One of the classics of American theatre is Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. The Music Man is about a con man named Harold Hill, who cons the residents of River City, Iowa into paying him to provide instruments and uniforms for a boys’ marching band. Hill’s plan is to get paid for the equipment and then skip town without delivering.

Among other memorable characters in the musical are the Pickalittle Ladies, a group of townswomen who like to gossip. They spread rumors to Hill about his love interest, the town librarian, but they’re also fairly easily won over by Hill’s charms and attention.

That’s a problem with gossip generally, and with people who spread gossip. They do so not only to tear others down, but also for the thrill of having secrets that they can spread. So people who gossip are easily manipulated by anyone who claims to have such “secrets” to impart and brings those secrets with sufficient flattery.

You don’t want to be one of the Pickalittle Ladies.

Last week, the Allocation Disorder guys Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal published the results of a survey of sporting directors around MLS. The story is worth reading in full, and we will discuss it a bit on an upcoming episode of the Cincy Postcast (plug!), but there is one thing that I think is worth addressing separately. Apparently, at least one sporting director identified FC as a team that is held back significantly by its ownership. Tenorio expanded a bit on the Allocation Disorder podcast, explaining that the reason behind this response was Jeff Berding’s “interference” with the sporting side.

This isn’t the first time that Tenorio has said that Berding “interferes” in soccer decisions, and he’s far from the only person to levy that accusation publicly. What I haven’t seen a lot of, though, are specifics. What exactly do people mean when they say that Berding interferes with soccer decisions, and what is their basis for saying that he is still doing so? These are obviously two separate questions, and it is vitally important that evidence of one is not treated as an answer to the other. 

Here's one example of how the two have been conflated. Last year, Jeff Carlisle at ESPN published what was held out as a blockbuster indictment of Berding’s tenure as president of the FC. (Not that there is any real need for a case against Berding. The record speaks for itself.) Carlisle claimed that “Berding continues to have an unhealthy influence on the technical side of the organization,” but he provided exactly two examples: (1) the tampering charges filed against Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls regarding Frankie Amaya’s trade demand in early 2021, and (2) Berding’s admission that he was personally involved in “one dispute involving a player’s discovery rights.” 

See the problem? The article was written in October 2021, and it speaks of Berding’s interference in present tense, but FC had already traded Frankie six months earlier in April. There is no date at all provided for when the alleged discovery rights dispute occurred. (Frankie’s trade as an example of Berding’s “unhealthy” involvement is also disputable. As everyone knows, Frankie demanded a trade and FC ended up getting about a million dollars in pre-inflation GAM. If Jeff is responsible for this, then we should all thank him.)

So if you are going to be claiming, in present tense, that Berding remains involved in soccer decisions, then I’m going to need some present tense examples. If Stejskal and Tenorio have heard of such examples, then for whatever reason they have decided not to publish them for their paying subscribers.

I ran a search through The Athletic’s website for Berding’s name, and I found the following reporting about Berding’s involvement in the sporting department:

No, I didn’t just inadvertently cite the same article four times. By and large, the evidence of Jeff Berding’s continued interference in MLS, his lingering and apparently poisonous influence on the roster today, is that he had the General Manager title in 2019. And sometimes people add that Jeff traded GAM for all of Philadelphia Union’s draft picks and that he is responsible for hiring the various failures who have come through the revolving door (Koch, Nijkamp, etc.).

Guilty as charged, obviously. Everyone knows that the team has been terrible and that the roster that entered MLS was incompetently constructed. I have been critical in this space of FC’s failure to put together a respectable sporting department and hire a qualified coach in USL. But now we have Chris Albright, a GM with years of experience in a successful front office and relationships all over the league. Presumably, if there were specific examples of Berding meddling with Albright, then they would make their way to publication. If it were really bad, Albright would quit. And no one would blame him.

You can say that Berding screwed up the MLS expansion, and you can say that Berding screwed up by hiring Nijkamp instead of an MLS-experienced sporting director (assuming one would have taken the job), and you can even say that Berding’s errors were so massive that they continue to hold the team back today. I’d agree with you.

But if you are saying that Berding is continuing to take actions that are interfering with Chris Albright’s ability to do his job (which he absolutely should not be doing), then you need to show your work.

So my new rule is that I’m not going to believe anyone who says Berding is still “involved” or “interfering” with soccer decisions unless that person both explains what they mean and provides a recent example. And no, dropping something to your friends in a private group chat doesn't count.

But, behind it all, I don’t think the criticisms of Berding really have much if anything to do with legitimate diagnosis of FC’s problems. What do I think is really going on here? Why do I think professional journalists are willing to print years-old information as if it says anything new about what is going on with FC in 2022?

I think that Berding’s personality is off-putting to a lot of people (myself included). I think that some executives in MLS are simply better at developing relationships with the media. I think that those executives leverage those relationships to act on their personal grudges. And I think the media is generally happy to publish the perspectives of people who provide them with their scoops.

So I think that whenever someone wants to badmouth Berding, they can usually find an outlet willing to publish it, with or without attribution, and with or without specific evidence.

Because that's the thing with the Pickalittle Ladies. They're always around.