Tuesday, July 30, 2019

U.S. Women's Soccer and Equal Pay

Mediation is not binding arbitration.  Remember that.

There was nothing generous or magnanimous about the members of the U.S. Women's Soccer team's agreeing to mediation in its lawsuit against U.S. Soccer to obtain equal pay.  Most courts require mediation, and while judges are supposed to be disinterested parties litigants can tick them off if they do not agree to sit down with a mediator to try to work out there differences.  Secondly, it was a good public relations move.  Most people don't want to be involved in litigation let alone understand it.  By agreeing to mediation before the World Cup took place, the USWNT was sending a message that it was willing to. . . well, what exactly?  Compromise?  Perhaps.  All that we can read into this is that the USWNT was willing to sit down and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of its case with a mediator, who has the job of going back and for the between the parties and trying to hammer out a deal.  Sometimes that works, sometimes it does not.  If mediation does not work, litigation proceeds.

It always has struck me that there is nothing really to mediate and that if the USWNT does not get everything it wants -- and "equal pay" is a broad statement that thus far the USWNT has not defined with precision -- it will litigate its case.  It has every right to do that.  Given the UWNT's success and popularity, it just might win.

But what is "equal pay," exactly?  That is the question that a court will determine, if the parties do not reach an agreement through mediation.  U.S. Soccer added fuel to the fire yesterday by releasing a statement that it is its contention -- if not a fact in their minds, at least -- that it paid the members of the USWNT more than the members of the USMNT over the past years because it paid the women both salaries and bonuses and the men just bonuses.  On paper, the statement looks reasonable.  But, as the USWNT members point out, the contention of U.S. Soccer mixes apples and oranges and thus is contaminated.  U.S. Soccer wants credit for backing the women's league in the U.S. and paying the salaries of the women's club teams; the plaintiffs will argue, vigorously, that the salaries should not be part of the equation because the subject in dispute in court is a narrower one -- the pay they receive as members of the USWNT.

Here are some facts that are good background:

1.  Men's club teams have been around for roughly a century longer than women's teams.

2.  Men's club teams enjoy far greater commercial success than women's club teams.

3.  The revenues of men's club teams far exceed those of women's club teams around the world.

4.  The competition among nations to qualify their men's teams for the men's World Cup is much more difficult right now than the competition among the women's teams, in large part because of a historical emphasis on funding men's national programs and teams over women's national teams (the latter which are much more recent in formation).

5.  The U.S. culturally is ahead of most other countries in women's club and international competition.  Some other countries are catching up fast.

6.  The U.S. culturally is behind in men's club (heck, the MLS's season does not even coincide with that of the major leagues in Europe) and international competition -- and, as to the latter, might never catch up so long as the top athletes in the U.S. are not playing the sport, the "pay-to-play" culture persists and the top U.S. professional players (by the hundreds) are not playing for the top club teams around the world.

7.  The U.S. women's national team has a strong brand in the U.S., so much so that it enjoyed better TV ratings this summer in the U.S. than the men's World Cup did in the U.S. a year ago.  Of course, the U.S. men's team did not qualify for the men's World Cup (which explains to some degree, if not in large degree, why the TV ratings for the men's World Cup were lower).

8.  The U.S. women's national team is a perennial annual force.  The U.S. men's national team blundered and stumbled through its World Cup qualifying in 2019, losing at Trinidad & Tobago in its ultimate qualifying match and thus failing to qualify for the World Cup (U.S. men were in good company -- Italy and Netherlands failed to qualify, too).

9.  The U.S. women's professional league in the U.S. does not enjoy the financial support that MLS does and might founder without the financial support of U.S. Soccer (which includes payment of salaries for players in the league).

All of this will come up in the litigation.  U.S. Soccer has played its hand -- its support for the U.S. women's league should count in the equation that computes the pay of the plaintiffs.  The plaintiffs will counter that only their pay -- as U.S. women's national team members -- should figure into the discussion.

This is where the difference seems to lie.  A mediator will do her/his best to try to find common ground between the parties and a solution to the problem.  But don't bet that this will happen unless the members of the USWNT get everything they ask for.  They have been public about this, and they have been very vocal, putting themselves in a position that to take anything less will be a defeat.

