The new CONCACAF qualifying process is bad, but it’s not ALL bad… but it’s pretty bad

Ives Galarcep absolutely flips his shit over CONCACAF’s proposed changes to its World Cup qualifying process. I’m feeling lazy, so I’ll let Ives summarize.

Galarcep goes on to add that he thinks this will destroy the US rivalry with Mexico.

Allow me to posit this counter. Maybe it’s time for both the US and Mexico to treat this as a “trial separation” and an opportunity for both sides to find higher, more ambitious barometers of success than merely beating each other. I think both the USA and Mexico have sort of outgrown this rivalry (and probably outgrown CONCACAF but that’s a different column) and would benefit from an overall organizational focus away from each other and instead towards challenging the best of Europe and South America, precisely the kinds of teams neither team ever beats on the big stage.

As much fun as the USA-Mexico qualifiers are (and I’ve been to three of them, including one at Azteca), are they even really meaningful? The two teams always qualify and the games pretty much just exist to line the respective federations’ coffers while allowing both sides’ passionate fanbases to hurl invectives at each other. But in order for it really to be a rivalry don’t the matches have to mean something? And the reality, the Mexico-USA qualifiers don’t mean all that much competitively. It’s not hard for either the US or Mexico to get out of CONCACAF’s final round regardless of how the six points at stake between them are distributed.

Will qualifying be a little bit less fun if the USA doesn’t play Mexico? Of course, but the new system isn’t all bad. Here’s why.

1) Believe it or not, qualifying actually gets more difficult and thus will better prepare our players for the proper matches at the World Cup tournament itself. With only one team getting an automatic qualifying spot out of each proposed final round group, that makes each and every final round match really, really meaningful. Ives views that as a bad thing. I view it as a positive. More truly meaningful matches are a good thing, no matter what.

2) This system will help the US get the World Cup in 2022. I figure that this format change was what the smaller Caribbean countries asked for in return for Jack Warner and CONCACAF assuring the US its unanimous support behind the World Cup bid. No deal within FIFA or especially CONCACAF comes for free and this new format is the “fee” US Soccer was forced to pay in order to get CONCACAF to march as one. When the US does get the 2022 World Cup, this will be one of the reasons why.

3) If ESPN/Telemundo/Univision want to keep the USA-Mexico rivalry alive, then go out and find a business (or Carlos Slim) with big markets on both sides of the Rio Grande to sponsor a two match series of friendlies between the USA and Mexico. Call it the Wal-Mart Cup and, in order to ensure folks take this seriously, put up a big cash prize to the winners. Sure it’d be a purely made-for-TV spectacle, but what US-Mexico match isn’t?

4) With a weak first round-robin of matches under the new format, there are plenty of opportunities for the US to do some “evangelizing” in new/different venues. There are lots of great and increasingly even soccer-specific stadiums in markets that really might get excited for a US match coming to town, even if it’s against the British Virgin Islands. Don’t just stick these matches in existing hotbeds like New York, Philadelphia and LA, even though the stadium situations there are advantageous. Instead, US Soccer should go to non-MLS markets like Raleigh, Atlanta, Omaha, Albuquerque, Honolulu and other places that could provide the USA with a good home atmosphere.

If US Soccer is going to take a stand on one piece of CONCACAF idiocy, let it be this one

The nest of geniuses that is the CONCACAF Executive Committee apparently has looked at the ungodly, two-year, 18-match slog that is South American World Cup qualifying and said, let’s bring that here, but make it bigger.

Please, Sunil, I’ve defended you a lot, I’ve defended your non-oppositional approach to CONCACAF and FIFA. I’ve defended you against American soccer’s worst mouth breathers. But please, please, get together with the Mexicans and at least try to stop this from happening.

What appears to be on the agenda is a 22-match final round replacing the previous 16-game semi/final format. The final remaining 12 teams, after some kind of prelim round, would then play each other twice over an enormous two-year span. Let’s take a look a the 12 teams that made it to the third round of qualifying this time around.

