(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Friday, October 13, 2017

Thoughts about the US Men's National Soccer Team Debacle

All they needed was a single point.

A draw.

Against Trinidad & Tobago, the worst team in CONCACAF.  (For the uninitiated, this is the relatively easy group that the US finds itself within FIFA and must come in third in the group to qualify for the World Cup.  The toughest competition -- Mexico).

Okay, on the road.

Okay, on a bumpy field.

Okay, before a stadium that was more empty than full.

And they lost 2-1.

Compounding a terrible display was the fact that in order to remain third in the group behind Mexico and Costa Rica, the US needed Mexico to defeat Honduras and Costa Rica to beat Panama.  Neither came through.  Those results meant that Panama is going to the World Cup and Honduras is in a playoff with Australia to try to get there.  This is the first time the US has not qualified for the World Cup since 1986.

Here are some thoughts:

1.  Christian Pulisic is by far the US's best player, the only world-class player on the roster.  (Tim Howard was, but at 37 he is past his prime).  Likewise, while Clint Dempsey had his moments on the international stage, he, too, is past his prime, as is Michael Bradley.  Neither of them, in their primes, was nearly as good as Pulisic, who is only 19. 

2.  The US needs several dozen more Pulisics -- talented youngsters who are playing for elite teams in Europe -- and, get this, actually playing, as in starting.  Until this happens, the US will not fare better than advancing out of the group stage and perhaps winning a single game in the knockout round.  The talent just is not there.  Sure, you can argue that before 2010 Spain had a ton of talent and never won and that the same holds true for the Belgians, who are loaded with world-class players.  But even if some talent-laden teams falter (France in 2010 in South Africa), other talented teams come to the forefront, not the US. 

3.  The US needs its best players to play in Europe; the competition in the top leagues -- England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy -- is better than it is in MLS.  MLS makes life too comfortable and doesn't offer the intense soccer atmosphere that Europe does.  The cultural mindset has to change.

4.  Imagine how bad the US would have been over the years if the US hadn't had armed forces bases in Germany, soldiers who married German women who gave birth to sons who became good players.  What this says is that the culture for developing soccer players in the US needs an overhaul.

5.  The US needs to recruit better athletes into the soccer developmental system.  It also needs to create an academy environment where the best youth players are not trying to get into college but are vying for placement with teams in the top leagues in Europe, even if it means moving far away from home and then going out on loan.  That's just the way the world works in soccer.  The advent of studies showing the danger or playing American football might steer some talented youths into soccer.  Apparently, Odell Beckham, Jr. was an outstanding soccer player.  Imagine if some talented NFL players were soccer players -- imagine Megatron, Calvin Johnson, as a goalie.  He'd still be playing, and the bet here is that he'd be one of the best in the world.  Darren Sproles?  He's be an outstanding two-way midfielder, no question about it.  How about Zach Ertz as a center back?  Beckham Jr., not to be confused with soccer's main Beckham, would be a striker or central attacking midfielder.  The possibilities are endless.  Just prying 5 of the ESPN top 300 football recruits every year into soccer at age 14 could do wonders for the US's developmental program.

6.  The bureaucracy has gotten stale.  I have nothing against either Sunil Gulati or Bruce Arena, except that we need a full-time head of US Soccer and pay her/him accordingly and that we need a coach who is not recycled.  I have heard great things about Tab Ramos, but I wonder if the US should poll the top managers in Europe and recruit and up-and-comer, say an assistant from Manchester City or Juventus or some squad like that -- and put him in charge.  Otherwise, the risk is to recycle people who have had mixed success.  The US could find a real star, and it needs new ideas.

7.  The roster selections should be devoid of politics, and the lineup likewise.  I recall a discussion years ago about the English National Team.  Sure, it was okay to have both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard on the roster, because both were stars, but it was far from clear that they should be on the pitch at the same time.  There also were players on the roster who got there because of lifetime achievement awards versus being the best for the team at the time.  A case in point is Pulisic -- it seemed like it took both Juergen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena too long to work him into the starting lineup, even when it was clear that he was the best player on the roster and perhaps, even at 19, in US history.  The latter contention is a reach, but within the next three years, barring injury, the fans will be saying that.

8.  Good organizations are strong from the core on down.  Steve Samson, once the U.S. coach, offered that the US was a nation of midfielders.  The reasoning was that kids are treated almost robotically in youth programs and have little opportunity to play pick-up games and freelance the way they do in other parts of the world.  The NYT magazine several years ago had a great article about the Dutch system; while the Dutch system is off-kilter now (Netherlands missed 2016 Euros and will miss the 2018 World Cup), they had a good idea for developing young players and helping fund the soccer federation. 

