Christian Pulisic is now American soccer's next big thing

Soccer Insider this week is an attempt to introduce Star Tribune readers to Christian Pulisic, the 17-year-old wunderkind who’s American soccer’s latest Next Big Thing.

In personal news, my six-day-old daughter and I watched soccer together for the first time this morning. She has much work to do on her celebrations, as she chose to sleep the entire time.

Minor league soccer is a major concern

My Soccer Insider column at the Star Tribune this week wonders what’s going to become of minor-league soccer in America - and hopes that it doesn’t go the same way as baseball.

The amazing thing was, I wrote this before Rayo OKC’s minority owner stole half his team’s field, and before Fort Lauderdale failed to pay people on time again, and before Ottawa was heavily rumored to be heading to the USL. It hasn’t been a good week for independent minor league soccer. That’s not a good thing.

A Guide To Premiership Rugby

This weekend is the beginning of the new season of Premiership Rugby, England’s top-level rugby union competition, and for the first time the league’s going to be on American television. NBC Sports Network, the home of the Premier League, England’s most popular sporting export, is televising a certain number of games this year, including a pair this weekend.

There’s a couple of things you need to understand about the Premiership, though, before the season kicks off.

  • This is not like the Premier League. Fans of the Premier League are used to seeing one of the greatest sporting competitions on earth, with enormous, packed stadiums and some of the world’s highest-paid athletes. Premiership Rugby isn’t like that. Drawing 15,000 people for a match is pretty good. Only three teams play in stadiums that can even hold more than 17,000 people, and those three aren’t necessarily filling the stands. And the average player in the league is making about $90,000 a year - less than some Premier League superstars make in a week.
  • They’re not all that good at this “professional” thing. In 1895, rugby league - that’s the slightly-altered form of rugby, played mostly in Yorkshire in England, and in Australia - split from rugby union over whether players should be paid. Since then, rugby league players have been professional; it took until 1995 for professionalism to come into rugby union. That’s not a typo; it really was during the Clinton administration that they figured they’d might as well get serious about this rugby thing.
  • The whole thing seems mostly like a nice day out. Over the years, rugby has developed a culture of camaraderie. As a graduate school professor of mine liked to say, “Soccer is a gentleman’s game, played by thugs; rugby is a thug’s game, played by gentlemen.” Anyone who’s ever searched for “rugby brawl” on YouTube would probably take issue with that, but even so, Premiership rugby matches have an air of a convivial day out with a few pints, rather than the life-or-death desperation of your typical Premier League match.

There are twelve teams in the top division of English rugby (there are multiple divisions; the bottom team gets relegated and another team is promoted, each year.) A quick look at the teams:

  • Bath - One of the classic rugby teams of England. They once were dominant, but have now fallen back to “they once were dominant, but” status. They play in a beautiful little stadium, right on the river that runs through town. Generally they compete to finish in the top half of the league.
  • Bristol - Promoted just this year, after winning the second division twice in a row but losing the playoff final both years. Given that they’re right down the road from Bath, expect a few southwest-England battles. If they stay up this year, they’re doing well.
  • Exeter Chiefs - Somehow this team actually has an insensitive Native American mascot. (To double down, their reserve team is called the “Braves”.) I am not entirely sure how this is possible, but just as soon as we manage to get the two NFL teams, two MLB teams, the NHL team, and the countless NCAA schools to change their crappy Native American nicknames, we should definitely work on Exeter.
  • Gloucester - Also in the West Country, near Bath and Bristol and Worcester, where rugby union is the strongest (basically, the closer you get to Wales, the better chance you’re a rugby union town). One of the few English teams that owns their own stadium, and thus can consider themselves in a position of relative strength.
  • Harlequins - Perhaps the prime example of English rugby sides giving themselves nonsensical names (in this way, English rugby seems like a giant Kiwanis club). They’ve been headquartered in southwest London, at Twickenham, the English national rugby stadium, for years; they play across the street at a smaller stadium, called Twickenham Stoop.
  • Leicester Tigers - Leicester are the team that usually wins the league. From 2005 to 2013, they were in the playoff final every single season, and they’ve won 10 titles over the league’s 30-year history. They actually seem to be in a decent financial position, which can’t be said of every team in the league; you might think of them as the Manchester United of English rugby.
  • Newcastle Falcons - The only Premiership club in the north of England. Were called “Gosforth FC” until 1990. They usually finish in the bottom half of the league, and in fact have finished 12th, 11th, and 11th in their last three Premiership seasons. If they don’t get relegated, they’re doing well.
  • Northampton Saints - Along with Bath, Leicester, Gloucester, one of the strong rugby towns of England. Their “East Midlands” derby with Leicester might be the biggest rivalry in England. They almost always finish near the top of the league, and winning at Northampton - at their Monopoly-sounding stadium, Franklin’s Gardens - is difficult.
  • Sale Sharks - Name aside, this team plays in Manchester. They had to move across the area to find a half-decent stadium, in the hopes of not going bankrupt - a common story for all but the strongest rugby teams in England. They share their stadium with a rugby league team, which makes sense, as they’re smack dab in the middle of rugby league country. As a result, it’s hard to remember whether they are a rugby league or rugby union team.
  • Saracens - Everyone hates Saracens, though they can’t quite say why. Usually it’s because they’re “arrogant,” but near as I can tell that’s because they spent some money to sign players and have made no bones about their desire to win things. Nevertheless, they are the Dallas Cowboys of English rugby, and if you are annoyed by the Cowboys, stay away. They also have this weird fez-and-desert thing that makes them seem like Shriners on steroids. Oh, and they won the league and the European competition last year, so they’re also very good.
  • Wasps - Until a few years ago, they were called the London Wasps, because they played in London. Then, in classic rugby style, they had to go find somewhere with a larger stadium, where they might be able to make some actual money; they ended up in Coventry, which is nowhere near London.
  • Worcester Warriors - Happily, unlike Exeter, this is not a Native American name. Though never particularly good, Worcester do have the benefit of owning their own stadium, and they’ve used that to stay relatively stable while fighting their way up to the Premiership and (mostly) staying there. Like Newcastle, they usually finish down the table.

