Reassessing Sportsmanship

So this is probably the weirdest goal you’ll see in (nearly) top-flight soccer this year (video* via).

You’re seeing that right – one team basically gets out of the way while the other walks the ball into the net, tying the game at 1-1. What the hell was going on? Sportsmanship, or so it’s being sold. I’m more than a bit confused.

But first some background, both personal and contextual.

You know how sometimes you see publishing or distribution deals that give the US rights to one company and another firm gets the rights for “rest of the world”? I’m kind of that way with soccer loyalties. Here in the US my team is DC United. I’ve followed them since MLS started in 1997, from early domination to later doldrums and everything in between. For the rest of the world, so to speak, my team is Leeds United.

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They’re currently toiling in the second tier in England (which is called the Championship and is right above the third-tier league called . . . League One – yes, it’s confusing). Leeds was peaking when I started following soccer closely in the 1990s and something about them attracted me. They’ve since overspent and plummeted down the ranks in England, going so far as the aforementioned League One before settling into a fairly consistent pattern of disappointment in the Championship.

Which brings us to this season. With a new manager, the enigmatic Marcelo Biesla, Leeds has been in the thick of the promotion race from the jump. The top two teams in the Championship automatically move up to the Premier League the next season, while the next four (third to sixth places) go into a playoff to determine the third promoted team. Leeds has been solidly within the six for most of the season, and had some hopes of snagging one of the top two spots, but some recent bad performances basically ruled that out.

So it was that they hosted Aston Villa on Sunday. Villa is also among the six, so the game still had some bite to it. Which is how this happened.

Essentially, with a Villa player down apparently injured around midfield, the Leeds players kept playing. For years the “sporting” thing to do was for one team to play the ball out so the injured player could be treated, but more recently it’s been made clear that it’s the referee’s job to stop play. As we tell kids at the lowest level of little league anything – you play to the whistle. Villa took offense and a brouhaha erupted (complete with a pretty bad dive by Leeds forward Patrick Bamford).

So, Bielsa had his team lay down so Villa could score the equalizer. What made it more farcical was that Leeds defender Pontus Jansson either didn’t get the memo or disagreed with the boss, making an attempt to tackle the ball away. The game ended 1-1, keeping Villa in position for the playoff while finally extinguishing any remote chance (it was very very remote) of scraping back into the top two and earning automatic promotion.

Bielsa’s gotten his fair share of praise for this as an example of good sportsmanship. Although Alexi Lalas lays the blame at the clumsy feet of the players:

Naturally, others suggest that there was nothing really to lose, since Leeds had no real chance of getting second place anyway, or that Bielsa is still trying to rebuild his image after a “spying” scandal earlier in the season. Regardless, the end result is the same – the team essentially forfeited a win and sacrificed two points in the standings to affirm an unwritten rule that maybe shouldn’t be honored anymore.

This all reminds me of something I wrote about earlier this year in the wake of the Rams/Saints fiasco before the Super Bowl – in 1999 Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger demanded that his team replay a FA Cup match against a lower division team after Arsenal had scored a goal in a moment of confusion following a similar incident – the other team played the ball out to allow an injured player to get treatment, then an Arsenal substitute pounced on the ensuing throw in. I’ve always viewed that as a great example of sportsmanship where Wenger really put something on the line – had Arsenal lost the replay they would have been out of the tournament.

But, truth be told, I’d don’t care about Arsenal’s success. Leeds, on the other hand, I care about, so I’m having to rethink my ideas on sportsmanship in these situations. I mean, given the point of the season where it occurred it didn’t matter a whole lot, so in such situations there good reason to be magnanimous. Plus, the laws of the game (soccer has laws, not rules, you understand) could be clearer, as it says that the ball is out of play only when it’s actually crossed a boundary or “play has been stopped by the referee.” But, obviously if a team kicks the ball out intentionally that’s still out of play, so where does that get you?

