Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Why I Still Write About Sports at Times Like This

It's been a hard fall for me to write in these spaces. Every evening I try to sit down to write, I find a dozen other things to do. There are papers to grade and recommendations to submit and people to actually be married to. So while I love to write, and even though I want to write, it slips through my fingers more often than I like.

This past week, I had the time, I had the energy, but every time I opened up this page, I stopped and stared. And as the feeds from North Minneapolis streamed into my phone, as people I love and trust engaged in louder and louder protests for more pressing matters than quality sports analysis, I couldn't find it in myself to write.

So as I sat in front of the screen, I could think of nothing to say that wasn't horribly, dreadfully irrelevant. And when I went in to work, to discuss issues of the day with young people who lived blocks from the fourth precinct, who spent all night raising their voices for justice, all I could think was how insignificant it would be to write down potential snarky nicknames for Byung-Ho Park or warmed over jokes about how I liked St. Vincent and the Grenadines better when it was Bill Murray and a light syrup.

What reason could I have for publishing my millions of minor notions about these silly little games, while a senior boy--a young man I've worked with for four years, an academic on track for college and a major in architecture, a person I would trust to rule justly and fairly as Grand Poobah of the Universe-- while this friend of mine confessed his intense fear that the last thing he would ever see would be the somebody's boots on the curb, and the last thing he would hear would be the cocking of a gun, as he lay on the street with his hands behind his back?

The truth is, I (and many people like me) have the privilege of turning off the news, of tuning out the rhetoric, of tending to our hobbies and interests, because we don't live near the fourth precinct or worry that our lives will end with a bang and a brief, perfunctory, utterly unsurprised comment on the local news.

It's particularly easy for those of us who love sports to see successful people of color in our community, to cheer for their successes, wish them the best and forget that people like them in our community are struggling. We can bleed purple with Adrian and Teddy and dream on the futures of Byron, Miguel and Byung-Ho.  We can debate the upside of Towns and Wiggins and marvel at the cross-cultural partnerships of Ibson and Alhassan and remind everybody that we loved Maya Moore and Simone Augustus before it was cool to do so. We can, and do, hold our local heroes close whatever their background, even though--as fans in the stands--we have always looked more like Killebrew and Mikan than Hunter and Garnett.

But what's dangerous is if we start to feel that, because we know the men (and women) who wear jerseys emblazoned with Minnesota, we don't need to know the men and women, the fathers and mothers, the sons and daughters who walk the same streets, work in the same buildings, and attend the same institutions that we do.

If we confine ourselves to watching the games from the comfort of our couches and our big screens, we miss the joy of watching together. If we insulate our passions to the podcasts on our headphones or isolate our opinions to small talk with family members and friends, we turn our very public institutions into extremely private pleasures. But, if we insist on sharing our loves, if we make a point of socializing around the colors and emblems and players that we adopt as "one of us," then these silly little games can unite us in a way that few other things can.

Right now, with the ways we consume sports changing rapidly, it's easy to isolate ourselves in our fandoms. And for those who attend games on a regular basis, it's even easier to forget that what you see on the field or the court or the ice isn't reflected in the stands (even adjusted for our metropolitan demographics).

As mere fans, there's little we can do. No championship trophy is going to unite us all or solve the systemic problems that have left so many so desperate for change. We can't have one good conversation at a sports bar, or over the water cooler and end injustice.

What we can do is be open. What we can do is to talk about what we love and learn what others think. What we can do is use sports as the icebreaker, as the gateway, as the conversation starter, to come together and build a better community.

We might have to go out of our way to find new opinions. We may need to visit a bar on Lake Street rather than in Northeast to watch a Champions' League match. We may need to share more than a nod with a neighbor or coworker who wears team gear after a big win. We can invite them to watch the game on Sunday (or Saturday, or whatever day). We can take an extra ticket that a friend flaked on and try to pass it on to someone different rather than just resell it. We can donate to the team funds that make attending a game easier for others. These things won't bring justice or peace, but they will bring us a little closer together.

I talk about sports, even at times like these, not because I want a distraction from work or the worries of the day. I talk about sports because it reminds me of how great it is to be part of something bigger than myself: bigger than my job, bigger than my worries. Sports reminds me of what it is to be part of a community of fans, and how much better we are together than we are alone.

I'm not sure when I'll have time to write again, or if it'll be about sports when I do, but I know I'll ask the boy from over North--the one who still wears a Mauer jersey through every snorting laugh from his friends--what he thinks of the bullpen for next year; I'll ask the girl from Lake Street who moons over Ronaldo if she's seen Christian Ramirez up close yet. And after we talk about that, we'll talk about the next thing, and the next, and the next, until we stop being two individuals talking and start being a pair of fans in community.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Shooting From the Hip: The Western Hemisphere (CONCAF/CONMEBOL)

With this summer's confederation cups wrapped up, International competition is about ready to refocus on qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Most people won't pay much attention to these matches for another two years...but those people aren't crazy Montanans (thankfully, or I'd have no niche market at all).

Since the qualifying draws were held two weeks ago in Russia, I've been positively deliberate in creating these predictions (oh, who am I kidding, I made the predictions on the day and only just took the time to write it).

We'll start our predictions in the Western Hemisphere with predictions for rounds three and four of CONCACAF (which will be wrapped up next year) and the single round of CONMEBOL (which won't end until the fall of 2017).

