It’s easy to say Gulati should go, but is it the right thing for American soccer?

As one of Sunil Gulati’s chief defenders over the years, I think I ought to come out of hiding to discuss the near-majority position of American soccer fans (at least those on Twitter and Bigsoccer), that US Soccer head Sunil Gulati must “go” for his role in the US 2022 World Cup bid failure.

Here’s what I think. The question of whether Gulati should go is almost irrelevant – Gulati recently won his second four-year term and will not face the voters until February 2014. What is relevant is the question of who would replace him. Supposing he did go, who would replace him? Merely saying “anybody” isn’t a real answer.

Here’s the other situation, until FIFA changes its bidding rules to allow the same confederation to host twice-in-a-row, the USA is now the enormous favorite to host the World Cup in 2026. Australia, China, and the whole of Europe (w/Russia hosting in 2022) are out, leaving the US the limited potentially opposition of South America (more to come on them), Africa, and erm, New Zealand.

Now, if you believe the rumors out of FIFA (and my good friend Jon Tannenwald did on Dan Levy’s podcast recently), FIFA wants the centennial World Cup of 2030 to go to Argentina and Uruguay, the two finalists of the first ever World Cup. That almost literally leaves Mexico, New Zealand, Egypt, and Morocco as opponents and that’s only if you accept that FIFA would go to a second Arabic-speaking country in three tournaments before returning the USA.

Here’s what all this means. How big of risk is it to chuck Gulati and his allies out of US Soccer when so many of them have the personal contacts, lessons learned and maybe even dirt on FIFA members that you’d want to win the World Cup in 2026? Is dumping Gulati before 2026 is selected not a case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” While canning Gulati would certainly feel good after the 2022 loss, it doesn’t change the fact that he and his staff’s experience in the process makes them more valuable if you’re going to try again in 2026. If you thought 2022 was a “slam dunk,” then 2026 is setting up as one of those Blake Griffin monstrosities.

[ame=””%5DYouTube – Dunk of the Night (11/20/2010): Blake Griffin’s Monster Slam Dunk on Timofey Mozgov[/ame]

Yeah, like that.

By the way, if I have to name the biggest mistake by Gulati’s World Cup bid team it’d be this one. I think they got overexcited and started talking up the bid too early. Instead, they should’ve kept themselves and the rumor mill quiet and once they saw that Qatar and its billions were going after it, simply let Asia have 2022 and possibly even support Qatar in that effort. The problem is that once it became clear that US was bidding, they couldn’t be seen dropping out because of Qatar, it would’ve made US Soccer look bad and would’ve set off the collusion alarms even earlier than they ended up going off.

But getting back to my point, there’s no doubt that Gulati has been weakened politically by this loss. Even I, as a defender of his, will admit that. But behind him is a total void. Who do you want running US Soccer. (And just as importantly, who would want to?)

That’s my point.

Until there is a qualified, motivated figure standing “in opposition” to Gulati, all this talk of him resigning doesn’t matter one iota. Elections aren’t won by “Mr. Else, Anybody,” they’re won by people. And until that someone emerges publicly, all the anti-Gulati noise is just that – noise.

The $50M ChampionsWorld lawsuit against MLS and USSF allowed to proceed

Charlie Stillitano just won’t go away

Remember ChampionsWorld? It was an organization setup by disgraced former MetroStars executive Charlie Stillitano to promote and organize friendlies between European and South American teams. After three years of promoting these matches, it went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Since 2006, it has been engaged in a lawsuit against US Soccer and MLS claiming $50 million in damages and now, according to Sports Business Journal, an Illinois judge has allowed the suit to proceed into court with the case starting as early as Spring 2011.

According to the SBJ piece here are the basics:
Now, before I go on, allow me to add that I am not a lawyer, but it appears to me that the basic question is whether the Ted Stevens Olympic Sports Act allows for US Soccer to charge fees to promoters when the events don’t immediately relate to the “Olympics, Paralympics, and Pan-American Games.” Now, after reading the law (PDF) and specifically the part “Granting sanction for amateur athletic competitions,” it looks like US Soccer is granted the sole ability to sanction and charge fees for competitions held inside the US. But the law does say that the fee must be “reasonable and nondiscriminatory.”

