A 48-Team World Cup?


Recently, FIFA president Gianni Infantino suggested expanding the number of participants in the FIFA World Cup from 32-teams to 48-teams.  On the surface this proposal is absurd as the bloated World Cup would further dilute the talent of the teams participating, expand an already exhausting 64-match tournament to 80 matches, and be a mega event requiring massive infrastructure to support thus eliminating many countries from hosting (or worse, exploiting countries by making them build one-time use facilities with resources better spent on a nation’s people).  Nevertheless, I can still see how a 48-team field may work and make it possible for more countries to participate and to host World Cup matches.  It would require reimagining the staging of the World Cup into three phase.

The first phase, much like today, would be qualification at the level of the six continental confederations.  Increasing the field to 48 teams from 32 means that proportionately, the number of teams from each confederation would be as follows:

  • AFC – 7
  • CAF – 8
  • CONCACAF – 5
  • CONMEBOL – 7
  • OFC -1
  • UEFA -20

These 48 teams would be drawn into twelve groups of four, with seeding to allow for a balance of teams from different confederations.

The second phase would be group play of these twelve groups, scheduled in a two to three week international break in domestic leagues around February.  Each group of four would play in a different host country.  The goal would be for each confederation to have at least one country hosting a group of four.  After a 3-match round robin, the first place team in each group advances automatically to the final phase.

The twelve second place teams will be drawn to play home and away aggregate goal playoff to reduce the field to six.  The surviving six teams are drawn again to play another home/away playoff.  These three teams join the 12 teams already qualified and the host nation in the final field of 16.

The final phase will once again be familiar.  The 16 teams are drawn into groups of four and the top two teams from each group advance to a knock out round.  And that is how a 48-team World Cup could work. 

Advantages:

  • Expanding to 48 teams allows for me teams to participate in the World Cup and play competitive matches against teams from other confederations on a world stage.
  • Playing World Cup in phases allows for more matches without forcing them into an exhausting schedule concentrated in a month’s time.
  • Any country with at least two good stadiums can host a group in the second phase.
  • The final phase has a smaller number of teams – appealing to traditionalists – and makes it possible for many countries to host without breaking the bank.

Disadvantages:

  • Still may be too many games and too many teams. 
  • Too long an interruption of domestic league seasons. 
  • Too spread out over space and time. 
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Book Review: Soccer Star Cristiano Ronaldo by John Albert Torres


Author:  John Albert Torres
Title:  Soccer Star Cristiano Ronaldo
Publication Info:  Berkeley Heights, NJ : Speeding Star, an imprint of Enslow Publishers, Inc., [2014]
Summary/Review:

I read this children’s biography of the Real Madrid and Portugal football star aloud to my son.  Ronaldo is not someone I’ve particularly been impressed by as a person, although his talent is unquestionable.  So I was surprised that this kid’s book actually made me feel much greater sympathy for him, as it describes his poor background and his self-awareness that he doesn’t come off quite as well as a more outwardly cheerful player like Lionel Messi.  It’s nice when a simple kid’s book can make you think differently about someone.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Eight World Cups by George Vecsey


Author: George Vecsey
TitleEight World Cups
Publication Info: Times Books (May 13, 2014)
ISBN: 9780805098488
Summary/Review:

Vecsey, a sportswriter for The New York Times, writes a series of essays and memories of international soccer dating back to the 1982 World Cup in Spain, tying it in with his own love of the game back to his childhood.  The title is a misnomer, because Vecsey writes about Women’s World Cups and Olympic games among other competitions, but the eight men’s World Cup finals he attends from 1982 to 2010 are the core of the book. In addition to some lovely writing describing the games and controversies of the each World Cup, Vecsey gives a sense of the host nation where he and his wife generally set a up a home base for a month.  He writes about the great players of each era from Diego Maradona to Zinedine Zidane.  A major focus is the rise of the United States men’s team from a non-entity to one that regular qualifies for the World Cup and is competitive.  Vecsey also explores the seamy underside of FIFA and CONFACAF with the greed and corruption that runs alongside the beautiful game.  All in all, this is a nice American take on World Cup football from a personal perspective.

Recommended booksThe Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer by Christopher Merrill, The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World by Jere Longman, and Goooal! a Celebration of Soccer by Andres Cantor
Rating: ****

Movie Review: 30 for 30: Soccer Stories


Title: 30 for 30: Soccer Stories
Production Co:ESPN Films
Country: United States
Language: English (and other languages in interviews and archival footage)
Genre: Documentary | Sports | History

In preparation for this year’s World Cup tournament, I watched this series of ESPN films about football/futbol/soccer on Netflix. They all touch upon themes beyond sports and into the realms of politics and human drama.

Title:Hillsborough
Release Date: April 15, 2014
Director: Daniel Gordon
The feature-length documentary tells the story of the 1989 FA Cup Semifinal where 96 supporters of Liverpool FC were crushed to death, and the ongoing story of survivors and family to find justice. I knew a fair bit about the disaster coming in, but the film filled me in on some startling details. For example, the Hillsborough stadium had experienced crushing incidents at previous games. Then there is the extent the police went to slander the victims, ranging from the coroner’s unprecedented decision to take blood alcohol samples from all of the dead (including children) to editing and sanitizing over a hundred reports written by police officers on the scene. The documentary features interviews with survivors, family of the dead, police, and legal experts as well as television and close-circuit camera film of the events of the day. One deficit of the film is the use of dramatic reenactments which are confusing and unnecessary (for example, the story of some police officers playing a cruel hazing prank a few weeks before the match and leading to the transfer of a police chief experienced with crowd control did not need to be acted out). Of all the films in the series this one is the most effective and a must see although very disturbing to watch.

Rating: ****1/2

Title: The Opposition
Release Date: April 22, 2014
Director: Ezra Edelman and Jeffrey Plunkett
Another disturbing film where politics intrudes into sport focuses on the Chilean national team attempting to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. When the democratically elected government is overthrown by Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s national stadium is turned into a prison and torture camp for those deemed dissidents by the new regime. When the USSR boycotts a qualifier game, the Chilean team is forced to participate in a farce of scoring a goal against no opposition in the same stadium. The United States, for supporting the coup, and FIFA, for turning a blind eye to the human rights violations in their midst, come off looking very bad. It’s all very grim, and it feels like this story deserved more than 22 minutes.