August 31st-September 15 2015
Curacao V. El Salvador
Canada V. Belize
Grenada V. Haiti
Jamaica V. Nicaragua
St. Vincent and the Grenadines V. Aruba
Antigua and Barbuda V. Guatemala

The Favorites:
In CONCACAF the safest way to predict things is to count on the higher ranked teams moving on, chalk talks in North America, with the lone possible exception at matches in Central America.  Haiti's recent form (including a game performance against the US and a draw against China--in China) has served them well enough to make them a heavy favorite over Grenada, and Jamaica's Gold Cup Silver Medal and Caribbean Cup victory certainly gives them momentum over Nicaragua. This draw also plays to those groups with GuatemalaEl Salvador and Canada all facing minnows both of size and of history.

Some would say I cheer for McCaulay
and Belize because I like to mock Canada...
those people are right.
The Darkhorses: The most prolific scorer in recent CONCACAF qualifier history is Deon McCaulay who Minnesota fans may know best from a fourteen cap, three goal performance with the Atlanta Silverbacks last year. His 11 goals made him a co-golden boot winner from qualification alongside little known strikers Luis Suarez and Robin Van Persie. Some would point out that this is more a reflection of the paucity of CONCACAF defenses and the lack of a second option in Belize, but the truth is somewhat in between as McCaulay is indeed a force up top and a key difference maker for the Jaguars, even if it is about to set him up against a stout Canadian defense.

The only oddball match up is between underwhelming sides from St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Aruba where the "Vincy Heat" ceded 6 goals and needed away goals to pass Guyana and after a year off the field, Aruba came up goalless in two matches against Barbados, relying on Barbados disqualifying themselves to advance.

El Salvador; Belize; Haiti; Jamaica; St. Vincent; Guatemala

November 2015-September 2016
Top Two Teams from Each Group Qualify for the Hexagon
GROUP A: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize

Never gets old...unless you're the
Mexican FA
Favorites: Despite the run-of-the-mill (by team Mexico standards) coaching drama, selection drama and performance anxiety, El Tri is still a team to beat especially within CONCACAF. The days of Giovanni Dos Santos and Javier Hernandez as the heralds of a supposed "Golden Generation" have faded, but they still represent some of the youngest talent on a veteran Mexico squad. As ever, the only thing that can get in Mexico's way, is Mexico. 

Dark Horse: Though they are often the chosen whipping boys for beefier sides in North and South America, El Salvador boasts a young and growing squad that continues to cut its teeth in foreign leagues. My fellow Minnesotans may recognize Midfielders Dustin Corea (Edmonton), Richard Menjivar (Tampa Bay) and 24-year-old captain Andres Flores (New York Cosmos). "La Selecta" may be peaking at just the right time, particularly with a mishmash of a Honduras squad that has been erratic and best and dismal at worst since their qualification for last June's World Cup.

GROUP B: Costa Rica, Panama, Haiti, Jamaica

Favorite: Los Ticos set the world on fire with their quarterfinal appearance last summer, and nearly set themselves on fire to protest the match fixy unfortunate refereeing in their quarterfinal against Mexico. Truth be told the last three months have not been kind to Costa Rica, with scuffles against Panama, Colombia and Spain, and lackluster draws against Mexico, Jamaica and El Salvador.  Still, the talent and recent success of the team makes them the team to beat in Group B.

Dark Horse: It's a shame really, because I can talk myself into all three of the other squads cruising through qualification in Group C and having a better than average chance in Group A. While I've talked before about Jamaica's defense being its new found key to success (a 370 minute goalless stretch during the Gold Cup was instrumental in their silver medal), and though Haiti is an intriguing squad of international vagabonds (two play in NASL, two in India, and two in Cyprus), I think it's worth noting the perennially, unregarded Panama squad that earned its third place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup--and maybe even more thanks to the aforementioned idiotic questionable refereeing of any game Mexico played in. In Panama's last six confederation tournaments they've made the semis in five and they had the pole position for World Cup Qualifying in 2013 until a miraculous bicycle kick pushed Mexico on. Only one of those three teams will hit the Hexagon, and until proven otherwise I think it's Panama.
The Panamaian Version of Morten Andersen

GROUP C: USA, Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent/Grenadines, Guatemala

Favorite: U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Seriously, who cares if we can't figure out a back line, create consistent service or find a second goal scoring option behind an aging Clint Dempsey, we're America dad blast it and we will win this group!! U-S-A!! U-S-A!! Klinsmann for Chancellor!!

Also, a Guatemala win is a win for
70s FA logos!
Dark Horse: Despite the Soca Warriors recent offensive outburst (built largely through veteran striker Kenwyne Jones) their swings in play (they lost to Curacao in May but won their Gold Cup group), make them an ideal target for an upset minded squad. Enter Guatemala (La Furia Azul) who have balanced veteran strikers with a young and energetic midfield many of whom play together at CSD Comunicaciones, the dominant force in the Guatemalan league. 

HEXAGON QUALIFIERS: Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, USA, Guatemala

September 4th, 2015-October 10th 2017
South America does it simply: All ten teams play each other in a standard round-robin league style. The top four advance, fifth place takes on Oceania's best team (*HINT* IT'S NEW ZEALAND!) for a play-in (*HINT* THE SOUTH AMERICAN TEAM IS GOING TO SUCCEED!!)

Favorites: There's little point in rehashing how dominant Argentina has become, nor how quietly consistent Chile is and how ineffably promising Colombia appears. Those three squads, even with two years and 18 matches to play, look like easy qualifiers. 

