Belief System

The front pages of Salt Lake City’s major newspapers this morning, hours after Real Salt Lake became the second #8 seed in history to win MLS Cup:

Was it the greatest game ever? No. Finals rarely are. LA had the better of things early, but Real hung in there again, and Cup MVP Nick Rimando came up huge in the penalty kick shootout (more than you can say for league MVP Landon Donovan).

I don’t even have to look to know that two things are being discussed this morning among the rabble:

  • That a playoff system that lets an eighth-place team that finished below .500 in the regular season be crowned “champions” is inherently flawed; and
  • That penalties are no way to decide a title.

My responses to these are:

  • As soon as the 5th-seeded New York Giants, 13th-best-record-in-the-majors 2006 St. Louis Cardinals and 1938 Chicago Blackhawks give back their Super Bowl, World Series and Stanley Cup titles, respectively, you can have that point. This is how we do things in America. Sorry about your luck. Now shut up.
  • As soon as you come up with a workable idea, let us know. Play ’til someone drops? People nearly did last night. You don’t want your title decided on penalties, but you’d like to have it decided because someone just collapsed and made a mistake and that led to a fluky game-winning goal? Okay, then. If there was a better solution, we’d have found it by now. What it basically comes down to is that people (I’m sure it’s not just soccer people) want stuff that they can’t handle emotionally legislated away. This is the game. This is what it is. This is how it works. Los Angeles (and, last week, Chicago) each had 120 minutes to put Salt Lake away, and Supporters Shield winner Columbus had 180 minutes to do it – none of them could. The fact that the MLS champion is decided by who comes out on top in a four-week tournament in October and November rather than the 30-game season from March to October? Well, that’s just the way it is, boys and girls. The rules are the same for everybody. Now shut up.

You know what my reaction to this was? “Good for them.” Then I checked to see if Jason Kreis was going to be insufferable (he was) and then I went to bed.

Really, it’s that simple. Someone won, someone lost. Someone always wins and someone always loses. If you want a 100% guarantee of a happy ending, see a Disney movie. If you want a 100% guarantee of the ending you want, write a book.

Congrats, RSL. You earned it.

Final UFL Attendance Numbers

The United Football League finished its inaugural regular season last night with the Las Vegas Locomotives beating the New York Sentinels, 41-7. Vegas had already clinched a spot in next week’s championship game, while New York was locked in last place in the four-team league.

The powers that be didn’t expect a lot out of the “Premiere Season,” and, at least at the gate, they didn’t get a lot. The non-NFL markets of Las Vegas and Orlando did kindasorta okay, while New York and California (playing in San Jose and San Francisco) were just dreadful. Here are the numbers:

Team G Total Average
Las Vegas Locomotives 3 39,675 13,225
Florida Tuskers 3 34,578 11,526
New York Sentinels 3 19,911 6,637
California Redwoods 3 17,490 5,830
UFL TOTAL 12 111,654 9,305

Anyone who bought a ticket to last night’s regular-season finale got a ticket to the championship game for free, and they announced 13,306 (the Las Vegas paper estimated it at 5,500 in-house). We’ll see who turns up for the championship at noon on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

I said way back when that this league would never play a game, but they did. They apparently have funding and intent to play a second season. But unless there’s marked improvement at the gate, I don’t see how it can survive past 2010. Especially when the league commissioner said “we want to draw people here on our pace.” There IS no pacing yourself when it comes to selling tickets. You sell all the tickets you can as soon as you can.

I’d actually watch the game next Friday, but it’s on Versus, and they’re still locked in a dispute with DirecTV.

Not So Fast, My Friend

Statement tonight from the United Soccer Leagues:

“In response to the Team Owner’s Association (TOA) announcement that the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Crystal Palace Baltimore will be joining a prospective new professional soccer league, United Soccer Leagues (USL) has issued the following statement:

“Both the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Crystal Palace Baltimore have contractual commitments to USL to play in the 2010 USL First Division (USL-1) season. USL will pursue all actions to protect its interests and those of the USL-1 teams from any breach of contract caused by Tampa and Baltimore.