But do the plaintiffs, the members of the USWNT, have to be careful that they can win the battle but lose the war?  Is there more to yesterday's statement of U.S. Soccer than meets the eye?  Is the statement a foretelling of U.S. soccer's arguments in court or a threat?  What is the threat -- that we are supporting a league that has failed to get commercial support and our well is only so deep, so, members of the USWNT, take this to court if you wish and you might win and get your bonuses as USWNT players increased, but we could take away our financial support for your domestic league, either because it has been a bad business proposition or because if we need to pay higher compensation for USWNT appearances we will not have the money to support your professional league in the U.S.  Is that where U.S. Soccer is going?  Would that be a good strategy, or is that a "scorched earth" policy that will set back soccer and women's soccer for years if not decades in the U.S.?

There are two sides to the argument, and both sides clearly are frustrated.  U.S. Soccer should remember an old adage -- you don't always win by being right all the time.  Put differently, if you have too good a deal, the other side will figure it out and get really annoyed.  That time is now.  Good dealmakers understand that a good deal is not getting everything you want and leaving little or nothing on the table for the other side.  And they have a chance, with the right focus and marketing, to propel women's soccer in the U.S. and globally to heights that no women's team sport has ever experienced.  Likewise, they have the opportunity to set it back years, too.

This could be what business people call a "high class" problem.  The key will be to craft a solution that enables both sides to get what they want and maintain their dignity in the process.  That type of solution benefits everyone, especially at a high water mark for the sport.  Nasty litigation battles do not tend to do that.

In the end, it is very understandable that the plaintiffs are doing what they are doing and fighting hard for their compensation.  After all, how can we expect them to battle hard for every ball in the air, every loose ball and every ball in front of the goal if they don't battle hard for themselves and their livelihoods?

Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Nick Francona

He is the oldest of Terry Francona's four children, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, a former military sniper and employee of MLB teams.  Sadly, he did not find traction in his career with MLB teams.  I do not know what he is doing now, but I highly recommend that you read his Tweets if nothing else.

Francona is candid, so much so that he probably will not work in MLB again.  He certainly speaks like someone who does not care whether any team will hire him.  Unlike most writers who cover baseball, he is very critical of the game and its future.  He is bright, and he is insightful.

My guess is that those inside MLB are trying to tow the line between abjectly disliking Francona and telling people to stay away from him and tolerating him at a distance because he is the son of a future Hall of Famer.  A national network or publication would be wise to hire him and give him a platform.  Now, more than ever, baseball needs very tough critics who challenges every aspect of the game.  The game has some significant flaws which, unaddressed, could contribute to making it a shadow of what it once was.  So long as the game currently is lucrative for the owners and they enjoy a favorable collective bargaining agreement, the owners will be content to sit tight and only offer slight tweaks. 

And that would be a shame. 

So, if you have a Twitter account, follow Nick Francona.  As Hemingway once wrote, write not because you want to say something, but because you have something to say. 

Nick Francona has something -- actually many things -- to say.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Baseball -- The Balls are Not Juiced

I know.  I know.

What I am about to write is heresy.  The easiest explanation for all the home runs in baseball is that the balls are wound tighter, are juiced, jacked, however you want to describe them.  What else explains the wacky number of home runs that future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander has yielded?  What else explains that the Phillies are on pace to shatter the record for home runs yielded in a season?  What else explains, well, all of the home runs?

Except that there are some holes in this argument, and that I think that there might be a better explanation.  I am not a math guy and do not have access to the databases and underlying results that could help prove my case.  So take this post as an outline of an argument -- for a sportswriter to pursue and test to see if it is correct.

First, if you look up all of baseball's numbers, there are other numbers that are compelling, such as how awful bullpens are doing this year.  Second, it isn't as though offense has taken off to the point that the average league OPS or batting averages are way up.  I haven't been able to locate a free site that gives me these numbers, but you would think that if batting numbers overall were way up that topic would be the subject of many broadcasts.  If you go back to the late 1960's, hitting numbers were way down, so much so that MLB lowered the pitcher's mound to take away the pitcher's advantage.  Seemingly, that change worked.  And, yes, now there is talk -- primarily among pitchers and their parents -- about un-juicing the baseballs to reduce the number of home runs to "normal" levels (even though fans like the long ball).  But MLB denies that they are juiced.