Yes, Enner, I'm excited about your chances too!
Dark Horse: The far bigger drama is whether any team can snipe a spot from the aging giants of the South American game: Brazil and Uruguay. While Dunga's Brazil has been a Bizarro-World version of the Selacao that the world came to know and fear (and even the methodical branding machine that made Ronaldo's crew so ubiquitous), Uruguay has seen their recent success pull a quiet nucleus farther apart on the world stage making reunions and consistency difficult. The recent Copa America showed just how easily local minnows can outperform their higher profile neighbors, with Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru each offering a surprise. But CONMEBOL qualifying isn't a sprint, it's a marathon, and the only squad that looks equipped at that task (despite their own lackluster performance in Chile this summer) is Ecuador. With both big game experience and a habit of consistently seeking out tougher competition for the next generation to compete with, Los Amarillos have a solid chance to surprise, particularly if players like Jonathan Gonzalez and Carlos Gruezo see greater opportunities in the upper levels of foreign leagues to build their confidence with the corps of a national team based in country.

PREDICTED AUTO QUALIFIERS: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Brazil

Friday, June 19, 2015

Happy Trails 194-185 (PLUS a rankings update)

As the summer international season is upon us, some heavyweight hardware is going to be handed out soon. The Gold Cup, the Copa America, the U-20 World Cup, and, most pressingly for many American's the Women's World Cup.

But tucked away in the far corners of the World Soccer stage there are other matches being played out, long before the biggest piece of hardware can be bestowed. We've completed another round of World Cup qualification, and much as we'd like to revel in the matches of the future, it's also important to recognize those who have fallen by the way side.

First, a bit of business. In keeping with rewarding teams that actually play matches, we'll be post-facto upgrading our last set of eliminated squads to make room for another team that was unceremoniously bounced without even playing a match. So Congrats Bahamas you actually went out in 207th place rather than 208th!

Your new 208th placed finisher
208: Sampa Jumpai , Indonesia (2014 Finish #139; -69)
President Widodo doesn't
give two figs for FIFA's "rules"
Why they lost: Drowned out by the cacophony of noise around Blatter's reelection and other officials suddenly at risk of massive Federal investigations was the news that Indonesia had been eliminated from the World Cup. At fault, the Sports and Youth Ministry's attempt to terminate the Indonesian Premier League Season and the National Soccer Federation that ran it because of the inclusion of Presebaya Surabya and Arema Indonesia (two clubs whose finances and operation had been called into question and were precluded from play lest they deny players/coaches their salaries and thereby incentivize match fixing). Surprisingly, Indonesia's president Joko Widodo responded with a clear cut "who gives a damn?" "this will help us focus on improving our domestic game." FIFA has very clear rules about preventing any kind of governmental interference, in order to protect players and officials from political scraps, that it also positions officials and executives as above local laws is just an added bonus.

What we'll miss: The team sheets released before they were banned showed that Indonesia was planning on bringing up 6 debutantes (along with 6 others who had 5 or fewer caps). They may not have had much of a chance of making it to Russia, but this international cycle was a critical time in the development of the next wave in Indonesian football, so, this plan to revamp the domestic game had better freakin' work.

194: Bon Swe, Dominica (2014 Finish: #158; -36)
Shirt badge/Association crestWhy they lost: As the lowest ranked team going into the second round, Dominica was always a long shot, but facing top ranked (at this stage) Canada was particularly brutal. When Canuck Keeper Milan Borjan was ejected twelve minutes from time (using his hands outside the box), Dominica still couldn't capitalize and a limp second leg in Toronto sealed their fate as 6-0 losers on aggregate.

What we'll miss: We are firm fans of any organization that uses cartoon parrot heads as some sort of intimidation tactic. For that reason alone, you will be missed Dominica.

193: Hasta la vista, Dominican Republic (2014 Finish: #148; -45)
Why they lost: Los Quisqueyanos can't seem to find much traction on the pitch (as opposed to the diamond), and while there's a major league training/scouting service seemingly every other city on the island, the football pitches are few and far between. Still, they were easy favorites against Belize, but their defense looked utterly out classed by the dangerous Deon McCauly who buried three goals en route to a four goal margin for Belize.

What we'll miss: The future is bright for 19 year old Geremy Lombardi, who equalized in the first leg (before the team ultimately lost on...surprise, surprise...a McCaulay goal), less than 30 minutes into his Dominican Republic career (note, that goal is also the only one the DR scored). The Inter Milan youth talent switched national allegiance after 11 showings as an Italian U-16 and U-17 talent. If he could bring some of Italy's excellent infrastructure, he might make the national team stronger still.

192: Tot Gauw, Aruba (2014 Finish #192; No Change)
Why they lost: Despite the presence of 14 players in various levels of the Dutch league throughout the team sheet, Aruba couldn't develop a goal against Barbados. (Possibly because Barbadans carried the national symbol of tridents with them onto the field--though that's a total guess.)

What we'll miss: The eternal dream of being able to sing "Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I want to take you" with a group of ultra fans at a World Cup qualifier between the Beach Boys' rivals.
Note, if FIFA decides to crack the whip against Barbados for accidentally fielding a player with two yellow cards on his billet, this could all change.

191: Doei, Suriname (2014 Finish # 152; -39)
Why they lost: It's rare that I get to blame legislation rather than performance, but that's exactly what I'll do! Suriname has a rule that players who move overseas are not allowed to return to play for the national team, that rule has deprived them of the chance of having stars like Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, and Patrick Kluivert on their squad in the past. A bill to change this rule was encouraged by the national federation, but not voted on in time, ergo, the all local national team was run out on to the field, and then run off the pitch.
Seriously, his name is

What we'll miss: Both their elimination from the cup and the stall in legislation means that we're still a ways away from seeing center back Danzell Gravenberch suit up. The former Ajax Youth and Dutch U-19 player may be the team's best hope, and he also has the name "DANZELL GRAVENBERCH!"