The loss to Trinidad and Tobago and the corresponding missing out on the World Cup is a huge blow to U.S. men's soccer.  MLS had started to generate momentum, and the advent of the English Premier League on television in the US started to generate more interest.  What remains now is an interesting dichotomy -- a stronger and growing appreciation for the international game, and a decreasing one for the U.S. game.  The next president of U.S. soccer, and the next coach of the men's national team, will have to deal with that. 

Regardless of the politics, who is the next president of the federation and who is the next head coach of the men's team, one major fact remains -- you cannot sustain winning without top talent.  The debacle within CONCACAF demonstrated this markedly.  You can have the best organization in the world, but you cannot win without talent.  Right now, only Pulisic would have a chance to make the World Cup squad of the major contenders in 2018, and he might not make all of them.  He wouldn't start for any of them -- Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, England, Belgium -- and he probably wouldn't make the German or French teams.  Remember this, Belgium is a country about 1/22 the size of the U.S., too, with about 15 million people.  They have a roster that most would envy.  The U.S., with about 315 million people, cannot find 11 players to contend seriously internationally.

Whoever takes the helm of US Soccer needs to figure out how to chance all of this in a hurry.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The College Basketball Mess

Among the defenses that do not work with law enforcement is "everyone does it." 

Among the mantras of law enforcement when it comes to investigations is "you must keep on look under rocks until there are no more rocks to look under." 

Given that there are a lot of rocks, a lot of people who will be willing to point out those rocks in exchange for a deal and the amount of money paid to college coaches to sustain winning and the amount of monies that college athletic departments get for shoe endorsements, you have a cocktail of ingredients that is easily combustible and can shout out "scandal" all by itself.

Using a different analogy, the four indicted assistant coaches are the first four dominoes to fall.  Because the schools where they worked recruited against many other big-time schools, other dominoes sit close enough to them that they can fall, too.  Not just assistant coaches and shoe company reps, but also AAU coaches and, yes, head college coaches. 

College sports used to be an extracurricular activity along the lines of the chorus, the newspaper and the debating club.  Those college sports that derive significant revenue can be important to universities athletic budgets.  I say "can be" because I recently read an article that indicated that more than 80% of Division I football programs lose money (defeating the argument that the football programs at many schools fund the other athletic teams).  Regardless of profitability (which is problematic because the universities themselves are tax-exempt organizations), the football and basketball programs can generate significant revenue for the university.  As a result, those who lead them command significant salaries.  The dollars are so big that it makes you wonder what the purpose of the head coach is -- to mold young men, to make money for the university or to perpetuate himself in his job (regardless of tactics and whether he really molds young men) in order to keep earning staggering sums of money.  The more that money is involved, the greater potential for all sorts of problems.

This scandal should (and I emphasize should) enable university boards and presidents to take full control over the mission of the university and not be held hostage by popular coaches or win-at-all-costs-hungry boosters.  This scandal should end the horrible paternalism of the professional leagues and create avenues for talented teenagers to go professional the way they do in soccer globally.  Right now, the best player in the U.S. is a 19 year-old who stars -- yes, stars -- in Germany.  His name is Christian Pulisic and he is very, very good.  He comes from Hershey, Pennsylvania.  Why can't it be that a top high schooler from Baltimore cannot sign with the 76ers out of high school, play on their G-League team and then have a professional career?  If you do this, you'll take out of the college game kids who really only want to play basketball and stop the charade of making them go to college.  I know I have thrown out many concepts here, but something significant is plaguing college sports. 

Money, the wanting for it by those who either make a lot of it or are on the cusp of doing so or the lack of it for those who need it (the kids whose families don't have it and who play before packed arenas and don't get paid for it).  The recent enforcement of labor law rules regarding internships helps frame the issue.  A kid who is an intern either must get college credit or get paid; he may not work for free.  College athletes in revenue-generating sports (profitable or not) don't get college credit and don't get paid.  Yet, their coaches get paid in the top 0.5% of all earners in the United States.  Something is awry, and it's sad that the universities haven't been able to address this issue themselves.  Now the Federal government will, and in the form of deferred prosecution agreements or corporate integrity agreements or both. 

And that is only after they get done with what promises to be a long and widespread investigation.  I forget who said this, but it rings true -- "No head coach of a major college football or basketball program is resting easily now."

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Interesting Article the Other Day

about a quarterback competition at an FCS school. 

Three competitors -- one, a freshman, one a transfer from an ACC school and the other a transfer from a Big 12 school. 

The school?

The University of Pennsylvania.

No, I am not bashing the Ivies and Penn in particular in this post (there are many other reasons to take pokes at the Ancient Eight and Penn both seriously and for fun).  What I am pointing out that is if the Ivies use their transfer allotments selectively (that is, most transfers are not transferring because they play sports and are wanted), they can help their cause tremendously.