Rating:***

Title: Maradona ’86
Release Date: April 22, 2014
Director: Sam Blair
This is more of a traditional sports documentary focusing on Diego Maradona’s magnificent performance at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. A divisive figure, he’s able to capture the appreciation of the world in these games. The documentary excels in its use of archival footage to tell the story, especially the clips from Argentina and the poetic descriptions of Maradona’s goals.

Rating:***

Title: Ceasefire Massacre
Release Date: April 29, 2014
Director: Alex Gibney and Trevor Birney
In 1994, Ireland won a surprising World Cup group match over Italy in front of a fervent crowd of Irish-American supporters in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. This great moment for a perennially poor team came after qualifying in a game over Northern Ireland, earning respect and admiration for the team across the island. But during half-time of this World Cup match, a bar in the tiny of Loughisland was targeted by Protestant terrorists, who opened fire killing six and wounding five. Both stories are interesting, but seem tenuously connected, even as the documentary suggests that the players learning of the massacre affected their play in the rest of the tournament.

Rating:**1/2

Title: The Myth of Garrincha
Release Date: April 29, 2014
Director: Marcos Horacio Azevedo

Mané Garrincha, knees bent by childhood illness, should not have been a professional athlete, but turned out to be an unpredictable and entertaining goal-scorer. He gained great fame from leading Brazil to World Cup Championships in 1958 and 1962. This documentary has a “Behind the Music” feel as it goes into the effect of the “price of fame” that manifested in Garrincha in severe alcoholism and the public turning against him when he marries a samba singer who had been married before. He died bankrupt and alone in 1983, but his funeral turns out to be another big change in public perception as there’s an outpouring of affection for the forgotten hero.

Rating:**1/2

Title: Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy
Release Date: May 6, 2014
Director: Brett Ratner

This is the weakest of the bunch, a hodge-podge of stories of people trying to steal the World Cup trophy (well, some are successful as it is still missing to this day). It feels like a cheezy History Channel doc from the 1990s, complete with archival footage of parading Nazis.

Rating:*1/2

Title: Barbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry
Release Date: May 6, 2014
Director: Loch Phillipps

The goalkeeper for Brazil’s 1950 World Cup team, Barbosa was unfairly blamed for the loss to Uruquay at the Maracanã in Rio. Like Garrincha, he lives out his life treated as a villain in Brazil, but unlike Garrincha is a gentle soul who never deserved any reprobation. It’s an interesting glimpse into the 1950 World Cup and it’s long-lasting after affects, although I still have trouble buying into the mourning that continues over this loss in Brazil when the country subsequently won five World Cups (and counting).

Rating:***

World Cup Round of 16 Rooting Interests and Predictions


After an exciting round of group play, the knock-out rounds for the 2014 World Cup begin today.  Below I’ve listed the teams I’m rooting for and the teams I expect to win (not always the same) for each game.

28 June 2014

Brazil vs. Chile

This is a tough call.  I have a soft spot for Chile and they acquitted themselves well in group play, but I’ve always liked Brazil and it would be tragic if the host nation exited the tournament this early (especially after having to endure all the corporate, government, and FIFA corruption).  That being said, I expect Brazil will have no problem winning this game and probably advance at least to the semifinals.

Supporting: Brazil           Prediction: Brazil

Colombia vs. Uruguay

Colombia is one of the most exciting teams in the tournament with the most feverish fans.  Uruguay did well in group play, but aren’t going to go far without their bitey star Luis Suarez.  Colombia is an easy team to support and pick for the win.

Supporting: Colombia         Prediction: Colombia

It’s interesting that four of the five remaining South American teams are essentially playing for one semifinal spot.  I expect that Brazil will advance from this group of four, but the Brazil versus Colombia quarterfinal has the potential to be an exciting match.

29 June 2014

Netherlands vs. Mexico

Mexico is our biggest rival, but I’ve been swayed to their side this World Cup for several reasons:  CONCACAF regional pride, the performance of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the exburance of coach Miguel Herrera, and their exciting style of play in a tough group.  I adopted the Netherlands in 2010 as my team to support after the US elimination (mainly because I had just visited Amsterdam that year), but the karate chop performance of the final kind of took the bloom off that rose.  Still, the Netherlands look like a dominant side that may advance all the way to the final again, and will be hard for Mexico to beat.

Supporting: Mexico          Prediction: Netherlands

Costa Rica vs. Greece

Costa Rica’s team is the surprise of the tournament, giant-killers in what should’ve been the toughest group.  It’s hard not to like Los Ticos.  Greece are also surprise members of the final 16.  However, they haven’t shown a lot of skill in the group stage.  I expect another Costa Rica win.

Supporting: Costa Rica     Prediction: Costa Rica

An all CONCACAF quarterfinal would be a thrilling thing, but I expect that the Netherlands will progress to the semifinals from this group of four.

30 June 2014

France vs. Nigeria

I tend to root for the underdogs, so I have to favor Nigeria here, but France is looking like one of the top teams in the tournament, so I don’t have much hope for the African side.

Supporting: Nigeria         Prediction: France

Germany vs. Algeria

Algeria is the other surviving African team who’ve drawn tough European competition in Germany.  I’ll root for Algeria, but expect Germany to make it at least to the semifinal.

Supporting: Algeria          Prediction: Germany

There’s an opportunity for an all-African quarterfinal coming out this group of four, but it’s more likely that European neighbors Germany and  France will meet to decide a spot in the final four.

1 July 2014

Argentina vs. Switzerland

I’ve not been impressed by Argentina who  won a weak group by basically holding out for a Lionel Messi wondergoal.  On the other hand, Argentina has enough talent that should be able to advance as far as the semifinal without breaking much of a sweat.  I haven’t got much of a sense of Switzerland, but I’ll be rooting for them just so that USA would have a more potentially beatable side in the quarterfinal, should it come to that.