190: So Long, St. Kitts and Nevis (2014 Finish #151; -39)
Why they lost: The Sugar Boyz went into their second lang in San Salvador tied at 2-2...the 4-1 thrashing at the hands of El Salvador was all they wrote and left St. Kitts ending on a whimper rather than a bang.

What we'll miss: Was the 69th minute goal in the second leg from Atiba Harris the last we'll see of him in the green and red? The most travelled MLS striker in memory has been a national team talisman for 12 years, he'll be 34 at the time of the next qualifiers. And if this is the end, get used to seeing St. Kitts down at the bottom of these lists for a long while.

189: Buh-bye, Bermuda (2014 Finish #146; -53)
Why they lost: A gritty nil-nil draw in Guatemala, set up Bermuda for a prime chance at the upset as they returned home. According to the twitter feeds of the suprisingly concerned Alejandro Bedoya and Mix Diskerud,  there were at least three Guatemala goals fishily disallowed and a black out in the stands, but Bermuda still lost and the cries of foul were easily shrugged off.

What we'll miss: Hudderfield's Nakhi Wells may be the most prominent up and coming Bermudan, but we hope to see more of the young keeper Dale Eve (he who ceded the winning goal). Eve was a 16 year old prodigy, sought after by both Man City and Stoke, and has since been on a ceaseless journey through the depths of non-league squads like Congleton Town.

188: Hasta Manana, Puerto Rico (2014 Finish #147; -41)
Why they lost: Despite a 1-0 victory in the first leg at Bayamon, Los Huracanes Azules couldn't seal the deal in Grenada, losing 2-0 with a clear difference made by defender Joan Morales, whose own goal added to Grenada's tally and removed any chance of penalty kicks and further good fortune.

What we'll miss: Not much, in fact we may end up seeing more Puerto Rican players without them heading off for national team duty,especially now that Minnesota fans are guaranteed to see the Puerto Rico Islanders stop off at the NSC in Blaine (at least for the next couple of seasons)
Please, please let this be Carmelo's next career move

187: See Ya, St. Lucia (2014 Finish: #157; -30)
Why they lost: If Puerto Rico's defeat was difficult, St. Lucia's defeat was crushing. Staked to a two goal advantage by a 3-1 victory, they had a comfortable edge ten minutes from time after a Kurt Frederick penalty made it 4-2 on aggregate. Then it all came undone, including two goals in 5 minutes of added time to give Antigua and Barbuda an official 5-4 win on aggregate, though they likely could have stopped one before to win on "Away Goals" (put in quotations because both matches were in Antigua).

What we'll miss: Honestly, I'll miss not having St. Lucia around to ask questions like "okay, seriously, did you legitimately lose this match or what...because this is crazy pants." Or to put that in terms Jack Warner would understand, "I'll miss not being able to rumor monger and conspiracy theorize".

186: Adios, Cuba (2014 Finish: #127; -59)
Why they lost: It's not always possible to pinpoint one player for being at fault, but Cuba's stunning defeat at the hands of Patrick Kluivert helmed Curacoa may come down to keeper Sandy Sanchez, who yielded the equalizer to Papito Merencia, and thirty minutes later was ejected from the match for legitimately fouling a Curacao striker. As Cuba pushed for a desperately needed winner in driving rain, they were stymied (and likely would have appreciated an 11th man on the field)
Sanchez in happier times (being beaten by the Comos)
What we'll miss: Now that we're normalizing diplomatic relations with everybody's favorite socialist island paradise/repressive regime, it's a shame that we won't get a chance to see Yanquis versus Cubanos on the pitch.

185: Goodbye, Guyana (2014 Finish: #129; -56)
Why they lost: Matched against St. Vincent and Grenadines, Guyana had no shortage of offense, burying 6 goals over two matches. The defense was more problematic as Chris Nurse (he of the Carolina Railhawks) couldn't stem the tide of six other goals coming into their net. Since Guyana scored two on the road, and St. Vincent scored four on the road...viola! Guyana is gone.

What we'll miss: We've plumped for the Golden Jaguars in the past, and as ever, we'll miss the chance to dram of a future where we own a real Golden Jaguar.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Why I Still Watch International Soccer

For fans of the beautiful game, it seemed like days like these would never come.

Soccer is front page news. It's being tweeted about, blogged about, photoshopped and meme-ified like nothing else in sports.

Of course, the majority of the soccer news is about just how corrupt, conniving and deplorable FIFA executives can be rather than how thrilling any match is, but hey, one step at a time.

 It may not be as adorable as Riley Curry, or as polarizing as LeBron James, or as unifying as American Pharaoh, but it has definitely captured the public interest (as anything that pops up as a go to joke for Drive Time DJs and NPR hosts has to). Unfortunately for those of us who really love international soccer season, it's a little aggravating to try to see past the clouds of corruption and the deluge of drama to get at the games.

"Besides," carp the wags and critics, "how can you support such a corrupt system? If you hate Blatter and Co. as much as the rest of us, why not boycott? Why not shut it off? Why not let them count their ill gotten gains in the sketchy back rooms of bureaucrats around the world?"

"Because," I respond, "this is beautiful.

"Because four years ago, women in Thailand and Ivory Coast were lucky to get half a bleacher full of people at their matches, now they're playing on international television.

"Because Adama Traore didn't ask for CAF officials to take bribes, he's just trying to play a beautiful game in a beautiful way.

"Because for every idiotic Jack Warner video/scheme/claim, there's a kid in the Caribbean who wants to walk out on the pitch next to the greatest stars in the game, and they see people who look like them doing it.

