MLS results map: re-visualizing the visualization

The MLS regular season is winding down. Playoffs are on the horizon. Perhaps to celebrate this fact, the league’s official web site has launched a visual way of looking at a team’s results, dubbed The Results Map.

Like a modern 4-3-3 formation, a grid-based map such as this one great concept, but one that requires a lot of work on execution for it to be effective. And while I like what the league was going for here, there are a few simple tweaks that would make an already nice graphic a bit more effective. I took it upon myself to enact one of them.

Here is how the MLS Results Map looks at the time of this writing (10/2/12):

The big advantage of having a color-coded results map like this is that a reader can easily identify trends – not just within individual rows (the X axis), but amongst the rows’ relationship with the columns (the Y axis). For example: In a well-contextualized results map like this, that cluster of green “W”s at the bottom left corner might actually mean something. But it doesn’t. Why? Because the Y axis (the teams) doesn’t provide the kind of context the X axis (the game results) begs for. The teams are arranged alphabetically, and this simple decision holds the map back a great deal.

To a degree, I understand why MLS would arrange the visualization this way. The button on the front of their site indicates that the map visualizes team trends, not those of the league or the season in general. However, I for one would like more context. So I opened up the page’s source code, copied it into my text editor, and made exactly 19 edits.

The end result (with the help of Firebug) looks like this:

What changed? Instead of arranging the teams alphabetically, they are now arranged according to their position in the table. The league-leading San Jose Earthquakes are on top, while Toronto FC’s abysmal season places them last. The results you see on the X axis now have a real, visual impact on the Y axis. All of a sudden, a world of information can be gleaned.

What are the common characteristics of teams in the top 5? Most had very good starts.

Why are the Earthquakes on top? Because while every other team pulls off 4-5 game runs, they win consistently, and never lose consecutive games.

What information do you see in this new map that you couldn’t see before?


For CJ Sapong, Soccer is Family

CJ Sapong

CJ Sapong has won the MLS Rookie of the Year award and become a regular starter for his team since being drafted in 2011 (Photo by Shakeskc via Flickr)

NOTE: I wrote this profile for for another web site on CJ Sapong before the start of his rookie year in MLS. He was considered the shock pick of the opening round, but went on to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award.

This season, he was named the second-best player under the age of 24 by the league’s official web site Sapong continues to score important and timely goals for Sporting Kansas City, who currently sit first in MLS’ Eastern Conference.

That other web site has undergone a redesign since the piece was published, which resulted in this story (and all the other ones I wrote) being lost. So I’m republishing it here now, both so it can actually exist somewhere, and also because it’s a nice reminder of the origins of one of the most talented young players playing in the United States.


There is only one road to Mampong. Nestled in the center of the mountainous Ashanti region in central Ghana, the small village of 36,000 is only accessible by the two-lane Kumasi-Ejura road, which weaves through thick vegetation and steep dropoffs in its run between the regions capital (Kumasi) and one of its tourist destinations (The Kogyae Strict Nature Reserve).

Most travelers pass right by Mampong, but in the winter of 2009, it was where CJ Sapong stopped. One year from becoming Sporting Kansas City’s first pick  (10th overall) in the 2011 MLS Superdraft, the James Madison University forward was visiting the country where his father Kofi and mother Gillian were born.

“I took a bunch of my old soccer balls out to a field, which really wasn’t even a field…it was all dirt,” says Sapong, who was born and has lived his whole life in the United States. “I was entirely by myself, but I dropped the balls to the ground and all of a sudden here comes one person, here comes two people, here comes three, and then the next thing you know there are 30 people playing. All ages. The ball would get kicked out of bounds, a mom would pick it up and start playing herself.”

Sapong pauses for a moment.

“They’re living in an area where you have to walk to a well to get water to take a bath,” he says. “But they really appreciate life. Just to play a simple game like soccer really means a lot to them.”

Sapong shares this joy. Growing up in Manassas, Virginia, he played baseball and basketball in addition to soccer, sometimes with all three happening on the same day.

“My parents drove me to and from all of these games, but soccer was the one they had the most passion for, and they transferred that to me,” he says. “They were never the type of parents that forced me to go out and train. They knew that if I ultimately wanted to do it, I would do it.”

His parents’ personalities manifest themselves in Sapong’s play. His mother is descended from a royal family that lives more lavishly than most in Accra, the capital and largest city in Ghana. His father lived 45 minutes away in the town of Aburi, before spending two years in the Ghanian national service and moving to the US to pursue a master’s degree.

“My dad is all about working hard, being stern, and I guess that’s my on-field personality,” he said. “I play kinda angry. I know that it’s a privilege every time I step out on the field because there’s always somebody that’s fighting that wants to be in your spot.”

“But me and probably 1000 other players will tell you that it’s different when you get off the field. My mom wants me to always be happy and always enjoy myself. That’s where I get my love of life. She always wants me to live in the moment and take the best out of every situation.”