On the other hand, unspoken rules – “gentleman’s agreements” – are supremely flimsy. I’m generally of the opinion that a right without a remedy, without a means of enforcement, is no right at all and that same’s true for an unwritten rule in sports. Leeds’ players did nothing wrong by playing on when the ref didn’t stop the game. That’s his job, not theirs. It’s the same thing as a player correcting a ref’s bad call – it’s the ref’s job to get things right, not the player’s to atone for his sins. In other words, it’s above and beyond the call to play the game with complete honesty. And, honestly, does anybody believe that if the same situation happened in the playoff final, with promotion at stake, that Bielsa would have done the same thing?

I don’t think so. I hope he wouldn’t. There’s a world of difference between cheating and taking advantage of an opponent’s expectations. All may be fair in love and war, but as the old saying goes, soccer is more important than that!

* Apologies for the lack of embedded video. Couldn’t figure out how to get Deadspin’s player to work on the blog.

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Should Sean McVay Pull a Wenger?

Unless you were in a coma last weekend you’ve probably heard about the end of the NFC Championship game, where the Rams wound up beating the Saints on a field goal in overtime. It only got that far, largely, because of a horrible blown call by the officials near the end of the game:

Had pass interference been called on the Rams, the Saints likely could have just run out the clock or, at worst, pushed their lead to six with an easy field goal and left the Rams with little time to score a needed touchdown. Instead, the Rams tied it up, then won.

Many people are pissed about this, for good reason. This isn’t a “bad call” in the usual sense, where there’s some grey area as to whether the refs made the right call or not. The penalty in this instance was clear and unambiguous. Is there anything to be done about it? As Michael McCann over at Sports Illustrated explains, probably not. The only NFL recourse is for the commissioner to step in under authority to deal with “emergencies” and “extraordinarily unfair acts.” However, that rule explicitly exempts refereeing decisions from its scope, so there’s little hope for any kind of do over or make up. Nor are there likely to be options outside the NFL (ludicrous lawsuits like this don’t help).

However, as McCann points out, there have been examples in other sports of do overs. Those are clearly covered by the rules. One important one he didn’t mention, however, comes from the “other” football, the one they play in the rest of the world and is a little more wide ranging.

It’s February 1999 during the fifth round of the FA Cup, England’s all-comer knockout soccer competition. Arsenal, defending champions of not just the Cup but the Premier League, are playing Sheffield United, then in the First Division (now Championship). Tied 1-1 late, Sheffield’s goalkeeper kicks the ball out of play so an injured player can get treatment. A show of sportsmanship, the proper response to which is for Arsenal to then throw the ball back to the keeper when play restarts. Arsenal’s Ray Parlour tries to do just that, but recent singing Nwankwo Kanu (just on as a sub, if I remember correctly) sprints onto the ball. He passes it to a surprised Marc Overmars, who puts it into the net past a really surprised Sheffield keeper. Arsenal wins 2-1.

What happened next is what’s really relevant now. As The Guardian said way back then:

A Frenchman taught the English an extraordinary lesson in sporting etiquette last night. Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal football manager, graciously offered to stage a rematch after his side won an FA Cup-tie on a controversial winning goal.

In an unprecedented move, the Football Association gratefully accepted Wenger’s offer to make Arsenal replay their fifth-round match with Sheffield United, scrubbing out the London club’s 2-1 victory yesterday in the interests of fairness.

* * *

After offering a replay, Wenger said: ‘The second goal is a controversial goal and we feel that it is not right. We have the feeling that we didn’t win the game like we want to win our games.’

So the two teams played again, with Arsenal winning (again) by a score of 2-1 (again).

Now, there are vast differences between the Arsenal situation and the Rams. For one thing, replays are baked into the FA Cup. Outside of the last couple rounds, if a game ends tied the two teams play again in a week or so. Had Arsenal not scored that controversial second goal, the fixture would have gone to replay, anyway. There’s no similar method in the NFL, which only has two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. For another, goals in soccer are precious things in the way points in American football just aren’t, so a questionable goal is a bigger deal than a single blown call.

But, finally, the Rams didn’t break any unwritten rule of sportsmanship. They played the game and let the refs enforce the rules, which is how the game is supposed to work. Teams work the officials the entire game trying to gain advantageous calls. Bad calls – close ones or just blown ones – are part of the game in a way that the Arsenal goal isn’t supposed to be.