If the intent of the lawsuit is to challenge the USSF’s exclusive ability to sanction soccer matches held within the United States, then I suspect it’s fairly doomed. That ability of US Soccer was one of the secondary elements settled when MLS players’ lawsuit failed a few years back.

Thus, that appears to leave open the question of whether the fees were “reasonable and nondiscriminatory.” I must admit, I have no idea what “reasonable” means in a legal context.

What do folks out there in comment-land think? If anyone out there is a lawyer, I’d be curious to see how you think this lines up.

UPDATE: Here is the ruling from the judge. This looks to me like ChampionsWorld is going after the sort of inherent anti-trust exemption given to national sports governing bodies by the Olympic Sports Act. I find it hard to see how the ruling in the MLS players lawsuit doesn’t stop this one cold, but I’d like to hear from those more adept in reading legal opinions than I am.

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.

World Cup 2010 (Day 18): Class Wins Out …

… Other than the whole FIFA thing regarding replays in stadiums, and Aaron’s goal to shove Jürgen Klinsmann into a broom closet at Soccer House and keep him as far from coaching the US Men’s National Team as possible , there really wasn’t much out of the ordinary today. Two games at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and two deserved and expected winners.

Brazil ousted Chile, 3-0, in the afternoon match today, a performance that did nothing to quell the thoughts of those now sure that Brazil are going to stroll to their sixth World Cup title when this whole thing is over. While Germany were impressive against England, and no one has gotten so much as a draw against Argentina and the Netherlands yet, I can see where those folks are coming from.

Brazil may not flick the ball around with no regard for humanity like they did in the old days. Their play may be a bit more controlled now. But once on the break, Brazil is on the jazz. Any opening, any chance to get bust out 4-on-3 or something similar, and to put the attack in overdrive, and they’re gone. Their third goal today was a beauty, featuring a wonderful run forward on the ball by Ramires, beating three Chilean defenders in the process. Ramires then laid off an easy pass to his left which Robinho absurdly tucked away to produce the final margin of victory.

However, the flash isn’t the only impressive thing to me about Brazil. Their defense has been something to watch. It’s not that it’s always perfect. There are openings and sometimes players aren’t marked as tightly as they should be. But they really are putting a team effort into it. Numerous times during this tournament, I’ve seen opposing teams work to get somebody open around the 18, thinking they were going to have a clear shot. They are interrupted, however, by a Brazilian midfielder dropping back to defend, putting extra pressure on the ball from a different angle, and usually, taking it away. Traditionally, it’s not something you’d usually associate with Brazil, but if they are going to put in that kind of effort in their own end of the field, combined with what we know they are capable of at the other, then the machine might not be stopped.

Which would be bad news, of course, for my pick to win this tournament, the Netherlands. They earned a 2-1 win today over Slovakia, the final margin coming only when Slovakia’s Robert Vittek slotted home a penalty kick on what literally was the last action of the match. The Dutch still have some work to do to reach top form. At times, Slovakia seemed somewhat comfortable on the ball and while they rarely threatened, such a strategy won’t serve the Netherlands well in their upcoming quarterfinal vs. Brazil.

Some may even argue that it doesn’t really matter how the Dutch are playing right now, because Brazil is just going to be too good. That may end up being true – but for once in a major tournament, where I usually root for chaos once my team is eliminated, I was actually happy both favorites lived up to their billing today. Two of the four quarterfinals have the potential to be absolute classics, when you throw in the Argentina-Germany matchup. And the other two, Uruguay-Ghana and the pending battle between tomorrow’s winners (Spain/Portugal vs. Japan/Paraguay) hold interest on a number of levels, as well.

There is still a hope that some top-class soccer will win out in this tournament, over the officiating and other issues that have gotten in the way so far. I know for me personally, Netherlands-Brazil is a match that will be appointment viewing on Friday.

