didn’t sway my opinion. 

This is more than simply being contrary.  There’s this ideal that circulates through soccer that there’s one best way.  As the thinking goes, even if it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny each and every season, it’s still better than the artificial tension that’s part of a playoff system.  You might have noticed I’m building a straw man here, and the first thing I’m going after is the concept that playoffs are artificial.  They’re not. 

Everyone knows going into a league that uses playoffs that the only thing that really counts is making it through those playoffs.  Supporters’ Shields (Major League Soccer), the President’s Trophy (NHL) and the pennant (Major League Baseball) are all fine accomplishments in their own right, but they’re not the title.  If you want to be crowned champion – the real one that gets to lift the shiny trophy – being the best regular season club isn’t enough. 

It’s that last point that’s worth stressing.  Playoff leagues congratulate the team that rolls through the regular season, and then requires them and everyone else that qualifies for the playoffs to do it all over again.  The grind of every regular season is set aside for a new challenge, more games, and a higher level of competition. 

There are still final days every bit as dramatic as what happened in the Premier League on Sunday.  Teams trying to make the playoffs against teams trying to improve their seeding in the playoffs.  Teams trying to spoil a rival’s season by knocking them out of playoff contention.  In 2011, MLS went overboard in hyping the final weeks of a season that was more about math than reasonable scenarios, but the point was a fair one.  The buildup to who makes it and who doesn’t is every bit as intriguing as who ends up among the three teams with the worst record in the Premier League.  It’s the same kind of drop, missing out on the most lucrative stage of the major North American sports. 

Several of those sports have their own version of late season intrigue, with the worst clubs in the league trying to see who finishes last and has the better odds at winning the top lottery pick in the next draft.  That might not be the marquee for sporting excellence that professional sports aspire too, but it’s another style of competition with its own hazards.  A team that justifies a wreck of a season for a draft pick that ends up going to another team has a lot of explaining to do.  That’s as much a sporting and financial risk as anything we see in the Premier League.  Allowing teams to rebuild at topflight level might be unknown in Europe, but again that doesn’t make it a bad idea. 

What gets lost in the enthusiasm over the European – and specifically the English – way of doing things is that this is a system that has only recently considered controls.  European soccer’s governing body finds the current free spending system untenable. Manchester City and a lot of their fellow elite clubs aren’t reigning in their spending in response. 

Our new Premier League champions are part of a group of clubs that spend whatever they want now.  Things may change under Financial Fair Play, but right now the game can be won by making sure you’re not competing at a financial disadvantage.  Some of the North American leagues make that impossible with a hard salary cap, others make it exceedingly expensive with a luxury tax.  The result of both methods is intended to be the same, limiting what clubs spend so the competition is fairer. 

Does it work all the time?  Of course not.  Is it more sporting than what we see in Europe and England?  It depends on how you feel about very wealthy teams spending more than they make in pursuit of trophies.  The disparity that creates has its own control, relegation sending struggling teams out of the league and making it another league’s problem.

A lot was made during yesterday’s Premier League title decider about how little City and Queens Park Rangers had in common.  That’s not the story North American sports usually tell.  Instead, it’s an anything can happen scenario that plays out across sports in any given game.  That’s what the playoff systems help create, the reality that winning regularly over multiple months might not be enough.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

More from J Hutcherson:

Four Types Of MLS Games The Importance Of Club Friendlies Toronto Plays Against Parity What The European Clubs Do Next

The Relegation Drop | US Soccer Players

Bolton, Blackburn, and Wolverhampton are now Championship clubs, and under England's bizarre league labels that's not a good thing.  All three have been playing in the Premier League long enough not to want to spend multiple seasons reinventing what brought them success.  They want a quick return, a successful lower division season followed by enough to stay up in 2013-14.  It's that kind of long-term planning that's the nightmare scenario for all Premier League teams, put best at the end of Sunday's games by Stoke City manager Tony Pulis.