"Because Guam got a win, and Bhutan's still playing and so are Belize and Curacao and St. Kitts & Nevis, and just think how richer the game would be if the actually got all the money they deserved rather than what was left over after officials skimmed the top.

"Because these players: these inspiring and devoted women, children and amateurs, are bigger victims of systemic corruption than I am. And rather than ignoring them, rather than ridiculing, disparaging, dismissing or isolating them, I want to celebrate who they are and what they are doing.

"Because the game is beautiful, and commitment is beautiful, and a committed game in the face of all the other stupidity and corruption in the world is absolutely beautiful."

Author's note: I'll write about specific teams and players again soon, now that summer vacation has started I should have time to actually write consistently. [Crosses Fingers]

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The FIFA Election: Seriously...this is happening...

This Friday, Sepp Blatter will stand for election against former vice president Prince Ali of Jordan. Until about 7 hours ago, he was widely expected to win easily, he had seen two of his other challengers (Michael Van Praag of Holland and Luis Figo of Portugal) off and after nearly two decades worth of political wrangling and glad handing there was nearly no one who would dare challenge him...outside of the cranky Europeans who would like a little more say in matters as its their leagues and their players that make most of the money.

And then...this happened

Okay...that wasn't quite as dramatic as I thought it would be, I mean its a lot of bed sheets and nice brown pants, but still!!

The point is this: Swiss Police arrested 9 current and former FIFA executives including major executives in the CONCAF and CONMEBOL federations.

Accusations of bribery and corruption make up the main list of charges against these officials. Some suggest that broadcasting rights, kit sponsorship deals, and any number of other pieces of football management have been tainted by bribery and black backroom dealing. To which soccer fans around the world replied, "well D'UH!!!" 

Still there's something immensely satisfying after a few weeks of raids on Biker Bars and ISIS camps, it was nice to hear of a raid on a Luxury hotel in Zurich. It was also strangely gratifying to read newly minted Attorney General Loretta Lynch hammer the targets of the probe, noting how their actions have "profoundly harmed a multitude of victims, from the youth leagues and developing countries that should benefit from the revenue generated by the commercial rights these organizations hold, to the fans at home and throughout the world whose support for the game makes those rights valuable". As someone who has long rooted for underdogs and against heels, this is a big one.
No more wretched hive of scum and villainy
Exactly what happens next is unclear. I mean, it's clear if you're a an FA executive. Those charged will be extradited to New York to answer their accusations. Meanwhile, Swiss officials have said that they're launching a separate investigation into corruption and bribery surrounding the infamous 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process votes. So basically, if you've been a FIFA official in the last row 30 years or so, it's pretty clear that you'll want to schedule a meeting with your lawyers.

It's clear that FIFA is determined to continue its business as per normal. The Women's World Cup, the various summer tournaments (COSAFA, Gold Cup, Copa America, U-20 Cup, etc.) will continue on as will all the qualifiers and stadium building for Russia 2018. Even the FIFA stupidity will continue too, as evidenced by the fact that they are currently claiming to be one of the victims of these terrible, terrible, men. (Odd that Lynch neglected to mention "immensely powerful/enriched friends and colleagues" alongside the children, impoverished and fans around the globe...)

When it comes down to it on Friday, voters will still have to choose between Sepp Blatter and Prince Ali of Jordan. Blatter is conspicuous only by his absence from the list of accused individuals (and his prominence in being referenced/pictured in every news story covering it). FIFA officials have noted that Blatter "is not dancing in his office...he's not kind of a happy man today saying, 'that's really cool what happened.'"

And yet it's a pretty safe bet that come Friday Blatter will be happy. Because after all think of it like this:
Say you're a voting member in the FIFA parliament. You can A) Vote for Prince Ali as a stand against corruption and the system that enabled it even though many others may not and risk irking the teflon president of the organization who has a habit of making his rivals disappear. B) Vote for Sepp Blatter as a sign of unity and trust for a man who has not been implicated and continue riding the gravy train all the way to Scrooge McDuck's vault (assuming the Feds don't get you first).

We may eventually see some hefty fines and minimum security jail time for the guys (including, apparently the CEO of the NASL), but the games will still be played, he cash registers will still ring out, and this Friday in Vienna, we'll see old Uncle Sepp raise his fists, thank the thronging masses and promise to respect the trust placed in him.

If only that extended to admitting culpability for the culture he's created.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Shooting From the Hip: AFC Second Round

You don't get far in this world playing it cautiously. It's as much a part of the Montana spirit as speed-limit free highways and sales-tax-free beef jerky.

So when it comes to predictions, I'll shoot from the hip. Take a chance when I'm not exactly sure. Be blunt and direct and optimistic when I can be.

The second round of Asian qualifying was announced on Tuesday, and while it won't start for another month and won't end for another year, I figured it was best to make predictions within 48 hours.

The nearly-year long second round, 8 groups of 5 will play home and away. The winners, and the top four runners up, will move on to the final round. (That's where your odds as one team in 2 groups of 6 get a heck of a lot better.)

So who will reach those lofty heights?

Group A: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Timor-Leste, Malaysia
Winner: The Saudis have the higher profile and the richer pedigree, but the United Arab Emirates has had the better run of form lately. With probably the softest competition around them, I'd guess Zayed's Sons have the best chance.

