Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Happy Trails in 2015 (168-143): Agony of Da-feet

This is part of what ought to be a consistent series about the teams eliminated from contention for the World Cup. It ought to be consistent, and I ought to be better about balancing work and personal life. Still, before we embark on another big year in international soccer it's nice to remember those we are destined to forget about in 2015.

There's a lot of them so we'll split it into two posts: this is the second post, devoted to those teams who won just enough to make this really hurt.

CONCACAF 3rd Round
168 Gotta go, Grenada (2014 Finish #155; -13
Why They Lost: Much as some might complain about the overly defensive and dull football we see now-a-days, a little bit of defense is rather valuable. Ceding six goals to Haiti and only scoring one thanks to a penalty made the Spice Boys a lost cause.

What We'll Miss: Seeing the few remaining Spice Men from last cycles squad explain what the Spice Girls were to the brewing batch of 20 somethings coming up with Grenada.

167 Best wishes, Belize (2014 Finish #150; -17)
Ohh, that old time propaganda
Why They Lost: If you think that Canada has it tough (what with being America's hat), just know that Belize has it even tougher. Claims that they're Honduras' belt buckle have a lot more menace to them, given long histories of Central American conflict, as opposed to the 200 years of tenuous peace between the US and Canada. I'm sure the Canucks were just trying to teach their fellow Commonwealthers how to deal with the angst...and snuck four goals against them just because.

What We'll Miss: The CONCACAF poster  boy for scoring for fun: Deon Macaulay, especially if we can put his name alongside Luis Suarez for top scorer in the tournament.

166 Ayo, Curacao (2014 Finish #149; -17)
Why They Lost: With coach Patrick Kluivert at the helm, Curacao had a tremendous run of form, going undefeated in his first six matches. Unfortunately that Kluivertian magic ran out because Patrick Kluivert could not call up Patrick Kluivert to pick apart El Salvador.

What We'll Miss: More Patrick Kluivert analysis!! PATRICK KLUIVERT!!!

165 And we'll be seeing you, Antigua Barbuda (2014 finish #128; -37)
Why They Lost: The Brenna Boys were keen to keep the magic of their last run in a World Cup (when they made what it is now the 4th round), and the master work of their last round (when they piled on the goals late against Saint Lucia to win on aggregate). And while they had it in hand after a first leg win, and a first-half scoreless line, two late goals ended what they clearly wanted to be a recurring dream.

What We'll Miss: Antigua/Barbuda's two captains, Josh Parker (at Red Star Belgrade) and Quinton Griffith (with USL's Charleston Battery) are strong, experienced, well capped and just 25 and 23 respectively.

164 Tot Gauw, Aruba (2014 Finish #192; + 28)
*NOTE: If you noticed Aruba in a previous Happy Trails, please return and see just how Barbados lost a game they won*
Why they lost: After "winning" despite not scoring a goal in the last round, Aruba turned their attentions to a more home grown squad, trimming their Dutch league talent from 14 to 6. Still, they scored more goals than they had maybe the magic touch will be an all Aruban line up

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.

163 Adios, Nicaragua (2014 Finish #153; -10)
Why They Lost: La Azul y Blanco, won a great victory in Kingston, trumping the CONCACAF silver medalist on their home turf. But that don't mean a thing if you don't keep it together in your own backyard, losing 2-0 to fall 4-3 on aggregate.

What We'll Miss: The chance to get Fox Sports and Fox News to cross promote with Oliver North as an embedded reporter with the Nicaraguans!

CAF 2nd Round
162 Tutaonana, Tanzania (2014 Finish #100; -62) -7 to Algeria +2
Why They Lost: Tanzania forgot one of the most critical rules in international football: "don't lose 7-0 to Algeria".

What We'll Miss: We were fans of Mrisho Ngassa before. We're still fans of Mrisho Ngassa. But when his national team only gives him two caps in two's a little hard to feel the love.

161 A bientot, Togo (2014 Finish #106; -55)
Why They Lost: The downside to having a golden generation that takes you to two world cups, is that eventually they get older and less golden.

What We'll Miss: Emmanuel Adebayor's auditions to play somewhere...anywhere...

