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]