Dark Horse: Set aside the geopolitical turmoil and the fact that their leaders seem hell bent on getting Israel kicked out of FIFA, but Palestine likely offers the best chance at an upset. A squad built on non-local players will never coalesce perfectly, but their familiarity with top flight squads (as seen in a trip to the the AFC Cup in January) will serve them well.
Group B: Australia, Jordan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh
Winner: This isn't quite a tap-in for The Socceroos but it's close. One of the dominant sides in Asia will have no trouble handling the rivals, the only real match to watch will be against Jordan.
A Socceroo tap in
Dark Horse: Speaking of Jordan, "The Chivalrous" have a strong case to make as one of the top sides in West Asia. They've had great fortune against the lesser sides of Asia (which definitely includes the Bangladeshis, Tajiks and Kyrgyzseseses--okay the Kyrgyz no offense meant), and by cutting their teeth in an endless series of friendlies against higher profile foes they'll keep that strength, take their lumps against Australia and move along.
Group C: China, Qatar, Maldives, Bhutan, Hong Kong
Winner: Loathe as I am to give them any credit, Qatar has put just about everything they have into developing a team that will match their stadia by 2022. And in case you're wondering, yes that does include pressuring foreigners into service (including Frenchman Dame Traore, Ghanaian Mohammad Muntari and Brazilian Luiz Junior). A strong 2014 was undercut by a truly underwhelming performance in the Asian Cup, but I think they'll be under pressure to get close this cycle--so they don't become the first team since Italy in 1934--the second cup ever--to host a world cup without having played in one before.

Dark Horse: I'm absolutely drinking Bhutan's Kool-Aid, but I don't care. The low profile, lack of film, high altitude home matches and general "do you believe in miracles vibe" makes the land of the Thunder Dragon an easy squad to root for. In the end they'd need to take points at home against both China and Qatar and sweep all matches against Maldives and Hong Kong, but hey, crazier things have happened.
Group D: Iran, Oman, India, Turkmenistan, Guam
Winner: With or without the recently departed Carlos Quieroz, Iran's got too much talent to miss out in this group. A debacle during a penalty shoot out at the Asian Cup this January shouldn't distract from the fact that they were easy front runners at the tournament and should be for this one as well. If they put their minds to it, I'm sure that young striking talents like Sardar Azmoun and Karim Ansarfarid could find some salient suggestions for the nuclear deal too.
Go Go Guam!
Dark Horse: Much as I love plumping for India (where I lived and worked for a few years), the baffling dark horse to root for is Guam. The rare American protectorate that actually IS an underdog, Guam garnered big headlines when they drew at higher profile Singapore. A squad filled with American college kids and MLS developmental talents might not do much against even average Asian sides like a dangerous Omani crew. But they are the ultimate dark horse.
Group E: Japan, Syria, Afghanistan, Singapore, Cambodia
Winner: It will take a lot for any of these teams to meaningfully challenge Japan. The Blue Samurai got an excellent draw despite a lackluster World Cup and Asian Cup. Still, they're at the top of the Asian standings and even if they don't consistently bring back European based players they should be able to handle these qualification rivals.

Dark Horse: If one of the other four sides can put together a consistent run against the other three they could pull a surprise especially with other second-tier teams (and Japan) playing so inconsistently. At a guess, I'd put money on Singapore which boasts a young squad with some internationally based players and more who work together at Lions XII bringing cohesion and confidence into the mix (not to mention avoiding the ...but when you lose to Guam...my whole confidence is undermined.
Group F: Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei
Winner: Credit where it's due, Iraq consistently makes the best of an unusual and often trying situation. They've played the top teams in Asia very closely and make a habit of taking lower-ranked rivals seriously. A few foreign based players (including the Columbus Crew's Justin Meram) show continued promise and growth.

From Left to Right: Chanathip Songkrasin and Kroekrit Thawikan
Dark Horse: The biggest challenge for Iraq will be the frequent long-distance hauls to South East Asia. So the question for a dark horse will be any team who can boast a difficult home environment (to steal a win against the favorites) and real sway over regional rivals. By that standard Thailand is your most likely nominee (just winning the South East Asia Suzuki Cup, boasting a young and growing squad, consistent at home), but that's not anything I'd wager heavily on.
Group G: Korea Republic, Kuwait, Lebanon, Myanmar, Laos
Winner: Korea is still one of the preeminent powers in Asian football, perpetual status as bridesmaid's not withstanding. Their growing influence in Europe doesn't hurt matters, world cup qualification is now expected and the rivals here won't slow that down.

Dark Horse: Right now the hottest team for fans of Asian underdogs is Bhutan, but Lebanon was pulling the Cinderella story during the 2014 cycle. They're back again against two teams they beat on the road during the last set of qualifiers, higher regarded Kuwait and Korea. Though it ended with whimper in the final round of qualifying, the Cedars stood tall, and while Kuwait's a more likely runner-up/qualifier. Lebanon is still where my loyalty lies.
Group H: Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Philippines, DPR Korea, Yemen
Winner: The Uzbeks have long been a favorite of this blog. After all there's a strong corps of players being augmented by solid youth talents from a growing domestic league. They were in the hunt for a World Cup Spot until the final weeks of the last cycle, and they played well in the Asian Cup this January. Sure their president might be a nut job who made his daughters pop stars, ambassadors, corporate honchos, heirs apparent to the presidency, and then (at least in one case) political prisoners. But still, how 'bout that team, eh?

At least he didn't name them manager
Dark Horse: Maybe it's that they're the only reasonable country in the group. Maybe it's that their nickname is "the Street Dogs". Maybe it's that I'm afraid of Manny Pacquiao. But I feel like the Philippines might be poised for a surprising finish. Bahrain and Korea are both on the slide and Yemen is in turmoil while the Philippines has seen steady results and, in goal keeper Neil Ethridge, boast the only Chelsea trainee in the whole group.