"I feel for Owen Coyle and for Bolton Wanderers because it's a great club, but on the other hand, I am so pleased that we weren't in that situation," Pulis told his club's official site. "We must do all we can to make sure that it never ever happens to us. Their situation is a reminder to everyone that you can't afford to take your foot off the pedal and so we know that we must keep pushing on. The Premier League is relentless, it's the toughest League in the world, so you have to rise to that challenge."

Getting your club out of that situation is one of the hallmarks of the Premier League, and it works in both directions.  The look on Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson's face when he saw that Manchester City had pulled off an unlikely win and taken the title was a not so subtle reminder of every point United squandered this season.  In that moment, he had plenty in common with the managers at the other end of the table trying to reassess where it really went wrong. 

None of them will find easy answers.  Results will loom large, no doubt, but on the day they happened there was almost always an explanation.  Injury, fixture congestion, or the reality that every team in the league will eventually get caught flat by an inspired opponent who does enough to deny them three points.  That's as true for the struggling clubs as it is for the elite. Now the problem is one of recovery, and again that's as true for the clubs that thought they might be champions as it is for the clubs now part of the Championship.

Corner Rating: (with 1 none of the relegated Premier League clubs making a quick return to the top flight and 11 at least one of them winning automatic promotion) 10.

Last Week's Corner: We had the potential for a reshuffling of the top leagues in Europe as an 8.  The final day of the Premier League means we need to push that number a little higher, say 9.5.

April 2nd's Corner: This is where we revisit the ranking from our Premier League relegation column.  At the time, QPR, Wigan, and Wolves were in the relegation places and we put an 8.5 rating on that changing.  It changed by the next week, when we raised our rating to 10.  Right we were, though we'll resist the urge for the high-fives and file this under 'obvious.'

The Best… Limited To The Premier League Era | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (May 15, 2012) US Soccer Players — Shocked looks all around, but my pick for best player over the Premier League's 20 seasons didn't even make the Best XI.  Congratulations to Ryan Giggs, but one has to wonder how there was no space for Dennis Bergkamp in either version of what the Premier League called a "Fantasy Team." Bergkamp's only mention was as part of the Best Team award, given to Arsenal's 2003-04 squad.  Bergkamp's strike partner on that team made the fan and expert Fantasy Teams. That would be current New York Red Bulls forward Thierry Henry. 

For those keeping score at home, Eric Cantona, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and John Terry also didn't make the cut.  A quick run through the Expert squad gives us Peter Schmeichel, Ashley Cole, Tony Adams, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Henry, and Alan Shearer.  Sub out Ferdinand for Nemanja Vidic and Roy Keane for Steven Gerrard, and you have the Fan squad. 

Hey, at least the organizers didn't try to shoehorn in players that wouldn't fit in a 442.  Instead, the Premier League insisted on votes by position meaning picking a right midfielder rather than loading the four midfield spots with say all attacking players.  That makes up for the 'what have you done for us lately' feel to the voting.  Then again, the award for best Premier League season went to the one that just ended.  There's an argument for that, sure.  At the same time, it gives current events the stage for something that's about the last twenty seasons. 

Let's pull a quote from the announcement that the 2011-12 season is the best we've seen since the breakaway.  "The Premier League has never been decided by goal difference before."  Ok, and what does that tell us exactly?  89 points won the league, a high number but both of the teams involved had dramatic failures in both European competitions.  As messages go, 2011-12's is decidedly mixed.  Though it flatters the Premier League to point to their 6th-place club as a Champions League finalist, again what that really means is an open question.  It certainly doesn't cast the inability of the Manchester clubs to factor in Europe in a better light. 

If we're looking at the season from the top down, there were still the expected gaps.  2nd to 3rd and 6th to 7th, basically making this a two-team title race and keeping a sharp distinction between the top six and everyone else.  In other words, Premier League business as usual.  Were their better picks for best season?  Maybe not, but again it's about the message picking 2011-12 sends.  Onward and upward, or the last gasp before Financial Fair Play ruins the fun?

The Cup Of Acronyms

First Round action in the US Open Cup brings us teams from the PDL, USASA, NPSL, and the USCS hoping to advance to face teams from the USLP and NASL.  Eventually, we'll get to MLS as the American version of the pyramid sets up for games that count across leagues. 

