Catch This

Ah, sports columnists….

So right after Mitch Albom tells you “Forget the controversial almost-touchdown by Calvin Johnson that nearly won the game,” he writes 647 words about the controversial almost-touchdown by Calvin Johnson that nearly won the game. It’s a good thing I forgot about the controversial almost-touchdown by Calvin Johnson that nearly won the game before I read the column about the controversial almost-touchdown by Calvin Johnson that nearly won the game, because it was like reading a totally new story with which I was unfamiliar!

Anyway, as to the play in question, here’s the thing: for the first 80 or so years of this league, that’s a touchdown. Some time in the last few years, we started reducing football to a subatomic level. In our quest to make sure every call is correct, we’ve started analyzing slow-motion replays over and over, more closely than we used to squint and try to make out the shadowy figures in scrambled porn in the pre-internet days1.

And for what? What are we trying to accomplish? Taking a game played and officiated by humans and trying to turn it into a physics lab?

How come you can be down by contact when a defender brushes by you, but there’s a higher burden of proof when catching a ball and going to the ground? What are we accomplishing here, besides absurdly extending the length of games and deflating its emotion with interminable delays? When the guy sitting at home can see within 20 seconds and two replays whether a guy was inbounds or out of bounds, fumbled or didn’t fumbled, yet it takes five minutes (and a commercial break, let us not forget) for the booth or the referee to come to the same conclusion, what is wrong with this picture?

Technology is great. We should avail ourselves of whatever we have available to avoid egregious miscarriages of justice. But it’s reached the point where we’re arguing about angstroms2 and whether or not the ball moved or didn’t move from the time it reached a receiver’s hands until it is painted and put up on his mantel. If it was good enough for Lance Alworth, why isn’t it good enough now?

Now, I don’t have a horse in this race (though my team has been on the short end of one of these types of deals before), but I’ll say this: the call was correct based on a rule that needs to be revisited. In our quest to be cutting-edge, we’ve lost something that used to be great about football: you lined up and played and hit and ran and threw and if you got beat over the top for the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds, well, that’s the way it was. Now every close touchdown is a five-minute anticlimax while we try to make Extra Special Sure that the ball didn’t move, even an inch.

Fanboys like this jagov can never seem to wipe the spittle away from their mouths3 long enough to have a rational discussion of this, but the simple facts are these: that’s the rule, and they’re not changing it until next winter at the earliest (if they do at all, and former NFL officiating honcho Mike Pereira doesn’t think it’s all that likely).

I hope they do. But I’m not optimistic. Maybe we just don’t have enough irate columnists and YouTube videos to make a difference.

1 – I didn’t do this, Mom, seriously. I only heard about it.
2 – I think it goes back to the Music City Miracle, which had teams of scientists trying to prove the ball’s trajectory may have been forward by a half inch. To which I say, “You know what? If we have to call the MIT guys in on this it’s probably close enough. Let’s play.”
3 – I think it’s hilarious that fans lose their shit while the guy whose actual livelihood depends on his team winning games is as okay with the whole thing as you can be under the circumstances. Wait, you mean he didn’t make a profane YouTube rant? Really?

Pick A Winner!

You’re following the Cup, right? No, not that one. This one. The oldest soccer competition in America has reached the quarterfinal stage after DC United and Seattle advanced out of third round matches last night (highlights of the Sounders/Timbers match are here).

In this third round, MLS teams went 5-1-2 against lower-level competition (the two games that went to penalties officially go down as draws) and advanced in six of the eight matchups (oddly enough, the two lower-division sides that went through were third-division teams – USSF2 clubs were 0-for-6). This runs MLS’ all-time record in the Open Cup against lower-level competition to 110-42-19 (.699), and they’ve advanced 122 times in 171 matchups (71% of the time). Here’s the chart by level:

Level GP W L T Pct. Adv. Oust. Pct.
Division II* 115 71 30 14 .678 81 34 .704
Division III^ 35 23 10 2 .686 24 11 .686
PDL 17 13 2 2 .824 14 3 .824
USASA 4 3 0 1 .875 3 1 .750
TOTAL 171 110 42 19 .699 122 49 .713