Supporting: Switzerland       Prediction:  Argentina

Belgium vs. United States

Sure, Belgium is a dark horse to win the World Cup, and sure they won all three of their group matches.  Sure, the United States has struggled and only just made it out of group play.  But Belgium played in one of the weakest groups, while the United States faced down three challenging opponents without ever throwing in the towel.  I believe that we will win.

Supporting:  United States       Prediction: United States

While I think that the United States can make it to the quarterfinal, Argentina is the prohibitive favorite of this group of four.  Still, Iran held Argentina scoreless for 90 minutes, so maybe someone can pull of a miracle win.

Book Review: Distant Corners by David Wangerin


Author: David Wangerin
Title Distant Corners: American Soccer’s History of Missed Opportunities and Lost Causes
Publication Info:  Temple University Press (2011)
ISBN:  1439906300
Summary/Review:

A sequel of sorts to Soccer in a Football World, Wangerin’s history of soccer in the United States, this book is a series of essays focusing on particular places and times in American history when soccer flourished.  If there’s a unifying theme of book is the inevitable quote from a contemporary to the effect that soccer’s rise to popularity in the United States is just around the corner.  The negative that can be taken from this is that they were all wrong as soccer remains a niche sport in the country, but the positive is that it shows just how much of a history of the game there is in the United States.  Wangerin explores this historical periods in search of a distinct American style of play that can be built upon as the game continues to grow in the US.  

Topics covered by the essays include:

  • tours of the US by Pilgrims, Corinthians, and other English teams to attempt to popularize association football at a time when violence and deaths were sullying gridiron football in the early 1900s.
  • The creation of a national federation (now the USSF) and the National Challenge Cup (now the US Open Cup).
  • Thomas Cahill, the man who, under better circumstances, would be remembered as the father of American soccer.
  • The success of Penn State’s soccer team in the Depression Era under the leadership of Bill Jeffrey.
  • Leagues in St. Louis create a distinctive St. Louis style of play
  • The Oakland Clippers, champions of the renegade NPSL in 1967 and one of the top teams in the first year of the NASL in 1968, flounder in their attempt to play outside the league against top international competition.
  • 1979, the pivotal year of the NASL.

Recommended books: Once in a Lifetime by Gavim Newsham and The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer by Christopher Merrill
Rating: ***1/2

 

Photopost: Boston Breakers versus Portland Thorns FC


On Sunday, our family went to see the Boston Breakers play a soccer match against the Portland Thorns FC.  My toddler daughter Kay didn’t last long and after about 20 minutes or so my wife had to take her to a playground.  But my son Peter and I stayed to watch the entire game even during a rain shower in the final minutes.

Things started well with an early goal by Lianne Sanderson for the Breakers, but overall the team played sloppily failing to connect on passes and leaving goalkeeper Ashley Phillips exposed to attacks by the Thorns.  A great number of fans in attendance were there to see the Thorns superstar player Alex Morgan with a subset actively cheering for the team from Oregon (including a handful of supporters holding Thorns’ scarves through the games).  They were pleased to see Morgan even the score in the 23rd minute.

The Breakers were able to hang on until the rain began to fall and in the 87th Morgan made the assist for Melana Shim’s game-winning goal.  A disappointing performance by the Breakers, but a fun game with a good vibe in the sellout crowd.  This is the first time we’ve attended a Breakers’ game since their move to Dilboy Stadium in Somerville which is more intimate in seating than Harvard Stadium, but a running track makes the playing field feel very far away.  The Afro-Brazilian drummers who play during the game were at the far corner behind the goal, but I think would help the atmosphere if they played closer to the stands (in fact, there’s plenty of room on the aforementioned track).  Anyway, I need to get my butt in gear and go to more games.

More details on the game from New England Soccer Today and the Boston.com Corner Kicks blog.

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Open Streets on the Avenue of the Arts: Circle the City


Bostonians enjoyed easy access for walking, biking, skating, playing and more on the outbound lanes of Huntington Avenue on Sunday, July 14th thanks to the Circle the City Open Streets program.  Thanks to Walk Boston, I was able to participate in the event reviving my Boston By Foot Avenue of the Arts walking tour.  A small but curious group joined me on the 90 minute walk from the Christian Science Center to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

After the tour, I met up with my wife and kids to take in more of the activities.  My son Peter was drawn to the Super Soccer Stars activities at Northeastern University and happily played soccer with the coaches and rotating cast of children for about three hours.  I had little trouble convincing my daughter Kay to be my copilot on a bike ride up and down the Avenue of the Arts.  We enjoyed the Boston Cyclist Union’s demonstration cycle tracks, listened to a drum circle, watched dancers, heard a loud synthpop duo, rode alongside marching bands, and got high fives from passersby.

Despite scorching hot weather, it was a fun day out for all the family and something I’d love to see more often.  Before I get to the photos, I have two quick, mild criticisms.  First, the map and program didn’t seem to have enough helpful detail about the types of activities going on or even a good sense of where to find some things (for example, I think my tour may have had more people if they had a better sense of what it was and where to meet, but I also had this feeling looking for other activities).  Second, the stretch of Huntington from Ruggles to Brigham Circle felt like the activity tents were spaced far apart.  It’s also a less shady part of the road, unfortunately.  It didn’t seem too welcoming to pedestrian activity and I didn’t see many people walking here.  Maybe the activities should be grouped together more closely to lend it a better street festival vibe?

 

Cross-posted at my Boston Bike Commuter blog.

US Open Cup Soccer Comes to Boston


On Wednesday June 12th, the local soccer club the New England Revolution played a game on Boston soil for (I believe) the first time. The match saw the Revs face the New York Red Bulls in the Fourth Round of the US Open Cup.  If you’re not familiar with the US Open Cup, it is a knock-out tournament open to soccer teams from amateur levels to the lower professional divisions and on up to Major League Soccer similar to the FA Cup in England and the Copa del Rey in Spain.  This is the 100th year of competition for the US Open Cup which has a rich if overlooked history.