Spain 2-1 Portugal
Japan* 1-1 Paraguay

* This is the first game of the tournament where I can honestly say I have no feel for how it’s going to turn out. So, I’ll go out on a limb, and predict the first penalty shootout of this World Cup, with Japan prevailing.

Today’s Record: 2-0.
Tournament Record: 30-24.

PS: Aaron and I have posted a good bit over the last 24 hours, but if you haven’t tired of reading our thoughts, make sure you check out Aaron’s roundup of his favorite international goals of the past 20 years or so, and jump into the conversation to have your say.

I promise, I’m done writing for the day. … Thanks for taking the time to read.

FIFA’s Fix to Officiating? Embargo the Evidence

In response to Sunday’s incident that saw Carlos Tevez score a goal when he had been offside as the ball was played his way, giving Argentina the lead in a Round of 16 match they eventually won, 3-1, over Mexico, FIFA today produced its comprehensive response.

The answer? Hide the evidence so nobody – not the players, the coaches, or perhaps most importantly, the fans, know what the hell is going on.

FIFA announced today that it has instructed stadium operators in South Africa not to show replays of controversial plays for the rest of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Instead of taking steps to fix the issues that are leading to all the key blown calls we’ve seen in this tournament (the Lampard no goal; the Edu no goal; the Tevez goal, etc.), FIFA has decided it would be better to make sure that no one knows exactly what happened, and that will somehow make the game experience a better one.

FIFA is apparently responding to the reaction of Mexican players after seeing a replay of Tevez’s goal on a large monitor in the stadium yesterday. There was no doubt Tevez was offside, something clear to everyone who saw it, save for the assistant referee. Even when questioned by head referee Roberto Rosetti, the AR seemed to have no clue about what he’d just seen. He had much the same mystified look on his face as Koman Couliabaly did when he disallowed Edu’s goal for the US vs. Slovenia. Incensed, the Mexican team surrounded the AR and Rosetti as they talked, followed by a gathering of Argentina players when it appeared that the goal might be disallowed.

It stood, of course, and Argentina went on to win handily. But FIFA’s response to this situation, and the others we’ve seen before it, is asinine. Rather than having the sack to stand up and fix the problems by whatever technology or means are available, FIFA would rather perpetrate a lie to those in the stadium, telling players, coaches, and fans … “Move along! Nothing more to see here. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.”

It’s not as if other sports don’t do this. I’ve been to NHL, MLS, and NFL games where controversial events weren’t replayed. But at least in the case of the NHL and NFL, they are constantly taking measures to try and improve the very officiating that often leads to the controversy.

FIFA will do no such thing. They’d rather smirk through the notoriety and bad publicity that such events provide than have these plays actually dealt with correctly, ensuring a valid and fair game result.

Instead of validity, FIFA would rather you not even know what the hell you just saw. They want you fooled, not informed. It’s enough to turn “The Beautiful Game,” into the “The Beautiful Fraud.”

Our sport is hard enough to defend to the Neanderthal jacknuts that come out every 4 years at this time and feel the need to protect their manhood by declaring to the world that they aren’t watching the game for whatever stupid reason – as if the rest of us give a damn. But unfortunately, FIFA’s actions of late make the sport all the more indefensible.

I wonder what call will be the next one to be horribly botched.

I don’t know the answer; but safe to say, if you’re in the stadium when it happens … you’ll never know.

World Cup bids, England, Jozy, Fabregas and more

Get to know the Qatari skyline, I suspect you’ll be seeing it a lot of it in 2022.

So I head out to the Other Banks for a bit of R&R and I return to find a world where something positive (and even lucky) happened in Washington sports and where England now views its World Cup bid as a smoldering pile of metal.

Let’s start with last week’s squabble started by Bill’s post saying that the US World Cup bid is not nearly the “favorite” that many folks here (and elsewhere) have pegged it for.