160 Later, Liberia (2014 Finish #107; -53
Why They Lost: The Lone Stars have been undergoing quite the change of late with 22 players being called up to experience national team life for the first time. Unfortunately, when you play Cote D'Ivoire and their years of experience, you get blooded and bloodied at the same time.

What We'll Miss: Liberia recently called up George Weah Jr. (who did have 2 caps with the US U-20 squad), and the thought of the former World Player of the Year coming with orange slices is kind of nice.

159 M'asselema, Sudan (2014 Finish #113; -56)  
Why They Lost: The Falcons of Jediane struggled to do one critical thing against Zambia: score.

What We'll Miss: Omar Al-Bashir has been downgraded to number two on the list of tyrannical Bashirs around the world. It would be nice to rub his nose in that a little longer...if it didn't involve, you know...allowing the other awful Bashir to continue being awful.

158 Nangalapo, Namibia (2014 Finish #103; -55
Why They Lost: Like Liberia and Sudan, Namibia dropped three goals to their rival this round (Guinea), as the old saying goes: live by Willy Stephanus, die by Willy Stephanus

What We'll Miss: There's a whole lot of crazy FA Logos out there, and it's a little comforting to find a few understated classics out there.
Shirt badge/Association crest

157 Sai Watarna, Niger (2014 Finish #110; -47)
Why They Lost: Les Menas (or the Gazelles if you prefer not to speak French) got a tremendous result with a draw in Cameroon, but dropped three goals in the first leg at home to seal their own fates.

What We'll Miss: A favorite of ours from last cycle, Amadou Moutari, has excelled for Anzhi Makhachkala since he moved there two years ago, earning promotion and keeping them just above the drop zone.
Gelson hoping for a ride to prom

156 Enda Nawa, Angola (2014 Finish #104; -52
Why They Lost: That old cliche about scoring too early was proven all the more accurate when they scored their only goal of the tie, in the second minute of the first match. After that...South Africa kept tacking on.

What We'll Miss: That goal scorer? 19 year old Gelson, the future of Angolan soccer, particularly since the past of Angolan soccer has pretty much headed home.

155 Murabeho, Rwanda (2014 Finish #111; -44)  -3 to Libya +1 (Libya Lowest team left from July ranks)
Why They Lost: The Wasps are one of the youngest, and most intriguing teams of the moment. They've been rising in stature through the last several years with a young and growing squad. They were favored in their match against Libya, but after a penalty in the first game they were on the back foot. And Libya was able to capitalize on a desperate Rwandan squad in the second half to put it away.

What We'll Miss: Four years is a long time to wait for Rwanda to get back in action, that's where keeping up on other African competitions will pay off.

154 Adieu, Chad (2014 Finish #162; + 8)
Why They Lost: Chad very nearly pulled an upset of the early stages having taken a 1-0 victory over Egypt in the first tie (even though the Pharaohs hit them hard in Chad a month before). But four goals int he first half in Alexandria to start the second leg ended any hopes Les Sao might have had.

What We'll Miss: Le Mond Francophone. Chad has 20 of its 22 most recent call ups playing in one of 6 French speaking leagues around the world. That's a lot of haute cuisine.

153 Veloma, Madagascar (2014 Finish #161; +8)
Why They Lost: Everything was copacetic in Antananarivo, the Barea scored two in the first half to grab an early lead. But it wasn't enough to win the first 45 minutes, and Senegal scored 5 in the remaining 135 to take it by a seemingly comfortable 5-2 margin.

What We'll Miss: Madagascar's second goal scorer was Njiva Rakotoharimalala, and as awesome as that name is to say, it's still not quite as good as his fellow midfielder John Baggio Rakotonomenjanahary...seriously, Roberto Baggion might be the more legendary athlete,
 Le Comodore du Comoros

152 Namkwaheri, Comoros (2014 Finish #166; + 14)
Why They Lost: Comoros started well with a draw at home with the now perennially problematic Ghanaian squad, but you can't really stop the Ayew boys, you can only hope to contain them, and so it was with Comoros as well.