There are two games on NBC Sports this weekend: Saracens vs. Worcester, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, and Wasps vs. Exeter, 9:30 Sunday. Two other games are streaming - Gloucester vs. Leicester at 1:45 p.m. on Friday, and Harlequins vs. Bristol at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday. Here’s the rest of the NBC Sports schedule for the fall; given the announcing teams and studio hosts, NBCSN appears to be taking this just as seriously as they do every sport (the reason that NBCSN is great).

Watch the trailer for the NBCSN coverage, if you’d like to get pumped up.

Rugby is flying high, at the moment; sevens rugby’s exciting debut at the Olympics had many people buzzing, and some have said it’s the fastest-growing team sport in the world. PRO Rugby just completed its first season as the USA’s professional rugby competition, and by all accounts is growing for next year.

This, then, is an awfully good time to get into rugby.

Minnesota United Is Going to MLS in 2017

We learned last night, via a big fancy announcement at a (rainy) CHS Field in St. Paul, that Minnesota United FC will begin play in MLS in 2017. We sort of already knew that; it’s been widely assumed that the move would happen next year, to give Atlanta an expansion partner and keep an even number of teams in the league. The big announcement was probably that United would still be called United after all, not Minnesota FC or Minnesota SC or something like that, as everyone thought until about Thursday this week.

My Star Tribune column was about what MLS looks like, from a roster perspective. Much attention is given to salary caps in the NHL and NBA and NFL, and to the roster and waiver rules in baseball; MLS has all of that and more.

Soccer Insider Summer Update

August 13 - My Premier League preview is betting on Liverpool and Chelsea, two teams that don’t have to play anywhere but England this year.

August 6 - The USWNT headed to the Olympics as the heavy, unbeatable favorites - but it’s hard to climb to the top of the mountain again. (This looked a little prescient the next week, when they lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals.)

July 30 - Chelsea and AC Milan played a friendly at U.S. Bank Stadium this week, and as part of the promotion, I got a chance to talk to Chelsea keeper Asmir Begovic, who grew up in Edmonton. (I suspect his North American-accented English is why they had him do interviews.) Really nice guy!

July 23 - There’s more than one way to approach the tactical side of the game - as Minnesota United coaches Manny Lagos (former) and Carl Craig (current) have demonstrated.

July 16 - Christian Ramirez missed a penalty the previous week, so I talked to him about the mental side of the game. He basically brushed it off, so filled with confidence was he. Naturally, in that night’s game he took a penalty in the first ten minutes - and scored. (I covered that game for the Star Tribune, too!)

July 9 - With the transfer market in full swing, I felt duty-bound to try to explain this to Star Tribune readers.

July 2 - On the Great Baseball Road Trip, I heard people complaining about how soccer was so boring. It occurred to me that soccer’s made such great strides that I had no reason to argue with him.