If you're a regular reader of this column, you'll know how much I've wanted soccer to take a page from the NFL and give us an NFL RedZone-style channel to keep up with key moments from multiple games going on at the same time. It could be great with World Cup qualifiers, bringing us up-to-the-minute highlights from around the world, and it could also work with league play.
Soccer is different from American football, of course, but a soccer RedZone could still give you all the goals just seconds after they happen and live look-ins at games in progress. (The idea for the NFL channel actually came originally from soccer broadcasts in Italy.)
Thankfully, MLS and NBC Sports are jumping on the idea Saturday, organizing a staggered series of the league's top rivalry games, including Seattle-Portland, New York-D.C., Kansas City-Chicago and Montreal-Toronto -- and including a two-and-a-half-hour whip-around show called MLS Breakaway, bookended by three full-game broadcasts on big NBC and NBC Sports Network.
All told, there will be 10 straight hours of MLS coverage on national TV on Saturday, a great sign that the league is doing innovative things when it comes to scheduling and working with its TV partners. (Rivalry weekend continues on Sunday with Los Angeles-Chivas and Dallas-Houston, both of which will also be shown nationally on UniMas and ESPN2, respectively.)
"We're very excited by this weekend," said Nelson Rodriguez, MLS' executive VP for competition and game operations. "We'd gathered members of various departments across the league office to talk about ways we could continue to innovate our league season schedule and see if we could create touchpoints along the way that would spark interest."
One of those ideas was a "rivalry weekend" early in the season, combined with another idea for a whip-around TV broadcast that came from league employees Marisabel Muñoz and Simon Borg. NBC Sports embraced the idea, and here we are. After broadcasting the New York-D.C. game on big NBC (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET), the team of Arlo White, Kyle Martino and Russ Thaler will move to the studio in Stamford, Conn., for the MLS Breakaway show from 5:30 to 8 that night.
If viewers want to see the full games instead of using the whip-around, they'll be able to find them on MLS Live, cable and satellite packages and local and regional broadcasts. Or you could do what a lot of people do and get multiple screens going at home yourself.
As for other scheduling ideas, Rodriguez said the league will continue what it started last year and load the back end of the schedule with in-conference games to heighten the tension of the playoff race.
"We'd like to get to the stage where at some point in the season until the end it will be exclusively intra-conference games," he said. "That's intended to make every match a six-point swing and gear up for the playoffs, which are conference-driven."
Another goal, he said, is to eventually have simultaneous kickoffs for all games in a conference on the final day of the regular season.
Rodriguez added the league is looking at the possibility in future seasons of having "travel pairings." For example, Philadelphia and New York would travel separately to the Pacific Northwest and play games against Seattle and Portland on a Wednesday and Saturday, with Seattle and Portland returning the favor later in the season.
"That would eliminate one cross-country flight and create some interesting storylines," Rodriguez says.
In an effort to limit games played in searing heat during the summer daytime, the league has also scheduled fewer games during those windows this season. Barring any future schedule adjustments, there are 33 percent fewer games kicking off before 5 p.m. local time during June, July and August this season than last season (14 in 2013 vs. 21 in 2012). All 19 clubs play at least one summer day game this season, so the burden is spread around.
When I asked Rodriguez about the league's current rules regarding teams' use of charter planes instead of commercial flights for league games, he laid it out: Each team is allowed four chartered legs total over the course of the regular season and playoffs. The teams are responsible for the costs of the charters. (Some teams would surely spring for more if they could, but the league considers them a "competitive advantage," which will not come as music to the ears of, say, Thierry Henry.)
The league does reserve the right not to count some charter legs among the four under special circumstances, Rodriguez said. For example, New York was planning to fly commercial to their first two games in Portland and San Jose, but the Red Bulls had travel problems and ended up using charters.
"We'll issue a decision on that," Rodriguez said. "I think it's important to get all the information before we decide."
So give MLS some credit for thinking about this stuff and implementing some new ideas like Saturday's rivalry day. Now if I can just convince FIFA to start a FIFA World Cup Whip-Around channel for those busy qualifying days around the globe ...
The one about Roman Abramovich, his yacht and the five families meeting that included an NFL owner. Any time you can tell a story that includes Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, his yacht, salary caps, AC Milan CEO Adriano Galliani, former Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon and Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, well, you probably should do it. And I recently heard a good story from 2004 from someone who was at their five-families meeting aboard said yacht in Philly that summer and told me about it.