What We'll Miss: I invariably relate Comoros with there's that little amusement gone.

151 Sala Kahle, Swaziland (2014 Finish #169; +18)
Why They Lost: At some point you might assume that the mightiest teams were playing back a bit, waiting for the home leg to seize the advantage. Yet again the underdog got a draw to start, and yet again in the second leg, the top flight squad took the advantage. So you could say Swaziland lost because they got played by the system.

What We'll Miss: If the mayors of teams in national championships make wagers on who will win, it would be nice to see the King of Swaziland bet the Queen of England on a match (particularly as it would add just enough pressure to get the English to scuffle).

150 Ma'as salaama, Mauritania (Did not enter in 2014
Why They Lost: Tunisia tallied a pair of 2-1 wins both home and away, as untested goal keeper Brahim Soulemaine yielded four to four different scorers.

What We'll Miss: It's a shame that the Maruitania First Division doesn't get much air time in the states. Reigning champions Tevragh Zeina can boast of having a midfield full of national team selections.

149 Dehna Hunu, Ethiopia (2014 Finish #38; -111
Why They Lost: Maybe the thrill of their epic run last time around was bound to beget a hangover. Maybe they were worn down from their first round victory. Maybe Congo was just better. Whatever the case there will be no repeat for the Walia whose crashing defeat may make them the biggest drop from one cup to the next.

What We'll Miss: The audacity and fearlessness of Getaneh Kedabe, notching two of the team's four goals this round and showing why (at age 23) he's entrenched at the top of the Ethiopian scorer sheet.

148 Kwaherini, Kenya (2014 Finish #108; -40)
Why They Lost: Kenya nearly knocked out the other epic story of underdog overachievement from 2014 when they took the first leg against Cape Verde. But ceding a brace to Heldon Ramos back in Praia, swung it back towards the Blue Sharks

What We'll Miss: Kenya's president and vice president have had to face questions from the International Criminal our decision to invest in Kenyan sports tv rather than Kenyan CourtTv is looking like less of a winner.

147 Magha, Equatorial Guinea (2014 Finish #102; -45
Why They Lost: The "National Thunder" has been riding high since their fourth place finish in January (you know...the super sketchy one filled with accusations of human rights violations, referee bribes and a semifinal riot?). But the heavily favored Equitorians were bounced by everyone's oft-forgotten old giant of African football: Morocco...maybe because they could bribe/riot their way to victory?

What We'll Miss: Teodoro Obiang. Of all the ass-hatted dictators who use football to supplement their hold on power among lower classes, you are surely one of them.

146 Salang Sentle, Botswana (2014 Finish #69; -77)
Why They Lost: The Zebras ousted Eritrea in the first round and took a 2-1 lead into the second leg with Mali. But the 2-0 loss in Bamako was enough to end their run.

What We'll Miss: Have you seen these jerseys? I mean...seriously...have you seen them? Zubas are ready for a law suit!

145 N'gasaka, Burundi (2014 Finish #163; +18)
Why They Lost: Fiston Abdul Razak can do many things. He got Burundi past Seychelles, and nearly got Les Hisrondelles back into the end of their tie with DR Congo. But he cannot stop shots...yet...

What We'll Miss: We sadly don't know many guys named Fiston.

144 Bo yi bo wa, Benin (2014 Finish #105; - 39
Why They Lost: Like so many teams, Benin couldn't finish off an early lead with a win or draw on the road when they needed it. As consolation, they did lose to Burkina Faso, perhaps the most deserving team yet to make a World Cup.

What We'll Miss: Every time I look into Benin there's another random factoid to amuse me. Their team nickname is "The Squirrels" seriously!!

143 Adeus, Mozambique (2014 Finish #112; -31)
Why They Lost: After 180 minutes Mozambique and Gabon were knotted at 1. So they played extra time, and were still tied. So they kicked penalties, and when gifted a golden opportunity when Malick Evouna missed, Luis Miquissone AND Clesio Bauque both misfired. That was all Gabon needed

What We'll Miss: Deriding Bauque. After all, he just got promoted to the Benefica A Team, so maybe there will be another chapter in his story.