*Includes the A-League, USISL Select League, USL First Division and USSF Division 2
^Includes the D3 Pro League, PSL and USL Second Division

But that’s only part of what I wanted to talk about today. I enjoyed watching the telecast of Seattle/Portland (it’s not often you get to see a US Open Cup match on TV before the final) despite a play-by-play guy with some…interesting takes on the English language. Anyway, they kept hyping it as “The Great American Soccer Rivalry.” Here’s what I did with that one. This is the kind of crap that made the Dallas Cowboys “America’s Team.” You just assert something is true, and if nobody calls you on it, eventually you get bolder and bolder and it becomes semi-fact.

Last night’s matchup was supposedly the 61st between the Sounders and Timbers going back to 1975. I just showed you the highlights of one. What other great Sounders/Timbers matchup do you remember off the top of your head?

You know why you don’t? Because 36 of the games happened in the USL and four others in the Open Cup (I must be missing one somewhere, unless they’re counting the Community Shield from earlier this year, because I only show 60 meetings). And of the 20 that happened in the original NASL, the most recent was in 1982. They only met in four playoff games in the USL, only one in the NASL, and now they’ve met four times in the US Open Cup. And only twice (1975 and 2007) did one team finish first in their division and the other second.

To be a truly great sports rivalry, you have to have most of the following: longevity, bad blood, memorable games, memorable personalities, controversy, playoff races or series, great or terrible moments (even better if we have photos or video of them), and the makings of compelling theater for people who don’t live in or around one of the two competing cities. You don’t have to have proximity (think USC/Notre Dame), but it doesn’t hurt.

I think Seattle/Portland falls short on most of those. There’s no doubt there’s proximity and bad blood (there seems to be some sort of general enmity between the two populaces, which always perplexes me). You can say they’ve got longevity, I guess, if you count the two (or three) incarnations of the Sounders, the two incarnations of the Timbers and the nine years between games. I’m sure Seattleites and Portlanders can come up with some memorable moments and maybe some controversy. Portlanders have a villain in Roger Levesque, but the only really villainous thing he ever did was score goals against them. But where are the memorable games (besides last night, which ended after 1am ET)? The playoff races? The personalities? The moments? And who outside of the Pacific Time Zone really cares?

Folks in the Pacific Northwest seem to keep pumping this meme that Seattle/Portland is going to be the MLS rivalry starting next year, as if past has been prologue and we’ve all just been waiting for you to get up here so we could have a real league. It’s not The Great American Soccer Rivalry. It’s the Pretentiousness Cup. And it’s always going to be a draw.

Other interesting stuff today:

  • Bill Simmons has a fantastic “20 Questions” column about the World Cup. For a relatively new soccer fan, he nails exactly why the US is out and why soccer is (finally) in in America.
  • And, proving there is balance in nature, there’s this douchebag from Las Vegas who may or may not even believe what he’s writing. Many newspaper columnists don’t care what their opinion is, only what they can get out there quickly without much effort and facts, common sense and context be damned. (And, inevitably, the meatheads who are in three fantasy football leagues feel compelled to chime in in the comments of any Soccer Sucks newspaper column.)
  • Excellent stuff from my man Tom Dunmore at Pitch Invasion on the shady guys behind Australia’s bid for a future World Cup.
  • Get ready for more Martin Tyler on ABC and ESPN in four years in Brazil. Whatever. I recognize his status, but there’s understated and then there’s boring. Tyler’s boring. Ian Darke, meanwhile, has been the find of the Cup. If you’re going to push my man JP Dellacamera to the side again (and please don’t), at least have Darke do the US games. Dump Derrek Rae and Efan Ekoku. They’ve been terrible. And a daily dose of John Harkes has exposed his lack of ability more than a game of the week could ever do.
  • I’ve got a bunch of soccer – and other sports – stuff I’m selling on eBay and there will be more to come (I’m trying to do five things a day). If you collect stuff, you should check it out.