So what is going on?

Here is an alternative theory.  The balls are not juiced.  They are the same as they ever were.  It is the deployment of analytics and the changes in batters' behavior that are creating the extra home runs.  

Let's talk about the changes to hitters' tactics.  First, there is significant talk about exit velocity and launch angle.  Take those two approaches together, along with the fact that hitters keep on striking out in record proportion, and you get a partial explanation as to why home runs are way up.  The hitters simply are trying to hit more home runs.  And lots of them.  The numbers guys will tell you that they would prefer strikeouts to balls in play that could end up in double plays.  So, hitters now try to hit the ball up and out as opposed to down and through.  Look at games today; balls are in play an average of about every four minutes.  Players are not trying as much as they used to for singles and doubles; they are trying to hit the long ball.  And they are succeeding.  Presumably, if you place an almost singular emphasis on trying to hit home runs, you will hit more of them, and at the expense of other hits.  To put it differently, if the balls truly were juiced, more of them would be getting through the infield and creating higher batting averages for players.  But that isn't happening.  True, players are trying to hit the ball harder (exit velocity) and further (launch angle), but presumably they would be more successful if you added the juicing of the balls to their approach.  Except the numbers do not seem to bear that out.

Secondly, the pitching.  Pitchers and pitching have not evolved as much as hitting has.  The recent approach to pitching is to have pitchers throw as hard as they can, especially relievers.  That's all well and good, but the analytics are so good that the hitters have been catching up to the overwhelming power of pitchers (who have had an upper hand).  There are a few dynamics going on.  First, starting pitchers are having increasing trouble getting through lineups the second time around and even more so the third time around.  Why?  Because the hitters are getting more and better information and because they get time to adjust to the approach of the pitcher that night.  Second, relievers have very few pitches, making it easier for the hitter to guess what's coming.  Typically, a reliever has a setup pitch and his "out" pitch.  Each is thrown at one speed, hence only two different varieties for the most part.  The analytics guys can help hitters figure out what is coming much more easily than say even five years ago.  Okay, so you'll argue then that averages should be way up, and you'd have a point.  Except one fact remains true -- it is very hard for a human being to hit a baseball.

So what's the solution for pitchers?

Change speeds.  Much more frequently than they currently are doing.  Right now a starting pitcher throws three or four pitches, and some are better than others.  Typically, he throws each of these pitches at one speed.  That means he is throwing only three or four varieties.  That number of pitches makes it easier for the analytics folks to guess the tendencies of the pitchers and teach the hitters what to expect.  The variables are not all that many.  But what if a starting pitcher threw his two- and four-seam fastballs at three different speeds, his change-up at two and his breaking balls at three different speeds, true old-time pitching.  It would be hard for the hitter to know what was coming.  Atop that, this approach could save wear and tear on arms.  Gibson, Koufax, Carlton, Spahn, you name it, all used this approach.  And each could rear back and throw and amazing fastball with a few men on in the seventh to kill a rally.  Increase the number of variables the hitter has to deal with, keep the hitter guessing more than ever.  It just might work.

The same holds true for relievers.  It's easier to tattoo a relief pitcher who throws one out pitch with confidence and a mediocre fastball.  Sure, it was still impossible to hit Mariano Rivera's cutter, but he was an outlier.  Most guys do not have that talent, grit or innate confidence.  The reliever who masters a few pitches and changes speeds just might have more success.

Right now, though, the combination of hitters' focusing on launch angle and exit velocity and an increasing predictability of a pitcher's tendencies because of analytics combine to form the foundation for the additional home run numbers in Major League Baseball.  That is the counterargument to the notion that the balls are juiced.

It's just that contending that the balls are juiced is the easier argument, the one that draws headlines.

Except that it just well could be wrong.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Paul Holmgren's Departure from the Flyers

Mike Sielski is absolutely correct.  His column in today's Philadelphia Inquirer nails it.

