From the factories of Pakistan to the Champions League Final

"The handiwork of the east, as many Sialkotis boast, isn’t easily rivaled. Now, the Forward Sports Factory produces over 18,000 footballs a day, including those used in Major League Soccer, the Bundesliga in Germany, and the European Champions League."

Whether it’s watching a Premier League match or trekking outdoors for a lazy pick-up game over the weekend, it’s tempting to take those small things that make football possible for granted. Sure, we appreciate an athlete’s dedication and the financial complexities that underline the sport, but the finer details are easy to overlook.

Case in point: over at Roads and KingdomsOmar Wairach recently journeyed to Sialkot, a city in the north-east of Pakistani that produces roughly 60 million footballs each year, making up 70% of the world’s total. It’s a complicated story, involving political rivalries and changing social realities, but it’s one you should be sure to check out. [Posted by Maxi 

Thought Trails: Expectations, the Media and Moving to MLS

In one week, Toronto FC have managed to sign Jermain Defoe, one of England’s best strikers, and Michael Bradley, arguably America’s best player at the moment. It’s a coup for Toronto, a shock to many, and everyone has something to say. 

Maxi: If you had asked me a few years ago how I felt about MLS offseasons, I would have raised an eyebrow and said something along the lines of, “…M..L..S…offseason..?” For as long as I can remember, MLS offseasons were a time period frequented only by devoted beat writers and the sort of committed fans who created Excel spreadsheets stockpiled with information on the most unknown college soccer player from Blackfoot, Idaho. As the league has grown, so too has interest in that painful period between seasons, and in the last week, we might have experienced one of the most significant periods in MLS history: both Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe, players of a recognized, international stature, are moving to MLS, and the implications are widespread.

Eric: Implications cause ripples. Implications create thousands of opinions. At this point, it might not even be possible to create an original thought about Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley’s big (or little, depending on your perspective) move. Major League Soccer has, once again, shaken up the generally accepted narrative of how things work in “the world of football”. Globally recognized footballers go to MLS when they want to retire… except, ugh, wait… something just doesn’t make sense. Sure, MLS may be getting better and dozens of world class players may be asking Thierry Henry and David Beckham what it’s like living in cosmopolitan cities and doing what they love for a living… But it can’t be that simple. You know what?

Jermain Defoe doesn’t know what Jermain Defoe is doing, according to me. I may know very, very little about Jermain Defoe’s personal thought process, yet thousands of people who also know very, very little about Jermain Defoe agree with me. As for playing in MLS? It seems like everyone who knows the league well likes this move; therefore, I need to trust the unbiased opinions of people who know very, very little about MLS. That must be the solution here, right?

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MLS x Futbol Artist Network

With Major League Soccer returning in about two weeks, the league collaborated with our friends at the Futbol Artist Network, using the anticipation from fans to garner a fair share of creativity. The result was a piece of art for each club in MLS, designed by fans for their respective communities. While we posted the best designs (in our opinion) above, you can check out the whole collection with information about the artists and their pieces here. [Posted by Eric]

Season 17 of MLS is among us! Will it always feel like this?

Without letting idealism and false pretenses or perceptions of a golden age overwhelm my faculties responsible for reasoning, MLS is now too stable and too promising to ignore. While most of the European leagues end their respective seasons in about two months, this weekend brings us the First Kick for MLS’ 17th season. While doubters were aplenty in 1995, the league continues to make its product, on and off the pitch, more and more appealing. Though the future may look exquisite, the present is providing an ever-emanating platform for MLS and (North) American soccer’s self-actualization. From the Timbers Army creating an unrivaled atmosphere in Portland to L’Impact supplying a vibrant new cultural experience in Montreal, I hope it’s always like this. If you’ve been hesitant to give the league a chance, just watch a match this weekend. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

But without further ado, here are my essential, all-informing reads for the weekend:

  • Beckham’s passed out on the roof of the Bellagio? Oh wait, The Shin Guardian's unparalleled and heavily pop culture-influenced MLS preview just has Zach Galifianikis backseat driving.
  • The 10 Players to watch*, by Jason Davis *with a distinct lack of pop culture references (boooo)
  • The New York Times tackles Don Garber. Not with two feet, but rather in the form of five key questions.
  • 40k+ fans attending a game on a weekday? The Guardian focuses on how the INCONCEIVABLE(!!!) has come into being
  • Making use of the offseason is how good sides become great (if you don’t have the money to go out and buy any player you’d like) *cough* LA & NY *cough* - here’s The Yanks Are Coming on who succeeded in business without really trying.
  • Grant Wahl’s interview with all nine managers in MLS’ (powerhouse of a) Western Conference captures the perceptions of the league’s ongoing changes and challenges. 
  • It’s nice to see the league moving forward one step at a time, and Brian Straus writes for Sporting News that there’s simply too much at stake in Year 17 to ignore.