Catching Up On Several Things

Sorry I’ve been remiss in posting much of interest lately. Real life has intervened. Here are a few things in my brain today:

  • I can sum up ESPN’s latest “30 For 30″ documentary, Straight Outta LA for you thusly: Los Angeles reflected the Raiders, the Raiders reflected Los Angeles, Los Angeles reflected gangsta rap, gangsta rap reflected Los Angeles, the Raiders reflected gangsta rap, gangsta rap reflected the Raiders, repeat those themes incessantly for an hour. Also, Al Davis apparently died somewhere around 2004 and his animated corpse is running the Raiders, and Ice Cube is not a filmmaker.
  • Apparently there’s some bit of kerfuffle over the USA’s 30-man preliminary roster for the upcoming World Cup. Coach Bob Bradley left recovering forward Charlie Davies off the roster in favor of five other forwards who you could reasonably make the case are in form and weren’t, you know, in a coma seven months ago. Here’s the deal on Charlie Davies: We all wanted to see this story have a miraculous ending. We all like Charlie Davies. But he’s lucky to be alive, and it’s a huge step from “lucky to be alive” to “potentially ready to contribute meaningfully to a World Cup team.” For those of you who would say, “Well, why not bring him into camp and see where he is, how will you know otherwise?” I would say this: Bradley’s staff has monitored all of Davies’ workouts, they had people there, they observed him and they had information from his club that he hadn’t been given full medical clearance. Meanwhile, you followed Charlie Davies on Twitter. So there we are.
  • Looks like there could be more team handball action in my future this summer. Which is good, because it looks like there will be less soccer action in my future this fall.
  • Congrats to the Phoenix Thunder, who beat the Chicago Fire Department Blaze, 38-20 on Saturday. The Thunder will host the National Public Safety Football League championship on June 12 against an opponent to be determined.
  • In Peter King’s world, if you take steroids, you should lose your Rookie of the Year Award, but if you murder someone, you shouldn’t be removed from the Hall of Fame. Okay, got it.
  • How can a guy this utterly un-funny not still be writing for Leno?

Sign Of The Times

Richard Snowden is the latest to jump on the “A strike helped kill the NASL! It’ll kill MLS, too!” bandwagon.

“Indeed, one observer, Boston-area lawyer Steve Gans, even went so far as to compare the current MLS situation to the 1979 North American Soccer League players’ strike, which dealt a strong blow to the then-rising NASL from which it never fully rebounded.”

If you define “never fully rebounded” as “having your best two years of average attendance immediately following, and not having a team fold in those years,” you’d be absolutely right.

Seriously, people need to stop parroting what this Steve Gans guy said without taking the time to see if he was telling the truth or not. You know, that used to be called journalism.

Two For Tuesday

I had yesterday off (like a lot of Americans – thanks, 1880 US Congress!) and my son and I went to ASU’s soccer stadium to watch the (more or less) Chicago Fire play the (more or less) Vancouver Whitecaps in a preseason exhibition match. Chicago beat Vancouver 4-1 behind two goals from trialist Collins John (who looks like he has talent but is far from fit) and two more from Stefan Dimitrov (the second of which came from a pass by former Northwestern star Mark Blades, who I hope sticks in the league). The Fire’s regulars then played the Arizona Sahuaros (an amateur side with some former pro ringers, like Greg Vanney) and beat them, 1-0.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

First, there’s this beauty of a column by LA-based writer Nick Green titled “MLS Must Loosen Purse Strings.” It includes the immortal canard, “MLS spending more money will increase the quality of play on the field.” Oy, vey.

Look, seriously….Major League Soccer is soccer on a shoestring, in a lot of respects. There’s no question they scrimp and cut corners and the players are the ones who take the brunt of that. But unless MLS intends to increase its player costs by $100 million, or maybe more, you’re not going to see an increase in quality of play on the field – at least not one that you’d notice. Paying Kelly Gray more money isn’t going to make him a better player. Paying $40,000 a year to a guy who was making $20,000 a year isn’t going to make him twice the player. And unless you’re going to spend enough money to completely bankrupt the league, you’re not going to get players who are truly international-level stars. You just aren’t.