  • Canada
  • Costa Rica
  • Cuba
  • El Salvador
  • Guatemala
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Jamaica
  • Mexico
  • Suriname
  • Trinidad
  • USA

This means, depending on your ichthyological definitions, at least 6-8 matches against minnows who really have no chance whatsoever qualifying for the World Cup. This includes countries like Cuba, Haiti, Suriname, and Canada (Hi Duane!). Only one of the six additional teams that would be allowed into this gluttonous final round could even be described as “bubble” teams that at least made it close in the third round (Jamaica). The rest are downright mediocre. Using the last cycle’s results as a guide again, they’re teams that averaged -7.5 goal difference with only one of them even finishing their 3rd round with an even zero GD (Jamaica, again).

This then emerges as fixture congestion of the worst sort. Here’s why this matters:

  • Player fatigue: With more and more of the US’ top players playing in Europe’s only league with a restorative winter break, US fans will face an England-style rash of injuries when our Premier League-based players hit the wall after all the additional travel and matches between England and CONCACAF. Also, with our players increasingly playing on teams further involved in deeper European runs, this just further adds strain through even more matches and more travel.
  • Dilution of product: If I’m US Soccer, I’m dreading the prospect of having to sell tickets to World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Suriname and Canada. On one hand, USSF wants to play these matches in big venues to increase revenue and increase the perception that qualifiers are “big deals,” on the other hand, you’re not going to get 20,000 fans for USA-Suriname at typical WCQ prices anywhere in the country. What makes the hex so much fun is that there isn’t all that much of it. It’s tense. It’s difficult. It’s a difficult combination between the proverbial marathon and sprint. This will remove much of the urgency out of many matches, especially road matches.
  • The politics of it: If there is any issue where the big boys of CONCACAF need to step up and stomp down, it’s this one. Mexico and the USA do not need their players called in for more travel and more near-meaningless matches. This would be a great chance for Gulati to show he actually has some heft within CONCACAF by making this plan go away. I understand the need to keep CONCACAF/FIFA feathers unruffled during a World Cup bid, but this is about the players here. As an aside, if I hear that the Canadian Federation is pushing for this, then I’m leading a field trip down to the embassy here in DC where we can all stomp on Sydney Crosby effigies, and burn Barenaked Ladies Albums.

But let’s not mince words as to why this is taking place. This is a move to placate members of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU), all of whom are fully paid members of Jack Warner’s kleptocracy within CONCACAF. Only once since 1998 has more than one CFU team even made to the final round (2002). So this is about giving the CFU minnows more TV money and more gate money through near-guaranteed matches with the US and Mexico. It doesn’t take a keen political eye to read between the lines of this quote by Jamaican official Horace Burrell.
See, it’s not even really about CFU teams actually qualifying for World Cups. It’s about them making as much money as possible.

As I said earlier, this would be a great opportunity to see if Gulati is capable of doing anything more than simply pledging fealty to his bosses in the increasingly less likely* hopes of another US-hosted World Cup.

* I’ll get to this in another post, but I think Gulati is about to get out-maneuvered and dramatically outspent by the Qataris.

Really high on de los Cobos signing

I am really happy to see an MLS team finally hire a Mexican coach full-time now that it’s looking like Chicago is going to hire Mexican Carlos de los Cobos from the Salvadorean NT. (Javier Ledesma was first Mexican to coach in MLS with Chivas, but as an interim coach). It’s never made sense to me that nobody in MLS has ever looked South to find an ambitious Mexican coach eager to move and coach in the US. I’ve always wanted someone in MLS to throw lots of money at Enrique Meza who has had amazing success even at less “pedigreed” clubs like Toluca and Pachuca.

De los Cobos will do though and, quite frankly, I hope he succeeds. He did some great things with El Salvador in getting them to the Hex for the first time since 1998, beating Mexico and Costa Rica while scaring the pants of the Americans in San Salvador. El Salvador is a small and poor country remember, with only roughly the population of Laos and Jordan.* Reaching the Hex and taking some scalps while there is a great accomplishment in today’s CONCACAF.

I think a successful team in Chicago, with Blanco, and coached by a Mexican (Does anyone know if he speaks English?) would be one hell of a ticket-selling machine in that area.

*Paraguay is roughly this size as well, which makes their recently great performances to stroll into the World Cup even more amazing.