Sapong’s moment came in the 2011 MLS combine – the free-for-all talent evaluation festival that attracts a potpourri of players from programs of all sizes nationwide. Relatively undecorated on a James Madison team that struggled in a mid-major conference, Sapong knew the combine would be his best chance to make a good impression on MLS coaches. For the first time, he’d be playing against some of the best…even if they weren’t at their best.

“You could tell a lot of players slacked off a bit,” he said. “That’s what happens when you make a run in the NCAA tournament and you see your name here, you see your name there, you’re on this all star team, and that all star team…I think a lot of players slipped into a comfort zone.

At James Madison, we never played in our conference tournament, never played in the NCAA tournament, so all of the frustration I felt because of that made me work harder every year,” he says. “I gained a lot of confidence because when I got [to the combine] and surveyed the talent, I realized I could definitely play with these people.”

Sapong’s confidence grew as the combine wore on, and unbeknownst to him, so did his reputation. With his mother, father, and 17-year-old brother Edward at the Baltimore Convention Center for the Superdraft, Sapong sat back and relaxed for the first batch of picks. He had a successful combine, but was not expected to go in the first round.

“I really wasn’t even paying attention,” he says. “Then at number 10 all I heard was ‘James,’ then ‘Madison University.’ I was like ‘Oh…my…lord….’”

Sapong stood up slowly, shocked. His mother, overcome with emotion, was too surprised to stand, so Sapong picked her up. They embraced close and tight, then he sauntered towards the stage. Commissioner Don Garber was there, holding a Sporting Kansas City scarf. On his walk forward to claim it, Sapong breathed deep, and the air he inhaled triggered the obvious epiphany: He was a professional now.

When he exhaled, it was in the form of a raucous, joyous yell.

“I couldn’t contain it,” he said. “The first nine people in front of me were so stiff-necked. It’s like, please act like you got drafted, man! I gave the commissioner a hug. It was great, I loved it.”

Today, as Sapong wraps up his first week of training as a professional, the feeling hasn’t left. He speaks excitedly about the camaraderie in the Sporting locker room, where he is next door neighbors with Davy Arnaud, a nine-year MLS veteran and the longest-serving member of the team. All his life, soccer has gone hand-in-hand with family. Now, he is ready to join a new one.

“Certain things in [African] culture have just stuck with me,” Sapong says. “Family, spirituality, realizing that things to happen for a reason, and working hard until God puts you where he wants you to be.”

He smiles.

“I’m pretty confident, especially now, that the place where He wants me to be is someplace I want to be, too.”

This needs an introduction

Hello, I’m  Alexander Abnos.

The absolute first match I remember watching was the 1990 World Cup Final. My large family gathered in the living room of my uncles house, yelling at a comparatively tiny television. I was four, and as such I remember very little about the match itself today. I have watched many, many more matches since then.

Preki was the first player to dazzle my imagination. The first genuinely entrancing hero I could observe right in front of me on the grass. I saw him live for the first time when I was 10, in the inaugural game of the Kansas City Wiz. At first I just liked his name. With time, my appreciation grew to his precocious talent, his way of driving the rhythm of a game whenever he felt like it. I liked that the entire crowd could yell “He’s going to his LEFT!” whenever he had possession, yet his defender would never catch on. I find it very sad that there are more YouTube videos of coaches instructing how to perform a “Preki” than videos of Preki performing it himself.

The first match I covered as a journalist was Watford vs. Southampton in the 4th round of the 2004-2005 League Cup. Watford won 5-2. I was 18. Steve Wigley was Southampton’s manager that day, and I’ll never forget his haggard face as he sat in front of the press corps in a sickly fluorescent walk-in closet beneath the main stand at Vicarage Road. His job was in jeopardy and the defeat clearly crushed his persona. Steve Wigley was fired after one season in charge of Southampton. I have covered many, many matches since then.

I started Grass Canvas on Monday, July 23, 2012. That’s today. It occurred to me that, for someone who so badly wants to write about soccer, I don’t really do enough writing about soccer. So here I am. I am 26.

The blog is called Grass Canvas because that’s how I see the field of play. It’s a canvas – home to an artform. Like an artform, soccer can inform, upset, divide, conquer, thrill, devastate, and innumerable other fancy-sounding verbs. It is a game of both individuals and groups. It is both a public display and a personal undertaking. Does this not sound like an artform to you?

Music’s quality is not measured by chart success. Great architecture is not measured in pounds of concrete and steel. Rather, works in these areas are judged on the degree to which they, for whatever reason and in whatever way, move you.

Grass Canvas is soccer moving you. It is when, where, and why. It is who. It is you. It is how this silly little game with 22 people and a ball can have such a profound and life-defining effect.

How have you been moved? And how old were you when it happened? I look forward to finding out.