“USL further believes TOA is tortuously interfering with USL-1 team owners that are contractually obligated to participate in the 2010 season. TOA has made several misleading statements in a variety of press releases to taint the reputation of USL and its long history of developing the sport of soccer in the United States and Canada. USL will vigorously defend its legal interests against the TOA’s tortuous interference in contractual relationships with its team owners.”

Soccer War II has commenced.

(The part that was interesting to me is that Baltimore had committed to USL-1 for 2010. They’ve been a USL-2 club the last three years.)

Because I Should Probably Make a Pick For MLS Cup

I like the Galaxy to beat Real Salt Lake.

I asked my friend Dan Loney, who is a huge Galaxy fan but hates David Beckham like people who really hate things hate things, “Would you be conflicted if Becks scored the game-winner Sunday night?”

Dan said, “HE OWES US.”

Apparently they’ll be square if Beckham comes through on Sunday. My guess is he will, the Galaxy will win, and we’ll be spared the caterwauling from the Bigsoccer ignoscenti about an eighth seed being crowned MLS champion.

The game is at 8:30pm ET on Sunday night on ESPN, up against Chicago/Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football.

Party Like It’s 1979

The future of American soccer appears to be the past of American soccer.

It’s being reported that the new breakaway league consisting of several former USL clubs has registered the name North American Soccer League, apparently with the intent of using it at launch next spring.

There are those of us old enough to remember the original NASL (if you’re not, go here). Those who aren’t probably only know enough to say “That league folded. It’s stupid to take the name of a league that folded.” There might be something to that.

But I think enough time has passed that there’s a generation that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. And, despite what the young knee-jerkers will say, the NASL wasn’t a complete and utter failure. It laid the foundation for a lot of what we have today. It was fun. Funky. Fly-by-night, often.

And this league has enough challenges that whatever it decided to name itself was going to be the least of its worries. As of today, when two more teams (including my beloved Tampa Bay Rowdies – another NASL clone/zombie) jumped from USL to the new league, it has nine teams. Three are pretty strong (Montreal, Carolina, Vancouver), three either haven’t played a game yet or would be restarting after a year’s absence (Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Atlanta), one’s a USL-2 team moving over and up (Baltimore), one’s a complete train wreck (Miami) and one is said to be on the brink of bankruptcy (Minnesota).

Wait….that sounds exactly like the NASL! It’s the perfect name! ;)

Seriously, this just continues the retro trend in American soccer, which has been building for a while now. Here’s a (likely incomplete, you tell me) timeline:

1994 – The American Professional Soccer League’s expansion Seattle franchise takes the name “Sounders” used by the NASL team that played from 1974-1983. The club remained alive through 2008 in the second division before the name (altered a bit to Seattle Sounders FC) wound up on an MLS expansion team.

1998 -The Baltimore Spirit of the National Professional Soccer League changes its name to the Baltimore Blast, the name of the city’s original Major Indoor Soccer League team.

1999 – Major League Soccer’s San Jose club, the Clash, brings back the Earthquakes moniker used by its NASL (and, later, WSL) club from 1974-1988.

2001 – Vancouver 86ers reclaim the Whitecaps name used by the former NASL club. Portland’s A-League expansion club takes the name Timbers used by its former NASL club. It is expected that both will continue to use those names when they join MLS in 2011. The Kansas City Attack indoor team reclaims the Kansas City Comets name used by its original MISL franchise from 1980-1991. The National Professional Soccer League changes its name to the Major Indoor Soccer League.

2002 – The second MISL’s Cleveland Crunch changes its name to the Cleveland Force, the name of the city’s original MISL franchise from 1978-1988.

2008 – A USL expansion team in Tampa announces it will be known as the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the same name as the team that played in the NASL and, later, the ASL, from 1975-1993.

2009 – The National Indoor Soccer League becomes the third indoor league to call itself the Major Indoor Soccer League, changing its name ten days before its season opener. A new outdoor league, comprised largely of former USL-1 clubs, registers the trademark North American Soccer League, apparently with an eye on calling themselves the NASL.