The grapes could not be more sour for MLSTalk

Oh how I love the smell of crackpot ethnographic posturing in the morning.

Today, it’s none other than Kartik Krishnaiyer playing the part of soccer’s Bernard Lewis with his post, entitled, “Mexican Qualification for South Africa Borders on Illegitimate.”

Far be it from me to defend Mexico much, but that is complete nonsense. Mexico qualified for the World Cup because they fired an incompetent letch of a coach and replaced him with an experienced, talented countryman who was able to rally the troops and get them back to the level they typically play at.

As I have said time and time again. If you’re going to accuse a major sporting body of rank corruption, it really helps if you present a single scintilla of evidence to go with the claims. Isn’t MLS and the *Talk network of sites ostensibly a major and serious player in the coverage of soccer in the United States. They do that reputation a disservice when they just throw accusations out there like that without any evidence. Is it the worst offense against writing that I have seen this year? Uh no. Not even close. But let me put it this way, there is no way nonsense like this would end up on the flagship EPLTalk site, one which I read every day. I expect better, frankly.

Kartik throws so much shit up against the wall that it’s hard to unravel the legitimate points from the nonsense. So far I agree with this:

  • Concacaf refs are bad
  • Blanco is unsporting
  • Refs can be easily intimidated by crowd at Azteca

Okay, none of those points are hard to argue with. But there is just no evidence to point to a Warner/Mexico conspiracy to advance Mexico through to the final round of qualifying.

Oh those dishonest and sneaky Mexicans. I don’t even know where to start here. First of all, lots of teams in soccer dive. Italy dives. England dives. Spain dives. Americans dive. EVERYONE dives. It’s not culture that encourages soccer players to dive, it’s bad refereeing and a lack of a serious disincentive to do so. The problems aren’t cultural, they’re technical.

OMG! An MLSTalk article says that American soccer needs to be like England! I can’t believe it. That theory has never been postulated before. Allow me to pause to reel my tongue off the floor as I recover from the shock of this news.

Thank you.

I guess there is something about lots of goals and attacking flair that American fans just will not stand for. Entertainment? Not for us, Americans. Give us generic, honest white-guys pounding the ball up and down route 1. That’s the recipe to selling this game! “Give me Wolynec or give me death,” I say.

Do you want to know what contradicts our “national fabric?” It’s incompetence, not Mexicans. It’s not the “condition of being Mexican” that makes Blanco dive, it’s the fact referees and an inflexible rulebook practically begs him and other players to do so.

You want to fix diving – fix the rulebook. Sure Blanco is a jerk, but Blanco is a jerk not because he’s Mexican, but because the rulebook and feckless referees allow him to be. Further, discrediting this gibberish of an article is its complete ignorance of Blanco’s biggest issue – his continued propensity to violence on and off the field. If you want to hang Blanco for something, hang him for that, not diving.

It does no one any good to go around blaming unsporting play on the national character of Mexicans. Athletes are athletes and thus they will try and gain an edge, whether it’s through stealing signs, flopping in the lane, or gouging in the pile after a fumble. It’s up to our rulemakers and sports leadership to ensure that they make the risk/reward formula ensure players think twice before cheating.

Muttering on about how cheating in inherent in the character of Mexicans and all the other “Latins”* does no one any good whatsoever.

*And I use “Latin” in the traditional English commentator way, which can be defined as any player:

  • Whose name ends in a vowel
  • Who has ever had a tan
  • Who is from anywhere outside of England, Scotland, Scandinavia, or Germany

Fighting Talker Show 17 is on the air

On this episode, we discuss the USA’s win over El Salvador and what it will take for the US to qualify for South Africa 2010. We also review all the action across the World as Ghana and Brazil clinched their spots in the World Cup. We wrap up the show with a quick discussion of DC United’s loss in the US Open Cup Final and DC’s “route” to the playoffs.

Download this episode (right click and save)

And so, that went about as expected (US-MEX)

You mean, this isn’t the US team that was going to go down to Azteca and defeat the mightly Mexicans?

They hadn’t suddenly flipped a switch from the Confederations Cup and were hyped to do what no other US team had done before?