Happy Trails in 2015 (184-169): Dead on Arrival

This is part of what ought to be a consistent series about the teams eliminated from contention for the World Cup. It ought to be consistent, and I ought to be better about balancing work and personal life. Still, before we embark on another big year in international soccer it's nice to remember those we are destined to forget about in 2015.

There's a lot of them so we'll split it into two posts: first up those teams whose qualification collapsed at the first hurdle.

OFC 1st Round
184 Muo Nofo A, Tonga (2014 Finish #172; -12
Why They Lost: Tonga struggled much more than last time out, failing to gather a single point against their fellow Oceanic Minnows (which is to say their fellow Sardines of world football).

What We'll Miss: All the delightful comedy of the Tongalese youth movement (8 players are Under 23, including three strikers no older than 18 and also fielded 15-year-old Anthony Likiliki.

183 Ka Kite, Cook Islands (2014 Finish #174; -9)
Why They Lost: With a group leading six points entering the final match, a draw would have been enough to see the Cooks [not their nickname] into the next round, instead two second half goals to American Samoa dropped them into a three-way tie and undid the work of Taylor Saghabi who netted all 4 of the Cooks goals.

What We'll Miss: Trying to popularize their national team nickname: THE COOKS!

182 Tofa, American Samoa (2014 Finish #173; -9)
Why They Lost: While both Cook Islands and Samoa walloped little Tonga 3-0, American Samoa had to come back after ceding a first half goal and only took a 2-1 victory. Had they matched the other scores, they'd have had the goal difference needed to move on.
Saelua and Rongen

What We'll Miss: In addition to references to the inimitable Thomas Rongen (known to my Minnesota readers as the former coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies), there's also the remarkable story of Jaiya Saelua who made her debut as the first transgender athlete in a World Cup qualifier (but failed to appear in this round of qualifying)

CAF 1st Round
181 Ma'as salaama, Djibouti (2014 Finish #171: -10
Why They Lost: Djibouti ceded 7 goals to those bullies from Swaziland. Then again, that was an improvement from their eight-nil drubbing against Namibia last time out. But when you've only played 5 matches in four years, you can't expect top form.

What We'll Miss: The chance to compose satirical...okay, just punny...lyrics to the classic Buddy Hackett song "Shipoopi"

180 Nabad geylo, Somalia (2014 Finish #168 - 12)
Why They Lost: Somalia still can't host any games and gave up two on their Ethiopian "home leg" to Niger. From there the trip to Niamey was more or less a forgone conclusion

What We'll Miss: As someone who lives in the heart of the Somali diaspora I'm still dreaming of an additional excuse to watch a match and gorge on Sambusa.

179 Selamet, Eritrea (2014 Finish #165; -14)
Why They Lost: Four years ago, Eritrea struggled after two years of non competition. This time around, the 18 men called up had a grand total of 13 caps to their names. Botswana won both legs handily.

What We'll Miss: Great coverage of the Eritrean team by local writers...oh wait! No we wouldn't because local dictator Isaias Afewerki is currently celebrating his eighth straight year atop the "least-free press" rankings. When you're suppressing opinions that much, it's hard to work in time on the pitch.

178 M'asselema, South Sudan (Did not exist for 2014 Qualifiers
Why They Lost: Despite a first leg draw at home (when all the scoring was done in the first 5 minutes), South Sudan ceded four goals in Mauritania to seal their fate.

What We'll Miss: After decades of struggle, conflict and war, (decades that are still going on, by the by) it's a shame that the Bright Stars don't have a slightly longer run to distract them.

177 Orevwar, Seychelles (2014 Finish #170; -7
Shirt badge/Association crestWhy They Lost: The Pirates had no answer for Burundi's deadly striker: Fiston Abdul Rizak. He netted in both legs, the Secyhelles netted in neither, and that does make it hard to compete.

What We'll Miss: This national team logo, which could easily be substituted for many, if not all Floridian teams.

176 Where'd you go, Mauritius (2014 Finish #175; -1
Why They Lost: A gritty nil-nil draw in Kenya is a good result for a team with Mauritius' low profile. Unfortunately it came after a 2-5 drubbing at home.