12 Teams advancing to third Round (** signifies Top 4 runner up)
South Korea
**The Philippines

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Happy Trails: 209-196(ish)

I'm rather fond of giving a little glimpse into the minnows and would-be-Cinderellas of the World Cup Qualifying campaigns, and I don't even feel like it's a pattern that should be limited to those who win (or are likely to win).

That's where this "Happy Trails" feature comes in. At the end of any month that features World Cup qualifiers I try to take a peek and see who has ridden off into the sunset of international futbol irrelevance for the next few years.

As this is the first time every member of FIFA is set to compete in qualifying, we have a lot of people to say goodbye to, long before we even smell the borsht in Russia three years from now. With that, let's raise a pint (or, given FIFA's sponsorship deals: Let's raise AN ICE COLD BUDWEISER BROUGHT TO YOU BY COCA COLA, OFFICIAL SPONSOR OF HYUNDAI'S SPONSORSHIP OF THE WORLD CUP) to the gone, and soon to be forgotten eliminated squads of the World Cup

(Note, each entry bases the ranking on games played, goal difference and finally chronological order. Entries begin with goodbye in a local language, a recap of previous performance, and change in position from one world cup cycle to the next)

209-ish*Lesali Sesihamba, Zimbabwe (2014 Finish #115; -94 spots)
Why They Lost: Well, technically they haven't lost yet, they haven't even played a game yet. But FIFA has "expelled" Zimbabwe from the World Cup because they failed to pay former coach Jose Georgini after firing him. And while Zimbabwe's totally going to fight this, FIFA's not exactly known for changes of heart.

It's worth noting that Zimbabwe was allowed to participate in the 2014 qualifiers, despite the fact that their previous head of the FA (ZIFA) was fired when she sent a fake national team to lose in South Asia and couldn't explain what happened to a $103,000 loan from the government. So, you know, undermine the legitimacy of the international system, no biggie, fail to pay a coach and hold your horses! Her replacement Dr. Cuthbert Dubet (who some accuse of organizing the charges against her despite his awesome name) makes $6.4 Million a year, so at least graft shouldn't be an issue for him.

So long story short, if Dr. Dubet fixes it we'll drop the others on this list down a spot each, if Zimbabwe stays eliminated let's just say it's because of total systemic corruption...
What We'll Miss: Lots of sure fire Robert Mugabe zingers. "Robert Mugabe's so paranoid, he thinks the Western forces driving him out of power are being driven out of power by other Western forces"; "Robert Mugabe's got so many delusions of grandeur even Kanye West thinks he needs to settle down." I CAN DO THIS ALL DAY MUGABE!!

#208 Buh Bye, Bahamas (2014 Finish: #176;  -32)
Why They Lost: After their unfortunate dismissal due to infrastructure problems four years ago, The Bahamas were utterly smoked by Bermuda in both legs of their matches, losing five-nil AT HOME and three-nil in Bermuda. Sloppy defending and frequent fouls seem to be the most common problem for Bahamian Slayersz (seriously, according to Wikipedia that's their nickname). With disarray on set pieces, failures to clear, cynical challenges and even captain Happy Hall earning a red card.

What We'll Miss: Hard to top a player named Happy Hall, even if he didn't look remotely Happy during the drubbing 

#207 Fare thee well, Anguilla (2014 Finish: #195; -12)
Why They Lost: The worst team to enter CONCAF Qualifying had to feel unlucky drawing the best team in the first round. There were long odds against Nicaragua from the off, and those long odds got longer when they lost five-nil in the first leg. The Three Dolphins may have bitten off more than they could chew, but there's always four years from now.
What We'll Miss: Ryan Liddie may not sound like a great keeper, but from the Nicaraguan match report, it was pretty clear that he was the only thing standing between Anguilla and a brutal drubbing.

#206 Ta-Ta, Turks and Caicos (2014 Finish #196; -10)
Why They Lost: Four years after getting pummeled by the Bahamanians, Turks and Caicos clearly found a way to get in to goal. They even grabbed a lead during the away leg thanks to Defender Widlin Calixte's brace in the first five minutes. However, all the new fire power made little difference when they were repeatedly picked apart by St. Kitts' even more potent attack (including Leicester City's Harrison Panayiotou and his hat trick).
What We'll Miss: As a Montanan living in Minnesota, the chance to bask in Cup Qualifying glory of the rival San Antonio Scorpions 'twin Turk/Caicos combo, Billy Forbes and Marc Fenelus (though since Fenelus is only 17 there's still time.)

#205 Bayarti, Mongolia (2014 Finish #198; -7)
Shirt badge/Association crestWhy They Lost: The Blue Wolves couldn't repeat the 2011 feat of taking a win in qualifying against this cycle's opponent, Timor-Leste and while a 4-1 defeat left a lot of work to do on the return leg. But a stultifying one-nil loss in Ulan Bator where nothing but cards flew after the 9th minute, showed that the young Mongolians still have a long way to go. 
What We'll Miss: Forward Soyol-Erdene Gal-Erdene has a lot of weight on his shoulders as a part of Tottenham Hotspur's youth program, but the real focus should be on Murun Altankhuyag, the midfield playmaker who will need to partner with Gal-Erdene for future matches. Hopefully a move to Serbia will boost those odds.

#204 Jongin, Macau (2014 Finish: #207; +3)
Why They Lost: Four years on from a 13 goal drubbing by Vietnam, Macau was actually much improved against Cambodia including a 1-1 draw to draw a point in the home leg of the match. But the 3-0 defeat in Phnom Penh under cut that.
What We'll Miss: Easy access to book makers and Macau's world famous gambling paradise. What's that? International accusations of match fixing? Uh...I'm sure there are other things to miss in Macau...