MLS teams like to schedule US Open Cup home games in alternate venues to allow a more intimate setting in front of fans who may not usually make it to their league games.  The Revolution wisely scheduled this match at Harvard University’s Soldiers Field Socceer Field.  Most Revolution games are played at Gillette Stadium, designed for NFL football for their roommates the New England Patriots, and located in the podunk town of Foxborough* about 30 miles southwest of Boston.  Both the field and cavernous stands of Gillette are ill-suited to soccer.  Harvard’s field veers to far in the opposite direction of being too intimate with seats for only 2,500 fans, but it is a good first step for the ultimate goal of having a professional men’s soccer team call Boston home.

A rainbow crossed the sky before the game and continued to reappear in the first half with the two ends of the bow appearing to reach from goal to goal.  The Revolution’s die-hard supporters groups marched in before the game and filled up a grassy berm at one of the goal ends where the lead the fans with rhythmic chants and flag waving.  Even some Red Bulls supporters came up to occupy the opposing end of the field.  All of this created a wonderful atmosphere for the enthusiastic fan’s in attendance, and most importantly the Revolution won an exciting game 4-2.  They advance to the quarterfinals of the US Open Cup versus DC United, which will be played Maryland on June 26th.  It was great fun riding the MBTA #66 bus home after the game on a bus full of happy Revs fan.  The team is now 1-0 on Boston soil.  Let’s hope we can do this all again.

Some more thoughts on the game from New England Soccer Today.

* Sorry to insult Foxborough, which I’m sure is a lovely town, but the stadium itself is poorly located with no access by public transportation and even auto access is along one road (US 1) that is several miles drive to the nearest interstate.  The NFL has wealthy season ticket holders, corporate interests, and lucrative television deals so they can afford to pretend it is still the 1960’s/70’s and turn their backs on the cities.  Professional soccer (like baseball, hockey, and basketball) needs to tie themselves with the resurgence and growth of the urban core as amply demonstrated by the successful soccer specific stadiums in Portland, Vancouver, Montreal,  Kansas City, and even Houston.  Seattle is even able to make it’s urban NFL stadium a big draw for soccer.  The Revolution or a new team in one of the lower divisions would be wise to settle into Boston and take advantage of an untapped market of college students, young professionals, and immigrant communities with time and money to spend.

 

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World Cup Qualifying – A World-Wide Approach?


The past week featured another round of qualifying games for the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2014 to be held in Brazil.  Under the current rules, the six association football confederations (loosely representing the 6 continents inhabited by humans) each conduct a qualifying tournament to determine which teams will represent their confederation.  The number of places in the World Cup Finals varies depending on confederation ranging from 14 places for UEFA (Europe) to 0 or 1 place for OFC (Oceania).

I got to thinking that perhaps it may be more fun and fair if for World Cup qualifying, the confederations were dispensed with entirely and qualifiers were played among national teams from around the world just as they play together in the finals.  The confederations are oddly aligned as it is with Australia, a continent in its own right, has been a member of the Asian Football Confederation since 2006 so they could play more competitive matches.  The South American nations of  Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana do not play in qualifiers with their South American neighbors in CONMEBOL but instead compete in the larger Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football.  So why not mix them all up and create a world-wide tournament.

My thoughts on the world-wide approach to World Cup qualifying is that it would provide several benefits:

  • Dispense with the somewhat arbitrary number of places awarded to each confederation allowing places in the finals to be earned through qualifying competition.
  • Allow nations with weaker teams to increase their level of competitiveness by matching up against some of the world’s best national teams.
  • On the other hand, the higher ranking teams may use matches against minnows as an opportunity to test younger players under tournament conditions.
  • Increase cultural exchange and international awareness among football players and supporters.
  • Standardize the number of qualifying matches played.  Currently, depending on the confederation, a national team may play as few as 8 matches and as many as 24 matches in qualification rounds, plus intercontinental playoffs for teams that did not qualify directly.  My proposal would have each team that makes it to the finals playing in 12 or 18 games.
  • Extend the drama and tension of the World Cup by having it build up over a two-year period of tournament play with the number of teams winnowed away until the 31 places for the finals are filled.

There are 209 member nations in FIFA.  With the host nation automatically qualifying, that leaves as many as 208 national teams fighting for the remaining 31 spots.  My proposal below works on the premise that all 208 national teams will be participating, although historically the greatest number of teams to enter qualification was 205 for the 2010 World Cup qualifying rounds.

Initially, I considered that the 208 teams could be drawn into 52 groups of four for the first round of qualification.  Then I considered the possibility of high-ranking teams getting eliminated by other high-ranking teams early on while weaker sides advanced from less competitive groups.  So for the round of qualification, some of the best teams in the world will have a bye as is already the common practice in the early round(s) of confederation-based qualification.

FIRST ROUND BYES

32 national teams will be granted a bye from participating in the first round.  The byes may be awarded to the top 32 teams in the FIFA World Ranking at the time qualifying is to begin, or they may be given to the 32 teams that participated in the previous World Cup finals, or some other methodology agreed upon as fair by FIFA member nations.

FIRST ROUND

Up to 176 teams may participate in the First Round of World Cup Qualifiers.  They would be drawn into 44 groups of 4 teams each.  Within the groups the teams play a double round robin (home and away against each opponent in the group) for a total of six games.  The top two teams at the end of group play advance to the second round while the remaining teams are eliminated from qualification.  To determine the order of teams in their group they will be ranked by points,then  goal difference, and then total number of goals scored.  If two or more teams are still equal on all three criteria then they will be ranked on head-to-head points, goal differential, and total goals.  If teams remain tied and it affects what team may advance to the next round then a one-game playoff will be played at a neutral location.

SECOND ROUND

The 88 teams that advance from the First Round and the 32 teams that received first round byes come together for a total of 120 national teams.  These teams will be drawn into 30 groups of 4 teams each.  In this round the top 30 teams will be seeded based on the current world rankings prior to the draw. Once again teams will play a total of 6 matches in a double round robin.  The top two teams of each group advanced to the third and final qualifying round.  The same ranking order and  tie breakers described in the first round apply.