The First Round also introduces what we'll call the Segunda Division problem.  In Spain, some Liga clubs have their reserve teams playing in the second division.  What happens should one of them finish in a promotion spot?  Nothing, they're barred from being promoted.  So there's no chance of Barcelona B or Villarreal B suddenly playing the first team in games that count.

It's different in the US Open Cup.  Competing in Round 1 tonight, we have the Portland Timbers U-23's, Orlando City U-23's, and Chicago Fire Premier.  Now since the brackets don't reset after each round, there's no possibility of Orlando City U-23's advancing to face Orlando City.  Yet it's still our Segunda Division issue.  It's nothing new for the tournament, but it's also an odd scenario should any of the MLS-affiliated teams go on a run into the later rounds.  Like the reserve teams in the Segunda, just because MLS-affiliated teams are competing in organized leagues doesn't separate them from the parent club.  With all due respect to what the U-23's have accomplished, it's the parent club that belongs in the Open Cup. 

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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Questions: Quakes, Streaks, Houston, Away, Chievo | US Soccer Players

By Tony Edwards – San Jose, CA (May 15, 2012) US Soccer Players — In Tuesday's column, Tony looks at San Jose's tactical choices, the hottest teams in Major League Soccer, and asks what's with Houston playing on a Tuesday night.

Is it already a little bit of a case of the bloom off the rose in San Jose?

Sunday's draw with Chivas highlighted the impact injuries have taken on the Earthquakes. With Shea Salinas and Martin Chavez hurt, Frank Yallop tried playing central midfielders Rafa Baca and Sean Dawkins wide, hoping the overlapping runs of fullbacks Steven Beitashour and Ramiro Corrales would provide width.

What ended up happening was Baca and Dawkins kept pinching in.  Without a true holding midfielder (Khari Stephenson started in place of Sam Cronin), the Quakes kept getting in each others' way in midfield, leading to a lot of possession, but not leading to many actual opportunities.  Perhaps more than any other team, San Jose is limping towards, and desperately needs, their June break.

Who are the two hottest teams in MLS?

The Sounders and Red Bulls both have 12 points from their last five games. We'll give it to New York, because they won this past weekend. The Red Bulls' next two games are Montreal away and Chivas USA at home, while Seattle finishes out May at Vancouver, home against Columbus, and away to Chivas.

For all of their struggles, the Red Bulls are showing organization and taking advantage of any breaks, like Freddy Adu's red card this weekend. Is it a recipe for season-long success? It might be enough in the Eastern Conference, where somehow the Red Bulls have emerged as Kansas City's main rival.

How much does a domestic beer cost at the Dynamo's new stadium?

Eight dollars and fifty cents. That's certainly big time pricing, but the most important line in the column by Houston Chronicle writer Jerome Solomon comes about five paragraphs in, that 鈥淢ajor League Soccer is a minor league sport, but the 17-year-old league is getting there.鈥?/em>

Before dismissing a remark from one of the top columnists in Houston media, think about what he's really saying.  There are a lot of established markets where the soccer beat barely exists anymore, and a lot of markets without a local team where MLS is an afterthought.  'Minor league' might be a bit harsh, but there's certainly a counterpoint to the League's attempts to slot MLS in as one of the four major sports. 

By the way, it's worth asking why MLS thought it was a good idea to schedule another Houston home game three days after the grand opening.  Why not have some time for the reviews to settle and the Dynamo to fix whatever needs to be fixed?  Add to that the oddity of a Tuesday night MLS game, and it really does beg the question as to why MLS thought this was the smart play.

What percentage of games in the English Premier League were won by visiting teams?

Almost 31%. Sounds good, right? A more balanced league, any team can win on any given game day, good times, right? Not so much, as Michael Cox points out. What it really means is that Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Tottenham won more of their away games than in previous years. This statistic points out that the EPL is becoming less, not more, competitive.

How'd the season end for Michael Bradley's Chievo Verona?