Retro isn’t confined to soccer, as, I’m sure you all know. Pop culture reaches back to past decades cyclically in this country as well. It’s the way of things.

Like my man Billy Joel said “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” The name can come back, but the old days aren’t. I’m as nostalgic as the next guy, but I can’t get myself worked up enough to think the return of the NASL name is either the greatest thing ever or a horrible idea. It is what it is.

The Hand Of Gaul

Yes, that was a handball. Deux handball, no less. Thierry Henry‘s last-gasp equalizer sent the French through to South Africa and sent Ireland scrambling to try to force a replay “in the interests of fair play.”

I agree that’s the fair thing to do. I don’t think there’s any way in hell it’ll happen. That opens up a whole can of worms that I’m sure FIFA – which, let’s be honest, would rather have France in their party than Ireland – has no interest in opening. Any team that gets jobbed could appeal for a replay (no pun intended) and that’s just not going to happen, I don’t think.

So here are the 32 finalists, with their current world rankings (note, new rankings came out 11/20, so these reflect the latest numbers):

Africa (5)
11 Cameroon
16 Ivory Coast
22 Nigeria
28 Algeria
37 Ghana

Asia (4)
21 Australia
43 Japan
52 South Korea
84 North Korea

Europe (13)
1 Spain
3 Netherlands
4 Italy
6 Germany
7 France
9 England
10 Portugal
13 Switzerland
16 Greece
20 Serbia
26 Denmark
33 Slovenia
34 Slovakia

North, Central America and Caribbean (3)
14 United States
15 Mexico
38 Honduras

Oceania (1)
77 New Zealand

South America (5)
2 Brazil
8 Argentina
17 Chile
19 Uruguay
30 Paraguay

Host Country (1)

86 South Africa

#91 South #84 North Korea #86 South Africa is the lowest-ranked team in the field, while #8 #10 Croatia is the highest-ranked team that didn’t qualify.

For the US, now it’s all about the draw (and, no, not about the losses to Slovakia and Denmark, simmer the hell down, people) on December 4 at 11:00 a.m. ET on ESPN2. It’s highly unlikely the US will be seeded (South Africa gets one of the seeds as host, leaving only seven for the others, and we’re not one of the seven), meaning it’s not going to be easy.

But it’s not supposed to be easy. The hard makes it great. It’s the World Cup Finals. The last three and a half years since the disappointment in Germany have all been leading up to this. The next eight six-plus months are about preparing to play in South Africa starting in mid-June.

St. Paul

It was twenty years ago today that Paul Caliguiri struck the hyperbolically-named Shot Heard Round the World. This goal in Port of Spain gave the US men’s national soccer team a 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago and put the Americans into the World Cup for the first time in forty years:

American soccer fans, please look around you. All that you see would not be here had Caliguiri not scored that goal. The US doesn’t qualify for Italia ’90, it’s possible we don’t host WC ’94, it’s possible there’s no Major League Soccer…nothing.

Thank you, Mullet Brigade.

In Under The Wire

So, thanks to my man Dan Loney, I am reminded that Soccer Hall of Fame ballots are due tonight. Last year, I apparently had until early December. Caught me off guard.

Anyway, last year I voted for Jeff Agoos, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Raul Diaz Arce, Marco Etcheverry, Joy Fawcett, Robin Fraser, Pato Margetic, Victor Nogueira, Preki Radosavljevic and Carlos Valderrama. As soon as I transmitted the electronic ballot, I realized I hadn’t meant to vote for Diaz Arce. Luckily for me, my vote didn’t help him. And Agoos and Fawcett got in.

This year there are 24 names on the ballot and three of them (Chris Henderson, Eduardo Hurtado and John O’Brien) are first-timers. Four who were on last year’s 25-person ballot (Agoos and Fawcett, who got elected, and Frank Klopas and Pato Margetic, who did not) are not on this year’s list.