If MLS is going to increase salaries and its cap budget for overall team expenditures, the gains are going to be modest at best. An increase in the minimum salary might happen, and a bigger budget overall might entice some mid-level talent to choose MLS over Scandinavia or something. But to think that a rise in the level of play is going to just naturally follow that increase as day follows night is ridiculous. What is it about English people that they understand so little about the realities of American soccer, no matter how long they’ve lived here?

The second thing is this article in the Nashville City Paper about the apparent demise of yet another team in the American Basketball Association (don’t confuse it with the original ABA, folks, this is basketball with all the hijinks of the original ABA and none of the charm). It contains this beautiful realization:

“The Stars did what many minor league franchises do early on, papering the house with free tickets to put their product on display. But after averaging just over 1,000 fans at Lipscomb’s Allen Arena for the first three games, the front office began to realize an ugly truth: Attendance lacked staying power without the freebies.”

I have this discussion with people all the time (especially in soccer, and even moreso, it seems, in indoor soccer). They say, “Just give tickets away, get people there. Then, the next time, they’ll come back and they’ll pay for their ticket.”

Only it doesn’t happen that way. When you set the value of a ticket (the only thing you have to sell, really) at $0, you have established that it is not worth paying for. You don’t create fans that way, you create a culture of people who expect to always get freebies. You’ve devalued your product and your brand.

Does that mean you charge outrageous amounts (like the MetroStars did in the 2003 US Open Cup final because “It’s New York, these people have to pay championship prices for a championship event”)? No. Setting the price of your product based on what the market will bear is a tricky science.

But giving tickets away? When that’s what you’re selling? That’s just insane. Whether it’s low-rent minor-league basketball or soccer or whatever.

Okay, Now It’s Out Of Control

Okay, Indianapolis. I know you’re upset because (boo hoo) your Colts lost a regular-season game for the first time in 24 tries on Sunday. I know seeing Peyton Manning leave the game and someone named Curtis Painter come in and proceed to stink up the joint isn’t what you had in mind.

But, no, you don’t get your money back. That’s insane. Continue reading Okay, Now It’s Out Of Control

These People Don’t Know More Than You, They Just Have Better Seats

People who want you to believe they can predict what’s going to happen in the NFL are funny. Case in point, “NFL expert” Adam Schein, whose predictions this week would have to be a lot better than his predictions of last week to be, uh, expert predictions.

  • Joe Flacco outplays Tom Brady. In a game that features up to five future Hall of Famers, Flacco will be the star.” – Brady’s Patriots won, 27-21. Flacco was 27-46, 264 yards, 2 TDs and an interception. Brady was more efficient (21-32, 258 yards and a touchdown), scored a touchdown himself and won the game. Hard to say that Flacco outplayed him.
  • Drew Brees throws for 3 touchdowns against the Jets defense” – Brees threw for no touchdowns against the Jets, but the Saints’ defense scored twice and forced four turnovers.
  • “I think (the Titans, Dolphins and Bucs all) fall to 0-4.” – Miami won, the other two lost.
  • Kyle Orton (won’t) outplay Tony Romo” – Well, Orton won and went 20-29, 243 yards, 2 touchdowns. Romo was 25 of 42 for 255 and an interception.
  • Glen Coffee goes for 100 rushing yards against St. Louis” – Coffee ran for 74 yards on 24 carries.
  • (Jay) Cutler will own the Lions on Sunday.” – 18 of 28, 141 yards, 2 touchdowns. But they won.
  • “I think San Diego has a chance to win, and an excellent chance at that.” – Came close, at least.
  • “This game has 24-6 Bengals written all over it.” – Bengals 23-20 in overtime.

The fact is, nobody knows what’s going to happen. If you did, why would you watch?

Why You Shouldn’t Take Sports Columnists Too Seriously

Chris Dufresne, Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2009:

“Making (USC true freshman quarterback Matt) Barkley’s first-ever road trip a nationally televised game at Ohio Stadium is like sending a first violinist to Carnegie Hall before he has learned to play the entire concerto.”

The gist of it was that Barkley wasn’t ready, that they were just serving up a spot in the BCS title game to Ohio State by starting a true freshman who threw 18 interceptions as a high school senior.