The Flyers' organization has a problem, a big one at that.  It continues to permit the vastly overrated legacy of Ed Snider to rule the roost.  While the legatee in power -- Paul Holmgren -- departs, two of his Hall of Famers -- Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber -- still have significant influence within the organization.  This influence suggests that the organization is stuck in a doom loop of wishing that the past could recur, that these guys -- no matter how well intentioned -- seem intent on reprising the glory days in the same mold that they created them.

And that just has not happened, does not happen and will not happen.  Looking back turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt.  Focusing on the past has prevented this organization from winning a Stanley Cup in 44 seasons.  Oh, there were some trips to the Cup finals, but no Cup.  And in between?  Train wrecks or mediocrity.

The past -- when it happened -- was vigorous and exciting.  But then the Canadiens interrupted the Broad Street Bullies with a combination of skills (of which the Bullies did not have nearly as much) and toughness that enabled them to dethrone the champions and hold onto the cup for years, and then the Islanders skated around everyone for years more.  And then came a guy named Gretzky in Edmonton.

This organization has failed in so many ways.  It has failed to adapt.  It has failed to overcome the idolatry about Snider.  It has failed to overcome the idolatry over Clark, Barber and the Bullies.  Yes, there is a core group of fans -- some would suggest that the only fans the team has are those who go to the games and then, of course, those who support the team when they go on a winning streak.  Those fans for the most part keep on coming back.  Perhaps they are old, nostalgic, still yearn for fighting, old-time hockey, "putting on the foil."  Perhaps they just love hockey.  But the game has changed, times have changed, and yet the Flyers still keep on disappointing.

Mike Sielski has right.  Holmgren has departed, but nothing really has changed.  The team is what it's record say that it is.

Which is not very good.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

The Phillies Could Have Themselves a Huge Dramatic Moment

The Phillies need pitching.


The Cubs need to make some decisions about whether to go for it or to trade some assets.

Cole Hamels might be available.

The Phillies traded him several years ago, at the end of the Ruben Amaro era, for a handful of prospects, none of whom has turned into a good player, at least just yet.  What they have to show for that trade, in part, is all-star catcher J.T. Realmuto, whom they received in a trade for several prospects, among them catcher Jorge Alfaro, who was one of the players received in the Hamels trade to the Texas Rangers.  Hamels didn't excel in Texas; he found some new life in Chicago.

Hamels made one of the all-time last starts in a team's uniform when he no-hit the Cubs in Wrigley.  That is not easy to do, and it was a great punctuation mark on an outstanding career in Philadelphia.  Remember this, since World War II, the Phillies have developed only five #1 starting pitchers -- Robin Roberts, Ferguson Jenkins (who was traded to the Cubs so early in the career that it is a stretch to take credit for him), Curt Schilling (okay, he bounced around, but he blossomed in Philadelphia), Hamels and now Aaron Nola.  That's it.  For what it's worth, the Phillies weren't so good at developing #1 starters before WWII, either.

So imagine that GM Matt Klentak gets on the phone with the Cubs' brass and talks a trade for Hamels, a hard worker, a cerebral pitcher, a clutch pitcher.  Imagine that it won't cost too much for a 35 year-old starter with a recent history of injuries.  That needs to be the case because the Phillies' farm system isn't the strongest these days.  Yes, they have some promising position players, but they are untouchable.  Pitching prospects seem the most likely to be dealt, and lesser ones than that because of Hamels' age.  Translated -- the team traded Sixto Sanchez to Miami in the Realmuto deal, so it's unlikely they'll trade one of their top three pitching prospects for Hamels.  But, seemingly, there is always a way to make a deal like this work.

And, if it were to work, imagine the turnout at Citizens Bank Park for Hamels' first start.  Ticket sales would rocket, and unless the temperature will traverse 95 degrees or the game will be played in a downpour, there will be a sellout.  Good feeling will abound, and the fans will leap to their feet the moment #35 walks out to the mound to take his first warm-up pitches.  The ovation will reverberate.  

Because that is how much Cole Hamels means to them.

He can come home.  

Now it's up to the Phillies' management to make it happen.

