Thursday, September 30, 2010

The US-Mexico CONCACAF rivalry has been junked

True story.

From Grant Wahl's piece linked to above:

Here's how it would work: The six lowest-ranked teams in the region would have a home-and-home playoff to trim the field to 32. Then eight groups of four teams would play a six-game quarterfinal stage, with the top two in each group advancing. Then four groups of four would play a six-game semifinal stage, with the top two again advancing. Then two groups of four would play a six-game final stage. The two teams that win those groups would earn bids to World Cup '14. If CONCACAF successfully lobbies FIFA for four spots in Brazil (instead of the previous 3.5), then the two second-place teams would also receive World Cup bids. If it stays at 3.5, then the two second-place teams would have a playoff, with the winner going to Brazil and the loser then playing against a team from another confederation for a World Cup spot (last time it was the fifth-place team from South America's CONMEBOL).

Since the US and Mexico are easily the top 2 teams in CONCACAF, they will be seeded into opposite halves of the draw, only to meet if they both finish 2nd in their pool and CONCACAF doesn't successfully lobby for a 4th bid to the World Cup.

Why do it? Aocording to Wahl, it's so the smaller countries of CONCACAF, many of whom don't have a prayer of qualifying, get more games before being eliminated (for the the qualifying procedures of CONCACAF for the 2010 World Cup, see here). As you can see from the link, 23 of the 35 teams play 2 or 4 games and are then out. Only the top 12 teams play more than that.

Under the new procedures, 32 of the 35 teams will play at least 6 games, with at least 2 of those being against one of the powers in the region (which should help sell tickets for some of the smaller countries).

The upshot? That day US Soccer fans have been hoping for, when the US finally wins an important game in Mexico? Won't happen, as the US won't get the chance to play an important game in Mexico under this format. It's sacrificing the quality of competition for the 3 or 4 teams who eventually make it to the World Cup in favor of the multitude of teams who will not qualify. CONCACAF is already lacking in terms of competing on the World stage, and part of that is a lack of pressure opportunities against quality opponents. Now those opportunities have gotten even slimmer, which should only help to weaken the conference's standing on the largest stage.

In Wahl's article, CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer remarks,

The goal [of World Cup qualifying] is not to try to find a champion of CONCACAF. That's what we have the Gold Cup for...

This is true, there isn't any benefit in terms of World Cup seeding for your standing in your conference's qualification, only whether you qualified or not. But the goal for CONCACAF should be to improve the chances of the qualifying teams at the World Cup, but since a minority of the region's 35 teams have any shot of making it to the World Cup, that's not a goal that a majority of the region will embrace.

This is a dark day for American (and Mexican, for that mater) soccer. Hopefully US silence on this issue at least helps America win their bid to host either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bill Polian: NFL determined to ruin its product, one way or another

The 18 game season is "...a fait accompli"

There are so many things wrong with this decision it's hard to know where to begin.

- It's not enough for the owners to threaten a lockout (and don't mistake this comment to mean the players are blameless if it does come to that), they're threatening a lockout AND endangering the welfare of the players for 2 extra games a season. If the players are smart, they will demand expanded rosters in the next collective bargaining agreement since the owners are determined to force 2 more games down their throats.

- This is a minor point, but to a math-inclined avid follower of brackets and scheduling, the NFL is perfect right now. 8, 4 team divisions, where of your 16 games 6 are played against the 3 other teams in your own division, 4 are played against all of the teams in 1 of the other 3 divisions in your conference, 4 more are played against 1 of the 4 divisions in the other conference, and the final 2 games are played against one team from each of the 2 divisions in your conference you haven't played yet, based on where you finished the previous season in your division. There's no room for 2 more games, it currently works out perfectly with 16 games.

- There hads been much talk of the increased awareness of concussions (outside of Philadelphia at least) and the possible links to dementia and other long-term brain problems later in life. That's wonderful, but this stance of forcing the players to play 2 more regular season games while the studies and heightened awareness are just beginning demonstrates that the owners are talking out of both sides of their mouths. I've seen pro football compared to the gladiator fights of Roman times, and I have to say, the comparison has merit. Sure, the players are wll compensated for their work as opposed to being slaves, but the owners will take watever liberties they please with the players' physical condition to make a couple of extra bucks. They dress it up nice, but look at the retired players trying to increase their pensions to pay for their replacement knees and hips and tell me it's more than window dressing.

This is part of a greater concern for me. I love football. I don't apologise for occasionally spending Sundays sitting on my couch watching 1 game, then a second, then the highlights, and then a third. I don't apologize for looking for ways to stream Seahawks games online, as I cannot get DirectTV and thus have no less illicit way to see the games. One of my bigger regrets is not ever having played football when I was younger (not because I think I'd have gone pro, but because I love the game so much). But I'm growing more and more worried as time goes on that the game I love is too much of a bloodsport. I've always known football was a violent sport with the potential for serious injury, we see torn knee ligaments, snapped ankles, even fractured arms with some regularity. It's part of the game. But hiding in the background is the more sinister story. Concussions, and what they become when players tell no one about them and play through them repeatedly. When Chris Henry tragically dies last year, studies showed he had serious brain trauma, and the only known cause was playing football. He wasn't 75, or 60, or even 40. He wasn't even retired.

He was 26.

Henry's not the only one who has been found to have brain trauma, he's just the youngest public case showing football might actually be too violent. I read a column a few months back essentially asking, "Can we enjoy football and still call ourselves human beings?" At the time, I thought the article too sensationalist, and I'm not at a point where I feel guilty for loving football as I do, but I'm starting to wonder what to think in the back of my brain.