The occasion was the summer exhibition between Chelsea and Milan at Lincoln Financial Field. Abramovich's giant yacht was in Philly, and he was hosting a dinner on board that included Galliani, Kenyon and Lurie, among others. Keep in mind, this was in the days before any NFL owners had bought teams in the English Premier League.
Both Abramovich and Galliani had English translators with them, and at one point in the dinner, the talk turned to the massive losses Abramovich was incurring after buying Chelsea the previous year and spending huge amounts of money on players. When asked why he was willing to do so, Abramovich pointed to his heart.
"Because I love my team," he said.
He went on to explain that player salaries and transfer fees had gone through the roof in European soccer.
Then Lurie, the NFL owner, spoke up. Transfer fees were new to him, and he had an idea on how to curb salaries.
"Why don't I get all my friends [i.e., NFL owners] together and we'll buy the Premier League?" he said. "If we buy the league, then we can impose a salary cap. Then by imposing a salary cap, we'd be able to control the prices of salaries and in turn make the league profitable."
The translators went to work explaining Lurie's comments to Abramovich and Galliani.
Finally, Galliani spoke. "I think it's a great idea," he said.
"See, even he thinks it's a good idea!" Lurie responded.
To which Galliani said: "I think it's a great idea because all the players will come back to Italy once there's a salary cap in England!"
Everyone laughed, including Abramovich. This apparently is what billionaire sports owners talk about on yachts.
? The news on Thursday that Tim Leiweke is out as president and CEO of AEG is stunning to anyone who follows the soccer business closely in America. AEG owns the Los Angeles Galaxy and half of the Houston Dynamo, and a decade ago saved MLS by owning six teams in the league. Leiweke has long been the right-hand man of AEG owner Phil Anschutz, and Leiweke is the guy who landed David Beckham and Robbie Keane for the Galaxy, in addition to turning L.A. into a nine-figure value as a franchise and the flagship of the league.
Soccer is just a small part of AEG's global empire, but it has been the most ambitious ownership group in MLS thanks largely to Leiweke. We'll learn plenty more soon about what led to Leiweke's departure, but will his replacement, Dan Beckerman, care as much as Leiweke did about soccer? (Leiweke got his start in indoor soccer in the 1980s.) Anschutz does remain in charge, however, and he does appear to have a special personal interest in the sport. Instead of retiring and selling AEG, Anschutz is reengaging with the company and taking it off the market for now.
? I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the admission by New York's Roy Miller that he encroached the penalty box on purpose during San Jose's late-game penalty last week. It was hard to think Miller could have screwed up more in the final 10 minutes after he was involved in allowing San Jose's equalizer, then committed a handball penalty and got whistled for encroachment, allowing Chris Wondolowski to retake his saved spot kick and convert the new one to win the game.
But it was in fact possible for Miller to have screwed up even more. Think about this. Miller said he thought the penalty would have been retaken due to his encroachment even if Wondo had converted, which just isn't true. And this is the same New York team that had a boneheaded encroachment play (by Henry) send them out of the playoffs just a few months ago. This one is obviously on Miller most of all, but coach Mike Petke and captain Henry deserve blame, too. New York has now dropped five points from winning positions in the first two games of the season.
? The biggest take-away from the U.S. women's triumph in the Algarve Cup (in a 2-0 win over Germany in the final) is that the Americans have good depth that will create useful competition for starting spots. With games happening on a compressed schedule (only one off day before the final), the U.S. didn't start Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone or Megan Rapinoe in the final, and Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd were out injured. Besides Alex Morgan's two-goal performance in the final, I came away impressed by goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart (tough between the pipes), right back Ali Krieger (played well in her return to the team) and Sydney Leroux (good, hard runs down the right side and worked well with Morgan). New coach Tom Sermanni has a lot to work with moving forward.
? Thanks to Seattle's remarkable three-goal second-half comeback to eliminate Tigres, MLS looks pretty good in getting two teams (Seattle and Los Angeles) into the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Both will be underdogs when Seattle meets Santos Laguna and L.A. takes on Monterrey in the semis, but this year has seen knockout-round improvement by the U.S. league, which badly wants to send a competitive message to Mexico and get a team into the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time.
Perhaps most of all, you have to be impressed with the performance by some MLS teenagers this week. Seattle's 19-year-old right back, DeAndre Yedlin, scored the goal that sparked the Sounders' comeback and shook off a defensive miscue that had led to a Tigres goal. Meanwhile, L.A.'s José Villarreal (19) and Jack McBean (18) both scored in their CCL win against Herediano on Wednesday.