So, no, I don’t really expect Rams coach Sean McVay to say, “hey let’s do this again,” even just the last 1:49 that remained (as McCann explains, that would raise a lot of interesting procedural questions). But wouldn’t it be cool if he did? Wouldn’t it be cool if in a land torn apart by tribalism and “us versus them” one team said “we don’t want to win the wrong way?”

Still Not Sold on VAR

The World Cup has come and gone (congrats Les Bleus!) and, along with it, the most high profile deployment to date of Video Assisted Refereeing or VAR. Regular readers know I’m not a huge fan of VAR (not quite the militant my wife has become, however), but if it’s here to stay it’s at least worth making it the best product it can be. So how did it do on its debut on the global stage?

If I’m being honest – not bad. It seemed to work fairly efficiently and corrected a good number of “wrong” calls. Not all of them, of course, which goes to one of my primary complaints with any form of review in sports – a promise of perfect that can never be realized. And it didn’t take that long. According to SoccerAmerica, 455 incidents were reviewed in 64 games, with only 20 resulting in game stoppages (of an average 80 seconds). And it managed to avoid my nightmare scenario – where team A is fouled while attacking in team B’s box but there’s no call, allowing team B to counter attack and the next stoppage is after team B scores. How does that all get sorted out? It will happen eventually. But, more often than not, the World Cup version of VAR was a good thing.

The other versions still need a lot of work.

Every week, for some reason, MLS puts together a “you be the ref” video with a controversial calls (or non-calls) involving a penalty kick, offside call, and red card.

Invariably they tend to show referees making bad decisions and, in some cases, VAR does very little to help. Witness a recent outburst by Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke, which attracted support from others around the league (before all the tweets disappeared, for some reason).

A lot of this comes down to something that video review in all sports (that I’m aware of, at least) have imported from the world of my day job – standards of review.

When a court of appeals reviews a lower court decision, it doesn’t just hoover up the record and spit out an opinion. The court reviews discrete issues, each with its own rules for reviewing it. Generally speaking, if the issue is purely one of law – say, what a statute means – it’s reviewed de novo, with no deference to the lower court’s decision. On the flip side, a purely factual issue is reviewed for clear error – meaning it’s not just enough for the lower court to have been wrong, but it must be really really wrong for the higher court to do anything about it. Lots of issues fall in the middle and get reviewed for abuse of discretion, which is also pretty deferential to the lower court’s decision.

There are reasons for these in courts of law. Primarily, the thought goes that lower courts that actually sit and watch witnesses testify and such have a better chance of getting the facts right than higher courts working from a cold record. There’s some evidence that isn’t true, but it’s the accepted basis of the system right now.

VAR (and reply in American football) has adopted, basically, the clear error standard, in spite of the reasons for doing so not applying. If anything, the replay booth is in better shape than the ref watching the game live to make correct decisions. Why hamstring things so that only “really really wrong” decisions are corrected? During the World Cup commentators mentioned that the replay officials (or perhaps just the ref making the review – why do they get to judge their own work?) couldn’t even look at replays in slow motion. What’s the point of that? If we’re going to stop the game to get things right, let’s get things right!

That, largely, is what’s keeping me from more fully embracing VAR. On the one hand, it goes too far in messing with the flow of the game. On the other hand, it doesn’t go far enough, since it limits the value of the replays. The powers that be need to work that contradiction out, sooner rather than later.

Or, at the very least, MLS needs to adopt the system FIFA used for the World Cup. It’s eons better than what they do now. If we have to have VAR – and I fear we must – let’s at least make it the best it can be.

Rivalries and How They Work

The World Cup is underway and, sadly, the United States isn’t involved this time. For the first time since 1990, we failed to qualify. In the words of one commenter I saw in a forum the other day, “we shit the bed.” It’s as good a description as any.