THIRD ROUND

The 60 teams that survive the second round will once again be seeded into 15 groups of 4 with the top 15 teams seeded.  Similar to the first two rounds, the teams play a double round robin within their groups for a total of 6 games.  The top teams from each group advance to World Cup Finals.  Third place teams may have one more chance in a playoff for the final spot.  The same ranking order and  tie breakers described in the first round apply.

PLAYOFF FOR THE 32nd SPOT

With 30 teams qualified joining the host nation, one last spot remains in the 32-team field.  The 15 teams that finished third place in their groups will be ranked according to their performance in the second and third rounds combined (12 games total), with the top two teams (using the standard criteria for ranking and tiebreaker( advancing to a playoff for the 32nd place in the World Cup Finals.  The playoff would be a simple two-legged home-and-away tie determined on aggregate goals with away goals, extra time, and then a penalty shootout used to break any draws.

***

And so we have our field of 32 teams winnowed down from 209.  I’d think as each round progresses the tension and excitement would build leading into an exciting finals.  What do you think?  Would this be a fair and entertaining way of determining which national teams participate in the quadrennial event?  Or would it be bogged down by unbalanced matches between top ranked sides and minnows?  Would UEFA and CONMEBOL dominate the qualifiers and shut out the other confederations entirely or would we learn that the world is more competitively balanced than we ever imagined?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Photopost: Mass United FC


Yesterday, my son Peter and I attended a Mass United FC soccer game for the first time.  Mass United is plays in the National Premier Soccer League, which is the fourth level on the United States soccer pyramid (which I guess would be equivalent to A-league in baseball terms).  The game was sparsely attended but this did not seem to bother my son one whit as he watched all 90 minutes and cheered “Go United Go!!!” the whole time.  The other fans seemed more amused than annoyed, so who was I to curb his enthusiasm.  Sadly, Mass United loss to the New York Red Bulls academy team 1-2.  The Red Bulls’ goals in the first half came on embarrassing lapses by the United defense, but the United goal in the second half came on a beautiful bicycle kick.  Since Peter enjoyed the game so much, we’ll have to go again although most games start at 7 pm which may be rough on a 4 year old.  Maybe next season?

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Soccer Spectating Report 7-26 June: Gold Cup Edition


The CONCACAF Gold Cup came and went with the US Men’s National Team’s uninspiring loss. The Boston Breakers are treading water and the New England Revolution are abysmal so things are pretty miserable in my soccer world. Luckily the Women’s World Cup is starting and hopefully that will lift my spirits.

Canada 0:2 United States (June 7)

The USMNT opened their Gold Cup campaign with a satisfying win against our neighbors to the north.  Clint Dempsey’s goal was especially pleasing.  Tim Howard made several dramatic saves in the second half to keep Canada from getting back in the game.

New York Red Bulls 2:1 New England Revolution (10 June)

The Revolution once again fought back late, showing that at times they do have some talent, but it was too little too late to get a point on the road against Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls.

Panama 2:1 United States (11 June)

Hopefully this game can be a wake-up call about underestimating one’s opponents.  Panama is better than expected but the US really shot themselves in the foot in their first ever loss in Gold Cup group play.

United States 1:0 Guadeloupe (14 June)

This was a “must-win” for the USMNT and the game was really not much in doubt, but the result is still startlingly close considering how often the US tested the Guadeloupe goal.

New England Revolution 1:1 Chicago Fire (18 June)

Once again the Revs were shaky in the first half and settled down to play in the second half.  Rajko Lekic got off the schneid with his 48th minute goal, but once again too little too late.  This game was marred also by Gillette Stadium security using excessive force to regulate profanity by supporters in The Fort.  This team and this season are just ugly, ugly, ugly.

United States 2:0 Jamaica (19 June)

After a shaky group stage the USMNT finally appeared to be coming into form with this quarterfinal victory over the Reggae Boyz.  Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey scored the goals.

Atlanta 0:0 Boston (19 June)

With the top players off to prepare for the Women’s World Cup and Georgia under some oppressive heat, the two sides endured a grueling if lethargic draw.  Hey, a point on the road, right?

United States 1:0 Panama (22 June)

The USMNT extracted a measure of revenge against the still competitive Panama side with this semifinal victory.  Clint Dempsey once again provided the goal scoring on an assist by Landon Donovan.  Freddy Adu was a surprise substitute and played impressively.

Mexico 2:0 Honduras (22 June)

I had good intentions of watching more than just the USMNT games in the Gold Cup but this semifinal is the only non-US game I caught.  Mexico was truly the class of the tournament but a scrappy Honduran side held them scoreless until extra time.  Then the wheels fell off and Mexico scored twice including a “crotch shot” by Chicharito.

United States 2:4 Mexico (25 June)

First the positives.  It was an exciting, dramatic game and it was great to see the USMNT get off to a hot start with two early games.  After that, it was awful.  The US could not defend to save their lives and Mexico scored four unanswered goals in front of an audience largely made up of Mexico supporters.  Mexico is obviously the better team right now but it didn’t need to be this ugly.  This is obviously a wake-up call for the USMNT if they hope to get the team deep into the 2014 World Cup.

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Book Review: Once in a lifetime by Gavin Newsham


Author: Gavin Newsham
Title: Once in a lifetime : the incredible story of the New York Cosmos
Publication Info: New York : [Berkeley] : Grove Press ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, c2006.
ISBN: 9780802142887
Summary/Review: Having watched the documentary film Once in a Lifetime and read Soccer in a Football World, I continue to be obsessed with the unlikely story of the Cosmos.  An American team playing in a podunk stadium suddenly signs Pele to the biggest contract in sports’ history and goes on to become a BIG THING attraction 70,000 fans to their games.  And then the team and the league collapse.  It all seems so unlikely.  The Cosmos of course were my introduction to soccer as a young sports fan when I was too little to realize that American’s don’t like soccer.  I probably wouldn’t have liked them so much if I knew about all the back-biting and nastiness behind the scenes that Newsham goes into in this book.  It’s not all tell-all though, it’s actually fairly respectful, and even figures like the guy who dressed up as Bugs Bunny get a write-up.  Newsham also depicts the corporate power of Steve Ross and how he got Warner Communications to bankroll the team.  Ross’ investment in the video game Atari offers an interesting parallel as that company goes bust around the same time as NASL.  It’s an unbelievable story and a great story that touches my nostalgia centers, but on the other hand it’s best that this is all in the past.