What We'll Miss: The only non-extinct Dodos are, as ever, one of my favorite nicknames of any national team.

Sorry Manasse!
175 Gue Ngozi, Central African Republic (2014 Finish #109; -66
Why They Lost: I'm tempted to say something about inability to protect their home turf (given the home loss and away draw), but it may be a little too soon after the civil war.

What We'll Miss: Predictions about C.A.R. players. Last time around I was all excited about Ligue 1 talents Fernander Kassai (who has now been kicked down to Kazakhstan) and Hilaire Momi (now clubless). This cycle's unlucky target? Defender Manassé Enza-Yamissi currently in the top league of Portugal, and soon to be starring in Antarctica.

174 Tchau, Sao Tome e Principe (2014 Finish #167; -7
Why They Lost: Having bested one of my long time favorites, Ethiopia at home, a three-nil drubbing in Addis Abbaba crushed the dream.

What We'll Miss: Extended gloating against fans of Sporting Praia Cruz, with 7 players on the national team you know those bandwagon fans would have been insufferable.

173 Nabai, Guinea Biseau (2014 Finish #164; -9)
Why They Lost: Last cycle, it was Emmanuel Adebayor who crushed the Djurtus' dream, this time it was Liberia's William Jebor, whose hat trick in Guinea Bissau was the death sentence.

What We'll Miss: A chance to see midfielder Zezinho, I said last time around that 19 year old midfielder Zezinho might grow into a force if he built up his time with Sporting Lisbon. Instead he has languished on loans, neither playing nor growing. Only two matches for Gineau Bissau doesn't help that either.

172 Tionana, Malawi (2014 Finish #67; -105)
Why They Lost: Malawi had a hard time finding the net, dropping behind two goals to Tanzania in the first leg, and only finding it once at home when there was everything to play for, but were unable to steal a win (or even send it to penalties)

What We'll Miss: As Malawi are "The Flames" and as the kids like to threaten to "Flame" their rivals, it seemed like a good time to establish some Malawian based insults, (i.e. "don't mess with me or I'll rip you apart like Chiukepo Msowoya rips apart Zambia!")...I'm not good at this.

Shirt badge/Association crest171 Fo tuma du, Gambia (2014 Finish #116; -55)
Why They Lost: Having fought back for a draw at home, it all looked good for Gambia when they took an early 1-0 lead in Windhoek. But defender/captain Abdou Jammeh couldn't lock down the back, and two second half goals later it was all over for the Scorpions.

What We'll Miss: Entry number two in our mid-nineties retro logo campaigns. Somewhere there's a brand executive muttering."..if they just changed that red to a teal...."

170 Tsamayng Hantle, Lesotho (2014 Finish #114; -56
Why They Lost: Mohamed M'Changama. A goal up with twenty minutes to go, Lesotho looked good for progression, but when Comoros' leading/only goal scorer slotted home, that away goal was all she wrote and Lesotho was gone.
We miss you already Kei

What We'll Miss: Strong defense. Literally. Lesotho has one top flight club run named for the armed forces and another organized by prison guards.

169 Nain Dat, Sierra Leone (2014 Finish #101; - 68
Why They Lost: Away goals. Away goals. My kingdom for someone who can explain the Away goals rule to me. Chad scored at the end of the first half in Sierra Leone, meaning that the two goals Sierra Leone scored to win the match weren't enough to win the series. C'mon...there's got to be another way...third match on neutral turf? Anything's better than "away goals"...except a coin flip maybe.

What We'll Miss: Like all good American fans there's only one acceptable answer: Kei Kamara.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


(Note: I had intended to include this in a comment on two other blogs to hit this topic...but it kept going on far longer, so just consider this a long form continuation of the conversation)

The feet and ball slapped against the read earth, and the shouts and scuffs of ten boys playing five-aside after school carried back to us on the warm summer air. Sitting opposite me in a small grove of trees was an athletically built 18-year-old whose eyes flicked to the game, and whose feet tapped out a rhythm of steps, feints, attacks and delays though the ball was not near us.