That has led some Americans to wonder who they might root for in the tournament. I think that’s kind of silly – as I’ve written before, you can be a fan of the game, without any particular rooting interest – but whatever makes the experience more enjoyable (Volkswagen is having fun with the idea in its new commercials).

While we Americans failed to qualify, our great rivals from across the Rio Grande did, and with some ease. That’s led to some to suggest that American fans should root for Mexico in the Cup. That reached peak silliness this past weekend with this Tweet from, of all people, United States Men’s National Team legend Landon Donovan:

Putting to one side the cash-grab aspect of all this (Wells Fargo, Landon? Really?), that’s simply not how rivalries work. I personally think it’s a bridge to far to wish ill on your rivals (not a fan of the “my two favorite teams are A and whoever is playing B” shirts). Rooting against someone just seems like bad karma. Sports should involve positive motivations, not negative.

Besides, you can sit back and realize it’s good for the United States for Mexico – and the other CONCACAF teams, Costa Rica and Panama – to do well. When the region does well on the global stage it lifts all boats and we, as a men’s soccer program, desperately could use some lift right now. But that’s a far bridge from actually rooting for them to do well.

To put it in another context, as a West Virginia University fan and alum, I hope that our Big XII rivals do well in bowl games and NCAA tournaments, because it makes us look better when we do well in the conference. So, while I’m happy with Kansas winning a national championship in basketball or Oklahoma doing well in the football “playoff,” that doesn’t mean I’m actively rooting for them. That’s just a bridge too far.

But still, if you’re an American fan and you want to root for Mexico, be my guest. Just don’t make it more than it is, as Donovan tried to do in a follow-up Tweet after being called out by fellow former USMNT member Carlos Bocanegra:

 

Um, no. In the same way that rooting for WVU against Baylor doesn’t mean I wish ill on the students in Waco, not rooting for Mexico has nothing to do with the horribles the current regime is perpetrating upon immigrants and Latinos. Sports can certainly build bridges, but not ones that can bear that much weight.

So I will watch with interest as Mexico (and Costa Rica and Panama) take on the world in our absence. I’ll marvel at brilliant plays made and shake my head at missed chances and nonsense. In other words, I’ll watch their games just like I do everybody else’s.

That being said – well done to Mexico for knocking off Germany yesterday.

Cheating? Brilliant? A Little of Both

The World Cup gets underway this week. Even without the United States involved (*sniff*) I’m still looking forward to the tournament. Beyond the month-long celebration of world-class soccer, it always seems to bring some really odd stories out in the run up to the tournament. Some are amusing, some less so.

This one falls kind of in between.

Tunisia are returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2006 after topping their group in qualifying. That means playing a series of friendlies (soccer-talk for “exhibition”) in the weeks leading up to the Cup in order to prepare. That’s bad timing because the Tunisian players are Muslims and it’s currently Ramadan. That means not drinking or eating anything between sunrise and sunset for a month. This year, that month is May 15 to June 14.

You can see the problem. Soccer is famously taxing when it comes to physical stamina:

So playing the same at the highest level while you can’t eat or drink would be a real pain in the ass.

Tunisian goalkeeper Mouez Hassen appears to have found a clever solution:

In friendly matches against Portugal then Turkey, goalkeeper Mouez Hassen appeared to feign injury at sundown, when the fast comes to an end.

As he lay on the pitch receiving medical treatment, his teammates rushed to the sidelines to drink water and snack on dates.

And it produced immediate results.

Down 2-1 to European champions Portugal, Tunisia rebounded six minutes after Hassen’s injury break by scoring an equalizer and ended the match 2-2.

Days later against Turkey, Hassen stopped play by lying on his back.

Again, his teammates ate dates and drank water provided to them by waiting coaching staff. That match also ended 2-2.

* * *

Pundits in Tunisia were quick to note the timing of the goalkeeper’s injuries in the second half of both matches – in the 58th and 47th minutes of play respectively.

This coincided with the time of sunset, which is when Iftar – the breaking of the fast usually with dates and water – begins for Muslims observing Ramadan.

In other words:

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I’m torn about how to think about this.

