As part of our MLS season preview reporting, I interviewed 18 players from around the league, gave them anonymity (in return for their honesty) and asked them 25 rapid-fire questions about the league. Part I ran Tuesday, and Part II runs today.
(To recap, players were not allowed to vote for their own team or anyone from it, and I'm only including choices that received more than one vote, the better to prevent someone with an outlier axe to grind from publicizing it.)
Which team has the best quality field in the league?
1. Colorado, Kansas City (four votes)
3. Los Angeles, New York (three votes)
My Take: As one player put it, Colorado may not have the best stadium atmosphere in the league, but it does have a nice field. (That's another thing to keep in mind when the U.S. meets Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier there March 22.) I honestly never realized Colorado had a good field, so count this as one of the things I learned in the survey. As for the other three good fields, I had actually heard some negative things in the past about all of them. Kansas City was alarmingly unrooted in the first year of the stadium, but it seems to have turned things around. Meanwhile, new New York GM Jérôme de Bontin recently told me that improving the quality of the Red Bulls' field was one of his top priorities.
One player said this about the field in Los Angeles: "It's tough. At different times of the year, L.A. is very good. Other times it's not." The problems have usually come in the wake of the Home Depot Center hosting the X Games.
Which team has the worst quality field in the league?
1. New England (12 votes)
2. Vancouver (four votes)
My Take: The overwhelming vote for New England's artificial-turf surface was eye-popping, considering the voters were coming from all over the league. Several players began their response by musing something to the effect of, "Let me think about the artificial-turf fields." No matter how much some owners would like us to think fake-turf fields are OK, the clear view of the players is simple: They're not. Vancouver (another artificial-turf surface) picked up a few of the votes that New England didn't. "At least New England has a little sponge," said one player. "Vancouver feels like concrete underneath."
My Take: Best and worst referee turned out to be a tough question to get specific answers on, not least because the most common responses from players were "pass," "none of 'em" and "all of 'em." One player said: "I honestly don't know their real names. You should have set up a police lineup with their faces or something." This won't be surprising, I suppose, but the players don't think the officiating in MLS is very good. Toledo did get singled out in a negative way four times. "Too many cards," said one player.
Who is the player you most respect in the league?
1. Thierry Henry, New York (five votes)
2. Dwayne De Rosario, D.C. United; Chris Wondolowski, San Jose (two votes)
My Take: Well, Henry has won a few trophies: the World Cup, the Euro, the Champions League and league titles in England, Spain and France. As for De Rosario and Wondolowski, they're two veteran hard-working MLSers who've won the last two MVP awards and don't get paid as much as they probably deserve.
Who is the dirtiest player in the league?
1. Steven Lenhart, San Jose (five votes)
2. Aurélien Collin, Kansas City; Brandon McDonald, D.C. United (two votes)
My Take: MLS' answer to Eddie Haskell won this one by a clear margin, and even guys who like Lenhart personally voted for him. "Lenny for sure," said one player. "He's my boy, but he's dirty." Another said: "This is hard, because I think he's my favorite player in the league, but Steven Lenhart." I'm left wondering if there's a badge of honor that comes with being a cartoon villain? One player actually voted for himself until I reminded him he couldn't vote for anyone from his own team. Multiple players said they would have voted for Kansas City's Roger Espinoza if he was still in the league. In another case of learning something I didn't know, McDonald has also developed a bit of a reputation. "McDonald always has his elbows up on headers," said one player.
What is the most fun road city in the league?
1. Chicago, New York (four votes)
3. Los Angeles (three votes)
4. Seattle, Toronto (two votes)
My Take: Perhaps not all that surprising to see these results, though I didn't expect Chicago would be at the very top. Of the 25 questions that I asked players, this was the only one where Chicago got much in the way of a response one way or the other.
What is the least fun road city in the league?
1. Columbus, Dallas (six votes)
3. Montreal, New England (two votes)
My Take: Columbus may be a fun college town, but it apparently doesn't strike a chord with MLS players. Dallas draws some more negativity from players here, as does New England. (One player said Foxboro is "in the middle of nowhere.") Gotta say I'm a little concerned about the two guys who said Montreal wasn't a fun city. My favorite player response might have been this one: "I have good times wherever I go."
Who is the best MLS owner (not your own)?
1. AEG (five votes)
2. Seattle (four votes)
3. Red Bull (two votes)
My Take: The only surprise to me is not seeing Kansas City or Portland on this list. AEG (which owns the Galaxy and half of Houston) is seen as an organization that's willing to spend money and take care of its players.
Who is the worst owner in MLS?
1. The Krafts (five votes)
2. The Hunts (four votes)
My Take: Not particularly surprising, considering the Krafts (who own New England) and the Hunts (who own Columbus and Dallas) have had this kind of reputation for a while with people who follow the league closely. However, I expected Chivas USA's Jorge Vergara would have received more votes, which didn't happen. One wrinkle: Three players asked if they could vote for their own owners.
What is the single most important issue for players that needs to be addressed by the league?
1. Non-guaranteed contracts (five votes)
2. No free agency within the league (four votes)
3. Minimum player salary is too low (three votes)
4. Unhappiness with league's single-entity structure (two votes)
My Take: You could probably combine "no free agency" with "single-entity" and that would have won the vote, but you get the players' drift here, and it's hard to argue with them.
MLS disciplinary committee retro-suspensions: Are they necessary or not necessary?
Necessary (14 votes)
Not Necessary (four votes)
My Take: One of the biggest stories of the 2012 season was the league's move to have the Disciplinary Committee (a five-person body whose identities are unknown) issue retroactive suspensions for offenses that weren't caught by referees during games. My sense was that players had a big problem with it, but I was completely wrong, which is why this is the single-most surprising vote of the survey for me. "Everyone wants to see it cleaned up a bit," said one player. "The refs make so many mistakes," said another. A few players said they felt the retro-bans are necessary, but the Disciplinary Committee "went overboard" last year with some of its decisions. One last thing: It wasn't just attacking players who felt the retro-bans are necessary. Several defensive players did, too.
Would a gay player be accepted in your team's locker room?
Yes (17 votes)
No (one vote)
My Take: I happen to think MLS is as ready as any other U.S. men's professional league to have an openly gay player, and this vote supports that notion, as does the positive response to Robbie Rogers' recent announcement that he's gay. As one player said to me, "There are probably a couple in there right now, so yeah." But how much does that one "No" vote give closeted players pause?
Have you ever heard of an MLS player being approached by gamlbing interests for information or match-fixing?
No (18 votes)
Yes (0 votes)
My Take: I'm not naive: If the answer was yes, would any player have told me so? Maybe not. But it's worth pointing out that none of the 18 voters even paused before saying no, and I asked this question out of the blue.
Commissioner Don Garber says MLS will be one of the world's best soccer leagues by 2022. Do you buy that?
Yes (16 votes)
No (2 votes)
My Take: I'm kind of surprised the yes votes were so overwhelming, but it shows how bullish the players are about this league and its future. My sense: I think it's possible, but the league's salary cap is going to have to start increasing on a much steeper slope than it has over the last few years to reach that goal. The lion's share of that money is going to have to come from TV contracts, as is the case in other established sports leagues, which means MLS TV ratings need to start improving soon.