Barkley was just 14 for 31 passing for 195 yards and one interception on the day, but led the Trojans on a 14 play, 86-yard drive for the winning score in an 18-15 victory over the Buckeyes Saturday. The freshman who wasn’t ready to go into Carnegie Hall went 3-for-5 passing for 55 yards and converted a fourth and a third down with quarterback sneaks on the game-winning drive….in the fourth quarter…in the cauldron of Ohio Stadium. How about that?

Dufresne’s colleague, Bill Plaschke, wrote in his column on the day after:

“Those who questioned Coach Pete Carroll’s sanity, those who thought a true freshman should never be the starting quarterback for a championship-contending team . . . were you watching? Were you listening?”

Dufresne must have been listening, but must have conveniently forgotten what he had written two weeks prior (or he must have hoped we wouldn’t remember). His column made little mention of the USC/OSU game, except to say:

“Matt Barkley?

His offense generated one touchdown: the one that counted.

And, in football, only the scoreboard counts.”

Well, lah tee freaking dah. Here I thought it was about how old you were or how much experience violin practice you had.

As a side note, there apparently is a psychic named Christopher Dufresne. It ain’t the guy writing for the LA Times, I can assure you.

Don’t Wanna Be A Canadian Idiot

More idiot soccer columnism from north of the border. Today’s honoree: Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette, with the standard sky-is-fallingDavid Beckham hates MLS the league sucks let the Impact in no wait we don’t need you” nonsense.

Oh, with a side order of NASL! Tasty!

“When the Galaxy signed Beckham two years ago, my fear was that MLS was headed down the same path that led to the demise of the North American Soccer League. The NASL was stocked with overpriced and over-the-hill superstars like Pele, Eusebio and Franz Beckenbauer. Their salaries eventually bankrupted the league and their presence slowed the development of local talent.

I don’t know how old Pat Hickey is, but if he thinks that Franz Beckenbauer was “over-the-hill” when he joined the Cosmos at age 31, he’s a bigger idiot than Cathal Kelly. And that’s saying something.

EDIT: Now that I look, Pat Hickey is an old guy, who’s been at the Gazette as long as I have been alive. He should know better, then. Beckenbauer was still a great player when he came to the States, and throughout his NASL career. We can debate Pele all we want, and Eusebio was 32 and didn’t last long. But Beckenbauer? No, sorry, sir.

And “their salaries” didn’t bankrupt the league. It wasn’t what the Cosmos were paying Pele and Beckenbauer. It was what Dallas was paying Klaus Topmoller because of what the Cosmos were paying everybody. You’re an idiot.

Today’s Overreaction Comes From…

…north of the border, where, as I may have written once or twice before, there seems to be a lot of crap soccer journalism.

The Beckham thing is going to end, yes, but the league’s not going to end with it, no matter what Cathal Kelly (about whom, again, I’ve written before) says in this over-reactionary piece in the Toronto Star.

“This isn’t just bad news for the league. It’s a delayed death sentence. It may take years of decline – there are a lot of very rich people invested in this league right now – but it’s a straight line from right now, from this failure, to the funeral.”

Dear God. Get over yourself. Go wait with Jamie Trecker for the any-minute-now fax announcing MLS’ demise.

“The league will go forward. Markets like Washington and Toronto will continue to enjoy the sort of contained fervour that MLS calls success. But the struggling ones will quickly hit the skids. The citizens of Dallas and Denver and Kansas City will stop pretending to care. So, shortly thereafter, will ESPN. Any sort of national presence is effectively gone. MLS is strictly regional from here on in.

“MLS did what it could. It hired the world’s best pitchman. He came here, looked around and decided that the product wasn’t worth his time. That puts the league, Toronto FC and hundreds of thousands of fans on notice that, barring a stroke of genius, the slow unravelling of Major League Soccer has begun.”

Well, you’re right in that the league will go forward. And, as North Americans do, they’ll forget the guy was even here by this time next year, and it won’t matter. But it won’t kill the league.

David Beckham was never going to “save” Major League Soccer. And his departure isn’t going to kill it.

Columnists just like to write stuff that pegs to the extremes of one side or the other – and the negative sells better.