Make no mistake, Hassen was cheating. Simulation is a violation of the rules of the game. While it usually comes up in situations where a player is trying to draw a foul or a penalty kick it applies just as much when a player feigns injury for some reason. That happens late in games when one team is trying to kill time or simply blunt the momentum of the other side when it’s seeking a game-winning or game-tying goal.

On the other hand, the benefit to his team wasn’t something completely unusual in modern soccer. If a player gets hurt – enough that the game stops for trainers to trot out on the field and tend to him – the teams routinely take a chance to get a drink. I’ve seen players slurp Gatorade-style goo from tubes on the sideline, too. Given the rigors of a soccer match, it’s not unusual for players to take any chance they can to hydrate and such.

Thus, part of me wants to chock this up to “creative gamesmanship” and give it a pass. And it happened in friendlies, anyway, so there wasn’t anything really at stake (Ramadan will be over by the time the Cup starts, so it won’t come up there). But it’s still faking an injury to gain an advantage, however slight, and that’s a chicken shit thing to do.

So, no more of this, folks. But, you know, pretty clever of you to think of it in the first place.

Or, Just Be a Fan of the Game

The old saw goes that things that matter little lead to the deepest, angriest arguments. If nothing else, sports proves that over and over. Let’s be honest – unless you’re actually on a professional team or work for the organization, whether one group of super wealthy athletes beat another on the field/court/pitch/track doesn’t really change your life.

To be clear – I’m not shitting on sports in general. I’m a big sports fan, although my tastes tend to run more toward niche sports (hello soccer and non-NASCAR auto racing!) than the American big three. Does it give me a little thrill when DC United wins a game or my alma mater makes a deep run in the NCAA tournament? Of course! Does it ruin my day if they don’t? Of course not! Did I mention DC United? If their success was really tied to my mental health I’d offed myself years ago.

One of the things that most riles up sports fan – even more than the evergreen battle of artificial turf versus natural grass – is when people who haven’t “paid their dues” with a particular team jump on the bandwagon when they do well. They’re usually called “fair weather” fans, since they flee the team when they have a downturn. It’s the sports equivalent of a person with loose sexual morals – you’ll root for just about anyone, won’t you?

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Over at The Atlantic, Derek Thompson argues in favor of this kind of sports libidinous. He’s a sports slut and is proud of it:

But I’m done apologizing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m right and everybody else is wrong. Rooting for winners is more than acceptable—it’s commendable. Fans shouldn’t put up with awfully managed teams for decades just because their parents liked those teams, as if sports were governed by the same rules and customs as medieval inheritance. Fans should feel free to shop for teams the way they do for any other product.

What I’m proposing here is a theory of fluid fandom that would encourage, as opposed to stigmatize, promiscuous sports allegiances. By permanently anchoring themselves to teams from their hometown or even an adopted town, sports fans consign themselves to needless misery. They also distort the marketplace by sending a signal to team owners that winning is orthogonal to fans’ long-term interests. Fluid fandom, I submit, is the emotionally, civically, and maybe even morally superior way to consume sports.

I kind of like that approach and, if done openly, I don’t think most sports fans would have a real problem with it. I think most fans have problems with bandwagon jumpers not because they’re there, but because they sometimes imply that they’re enjoying a team’s success as much as someone who’s suffered through years of defeat and disaster. Honesty can go a long way.

Along that like I’d like to lay out a third course, one that I frequently follow, particular when it comes to racing. It’s simple – be a fan of the sport, not a fan of a particular team. In other words, don’t turn yourself into a Cavs fan as a reason to watch the NBA Playoffs; watch the playoffs because you’re a fan of basketball (or the NBA’s version of it, at least) itself.

I’ve done that with racing for years. I’ve never really had a favorite driver and, beyond a nominal attachment to Ferrari in Formula 1, never really had a favorite team. I tend to root for underdogs, but that naturally changes from year to year (and even race to race). I’d like to see Haas do well, since it’s been so long since there was an American presence in F1, but my life doesn’t rise and fall on their exploits. For everything else – Indy cars, sports cars, touring cars – I just want to see good racing.