I’ve actually come around to Bill’s side here. I always have thought Qatar, and its near limitless sums of cash, would be a legitimate opponent, but now with news that Blatter is openly opining for the Gulf and Qatar to get the World Cup, it’s hard to believe that the US can finish any better than second. Throwing Bill Clinton at the bid is nice, but after reading this by longtime FIFA observer Mihir Bose, I suspect Blatter has quietly told Qatari officials, including the powerful potential rival Mohamed Bin-Hammam, that Qatar gets its World Cup as long as Bin Hammam doesn’t oppose Blatter for the FIFA Presidency. When you look at at Qatar’s combination of unlimited money and political leverage, it’s hard to see how even big shots like the USA, Australia, and Japan had a chance.

Moving on to England, its bid has been imploded by a sting done by the Mail on Sunday catching Lord Triesman, the head of the bid and Chief Exec of the FA casually making corruption accusations against Spain and Russia to a woman whom he allegedly had previous had an affair with. Obviously, the politics and optics of this are terrible for England and with smart people like Henry Winter saying the bid is doomed, I’m inclined to agree. Amongst FIFA, and within the greater non-English speaking soccer community, England has to overcome the high barrier of perceived arrogance. Things like this only go to make that perception even greater.

Allow me for a moment to talk about the Mail on Sunday’s responsibility in all this. Why the hell did they choose to sting Triesman about this? It’s clearly entrapment and entrapment with no clear purpose. The sting didn’t expose any corruption or any massive news. All it did was embarrass a public figure. The accusations were not in the public interest in any possible way and just completely and utterly pointless. I’m glad to see that English opinion is coming down on the Mail.
The FA and England will never win anything on or off the field until two things happen.

  1. The Premier League reduces the number of fixtures top clubs play and institutes a winter break so that English players don’t enter major tournaments is a state of physical exhaustion.
  2. The English tabloid media decides that there is more money to be made by allowing England and the FA to conduct its business rather than through conducting stings and concocting scandals in order to destroy the England team and those around it.

Jozy’s confidence is exactly what the US needs.

Sticking with England, if only peripherally, I love the story out of Yahoo that had Jozy Altidore telling David Beckham that the US is going to beat England 3-1.
“I saw Becks there and I had to go over and tell him what is going to happen in South Africa,” Altidore said in an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Sports. “I made sure he knows how it’s going to be without him playing – USA 3, England 0.
I agree with Jozy entirely. A little bit of this attitude could help the US a lot come South Africa. When the US has tended to be embarrassed is when they have come out in awe of their opponent such as last summer against Italy or pretty much the entirety of France 98. All of the reasons people used to give about why the US so often appeared star-struck or terrified when on the biggest stage are gone now. Our players play in Europe just like they do. Our players play on the biggest stages just like they do. Our players have played with and even beaten the best in the world just like they have. Screw bulletin board material, we want our guys believing they can play with England and every other team they’re going to face at the World Cup.

Flipping over the to the club game, I’m not surprised for one moment that Cesc Fabregas has asked to leave Arsenal for Barcelona. If I were him, I would too. Fabregas wants to win trophies and with Wenger either refusing or unable to build a trophy-winning team around him, Cesc ought to go to Barcelona where he won’t after worry about idiot goalkeeping or cut-rate defenders. I agree entirely when the Independent’s James Lawton says that Wenger is to blame for not providing Fabregas a supporting cast worthy of his talent.
Adios Cesc, Arsenal and Wenger had its chance and instead they failed both you and Arsenal’s fans.

Finally, I leave you with this oddity from the Gaffer on EPLTalk.

First of all, there are lots of great bars where fans can and do watch the US. But what makes the venue isn’t the shit on the walls or size of the TV, or the food being served. It’s not about the music being played or the cleanliness of the bathrooms, it’s about the act and the joy of gathering together to watch the game. I’ve watched games underneath photos of the Irish hunger strikers, while eating saltenas, and on jumbotrons in stadiums with thousands of other fans. I’ve watched them broadcast in English, in Spanish, and even for a few minutes back in 1998 in Arabic. Call me a luddite, but in the end, all I need is a working TV, some kind of access to beer, and some other US fans around me. Though would it be too much to ask to not have the stupid ones wondering why John O’Brien isn’t still playing seated right by me?

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.