Thursday August 18th, 2011

The 'Bag (soccer version) is back, and we'll start this week with a question from @WillEhrenfeld: "Will Robbie Keane be an effective scorer for L.A.? And does his addition make the Galaxy clear favorites going forward?"

I think Keane provides an instant upgrade for L.A. up front. The 31-year-old's résumé speaks for itself: Ireland's captain and all-time leading goal-scorer, the No. 10 goal-scorer in Premier League history, more than 250 goals for club and country. Keane wasn't part of Tottenham's plans, and he'd been on loan to West Ham and Celtic in recent years, but he should combine well with David Beckham and Landon Donovan as the Galaxy (owner of MLS's best record) tries to win the MLS Cup for the first time since 2005.

Let's be honest: Anything other than raising that trophy at home on Nov. 20 will be considered a failure by L.A.'s owner, AEG, which is shelling out $9 million in salary and transfer fees for Keane. Nor will Keane have much time to settle in; he could take the field for L.A. as soon as Saturday against San Jose, and the Galaxy has important games coming up in CONCACAF Champions League and the MLS stretch run.

Keane's acquisition does bring up a couple questions. First, how many MLS games have the Irish media watched lately? I did a few interviews on Irish radio this week, and the general feeling was that MLS's level of play was 1) lower than the Scottish Premier League and 2) would hurt Keane's international career with Ireland. Both Beckham (with AC Milan) and Donovan (with Everton) have shown that playing in MLS doesn't prevent any player from walking into the starting lineup of a European team. If I'm an Irish national team fan, I'm less concerned about MLS's quality than I am about Keane's travel challenges. As Beckham showed in 2007 and '08, shuttling back and forth from L.A. to England duty was no easy task.

Second, what happened to Juan Pablo Ángel? Even though L.A. has been MLS's best team, Ángel has been a major disappointment, scoring just three goals in 17 games and showing that New York made a (rare) smart decision in letting him go after last season. Ángel is 35 and may well have had the best on-field performance as a Designated Player in league history for New York in 2007 and '08, but it's hard to expect big things out of him now that he has moved down the hall from L.A. to Chivas USA.

My other question: In the end, will either Keane or Ángel be an upgrade over Edson Buddle, who was second in MLS with 17 goals last season? Even if L.A. had been willing to give Buddle the raise he wanted, the Galaxy would be spending a fraction of the money it has now committed to Keane and Ángel.

Are my eyes deceiving me? Did an MLS team finally win a game in Mexico?

-- Jon-Claud Nix, Winnemucca, Nev.

It was one of most embarrassing streaks in the history of U.S. soccer: In 49 games dating back to 1937, no U.S. senior men's national team or MLS team had ever won against a Mexican team on Mexican soil. Their overall record was 0-44-5 -- until Wednesday night, when Dallas won 1-0 at Pumas in a CONCACAF Champions League group stage game on a second-half goal by Marvin Chávez.

It's a historic win by any standard, and Dallas deserves credit for doing something no MLS team has ever managed. Granted, Pumas didn't take the game very seriously, using none of the starters from its Mexican league game the previous weekend, but you can't blame Dallas for beating the team that Pumas put out there. The next challenges for MLS are to eliminate a Mexican team in the CCL and to win the competition, as Salt Lake came agonizingly close to doing against Monterrey last spring.

Recently I spoke with a top MLS executive, who rightly argued that success in Champions League is vital to MLS's future, not least because it shows how the league's teams stack up alongside Mexican competition. What's unfortunate is that as long as Mexican teams are allowed to compete in the Copa Libertadores, the CCL will be viewed in Mexico as a secondary tournament -- albeit one that (unlike Libertadores) can hand a CONCACAF team a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup.

So far, at least, MLS is off to a good start in this year's CCL. All five MLS teams are still alive in the group stage (Los Angeles, Colorado, Seattle, Dallas, Toronto). The league is 4-0 in the group stage so far heading into Toronto's game at Tauro on Thursday, and MLS's nine wins already in the 2011-12 CCL are part of a distinctly upward trend after the league won two games in the 08-09 event, seven the following year and 16 last year.

With MLS and the USMNT now on NBC Sports and ESPN, what's the future for the CONCACAF competitions on Fox Soccer Channel?

-- @RegularGuy

The big soccer media news last week was the announcement that starting in 2012 NBC Sports would take over Fox Soccer's deal to broadcast MLS and second-tier U.S. national team games. The deal is big for MLS for a number of reasons. The main NBC network will show four MLS games in '12 (two regular-season and two playoff games), while the NBC Sports Network (soon to be renamed from Versus) will show 45 MLS games. Simply put, more people in America will be able to see MLS games (due to NBC Sports' greater reach) and in HD, and the quality of NBC's coverage should be higher than FSC's bare-bones approach.

The deal also provides serious competition for ESPN, which views NBC/Comcast as a real adversary. Now that NBC Sports is into soccer, it will be fascinating to see how the bidding goes for the rights to broadcast the 2018 and '22 World Cups, as well as the MLS rights deals that now end for everyone at the end of 2014. Keep in mind, too, that both NBC (with Telemundo) and ESPN (with ESPN Deportes) own Spanish-language outlets as well, though it will be hard for either of them to outbid Univisión for the lucrative Spanish-language World Cup rights in the United States (which are worth about three times the English-language rights).

To answer your question, the future of TV rights for CONCACAF competitions doesn't appear to be in flux. FSC has been the home of the Gold Cup and the Champions League, and the CONCACAF feeds for both tournaments have often been of poor quality. I have a hard time imagining ESPN or NBC Sports taking on the rights for either CONCACAF tournament unless they could somehow arrange to show only the semifinals and final. But do you know what would perk up ESPN and NBC? A Copa Américas that would combine CONMEBOL and CONCACAF in one quadrennial 16-team tournament. In fact, the U.S. TV money for that tournament (in Spanish and English) would be one of the main catalysts for making it happen.

How much better is MLS's Western Conference than the Eastern Conference?

-- Jason Tischer, Dallas, Tex.

Simple answer: a LOT better. Right now four teams in the West are better than any team in the East based on points per game (Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle and Salt Lake), and Colorado is on the verge of making it five. We're looking at another year in which a team from the West has a good chance of winning the "Eastern Conference" trophy, and you could argue there's more incentive to finish second in the East than first. Why? The top seed from the East will likely have to meet the highest-ranking wild-card in the Eastern semifinals. If you're Columbus (the current top team in the East), would you rather face Salt Lake or Kansas City in the playoffs? Based on points per game, Columbus would likely get Salt Lake (with MLS's fourth-best record) for finishing as the East's top seed and Kansas City (eighth-best record) for finishing second. Vegas odds will almost certainly favor the Western wild-card against the East's top seed, which means chances are good the winner of the other Eastern semi will host the conference final.

Of course, at this point New York just hopes it can make the playoffs. The Red Bulls have splashed so much cash and have such a good lineup on paper that they were the consensus pick to run away with the East this season. But New York has been a monster disappointment and now finds itself with the 12th-best record in MLS based on points per game. Time is running out, but New York can still get into the playoffs with a good run, and as we've seen in recent years, it's not hard for teams that barely make the playoffs to win the MLS Cup.

See you next week!

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