Monday, July 08, 2019

The U.S. Women's National Team -- Reflections

The first word that comes to mind when I think of this team is "juggernaut."  Another thought is a rap that the Oakland Raiders sang when they were the biggest, baddest team on the planet -- "we never retreat, we always attack."  This is the team that you hate to play but love them if they are the team from your town, reflecting the toughest and most relentless elements of the Raiders, "We are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates, the Splash Brothers, Steel Curtain, Green Bay Packers, New York Yankees and name any other dynasty for that matter.  This team does change up its roster every four years -- only a handful of starters from '15 started in '19 -- and it keeps on rolling.

And it seems that with its popularity, a strong pipeline of talent and competition down in the ranks that helps ensure that the best players surface, this team will keep on rolling forward.  In Rose Lavelle, they had a star and have their centerpiece for 2023.  Of this squad, Megan Rapinoe will be 38, Tobin Heath 36 and Alex Morgan 34 during the next go-round, so it figures that new players will rise up and have center stage.  Some will play a role, but if the powers that be hold true to form four years from now (and, no doubt, with advanced analytics will evolve their thinking even more), these folks will play diminished roles.  Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh and Tierna Davidson seem primed for greater ones.  The pipeline, to borrow a phrase from those studying whether to invest in pharmaceutical stocks, is loaded.  Bet against them at your own risk.

Those who formed the foundation of this effort, and those who continue the excellence, should be lauded for all their accomplishments.  They are huge, they are many, and they are inspiring.

While I'm at it, let's not avoid the quest for these women to get paid for their national club service at the same rate as the men.  We are not talking about whether a player for the Portland Thorns should make as much as a player for teams with much more revenue, enterprise value, endorsements and exposure, and neither are the members of the women's national team.  That is not the point of the lawsuit, whether, for example, someone for a professional women's team in the US league should make what her equivalent is making for Liverpool or Real Madrid.  What we are talking about is whether the players of the USWNT should make what the players on the USMNT should for their national team service.

The answer is a resounding yes, for many reasons.  First, they have earned it.  The women have put soccer on the US map more so than the men have.  I would argue that if soccer is more popular among young boys, it is because of the influence of the international stars and league more so than MLS and because finally many parents are waking up that kicking a ball is a healthier way for junior to spend his fall afternoons than banging heads on a gridiron.  Put differently, you can argue and win that the "brand equity" in the women's team is much greater than that of the men's team in the U.S.

How?  How many members of the U.S.men's team can the average fan name?  Christian Pulisic is the one that comes to mind.  True, he is very good, perhaps even the best player in U.S. history -- and he is only 20.  But his career has a long way to go and he needs to develop to become an international star.  Anyone who thinks he can replace Eden Hazard at Chelsea is mistaken right now -- Hazard is one of the top five players in the world.  He is very good.  But he is not at the elite level of his sport the way [fill in the blank -- Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle] is in hers.  Many Americans can name more than a handful of the U.S. women's stars.  After Pulisic, most Americans will come up empty.

Second, the numbers have to add up, despite FIFA's emphasis on the men's game and the huge disparity of the dollars FIFA puts into the men's game versus the women's.  The TV ratings for the US women's team were great, and the results were terrific.  Contrast those ratings and the results of the U.S.men's team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a concoction of the regional soccer authority to create a tournament and opportunity for TV money for teams in various parts of the world during a year when there is not a World Cup or continental championship.  The ratings were not great, the stadiums were half empty and the US men's team once again fell short and lost to Mexico.  Not only that, but they lost to Mexico in the U.S.and in a stadium where Mexican national team jerseys far outnumbered (according to people who were there) U.S. men's national team jerseys.