I'm not quitting my football fandom, but I am having some second thoguhts about the sport. I was 110% sure that if my child wanted to play tackle football, I was going to let him try it. Now? I'm not sure I'm willing to do that, until I see more of where the current research leads.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Week 1, continued

Just how badly was Cincinnati out of it in their game against New England on Sunday? Chad OchoCinco scored a touchdown, and despite telling us all that he would do something special after scoring, all he did was flip the ball to the official and run back to his sideline. And thus, on September 12, 2010, we learned that OchoCinco does actually possess an iota of shame. That, and it would have been nice had the Bengals decided to start playing before 30 seconds into the 3rd quarter on Sunday.

New England's defense had to put their fans' minds at ease, at least for week 1. There was general consternation after Sam Bradford and the Rams picked them apart in week 3 of the preseason (aka, the closest the preseason comes to mattering), but they faced an offense with an array of weapons, and their young D emerged unscathed until the game was well out of hand. And for those of us who worried about Carson Palmer after his conversion into a fantasy stinkbomb last year...he's not out of the woods yet.

Chicago literally stole one from the Lions, as Calvin Johnson fell victim to Detroit's version of the Tuck Rule...well, that's not entirely fair. The last 9 years have been Detroit's version of the Tuck Tony Romo's fumbled just being the Cleveland Browns ever since they got their 2nd installation of the team. But like the Tuck Rule, it was the correct call of a bad rule for that situation.

Atlanta poured cold water on the "Atlanta for NFC South Champion!" parade, managing only 9 points against a Steelers team starting their #3 choice at quarterback. Matt Moore poured cold water on the "Matt Moore is an NFL starting quarterback" movement, instead putting on his best Jake Delhomme (what, too soon?) impression, throwing 3 picks in a loss to the Giants.

Speaking of Delhomme, he tossed a touchdown pass, which confused the Cleveland fans (seriously, go look at some of the terrible performances Anderson and Quinn put up last year) for a little while. Not wanting to shock them too bad, Delhomme tossed a couple of interceptions, as Cleveland fell to Tampa Bay. Like Cleveland, Buffalo (vs Miami) and Oakland (vs Tennessee) played down to all expectations in losses, maintaining some semblance of order on Sunday.

Tim Tebow had a dud of a debut (2 carries, 2 yards) while Sam Bradford impressed in his first game as a pro, but both of their teams lost close ones. Kevin Kolb did not impress at all, and Michael Vick's 100 yards rushing and passing in the 2nd half after Kolb left the game with a concussion means the Philly fans can either write off the opening loss to Green Bay and throw their support behind Kolb when he's ready to come back, or they can embrace a full fledged QB controversy.

Also big losers on the day, Philly's medical staff and sideline. Somehow, linebacker Stewart Bradley was allowed to get back on the field after he was unable to literally put one foot in front of the other after a tackle. Finally someone got him back off the field and kept him off, but the fact that he was able to get back in in the first place is a damning indictment of the Eagles staff and makes a mockery of the emphasis the league is trying to put on concussions and overall brain health.

Pete Carroll's return to the NFL was surprisingly positive, as his Seahawks tore the visiting preseason darling 49ers limb from limb in a 25 point blowout win. Game ball went to Alex Smith, for his happy feet, 2 interceptions, and general inaccuracy.

And finally, Dallas took their sizeable talent advantage over the Redskins and spent the whole game making mistakes and let the Redskins hang onto a slim lead right up until the last play when the Cowboys finally scored the tying touchdown...except their backup right tackle (who doubles as the most penalized player in the NFL over the last 5 seasons) was called for holding, which ended the game and handed the Redskins the win. Add in the fact that the Redskins got their only touchdown of the game thanks to a Dallas fumble they took to the house on the last play of the first half, and saying the Cowboys blew this game does not do it justice. It was about as fitting a Cowboys loss as you can get.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Welcome back, NFL

And now fall can begin in earnest, as the NFL season is underway, thanks to the Saints' 14-9 win over the Vikings.

The Saints were a bit befuddling last night. On the opening possession of the game, their offense threw the ball all the way down the field and scored. Then they didn't score for the rest of the half, going into halftime trailing 9-7. On their opening possession of the 2nd half, they ran the ball all the way down the field, then didn't score for the rest of the half.

Then we come to their defense. Last year in the NFC title game, the Saints blitzed Favre every way possible, battering him to the point where he threw an INT across his body instead of running 5 yards to set up a makeable field goal at the end of regulation. In last night's game, the Saints spent most of the night rushing 3 or 4. In the first half, I'm not sure they blitzed once. They brought some pressure in the 2nd half, but nothing close to what they were doing last year. Can't argue with the results, but it was very interesting to watch.

Maybe training camp means something after all. Minnesota was clearly trying to protect Favre with their running game, but he just wasn't on the same page with enough of his receivers. Collinsworth made a good point during the broadcast when he questioned why Greg Camarillo wasn't on the field more. As soon as he came on the field, Favre hit him for a big 3rd down conversion.

For all of the press the kicking game has gotten recently (ovetime rules need to be changed as kickers are too accurate from long distances, field goal percentages are so high, etc.) last night was not a good one for kickers. NFC title game hero Garrett Hartley missed 2 field goals (one from under 40 yards) and Ryan Longwell had an extra point blocked. To be fair, Longwell already performed his most important task of the season when he helped convince Favre to come back and save the Vikings from following Tarvaris Jackson off the edge of the cliff.

This wasn't at all the game we were expecting to see, but it shows a) how hard it is having the bullseye on your back from day 1 and b) Minnesota isn't as good as they were last year. The OLine, especially, didn't look near the unit that has drawn so much praise opening holes for Peterson and protecting Favre.