A more than respectable 10th-place, with Bradley playing more minutes for the club than any other field player. He finished with a goal and an assist. What does 10th-place mean in the wider scope of the 2011-12 season?  Chievo were a dozen points out of the final European slot and 13 points above the relegation zone.

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Expecting To Spend In Europe | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (May 15, 2012) US Soccer Players — As if we needed another indication for how clubs are really responding to the specter of Financial Fair Play, Manchester City has already shown its hand. Media reports are quoting their manager as saying what we’ve come to expect. Defending the title will cost, and it’s time once again to spend on players.

In particular, Roberto Mancini told BBC Sport: 鈥淏arcelona and Real Madrid every year buy two or three players and spend a lot of money. I think for Manchester City it will be the same."

Fair enough, but we already know what Barca – Real level spending means in practical terms. Lots of debt, certainly more than the Financial Fair Play rules will allow. This leaves any team following their example in the same basic situation. Changes will have to be made or they won’t be playing in European competitions. Since the whole point of spending at this level is to win the Champions League, that’s a significant disincentive. So why, with Financial Fair Play already in effect and counting down to full implementation, are clubs still acting as if debt beyond the limits of UEFA’s financial regulations is ok?

How UEFA defines acceptable losses simply doesn’t work at the current level. By the 2015-16 season, clubs are welcome to lose 鈧?0 million euros, with that number eventually falling to only 鈧?.8 million euros three years later. To get to that 2018 figure, the value of transfers has to adjust accordingly. The clubs trading at the top end of the market are the usual suspects, the giants of Europe that spend their summers setting new record transfers while shuffling the majority of the money between themselves.

It’s an old point, but if you look at the top five transfers by fee, it was Real Madrid and Barcelona spending and Manchester United, Juventus, Inter Milan, Milan, and Barcelona (the Luis Figo transfer) getting paid. Expand that to the top ten, and you can add Chelsea, Lazio, Juventus, and Inter Milan to the spending clubs and Liverpool, Parma, and Lazio to the ones getting significant checks. The average fee for those ten transfers? 鈧?3.63 million euros.

Something has to change, and it’s the machinations of the transfer market itself that stick out. Again, it’s another old point but the basic concept of the transfer system is what I’ll politely refer to as suspect. Selling player contracts directly makes little sense in the current economic environment in Europe. Yet a revolutionary revamping of the transfer system remains unlikely. There’s too much at stake, not the least of which is what it would do to the basic value of clubs.

On their own, clubs have worth but that worth is bolstered by what the playing squad could bring on the transfer market. As much as the elite clubs spend, in real terms they’re attempting to add value across the board. Players that can be transferred, trophies that can be won, and a brand that becomes better. That doesn’t mean tweaks to the system are out of the question.

Without exception, those massive transfer fees are paid by the biggest clubs in Spain, Italy, and England. Those are the same leagues with the most to lose due to a draconian interpretation of UEFA’s new financial policies. At the same time, they’re also the clubs in the strongest position to oppose Financial Fair Play. They didn’t, with the elite clubs lining up alongside the rest of the European Club Lobby to welcome the changes.

Manchester City expects to have to spend in the words of their manager "a lot of money."  He’s right, that’s what it takes to win at Champions League level.  The major clubs failing to do so this season changes nothing.  If anything, it adds to the pressure to make sure your incoming transfers are the kinds of players that make a difference.  At this level and among these clubs, we know what that costs.  More to the point, we know that clubs already shouldering substantial debt as Financial Fair Play defines it are more than willing to continue to spend. 

That’s where we find ourselves as the clock continues to count down to the European version of soccer austerity. The clubs are publicly with UEFA in making a meaningful attempt to control financial losses, but at the same time the market leaders continue to incur losses that will never be ok under UEFA’s rules. Something has to give, but for now exactly what that is remains an open question. The expectation is that the rules already in place are the answer, but that doesn’t mesh with what we’re seeing from the market.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

More from J Hutcherson:

The Best鈥?Limited To The Premier League Era Defending The Playoffs Four Types Of MLS Games The Importance Of Club Friendlies