#203 So Long, US Virgin Islands (2014 Finish: #160; -43)
The Dashing Eagles must leave the pitch
in 20 minutes so 7th graders can
run the mile.
Why They Lost: The Dashing Eagles have a lot of youth and optimism around their team. With a host of teenagers, a confident captain in Dusty Goode (the old man of the team at 28), and an inspirational coach in Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed (of Mogadishu). But they do not have Wigan Athletic captain Emmerson Boyce. Barbados did. So despite a 1-0 win in Barbados, a 4-0 loss at home (where Boyce's addition seems to have made the difference) saw them out of the contest
What We'll Miss: The Virgin Islanders hosted a match at a Junior High School Field. That's the kind of home field advantage for young players that would be beautiful to see (especially if Mexico had to come to town)

Shirt badge/Association crest#202 Namaste, Nepal (2014 Finish #190; -12)
Why They Lost: In the last cycle we were plumping for young Rohit Chand, while he's still young, and still Nepal's best hope, he seemed out gunned, if you believe scouting reports that put him in charge of stopping India's top striker: Sunil Chhetri...only to have Chhetri's brace be the difference in qualification. But it's also worth noting that vaunted youth striker Bimal Magar, (currently trying out with Belgium's KRC Genk), was a total non-factor.
What We'll Miss: The charming Nepalese badge, like a double corner kick over Mount Everest.

#201 Khuda Hafiz, Pakistan (2014 Finish: 201; No Change)
Why They Lost: I've got to say, I don't think Pakistan is at all to blame here, I mean. They played Yemen twice in the gulf due to security concerns in both Yemen and Lahore. Delays, confusion, all of that left the Pak Shaheens unfortunately discomfited for their ties against a similarly confused but more highly regarded Yemeni squad. 
What We'll Miss: Muhammad Hamza's tweeting and writing is a great sample of passionate and proud futbol journalism from a country that few might focus on otherwise.

#200 Poittu Varen, Sri Lanka (2014 Finish: 202; +2)
Why They Lost: Overconfidence? Underestimation? Apathetic fans? Whatever the case, Sri Lanka crashed out to Bhutan. They had the better run of form, more professionals who played in a better league, a more experienced and worldly coach, a higher FIFA ranking and none of that mattered an inch. But on the plus side, they are responsible for what may become my new mantra while talking about underdogs. Whatever skills and talents the favorites have..."So Did Sri Lanka"
What We'll Miss: The chance for a nice nap...

Here's the fans when Bhutan won at home
And here's the best shot of the fans I could find from Colombo. 
Tiny Thimpu turned out 15,000 for a match, Colombo only rounded up 3,500 (many of those were Bhutanese University students)...despite the fact that Thimpu's metro population of 115,000 is about 2% of Colombo's 5 Million. Sure Bhutan's story is great for football, but sports writers need to sleep as much as the next guy/girl.

Uh, oh...he heard me.
#199 Selamaat Tiggal, Brunei (2014 Finish: Did Not Enter; +11)
Why They Lost: Brunei seemed to suffer from a classic case of scoring too early. The down side of doing that in a two-legged match is that you leave all manner of time for your opponents to get you back. Adi Said's strike in the 36th minute in Tapei gave "The Wasps" a big lead...a lead they squandered at home, conceding a goal on either side of their orange slices, to leave the wealthy sultanate wondering what went wrong...and why they didn't get a better half-time snack than orange slices, I mean...come on you're Brunei! You're supposedly the fifth richest ruler in the world!
What We'll Miss: Sassing the Sultan of Brunei: he's a man rich enough to afford a different medal for every hour of the day. But clearly he missed the oligarchical football management class from Roman Abromovic

#198 Bye, British Virgin Islands (2014 Finish: 193; -5)
Why They Lost: The British Virgin Islands didn't get the benefit of a home leg against Dominica due to construction on their best pitch (a combination cricket/soccer pitch...more proof that multipurpose stadiums just don't work! If only an owner could threaten to move the national team...). So despite young talents playing the game in the lower levels of the British professional system and various American colleges, they couldn't put it all together against Dominica.
What We'll Miss: For a team called "The Nature Boyz" this would have been a tremendous opportunity to double down on Ric Flair References. Sadly, we'll save the stylin' and profilin' for Christiano Ronaldo.

#197 Ta, Ta, Montserrat (2014 Finish: 193; -4)
Why They Lost: A team made up almost entirely of English citizens with Monserratian parentage (since a volcanic eruption 20 years ago sent a lot of the population to the less volatile English countryside) had a fair way to go just to compete, and minimal time to train. Also, they faced a Curaco squad coached by Dutch striking legend Patrick Kluivert...who can even get this match on to the sports pages of the vaunted Idaho Statesman.
Shirt badge/Association crestWhat We'll Miss: Lyle Taylor is clearly the main attraction and focus for the Emerald Boys, his potential has allowed him to bounce around a bit, with his greatest successes coming in Scotland first with Falkirk and now on loan to Partick Thistle. Still just 25, he may be able to boost the islanders to new heights in four years.

#196 Catch ya later, Cayman Islands (2014 Finish: 156; -40)
Why They Lost: The Away Goals Rule. A surprisingly game Cayman squad managed a pair of draws against a better Belize team (though Belize was without Atlanta Silverbacks Striker "Dangerous" Deon McCaulay who knotted 11 goals in the last cycle), but since they drew 1-1 in the Cayman city of George Town, Belize moved on.
What We'll Miss: The Cayman Island badge is a nice subtle nod to their English heritage, but with a slightly smilier Lion. He's your pal!