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We Are The Storm. iTunes / Soundcloud / RSS / A Football Report Podcast, Episode 12

Contributors to this podcast: 
Eric Beard (AFR Editor, Barcelona)
Gary Al-Smith (Ghana-based journalist, has written for ESPN and many other outlets)
Dan Wiersema (Founder of The Free Beer Movement, Austin, Texas): 

With Clásico madness nearing its peak, this time around on the A Football Report podcast we pieced apart the battles between Barcelona and Real Madrid from all angles. We discuss everything from squad depth to Barcelona’s tactical rigidity to the African presence in these epic matches. We also focused on a few major happenings going on in the world of Major League Soccer, from the resurgence of Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls to the most talked about 18-year-old Juan Agudelo to Real Salt Lake’s incredible run to the CONCACAF Champions League final.

As always, we would love to hear your feedback.

Rewriting Our Woes: Real Salt Lake’s Champions League Run

By Patrick Doherty, writing from Boston.

Editor’s note: Patrick, a recent graduate of Tufts University where he wore the #8 for the “Jumbos”, is joining the AFR team as our expert on Major League Soccer and US Soccer. He’s a proud Bostonian, as big a US supporter as they come, a New England Revolution fan since the beginning, and also a supporter of PSG, Spurs, Ireland, and his hero Clint Dempsey. Give Patrick a warm welcome!
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One more game. That’s all that stands in the way of the first American in the Champions League final.  

Only this final won’t be played at Wembley.

It surely does not have the same following as its cross-Atlantic counterpart. In fact, unless your team is in it, you may not even know it exists. Yet while only a handful of diehards may have been watching the tourney since the prelims kicked off last July, the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) may be the key to the future of soccer in North America. With their second-leg match against perennial Costa Rican champion Deportivo Saprissa on April 5, Real Salt Lake will be one step closer to earning the title of best club in the confederation.

But first off, let’s be honest. When it comes to club football, CONCACAF is not UEFA, and its premier club competition continues to languish in obscurity as far as the mainstream football fan is concerned, despite a reorganization of the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup three years ago.

Since this expansion of the tournament from an exclusively knockout format to a 24 team championship modeled after its European counterpart, not a single MLS team has made it past the quarterfinals. The League’s representatives have simply been abysmal, and I hate to be reminded that it was my New England Revolution who kicked off the League’s awful CCL record (a 6-1 aggregate defeat, including a 4-0 whipping at home, in the preliminary round of the 2008-09 season to Trinidadian minnows Joe Public FC, a side whose chairman just happens to be CONCACAF boss Jack Warner).

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A Cosmic Rebirth

By Saheli RC, writing from Singapore

In ancient mythology, a phoenix was a sacred firebird, with colourful plumage and a glorious golden tail, which ignited and turned itself into ashes at the end of its lifespan. From that ash, a new, young phoenix was reborn anew, and was destined to live as long as its former self. Or so the legend went. Hopping onto your Tardis and fast forwarding a couple of centuries, you arrive to the 1970s. This period was, as the youngsters like to say these days, a very ‘happening’ time as the Cold War raged on in full scale across the world, while people were feeling the first effects of a global oil crisis. Onto more athletic grounds, Margaret Court was winning every tennis Grand Slam in a calendar year and the dynamic duo of Renus Michels and Johan Cruyff were teaching the world how to play beautiful football. Yes, happening alright.

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Does 2010 have an edge on 1996 when it comes to style in MLS?

By Eric Beard, writing from Boston

Though Major League Soccer will be entering its 16th season when Spring 2011 rolls around, it’s fair to say the league has come a long way. Not simply in trying to break down the perennial American mindset against the beautiful game, but rather trying to be accepted by mainstream media. The Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting KC) definitely were not 15 years ago with their “Rainbow Kits.” The controversial “snood” is, for whatever reason, the trending topic these days, but style can kill sales and even form on the pitch. Just ask poor, pink Everton.

So how far the league has come? Some have progressed while others truly lag behind.

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Nail-biters in the Race to the MLS Cup

By Chi Huynh, writing from Los Angeles

The final matches of the MLS season (before the playoffs) are being played today.  With yesterday’s Western Conference shake-ups from the Seattle Sounders losing to Houston Dynamo 1-2, a 2-2 draw between Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids, and the San Jose Earthquakes losing to the Kansas City Wizards 1-4, the standings put Real Salt Lake on top of the LA Galaxy based on goal differentials, and put the seedings for the playoffs as follows:

Western Conference:

Real Salt Lake (1W) v. Seattle Sounders (4W)

Los Angeles Galaxy (2W) v. FC Dallas (3W)

Eastern Conference:

New York Red Bulls (1E) v. San Jose Earthquakes (6W)

Columbus Crew (2E) v. Colorado Rapids (5W)

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