Enter the Princeton Tigers, who have, in the aggregate, the best overall athletic program in the Ivies (and, if not, one of the top two or three).  The wags will say, well, if you lower your standards and take good kids who, absent the sport, wouldn't have had a chance to get into the school, this is what can happen.  Let's put that argument aside, because I do not believe we ever will achieve full transparency on the delta between the non-athletes' admission profiles and the athletes' admission profiles.  (Again, this is not meant to be a swipe, just a discussion).  Think about this, though -- Princeton has done this without any athletic transfers in the past 25 years (and, no, the circumstances behind the football playing Garrett brothers don't count because they were unique and also more than 25 years ago). 


I once discussed the topic with a Princeton assistant football coach who lamented that the Tigers did not take transfers (one of the reasons is that the size of the school was the smallest or second smallest in the Ivies, and it's hard to take transfers if a) kids don't drop out or fail out and b) if they don't go abroad to study -- there just isn't surplus room).  I offered that it would be nice if the football team could get four a year, because that could really help.  His answer surprised me.  He said, "we don't need for a year.  Heck, we could use one every three years if it's the right one."  And then he told me the story about how the team was short at a critical position because one player left school and another broke his leg and how if they were allowed to take this one kid from one of the service academies or a place like Northwestern, I think it was, that the results for the team could have been a lot different.  Just one player, too.

Princeton will start taking transfers in the next year or so.  Will they take QBs from BCS schools?  They apparently don't need to, because they just landed a QB recruit who turned down offers from many BCS schools because of the high quality of the education he can receive in Tigertown.  Will they augment a key position if they can?  Absolutely.

But so will the Physics Department, Jazz Ensemble, etc.

And so it goes.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Time Is Mean to the All-Time Greats

Example Number Infinity -- Watching Usain Bolt pull up in the 4x100 meter relay in the World Championships on what was his final anchor leg for Jamaica.  The sports gods just are not kind to all but those who are in or near their prime. 

Jim Brown walked away at the top of his game.  So did Barry Sanders.  Sandy Koufax did too.

Bolt was close to his prime, and he deserved better. 

Chase Utley's Ejection the Other Night

Was a head scratcher, wasn't it?  It appeared that he asked the second base umpire to move out of his line of sight.  Next think you know, the umpire ejected the 38 year-old veteran and one of the most respected players in the game. 

Yes, I really want to see umpires eject one of the all-time greats.  Okay, don't get on me about the fact that Utley is not a Hall of Famer (I would argue that he is a borderline one; sadly, injuries derailed more opportunities for a WAR number that would have put him in).  But to eject anyone for that request?  Was there anything more to it than that?  Or did the umpire have a bet with a friend that he could get on Sports Center if he ejected a famous player on a pretext?  As for the latter, I doubt that came close to happening.  Simplest solution is that the arbiter just had a bad night.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Random Question

Do you remember where you were when Steve Pearce hit two walk-off grand slams in the same week?

Bonus questions:

What team does Steve Pearce play for?

What position does he play?

And, if you consider yourself to be a good baseball fan and don't know about what Pearce accomplished or who he is, console yourself because you are not alone.  Many who had savant-like knowledge decades ago have succumbed to a few basic principles -- 1) so much is written down and available by the few clicks of a smart phone, why memorize it and 2) so much information is going through your head -- precisely because that information is available -- that you don't begin to know facts that you would have thought were foundational decades ago.  Ergo. . . why you might be drawing a blank on Steve Pearce. 

But congratulations should go to Pearce nonetheless -- what he did was quite an accomplishment.

For whatever team he plays for and at whatever position he plays.

Brief Book Review

Buy Baseball America's recently released "Hall of Fame Almanac."  Great 1-page entries for every member of the Hall of Fame. 

The book I would like to see written is a comparison of those who made the Hall of Fame to those whose stats as measured by modern metrics would not have warranted inclusion and those whose stats would have warranted inclusion.  For example, Rabbit Maranville is by no stretch a Hall of Famer, nor are the several members of the Giants and Cardinals who played in the thirties who made the Hall of Fame because their teammates were on the Veterans' Committee.  Or, to paraphrase from Baseball Prospectus, there is a Hall of Fame and a Hall of Very Good. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Did MLS Really Reject a $4 Billion TV Deal?

I see many headlines on my Twitter feed.  One that drew notice was a report that MLS rejected a $4 billion TV contract because it did not want to agree to having a construct that called for promotion and relegation.  The tree for that decision must have been interesting. 

One branch might have suggested taking the contract, agreeing to the construct, and using the $4 billion to buttress all teams in MLS.  $4 billion?  Wow, that would be an amazing contract for a league whose best teams would not be in the English Premier League but probably somewhere in the lower half of the Championship League in England (an improvement over, say, five years ago).  Imagine what MLS and its teams could do with that money.  Sounds like an easy decision -- just agree to promotion and relegation, right?