Third, forgetting the economic arguments, it is the right thing to do, sends the right message and will not cost the US Soccer Federation all that much money (we're talking probably less than $3.5 million) to get the U.S. women on par with the U.S.  men.  US Soccer does not want to litigate this before a jury, especially right after a World Cup where the U.S. women made quite a statement.  The members of the US women's team agreed to mediation to take the temperature down and try to settle this matter reasonably, but remember that mediation is not arbitration.  If the parties cannot work out a deal in mediation, then litigation will continue.  And that will be bad for US Soccer and its governing body.  Even if it is right on some of the numbers -- numbers that are skewed because of FIFA's historic emphasis on the men's game and the money that FIFA can command from sponsors of the men's game -- US Soccer will not win.  Not providing equal pay to this juggernaut will stain US Soccer for a long time.  And let's face it, the women need this money to remain elite.  They do not command the sums that their male counterparts make in MLS (a second-tier league) or in Europe (for the few ambitious, aggressive, tough, and good enough to make a leap into top-tier leagues).  The gap in club team play -- and that is not at issue in the litigation -- is not even close.  If US Soccer wants the women's team to continue to excel, it needs to level the playing field when it comes to compensating members of the national team.

The time is right to do the right thing.

* * * * *

That the men's team trails the women's team in international success is no surprise.  There are several reasons for this.  First, soccer has not been a priority among boys in the United States since, well, forever.  In contrast, it has been the primary obsession in many other countries in the world -- for decades.  In short, the men's team started way behind and continues to be way behind, despite all the effort put into elevating the men's team to a level where it can be competitive with the top countries in the world.  Second, the team still is a game of the suburbs and the well off, for the most part, areas that do not always give rise to the hungriest, best or most talented athletes.  Look at stars in the NFL and NBA -- I am sure that almost none of them gave any thought to playing soccer.  But imagine if they did -- Allen Iverson as a center attacking midfielder, Calvin Johnson as a goalie, LeBron James as a striker, Dwayne Wade as holding midfielder.  The possibilities are endless.

The U.S. -- for men -- has many other sports that are key parts of its culture and have been for over a century.  It is difficult for soccer to compete with that.  Third, there is a culture of going to college -- at 18 -- and playing four years there.  In contrast, kids in Europe enter academies at very young ages and start playing for their clubs' youth teams thereafter.  By the time a kid is 18 in Europe he is expected to draw the notice of the manager of the top team within the club -- the one that competes in the likes of the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, etc.  By the time a kid is 18 in the U.S. he might be a freshman at Indiana, playing against other collegians.  The contrast is striking, although it is changing (recent case in point -- the Philadelphia Union last season traded all of its draft picks as a concession that it is getting its best players from its academy, the way clubs do in Europe).  Almost no elite men's players come out of college -- they are just too far behind.

As former U.S.men's team player and current English Premier League player Geoff Cameron observed, unless and until the top players -- dozens of them -- play in the elite leagues in Europe and make the sacrifices that he did (moving to a small city, where it rains a lot, living in a small apartment, not knowing the culture) to play against the world's best, the U.S. will have difficulty competing against the world's best.  And before you start to argue that many of the USMNT players play in MLS, let me ask you this -- who would you pick to win a series -- the Miami Marlins, with all their flaws, or a team from AAA baseball, from Scranton or Lehigh Valley, Tidewater or wherever?  People make the show, the big club, for a reason.  They are that good, even if the Marlins in their current format are struggling.  In other words, the current model is not sustainable.

I went to the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals a week ago in Philadelphia and texted my son afterwards that the four players who distinguished themselves were Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tim Ream and Zack Steffen.  His response -- well, sure, because they are the four guys who play in Europe.  The rest of the guys lacked the zing and oomph that you see in an average Premier League match, even between teams at the bottom of the standings.

Even with all of the U.S.'s resources, even with a country that is the fifth-most populated country in the world, even with all of the thinking involved, the U.S. remains an also-ran for men's soccer in the world.  Soccer has made gains, but you can argue that the popularity of the best teams from the elite leagues in the world comprise part of the new-found popularity.  Witness the crowds at bars to cheer on teams in the Champions League final or during the home stretch of the unprecedented dog fight in the Premier League between Man City and Liverpool.  But that still does not mean that the kid who is the outstanding option quarterback in Tyler, Texas (but undersized for FBS football) or the kid who is the 5'6" point guard in Indianapolis putting up 28 points a game) are even considering soccer as an option.  And I'm not talking about every kid considering soccer over football, basketball and baseball first.  I'm just talking about 20% of them, with equal access (translated, let's have academies where professional teams pay for the kids as opposed to access determined because parents can pay for all the fees that go into travel sports).  The culture that the U.S. has helps ensure that the men's team will be climbing a steep hill without much of a chance to win more than one game in the knockout round for the World Cup for decades to come.