Seven people I voted for last year are back, but Diaz Arce was my mistake last year, so I’ve got six holdovers and ten spots – leaving four openings IF I vote for all six holdovers. While I don’t necessarily agree that ten votes is the way to go, those are the rules, so here we are, my rationale for voting for or against each of the 24 players:

  • Mike Burns: Fine player. Not a Hall of Famer.
  • Mauricio Cienfuegos: Terrific, outstanding player from MLS’ beginnings. Absolutely, yes, I’m voting for him.
  • Raul Diaz Arce: Won’t make that mistake again. Fine player. Not voting for him this time.
  • Thomas Dooley: As I’ve explained before, I’ve deliberately made Dooley sit in the penalty box the last few years because of his messy exit from Columbus and captaining the ’98 World Cup team. Now he’s served his time (in my eyes, we’ll see if his support moves off where it’s been the last few years) and, yes, I’m voting for him.
  • John Doyle: Good player. No.
  • Marco Etcheverry: One of the best players MLS has ever had. Really remarkable contributor to DC for many years. Yes, he gets my vote.
  • Robin Fraser: Voted for him last year, think defenders get shafted a lot, think he was a great player whose trophies and caps are few. Yes, I’m voting for him this year, too.
  • Chris Henderson: I really liked Chris Henderson as a player. Just kept running and running, played forever, effective but not flashy. A man after my own heart. I don’t think he’s a first-ballot guy, but I may vote for him in the future.
  • Eduardo Hurtado: Had a long career as a journeyman, from here to Ecuador. Scored a lot of goals early in MLS’ existence. A lot of guys scored a lot of goals early in MLS’ existence. Did you know he actually signed to play with the Cleveland Force of the Major Indoor Soccer League (the second one, not the first or third one)? The indoor game wasn’t for him. The Hall isn’t, either.
  • Dominic Kinnear: Played for my team, too. Great coach. I don’t think he’s a Hall of Fame player.
  • Roy Lassiter: The less said about Roy the better.
  • Shannon MacMillan: I think she’ll get in, eventually.
  • Joe-Max Moore: I love Joe-Max. Can’t put him in the Hall, though.
  • Victor Nogueira: Has outdoor credentials, but, as I believe the Hall shafts indoor players, I vote for him on that basis. He’s one of the greatest non-scoring indoor soccer players ever. I realize I’m in the minority on this one. I just do what I can. A big yes
  • Peter Nowak: Fabulous player. Wish he’d had a longer career, or that we could vote for combined player/coach contributions to the game. Had Hall of Fame ability, not sure the career was long enough (not that that was entirely his fault).
  • John O’Brien: Welcome to the ballot, John. Write if you get work.
  • Cindy Parlow: Terrific career. Not going in.
  • Preki Radosavljevic: How did he not get in last year? He actually got less support last year than the year before. Can’t figure it. Maybe this year, where there aren’t a few clear favorites. Yes, I’m voting for him.
  • Mike Sorber: Not in this group, no.
  • Earnie Stewart: Didn’t vote for him last year, but only because of the numbers game and because I knew he’d be up for consideration again. His contributions to the national team and the fact that he did come back to the US to cap a long pro career make me okay with voting yes for him.
  • Steve Trittschuh: Love Steve Trittschuh. Former Rowdie, former Mutineer. Can’t vote for him.
  • Carlos Valderrama: Blah blah blah no defense blah blah blah never won anything blah blah blah. Great player, we were blessed to have him here. Watching him play was magic. But as I look at overall contributions to the game of soccer in this country, I don’t think I can vote for him anymore. He played. People watched. But did he really impact anything?
  • Tisha Venturini-Hoch: Another terrific player. Another no vote.
  • Peter Vermes: I’ve voted for him before, but won’t this time around. He was very good, just not Hall-worthy.

So that’s seven. This will be the first time I’ve not used my full complement of selections, then. I guess either I’m getting more conservative about what Hall-worthy means, or this isn’t a particularly sexy group. Probably a little of both.

While I’ve voted for lots of people who haven’t gotten in yet, I don’t believe I’ve ever failed to vote for anyone who did get in. That says something, I guess.

The inductees will be announced in early 2010.