I was working at a school in Ghana and interviewing students from the school drama program to develop my masters thesis. I wondered whether participating in school plays could affect how students see their nationality, and as Ghana focuses more on students creating plays rather than studying and reciting them, they made a fascinating case study.

It was just good fortune that this put me on the continent during the 2010 World Cup. Allowing me to teach all morning, interview in the afternoon, then transcribe and code interviews while watching the evening matches and munching on sweet plantains and fresh fish. 

I was near the end of my time in the country, but couldn't resist the chance to interview this young man. He was a favorite of his fellow actors and the program's director. Fast and funny in improvisation, he had a big smile that the girls particularly loved. His only problem was that he often skipped rehearsal to play football with his classmates in the dusty courtyard of the high school. I couldn't blame him. Though any coordination I ever had long since left me, the game was far more interesting than my rote recitation of questions.

I dragged his attention (and mine) back to the interview and asked the big question, the one that would be the crux of my thesis: "What does it mean to be Ghanaian"?

"Wow!" he gasped. Clearly considering this question for the first time.

"I warned you there'd be broad questions."

He started speaking quickly, "I'm a Ghanaian, and I love to be Ghanaian, and I'll always be a Ghanaian, because I'm proud to be Ghanaian...And Ghana is also one of the countries every African wants to come to because we are very good at embracing all African countries, even from Europe, every--everywhere else in the world." 

He launched into all the ways that Ghana was growing, changing. How he and his classmates made plays to show audiences that they ought to include, rather than shun, those with AIDS. He recounted all the ways he had used the school shop/craft classroom to make props, and costumes to show both traditional and modern Ghana. How he used his acting to overcome family distrust of technology or kissing girls, while trying to act in Nigerian films and also improving his soccer skills.

Finally, as we circled for a landing, he said, "I want the whole thing, and so many things. So I don't know what I want to become right now." We chatted a little more, I thanked him, and together we drifted off to watch the five-a-side players snake their way through the trees as they kept the frenetic pace alive.

I've been going back to that interview while reading the various takes on "American" soccer for "American" players. I won't lie: I've wondered about the changeable nature of "national team sides" in an age of globalization. I rather like the idea of trying to put together the best team possible under certain limitations ("limitations" that are anathema to billionaire-brokered European leagues). I have a pipe dream in which the World Cup final is played between Vanuatu and the Faroe Islands, because things like coaching, training and youth development can coalesce anywhere, but money can't.

But every time I think about limiting a national team, I think about this 18-year-old kid with dreams of "the whole thing" and I remember that it's maybe a little much to ask young men (and women), facing a major part of their professional career to come, to search their hearts and determine which pre-existing set of boundaries they will swear (soccer) allegiance to. 

And beyond the act of picking sides, there's the fact that identities, including nationality, are changeable. You aren't the same person at 17 as you are at 34, and demanding that you never change your national identity seems as dated as demanding that you never change your loyalty to the first band you loved. 

As Ghana, and Germany, and the US "embrace" other people from other countries, we will grow, we will change. The plays children don't just mirror the culture they have, they model the culture they want to see in their country. The team we field at the World Cup doesn't just mirror the "nationality" we're used to, it models the "nationality" we will become. And besides, limiting us to just "American" Americans, would be going against nearly a century of tradition, all the way back to when our 1930 World Cup Bronze medalists fielded five naturalized British citizens, none of whom had been in the country for more than a decade.
Who here is actually American?
It seems like a rising tide of nationalism has prompted politicians, athletes and other public personas to question what it means for people to be "American" enough. It's not a bad question, but it's a question that has no answer. Rather, we are constantly answering it in all the ways we live, and act, and play.

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: See You Later, Barbados (2014 Finish #159; -33)
Why they lost: This spot was originally occupied by Aruba, however FIFA decided to crack the whip against Barbados for accidentally fielding Hadan Holligan. Holligan scored the game winner and put the icing on the cake of a clear three-nil aggregate crusher. Instead he cost the country another round of competition.

What we'll miss: I've said it before, and I'll say it again. World football needs more tridents. Barbados brings the tridents. Enough said.

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 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