Nope.

The US scored first on a nice goal by Charlie Davies, then held the lead for all of 10 minutes, and finally gave in for good in the final 10, as Mexico won the CONCACAF World Cup 2010 qualifier between the nations, 2-1.

It was everything US-Mexico games at Azteca have always been:

* The US had some bright moments, and give credit for getting a goal – that was better than usual; and it was a great goal.
* People will whine and moan about the ref. But how was it different than any other game down there? You know what it’s going to be before the game even starts.
* There were the typical antics from a few Mexican players, lashing out at opponents, ganging up on a US player while fallen, etc., mostly unpunished – and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
* There were the typical antics from a few Mexican fans, throwing whatever they could find at American players.

It was, in a nutshell, everything we’ve always seen. The US played well in spurts, but the spurts were way too short. They responded to the challenge at times, but those times were way too brief. They defended as valiantly as they could deep in their own third of the field, but couldn’t do it for the time required.

Blame the ref, blame the stadium, blame the fans, blame global warming, blame Paula Abdul … the loss comes down to the fact that the US couldn’t defend adequately enough to win a road match against what is still a challenging and formidable opponent. When under pressure, the US often were able to clear the ball, but rarely were they ever to do so in a controlled fashion, finding teammates to start a counter attack.

And it’s a shame, because the Mexican back could be had with speedy breaks. The run Davies made and the pass he got for the goal were great, and the defense had no answer. He found open space later and barely missed heading home a cross.

But the US couldn’t set up those situations often enough because their defending wouldn’t allow them the ball. Then late on, it was even Donovan, slowed by fatigue, altitude, reading the Beckham book, whatever, who got wasted on the right flank in the buildup to Mexico’s winning goal.

I don’t blame coach Bob Bradley or any individual player. I don’t think there are other players in the pool who could have done better. Just about the best lineup went out there, and they got beat – pretty much rightfully so based on gameplay.

All the rest of it – the ref, the projectiles, the gamesmanship … that’s for people to argue about here on BigSoccer.

The US just wasn’t good enough today to succeed in this situation. They never have been – and they’re not there yet.

US disaster leaves my head spinning

PR isn’t supposed to matter this much.

Yet, here I sit, utterly mortified by the United States’ utter capitulation to Mexico in the Gold Cup final. No matter how much I keep telling myself it doesn’t matter or it hardly counted, I just cannot get over the fact those guys embarrassed themselves and the US program as a whole out there. I think my main takeaways from this match are these:

  1. This has become the summer where the US national team became so mainstream that it can no longer afford to send B/C-level teams to tournaments and risk the massive negative PR hit. In the past, the Gold Cup, Confederations Cup, etc. could pass by with nary a whisper other than on Bigsoccer, Spanish-language media, and FSC. Well, now that ESPN has discovered that soccer makes for good Summer programming, US Soccer has to learn to adjust to the fact that sending a squad like the ones we sent to the 2007 Copa America and 2009 Gold Cup is no longer a public perception risk they can take. ESPN has turned its bright lights on US Soccer and the media has followed. US Soccer had better put its shades on and evolve or else it won’t know what hit them come 2010.
  2. As American soccer has improved its ability to produce players with attributes like speed, strength, and even technique, it’s not producing players of character right now. What we saw out there in the second half yesterday was a void of talent and also a void of character and leadership. We’ve seen how hard it’s been to craft leadership and character out of our A-Team players and we’re only now starting to see evidence of it out of guys like Donovan, Bocanegra and Howard. As you look down the depth chart though, few of these players resemble leaders whatsoever. Maybe Jimmy Conrad would’ve helped but, regardless, literally everyone else folded like a cheap suit at the first sign of adversity. Is MLS developing a generation of second-bananas? Was yesterday at least partially a symptom of so many MLS teams relying on foreign talent to carry them creatively? (Here in DC during crunch times, we’ve grown very used to everyone not-named Olsen looking at Moreno, Gomez and Emilio and saying, “You do something great, I’m sure as hell not able to). I hope some smart people in American soccer are wondering why that a league can produce players of great physical and technical ability seem to produce so few with the kind of leadership skills also required to succeed at the highest level.