Recommended books: Soccer in a football world : the story of America’s forgotten game by David Wangerin, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler,  The Bad Guys Won by Jeff Pearlman and Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests by James A. Miller
Rating: ***

Book Review: Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson


Author: Jonathan Wilson
Title: Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics
Publication Info: Orion (2008)
ISBN:  0752889958
Summary/Review: This book traces this history of tactics, formations and styles over 100 years of soccer.  The title refers to the general trend toward defensive play moving players from the top of the formation to the bottom of the formation.  I’m still a novice viewer so I have trouble recognizing formations since they don’t seem to look the same with human beings as they do in diagrams.  The book required a great familiarity with tactics than I already have but was still very interesting and informative.  Wilson writes about the changes made by various coaches from around the world who made innovations that changed the game.  Often the typical coach would adhere to old tactics out of sense of conservatism and safety until someone took the risk.  Tactics usually only succeed until they’re universally adopted and then someone has to come up with something else.  Wilson raises the question of whether or not there are any innovations left in the game.

Recommended books: Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football by Richard Sanders, The Simplest Game: The Intelligent Fan’s Guide to the World of Soccer by Paul Gardner, Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper and Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner.
Rating: ***

Book Review:Soccer in a Football World by David Wangerin


Author: David Wangerin
Title: Soccer in a Football World
Publication Info: Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 2008.
ISBN:
Summary/Review: Following up on Beastly Fury, the story of the origin of the game of football in Britain, I wanted to know the history of soccer in my own country.  Foreigners and Americans alike will claim that there isn’t any history to soccer in the United States, but the game does stretch back to 1863 when the Oneida Football Club played a pre-codified version of the game on Boston Common.  The British version of Association Football arrived early but did not gain much acceptance at American universities who ended up taking to a modified version of Rugby instead.  Soccer would find its adherents in patches across America especially around Kearny, NJ, St. Louis, MO, and Fall River, MA.  From the 1910s to 1930s, a team sponsored by Bethlehem Steel would be known as being among the best in the country although attracted more attention when traveling than when playing in their somewhat remote industrial town.

Competition began to blossom with the National Challenge Cup (forerunner of the US Open Cup) in 1914 and the emergence of the first viable league in 1921, the American Soccer League (ASL).  Wangerin illustrates that the ASL was a popular league, growing in success and attracting European players as well as developing local talent.  But the ASL and soccer in general were done in by conflicts between the ASL and the United States Football Association and the economic crisis of the Great Depression.  Soccer would be reduced to mostly pockets of amateur competitions played by immigrants for the coming three decades.

Investors in the 1960s decided to capitalize on the worldwide popularity of the game by creating two leagues that would eventually merge to form the North American Soccer League in 1968.  The league grew slowly until the game changer of the New York Cosmos signing Pele preceded an unlikely surge in soccer’s popularity in the mid-to-late 70s.  The NASL expanded way too fast and created an unsustainable model of signing expensive star players from Europe and South America that eventually lead to the league’s collapse.  The best attempt to develop local talent in the NASL was in 1983 when the US national team actually played as a franchise, Team America, based in Washington, but sadly finished last.  A more lasting legacy was children’s and youth soccer leagues resulting in many more Americans playing soccer than watching soccer.

After a brief fling with the hybrid sport of indoor soccer in the 80s & 90s, the outdoor game regained prominence with US men’s team qualifying for the World Cup in 1990 and hosting in 1994.  Major League Soccer was born in 1996 and the US women’s team would gain sudden popularity in 1999 hosting the Women’s World Cup.  By the 200os, the men’s national team were finding success and MLS was stabilizing if not a runaway success.  Soccer may not be the most popular sport in the country but it has found its niche and left a lot of history behind.

Recommended books: The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer by Christopher Merrill, The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World by Jere Longman, and Once in a Lifetime by Gavin Newsham.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Beastly fury : the strange birth of British football by Richard Sanders


Author: Richard Sanders
Title: Beastly fury : the strange birth of British football
Publication Info: London : Bantam, 2009.
ISBN: 9780593059708
Summary/Review: This is a concise history of the game of association football in Great Britain from its origins to World War I.  Sanders makes it clear that he’s out to bust some popular misconceptions of football’s origins, but I didn’t know much football history coming into this book so it’s all new to me.  Sanders traces the origins of the game not only to massive Shrove Tuesday games played in provincial towns but also to a smaller vernacular game played by farmers and laborers in their free time.  These games were adopted by English public schools that were often crude and violent affairs.  Alumni of public schools created the first football codes to standardize the rules of the games but working class players in the industrial North would also play a role in the organization of the game.

Sanders notes that class conflict was central in the early days of football.  The wealthy elites stood for an amateur ideal that found it not only ungentlemanly to accept pay but even to practice as a team.  The working class were more eager to professionalize the game and thus earn income from their well-honed skills.  A middle class of industrialists who would organize clubs and competitions and eventually the Football League kept football from becoming an elite sport like cricket or from splitting into different codes like Rugby.

I was surprised to learn that football was most successful in the Midlands and North in the early days of the sport and not in London.  It seems analogous to the Pacific Coast League being the premier baseball league  in the United States a century ago instead of teams based in the Northeast and Midwest.  I also had no previous knowledge that football was improved by Scottish players – who basically invented the passing game – and many of the best players in the early Football League came down from Scotland.
Recommended books: The Simplest Game: The Intelligent Fan’s Guide to the World of Soccer by Paul Gardner, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics by Jonathan Wilson, and Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner.
Rating: ***1/2

Soccer Spectating Report 16 May-6 June


With the Champions League final, the European season comes to the end. I watched a lot of teams and lot of games and determined that the clubs I like best are Everton of the English Premier League and Ajax of the Dutch Eredivisie. Next year I’m thinking I’ll try to watch as many games featuring those clubs as possible as well as pick out one other “game of the week” featuring European sides. I’ll also continue following Ireland in their Euro 2012 campaign. Of course I plan to continue supporting my home teams the New England Revolution and the Boston Breakers and maybe check out some games from Mexico, South America, Australia and Japan. But I do plan to lower the intensity and I don’t intend to continue writing about it.