Wrong.  MLS is run in an American way.  Owners put up big money for a franchise, and, when doing so, put up money for a franchise in a certain league, not a certain universe.  So, for example, the owners of the Red Bulls bought an MLS franchise, not a franchise in a potential sub-league.  The consequences of relegation of big-city teams in MLS could shake MLS to its core, at least right now.  Imagine if in the same season franchises in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago got relegated.  What would happen?  Those franchises would not draw any fans playing the likes of current second- and even third-tier teams in stadiums meant for the big time.  The would go broke and spiral into a precipitous decline.  Precedent for this abounds in England.  So, MLS rejected the potential for $4 billion out of a lack of confidence that U.S. soccer could absorb the downside to relegation as opposed to benefit from the upside of promotion.

Right now, the decision makes sense on its face.  U.S. soccer still has a ways to go to match the overall (if not top-to-bottom) strength of the top 5 or 6 leagues in Europe.  Until the U.S. is certain that the franchises in the major cities will become as robust as say the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal, who are all but assured of remaining in the Premier League each and every year, MLS does not want to take the risk.  Because should one of the big-city franchises plummet, that franchise could take the entire league down -- at least right now.  I don't know whether that's true, by the way or what MLS has modeled, but it stands to reason right now that MLS wants to strengthen its core a little more before agreeing to a big TV contract with that type of requirement in it. 

All that glitters is not gold, even if it has many, many zeroes after a crooked number.  The powers that be in MLS must think that a bigger and better contract will come in the near future.  They could be right.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Are Spectator Sports Doomed?

I read an interesting blurb in Sports Illustrated about the average age of TV viewers for all sports.  Not surprisingly, the "youngest" average viewer watches soccer -- and s/he is 39.  The oldest?  Baseball, at a whopping 62 years of age. 

Of course, data without context is dangerous.  Because of the large number of people in the front end of the Baby Boom, there stand to be more people pushing up the average because there are more front-end Boomers than say Millenials.  Second, many more of those who are front-end Boomers and older are bound to be retired and have more time on their hands to watch the old idiot box than those who are younger, who presumably are working, recovering from a hard day at work, or doing the pediatric thing and tending to kids' basics needs, taking them to lessons or games or helping them with homework.  Somehow I don't think the blurb offered that type of insight.  Instead, it just boldly and baldly recites the average age of viewers. 

Does it mean that younger people are not interesting in American football?  How could that be, as it seems to be the most popular sport in the country (despite the guilt that some feel for watching it because players can end up with long-term health issues, many of them too awful to witness or bear)?  They have to be watching it; the NFL enjoys good ratings even if the games can take forever, hitting isn't what it used to be and of the hours it takes to play a game there really isn't even 60 minutes of action, but a fraction thereof because of all the time that runs while the players are coming back from a play or getting ready for the next one.  To me, the number is skewed because there just are more people above the age of 55 right now, and that is the reason why the averages are so high.

Then again, are we seeing a population/demographic problem in the country or a separate problem for spectator sports.  If the experts in healthcare are to be believed -- and they are credible -- the budget for Medicare in say 2030 will be what the entire U.S. budget is now.  Translated, we have a lot of people born before 1964 and not enough born after to support the entitlement.  If that's the case, then the sports world's problem is not unique to it.

Or is it?  After all, if there are fewer people coming up behind the Boomers, then there is a smaller denominator of people who might be willing to buy tickets or watch on TV.  And that means that the average age of a fan is high, and that the population that might be available to support teams will be smaller for a while, even as the country's population grows.  But if it grows, is it because of birth rates or immigration or both?  As you can see, there are many variables that can affect these averages and this number.

The one thing that I did glean from the data is the popularity of soccer and the good future it seems to have in the United States.  It seems well-situated to benefit from the lowest average.  Then again, the sports with the highest averages have a good opportunity to draw in more young fans.  They just need to figure out what they are not watching as much as they used to.

So, spectator sports are not doomed.  It is just that the preferences of those spectators might be changing.  Remember, about 45 years ago boxing and horse racing were among the top 5 in popular sports.  The former got hurt by the boycott of the 1980 Olympics, the retirements of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (and then the attrition of welter- and middleweights such as Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and the likes, as well as some questionable decisions and characters (including the robbery of Roy Jones, Jr. in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul).  The latter got decimated by the legalization of lotteries and casinos; at one time, a horse race was the only place one could go to place a legal bet.  Not anymore.  Atop that, rumors ran rampant that there was funny business going on with the trotters and the pacers.

Times and preferences change.  No, baseball is not dead, but baseball and football have things to worry about, namely the slowness of the former and the injuries in the latter.  Somehow, they should evolve, but the powers that be should remember how baseball once was the national pastime and how popular boxing and horse racing were and adjust accordingly.