Same goes for soccer, largely. I do have favorites – DC United for the US, Leeds United for the rest of the world (like literary rights) – and, of course, I pull for the United States national teams (men’s, women’s, and youth). But that only takes in a tiny fraction of the amount of soccer out there. Truth is, I’ll watch damned near any soccer game I can find. Do I care who wins the Champions’ League semi between Roma and Liverpool? Not really, but I’m damned sure going to watch it. Same with this summer’s World Cup, since, sadly, there’s no American rooting interest. Even if not rooting for either team might make law enforcement suspicious. See, US v. Manzo-Jurado, 547 F.3d 928 (9th Cir. 2006)(among the factors cited by cops to justify stop of defendant was that he and his friend were at a high school football game but were not rooting for either team).

What I’d say to Thompson, then, is that you’re not doing anything wrong, but you could do it better. Unless you have a genuine interest in a particular team or player, just give yourself over to the pleasure of the game. It’s what you’re most interested in, anyway. And you won’t piss off those losers for whom this stuff is life and death.

Besides, it frees your mind to ponder other things:

FairWeather1

Si, Mauricio

In many ways it was typical FA Cup fare. Third-tier Rochdale (of England’s League One) hosted top-tier Tottenham and held the biggies to a 1-1 draw. Since the FA Cup revels in tradition, rather than finishing things off right there with extra time or a penalty shootout, the teams met again 10 days later for a replay at Tottenham’s temporary home at Wembley Stadium. As often happens, the biggies didn’t slouch the at the second chance and throttled the plucky upstarts 6-1. It was not a game for the ages.

Nor was it a game where the Video Assistant Referee (“VAR”) should have come in for much scrutiny. After all, Tottenham was clearly the superior side and deserved to advance. This wasn’t a game decided on a bad call. Alas, with VAR, it’s never that clean:

Its influence on Wednesday’s game at Wembley cannot be overstated.

At times, fans had no idea what was going on as the referee waited for instructions in his earpiece and the half-time whistle was greeted by a chorus of boos from home supporters.

Lamela’s early goal was disallowed after the VAR ruled Llorente had pulled Harrison McGahey’s shirt – but it took about a minute for the officials to reach their decision, by which time both teams had lined up for the game to restart.

After Son had fired Spurs ahead from 12 yards when he was afforded too much space, the hosts were awarded a penalty when Trippier was fouled by Matt Done. At first, the referee gave a free-kick on the edge of the area before pointing to the spot after another VAR delay.

Son scored from the spot but the celebrations were cut short when Tierney ruled it out without allowing it to be retaken because the South Korea forward, who was booked, had stopped in his run-up.

That sparked more jeers from fans as Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino looked on in disbelief.

Fortunately for the home side, it did not ruin their night.

In other words, VAR did precisely the thing that its detractors, me included (and don’t get my wife started!), have said from the very beginning – that it destroys the flow of the game, the constant action, for very little reward.

For Pochettino, it was all too much:

the first half was a little bit embarrassing for everyone. I think it’s difficult to keep focus on playing football. I am not sure that that system is going to help. I love the football as football was born. That is why we love the game that we know.

I think football, we are talking about emotion, the context of emotion. If we are going to kill the emotion then the fans, the people who love football, I don’t think are so happy about what they saw today.

He’s not wrong (hence the title of this post). The comeback to soccer’s detractors when they complain that there aren’t enough goals and such is that precisely because they’re so rare the actual moment of scoring (or being scored upon) is a rush. VAR detracts from that for precisely the reasons Pochettino lays out. It’s one thing to have an apparent goal waved off instantly because somebody was offside. To have to wait a few minutes to figure out what’s going on just sucks.

That’s the real problem with VAR (or replay in American football) – it makes some fundamental changes to the game in pursuit of something it can’t deliver: mistake-free officiating. There’s no VAR in the Premier League (yet), but during a game this weekend the announcers – all former players – poured over replays of a potential penalty and, amusingly but not surprisingly, came up with three different opinions on the correct call. It’s one thing to use technology to aid goal-line decisions, as it’s a bright line test. But most other decisions in the beautiful game are, to some extent, subjective and there are no right answers. Stopping the flow of the game cold to go in search of them is a fool’s errand.