I figured this would be my last soccer spectating report, but with the USMNT competing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the USWNT hoping to regain the Women’s World Cup, I think I will make two more soccer spectating reports before I quit.

United States 2:0 Japan (18 May)

Another Women’s World Cup warm-up for the USWNT and it felt like it.  It was not an exciting win and Japan seemed overmatched while both sides were more focused on testing things out.  But a win’s a win.

Everton 1:0 Chelsea (22 May)

An exciting final game for Everton who defeated Chelsea on a late-game goal by Jermaine Beckford after they’d been reduced to 10 men.  Everton’s  late season form helps them finish in 7th place which is about as good as one can expect right now with the Big 6 dominating the top 6 spots.

Sporting KC 5:0 New England Revolution (25 May)

Egads, the Revs crushed all the hopes built up by their good performance in their game against DC United in this truly awful US Open Cup qualifier in a torrential downpour in Kansas City.  Well, let’s hope they can make something of the league season at least.

Barcelona 3:1 Manchester United (28 May)

United started off strong, and the goal by Wayne Rooney was impressive, but otherwise were totally overmatched by Barcelona in this UEFA Champions League final.  Barça showed that they are truly great teams of all time by dominating the English league champions.

New England Revolution 0:1 Los Angeles Galaxy (28 May)

The Revs showed some signs of life in the second life, but not enough to avoid yet another shutout.  One kind of hopes that they’ll finally pull things together and start playing more competitively for all 90 minutes, but the season is slipping away.

United States 0:4 Spain (4 June)

I had tickets to this game but did not see it live because after being stuck in horrendous traffic was faced with paying $40 for parking at Gillette Stadium who would not accept credit cars.  So rather than find a bank and pay extortionate rates for half a  game I gave up.  It’s really a shame that the Krafts built their temple of greed in the middle of nowhere rather than in the urban core near public transportation.  We watched the replay on ESPN3 and it was disappointing as well.  Spain started their best players and dominated.  Bob Bradley tinkered with his lineup – perhaps a little understandable with the the Gold Cup coming up – but disappointing to people who paid a lot of money to see (or not be able to see) their team compete.

Macedonia 0:2 Ireland (4 June)

Ireland kept themselves in a good position for Euro 2012 qualifying with captain Robbie Keane scoring both the goals.

Boston Breakers 2:1 magicJack (5 June)

Boston picks up another 3 points against the worst-named team in WPS with Meghan Klingenberg scoring her first goal for the team.

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Soccer Spectating Report 19 April-9 May


The European season is coming to an exciting conclusion while the MLS gets into full swing. Here’s three weeks of soccer highlights.

New England Revolution 3:2 Sporting Kansas City (23 April)

This game was the culmination of an exciting week – striker Rajko Levic’s first home game, the debut of midfielder Benny Feilhaber and the premier of the Revolution’s new shirt sponsor.  While I’m not too excited by corporate advertising on the jerseys themselves I do appreciate that it will improve revenue for the team.  The game was exciting come from behind win with Feilhaber helping set up the first goal and Lekic scoring the game winner with captain Shalrie Joseph scoring as well.

DC United 2:3 New England Revolution (26 April)

The Revs traveled to Maryland for a US Open Cup qualifier, playing an almost entirely different lineup from their previous game against Kansas City.  It was a good sign of the depth of the team as the Revs easily took a 3-goal lead with two goals by Kheli Dube and one by Alan Koger.  They let up towards the end of the game allowing United to get back two points but the Revs held on for the win and advance to the next qualifier versus KC.

Real Madrid 0:2 Barcelona (27 April)

This game had everything: the mad rants and eventual expulsion of José Mourinho, Real’s negative play and hard tackles,  Barça’s excessive play-acting, and lots of fisticuffs on and off the field.  Of course none of these were good soccer and an embarrassment to the game.  Imagine a novice soccer spectator being told that two of the best clubs in the world were playing in the world’s premier tournament and then seeing every soccer stereotype acted out.  Luckily there is Lionel Messi whose two brilliant goals in the final 15 minutes were a joy to behold.

Real Salt Lake 0:1 Monterrey (27 April)

I rooted against Real in the afternoon in one Champions League and for Real in the evening in another Champions League.  Real Salt Lake historically made it to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League and tied against Monterrey 2:2 on the Mexican leg of the final.  Unfortunately, RSL was not able to secure a MLS bye in the Club World Club despite a lot of pressure on the Monterrey goal and good chances in the final 20 minutes.

Chivas USA 3:0 New England Revolution (30 April)

Hello gut punches, I remember you!  The new players and wins against KC and DC built up a lot of excitement for the road game against one of MLS’s weaker sides.  The Revs lost and lost bad as the Goats scored twice in the first half and sealed the game in the 57th minute.  I guess it was lucky that I wasn’t able to get video of the game, just audio from the Revs website.  And the audio cut out after the third goal and I couldn’t restore it.

SC Herenveen 1:2 AFC Ajax (1 May)

An exciting Eredivisie season is coming to a climax and Ajax came from behind to win their second-to-last match.  Herenveen scored in the 19th minute but Ajax calmly responded in less than a minute with Miralem Sulejmani’s equalizer.  Christian Eriksen put Ajax ahead for good right at the start of the second half.  Ajax stands in second place one point behind FC Twente and face that team at Amsterdam Arena for the final game of the season on 15 May that will decide the Eredivisie championship.  Interestingly the same two teams met for the Dutch Cup final on 8 May which was won by FC Twente 3:2.  Hup Ajax!

Boston Breakers 1:0 Sky Blue FC (1 May)

The Breakers won their first home game and broke a two-game losing streak on Rachael Buhler’s goal in the 53rd minute.  A week later though, they lost 2-0 away to Philadelphia.