Assuming, of course, it can get out of its own qualifying region.

The women, in contrast, have made the most of their opportunities.  Let's face it, field hockey and lacrosse are easy to compete with, and not every kid plays basketball.  The advent of Title IX created massive opportunities for women in sports in the U.S., and soccer eagerly and happily filled the vacuum (hoops did too).  You can argue that the best athletes among girls who were not going into basketball were going into soccer; there were no equivalents for football and even baseball (although softball has made great strides).  And the rest of the world had showed the chauvinism that the U.S. did by not putting money into its girls' and women's programs that it did for the men.  To make a long story short, the U.S. women did not have to overcome two things that the men's team has had to overcome and failed -- the ingrained culture of other major men's sports in the U.S. and decades' long lead that other nations had over it with respect to soccer.  The U.S. women, in short, could start say thirty years ago mostly on a level playing field; it was not playing from way behind.

And those in charge of the U.S. women's game applied mythical and historical U.S. ingenuity to the women's game, and fast.  Great athletes flocked to the sport (although not from economically disadvantaged areas -- not everyone can be perfect, at least not yet), and the numbers were there to foster intense competition that helped the best players -- the Michelle Akers, the Mia Hamms -- to rise to the top.  And stay there.  The U.S. women's team has created a great culture of excellence to help ensure continued success; the men's team has not.  Yes, the obstacles for the men have been tougher, but those obstacles have existed for half a century at least -- without that much improvement in terms of the team's overall record.  The women's team has established a high standard; the men's team has yet to crack the code.

I cheer hard for both teams.  I admire the women for their grit, determination and skill.  I root for the men with more optimism, knowing, though, that until the top 100 U.S. men's players play for club teams in Europe, until the top athletes in the U.S. pick soccer, until there is better access for kids from the cities to play soccer, and until the U.S. men's team establish a deep culture of the academy system that exists in Europe, not much will change for them.

It is a tale of two teams, a tale of contrasts, a tale of relativity, a tale of rapid ascension, a tale of utter frustration, a tale of two cultures, a tale unique to the United States.  Let's make sure to honor the excellent -- the women's team is what its record says it is -- outstanding!  And let's hope that U.S. soccer can give us a men's team that is worthy of mention in the same breath as the women's.

Until then, the women's team deserves more praise and more attention.

And equal pay.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The US Men's National Team -- CONCACAF Gold Cup Quaterfinals

I went to the match at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

A few observations:

1.  The US Men's team still is not a draw.  Don't blame Philadelphia.  26,000 people did come out -- they would have filled a US soccer-sized stadium.

2.  The US has roughly 320 million people.  Curacao has 161,000.  So, the U.S. something like 2,000 times the size of Curacao.

3.  The US got off to a hot start, and you thought that they would go on to score four goals.  At least.  But something crazy happened after 15 minutes.  The US slowed down its attack, dramatically, and the mighty Curacao team did not flinch when under pressure.  They were patient with the ball, and they picked spots when they used their speed.

4.  Zack Steffen, who made two great saves, was the man of the match.  Had he not made either, Curacao would have won.  He plays overseas.

5.  The US's only goal was a Chelsea-Schalke combination, with Christian Pulisic making a great cross to Weston McKennie.

6.  Only Tim Ream was playing really solidly on the back line.  He, too, plays overseas.

7.  No one else distinguished himself, and Michael Bradley at holding midfielder looked well past his prime.

If this is the best lineup the US can field, it has a million kilometers to travel before it can challenge and defeat the world's powers. The team lacked talent, creativity, zing and oomph.  It played half asleep through most of the match, failing to show energy at critical times.  This lackluster effort should suggest to coach Berhalter that he experiment with his lineups and put in some players with better motors than the guys he had in there.  And, oh, sure, Jozy Altidore was not available, but his absence was not the sole or even primary source of the team's woes.

There just was not enough there there.  The U.S. needs to do better, be crisper, be quicker, and show more decisiveness in order to improve.  Pulisic has it.  The question is, how many of the other outfield players do?