But, not of this seems to matter much, as the momentum for VAR rolls on. This past weekend, The International Football Association Board, the folks responsible for crafting the Laws of the Game officially embraced VAR. It’s here to stay, unfortunately (starting with this summer’s World Cup).

Adios to the Hex

Here’s a bit of technical for you – the 2018 World Cup is already underway. Has been for months. What we normally think of as the “World Cup” – such as the event in Russia next summer or the last shindig in Brazil – is actually the World Cup “finals.” They only take about a month. The process of getting to the finals takes over a year, winnowing the field down from 210 countries to a relative handful.

One of the neat things about the process is that FIFA allocates slots in the finals to each confederation, but let’s each confederation figure out how to fill its allocation. Europe, for example, divides up into groups, with the winners advancing and some number of second-place teams matching up in playoffs for the other spots. South American, by contrast, puts everybody in one group and plays a true round robin tournament (easy to do when you only have 10 countries). Most other confederations use some group structure to do away with a number of nations over two or three phases.

CONCACAF – the federation that covers North America, Central America and the Caribbean – works that way. Two rounds of preliminaries produce six teams that battle it out in “The Hex” – ten games, home and away. The top three go to the finals, while the fourth has to playoff against someone else (from Asia, this time around) to get in. The bottom two go home. While the region isn’t the toughest as far as talent, the 10-game format still makes for a great combination of slim margins and long hauls. Witness 2014, when Mexico had to claw back into fourth place and win the play off to get to Brazil, or the current Hex, where the US is barely in fourth place after laying goose eggs in our first two games.

Sadly, The Hex is almost certainly dead. Last year, when FIFA announced that the World Cup finals would expand to 48 teams (from 32) in 2026, everybody was fairly certain that would be the case. All the extra spots would call for a massive reorganization of qualifying the world round. But now, with FIFA announcing the allocations for 2026, it’s official – there’s no point having The Hex if six teams will qualify for the finals from CONCACAF.

I’m not sure whether the expanded World Cup finals will be an improvement over the current setup. The bloated European Championships last year included an awful lot of dull group games, although the knockout rounds were better. And I’m all for letting more people get to the biggest dance in the world (sorry, March Madness). But it will undoubtedly depressurize qualifying, at least in most confederations.

So, adios to The Hex.

Hex

A Modest Proposal – Play to Win

December marks an end to the American soccer season – Major League Soccer wraps up with the MLS Cup Final and college soccer does the same with the College Cup. It wasn’t all that pretty this year, as Mike Woitalla notes:

What a weekend for American soccer! The Seattle Sounders won MLS Cup without a shot on goal. Stanford prevailed in the college final four without scoring a goal.

If you watched both MLS Cup on Saturday and the NCAA College Cup on Sunday, you sat through nearly four hours of scoreless soccer. (Before defeating Wake Forest with a penalty-kick tiebreaker, Stanford beat North Carolina on Friday in the same manner after 110 minutes of scoreless play.)

As Woitalla points out, this is not just a case of American exceptionalism. Last summer’s Copa America Centenario final didn’t produce a goal in 120 minutes and the 2016 European Championship final produced just one in the same amount of time. Low scoring in finals is, sadly, a fairly common occurrence.* The question is why?

For Woitalla the culprit is poor officiating. Specifically, the referee is so scared of being blamed for deciding the game because of a big call that he refrains from making lots of calls that should actually be made. As a result, defenders are free to foul attacking players with impunity, effectively strangling goal scoring chances in their crib.

Woitalla isn’t alone in his assessment and he’s not wrong. I’ve never understood the objection to a ref making a big call and “deciding” the game. After all, failing to make the call in the name of “letting the players play” helps decide the game, too. More consistent officiating would certainly be a good thing.