Barcelona 1:1 Real Madrid (3 May)

A better game than the first tie of the Champions League semi-finals with the home side dominating the first half and going up 1-0 in Pedro’s goal in the 54th minute.  Real Madrid made things interesting when Marcelo Vieria equalized ten minutes later but it was too little too late.  Barça advances to the final against Manchester United at Wembley on May 28th.

New England Revolution 0:0 Colorado Rapids (7 May)

Accentuate the positive: the Revolution got a point from the defending MLS Cup champions and their first shutout of the season.  On the downside, the Revs failed to score themselves despite having long periods of dominating the attack and shots by both Ryan Cochrane and Benny Feilhaber hit the crossbar and Shalrie Joseph missed a golden opportunity.  I guess this is baby steps for recovering from the Chivas lost and bringing the team together.

Fulham 2:5 Liverpool (8 May)

Things got ugly quick at Craven Cottage as Fulham went down by three goals to Liverpool in the first 15 minutes. Maxi Rodriguez would net a hat trick in this laugher for the Liverpool side.  It’s quite a recovery for Liverpool who were in the relegation zone a few months ago and now are challenging for a spot in the Europa League.  I just wish the Red Sox ownership purchased Everton instead.

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Soccer Spectating Report: Boston Breakers Home Opener


I only managed to watch one soccer game in the past week but I watched it live and in person at Harvard Stadium in Allston, MA.

Boston Breakers 1:2 Western New York Flash (17 April)

Western New York are a WPS expansion team but they have several good players (including some from defunct WPS champions FC Gold Pride) such as Canadian international star Christine Sinclair and rookie and #1 draft pick Alex Morgan.  They also have the best player in the world, Brazilian international Marta, but she was not available for this game.  Sinclair and Morgan seemed to be constantly attacking the Breakers’ nets and the Flash definitely played the better game.  In the first half there were several close calls including one shot that got past Alysa Naeher but was fortunately cleared at the last moment by Breakers’ defender Stephanie Cox.  Western New York’s inevitable first goal came in the 64th minute on a counterattack by the ever-pesty Morgan who fed the ball to Sinclair for the goal.  Gemma Davidson put it out of reach in the final minute of the game.  In stoppage time, Breakers fans did get to cheer Kelly Smith’s goal but it was too little, too late.

My companion for this game was my 3 1/2 year old son Peter.   Heading home from child care on Friday night we passed Harvard Stadium and saw it being set up for the Breakers.  From that moment on, Peter asked over and over again to go to the Breakers’ game.  I figured that we’d end up walking around the stadium, visiting the concession stands often and leaving the game early.  Surprisingly, Peter was entranced by the game, watching the whole thing and asking lots of questions.  He even made us move down to the front row so he could peek over the wall for a better view.  Late in the game he started cheering and shouting for the Breakers and every time the Flash approached the net he would shake and yell “Stop black team, STOP!”  His attention wasn’t totally undivided as he liked watching the drummers in the hardcore supporters section, the frisbee dogs at half-time, and taking dozens of pictures with my camera, but I was pretty impressed.  He enjoys playing soccer with  his friends in the playground which often ends up with them tackling one another to the ground and piling on.  He noticed that the Breakers and the Flash did not tackle one another like this, so perhaps it will inspire a new era of clean soccer tactics at child care.

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Soccer Spectating Report 5-10 April


Barcelona 5:1 Shakhtar Donetsk (6 April)

Barça made quick work of their Ukrainian opponents with half the starting squad scoring goals in this laugher at Camp Nou.  [Note:  I didn’t watch the second leg, but Barcelona won it as well 0-1 for a 6-1 aggregate victory and a secure spot in the Champions League semifinals).

Chelsea 0:1 Manchester United (6 April)

I didn’t plan to watch this game, but it was on the TV in the pub.  I can’t find a rooting interest in the contest of these two clubs because it’s like watching the Yankees play the …. well, the Yankees.  I was impressed by the passing, ball possession, and up-tempo run of play though.  Got to admit that these sides have good quality.  Wayne Rooney score the loan goal.

Vancouver Whitecaps 1:1 New England Revolution (6 April)

A weird game which saw two Whitecaps and one Rev sent off.  Weirdest of all is Vancouver’s Eric Hassli scoring on a penalty kick and then being immediately red carded for removing his jersey (under which he was wearing an identical jersey).  The Revs were up 11 men to 9 for a good part of the game but failed to score.  Ilija Stolica scored a last-gasp goal in stoppage game to save a point for the Revs.  A point on the road amidst a wild crowd and crazy officiating isn’t a bad thing, but the Revs could’ve/should’ve done much better.

Atlanta Beat 1:4 Boston Breakers (9 April)

The Breakers opened their season with an impressive goal barrage in Atlanta.  Not that I got to see this game as there is no web streaming (is there any TV coverage at all?) so I just followed a web cast.  Jordan Angeli, Keelin Winters, Kelly O’Hara & Kasey Moore all scored.  The bad news is that Angeli has suffered an injury that will keep her from playing the rest of the season.

Real Salt Lake 2:0 New England Revolution (9 April)

The Revs undefeated start to the season came to the end with this loss in Foxboro.  Not surprising considering their weak performance and luck in previous matches not to mention that RSL is  one the top sides in MLS.  Still it’s disappointing as the Revs were anemic on the attack and poor at passing.  The officiating once again made itself too well known with three players (2 NE, 1 RSL) finding themselves red carded.

I haven’t been able to (wake up early enough) to watch my favorite European sides lately but they’re doing well.  Everton dispatched Wolverhampton 0-3 this past weekend to extend their unbeaten streak to 6 gamesAfter all the worries about relegation, Everton are now in 7th place with a chance of unseating Liverpool for 6th place, but hopes are slim to none for getting a bid in European competition.  Ajax are also on a hot streak playing 7-2-1 in a recent stretch.  They’re in third place, 3 points behind the table toppers FC Twente who will be there opponents in the final match of the Eredivisie season.

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