But I think the problem goes deeper than that, to something that is unique to soccer. It is alone among stick-and-ball sports in not forcing its championship contestants to fight until somebody actually wins. Baseball has extra innings; football, basketball, and hockey all have overtime periods of various kinds; even golf goes to extra holes (sometimes even an entire extra round!) to resolve ties. Why should soccer, alone, thrown up its hands after 120 minutes and say, “well, that was pointless, let’s try PKs!”

I can already hear an objection – that soccer is different because of its limited substitution rules and the fact that players cover an massive amount of ground in 90 minutes, much less 120. Going on and on with tired players just makes things worse. As evidence, the objector might point to the extra time of just about any game that gets that far.

True as that is, I think it puts the cart before the horse. There comes a point in these finals where one team, if not both, simply decide the best strategy is to take no chances, avoid the risk of losing, and play for penalties. There is, after all, a light at the end of the 120-minute tunnel. But what if there wasn’t? What if players and coaches knew from the get go that they’d play until somebody actually won the game. Might they not actually try harder to do that? That’s my theory, anyway – take away the certainty of a tie breaking and games would open up as both teams would need to try and actually win the damned thing!

Ties are an inherent part of the game of soccer. There’s nothing wrong with that. Goals being a precious commodity makes the scoring (and preventing) of them all the more special. It’s fine, during a long league season, to walk away after 90 minutes and split the points. And there are such things as exciting 0-0 draws, where both teams really go for it. But too many teams, when it comes to a final, play not to lose, to preserve their chance of prevailing in a shootout. Take that chance away and goals will have to come, regardless of how long it takes.

This isn’t a viable solution for prior tournament games that require a winner. It would destroy a team’s fitness for the next match. But for a final, where there is no next match, what have we got to lose? Only the pain of suffering through another two hours of scoreless soccer and a champion decided in the crapshoot of penalty kicks. It’s time to try something – anything – different.

nogoals

* Props where it’s due – the exception to this pattern was the final of the Women’s College Cup, in which my WVU Mountaineers fell to USC 3-1. At least it was a fair beating.

A Bit of Perspective

Another year down and the United States national team finds itself doing the major tournament post mortem, this time following the Copa America Centenario. The 100-year anniversary of the South American championship was expanded to 16 teams, shipped north, and enjoyed record-breaking attendance. How’d the US do?

Not bad, if we’re being perfectly honest, going out in the semifinal to Argentina and losing to Colombia (for the second time) in the consolation match. Along the way we won our group, held off Ecuador (currently second in South America’s brutal World Cup Qualifying proceeding), and reached the goal that manager Jurgen Klinsman set for us.

Are we completely happy? Of course not, these are US soccer fans we’re talking about!  We’re a notoriously fickle bunch. I, myself, still think Klinsman isn’t very good at the actual game managing stuff (which is, you know, important). The lineup he chose for the Argentina game was like waving a white flag (or a red flag in front of a bull – take your choice) and had not even the slimmest chances of winning. But do I think the right lineup would have beaten Messi and company? Almost certainly not. Still, might as well go down fighting.

More importantly, let’s keep the whole thing in perspective. The FIFA rankings (flawed as they are) of the Copa semifinalists was 1 (Argentina), 3 (Chile), 8 (Colombia), and . . . 32 (United States). We were punching above our weight. Maybe we could have done it better, but at the end of the say, it seems like things fell about where they should.

Besides, it could have been worse. Mexico was humiliated by Chile, 7-1:

Yeah, we got bounced 4-0 by Argentina, but that’s still kind of reasonable. And it was in the semifinal, not the quarterfinal. And, for all our faults that night, we never gave up.

Beyond that, consider what befell the birthplace of the game, England, yesterday in the European Championships:

Iceland has a total population of about 330,000 people – that’s one-sixth the size of West Virginia, not to mention England.

And that’s not even considering a power like Brazil and Uruguay, who failed to make it out of their groups at the Copa, or the Dutch who didn’t even qualify for the expanded 24-team Euros!

I’m not saying I think the US is better than we actually are. But we’re not that bad, either. We pretty consistently do well in tournaments like this, even if we want to do better. It’s important not to lose that drive to improve. In the process, we shouldn’t give short shrift to what we actually achieve.

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