Tag Archives: SOCCER

The Greatest Sporting Event on Earth

The 2014 FIFA World Cup opened yesterday with host Brazil coming away victorious with a 3-1 result over Croatia.

Every four years, national teams from around the world meet in what has become by far the world’s most-watched and followed sporting event.

While American football and baseball are king here in the sports-crazed USA, it is “football”, or what we here call “soccer”, that is king most everywhere else on Earth. It is estimated that 48% of the globe’s population watched some portion of the 2010 World Cup, won that year by Spain in South Africa.

The host nation, Brazil in this year’s case, receives an automatic invitation to the tournament. But to reach the World Cup, the 206 other national teams play a series of qualifying matches in their geographical section of the world, known as “federations” in soccer-speak, during the preceding couple of years.

The results of these regional federation qualifying tournaments enable another 31 nations to qualify for the actual World Cup tournament. The whole system is run under the FIFA umbrella, the world’s ruling and governing body for the sport.

After decades of lagging behind the rest of the planet, the U.S. has finally begun to take the sport more seriously. Over the last couple of decades the American men have become a legitimate force in “the beautiful game”, with the women already a dominating presence.

The U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) competes in the federation known as CONCACAF, short for the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football. They have qualified now for 6 straight World Cups, hosted the 1994 edition, and are currently ranked 14th in the world.

There have been a handful of great results for the team. In the 1930 World Cup, they reached the semi-finals and finished in 3rd place, the best-ever finish for the USMNT. The next great moment came in 1950, when they defeated heavily favored England 1-0 in a group match. It would be 40 more years before the men again qualified, but have been regular participants since 1990.

In more recent World Cup appearances, the 2002 USMNT reached the quarter-finals, finally falling to a powerful and experienced Germany, the eventual tourney runners-up, by just 1-0. In 2010, they finished with a 1-1-2 record, but were eliminated in the round-of-16 by Ghana in a frustrating 2-1 defeat.

The World Cup tournament begins by dividing the 32 qualifiers into 8 groups of 4 teams each. The top 8 teams in the world are placed in separate Groups, and the others all randomly drawn. In this ‘Group’ stage, the teams play each of the others in their Group, with the top 2 finishers advancing to the round-of-16.

Those top 2 finishers in each Group now qualify for what is known as the “Knockout” stage, where you either win, or you get knocked out of the tournament. Teams cannot play others from their previous Group stage unless they meet in the Final.

The national teams seeded 1-8 as the top seeds in each Group this time around, are: Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay, and Switzerland. The U.S. was drawn into ‘Group G’, a particularly tough one that includes Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.

Three clear patterns have emerged in World Cup history. First, no team from outside of South America has ever won a World Cup held in the Americas. Second, the beaten team in the Final in each of those American tourneys has been from Europe. Finally, in 19 tourneys, any “top-tier” host country has finished among the final three on 11 occasions, boding well for top-tier hosts Brazil.

The current favorites among odds-makers to emerge from the 8 Groups are: Group A – Brazil & Croatia, Group B – Spain & Netherlands, Group C – Colombia & Ivory Coast, Group D – Italy & Uruguay, Group E – Switzerland & France, Group F – Argentina & Bosnia, Group G – Germany & Portugal, Group H – Belgium & Russia.

You may have noticed a pair of notable omissions from the odds-makers favorites to advance from the Group stage. The United States is not there, and neither is England, where the game is the national past time and passion, and home to the Premier League, the top-rated professional league in the world.

The USMNT is picked to finish 3rd in their Group G, behind both Germany and Portugal. The Germans are obvious favorites for the Group as the #2-rated team in the world. But despite being ranked 13th and Portugal ranked just behind at 14th, the odds-makers have made the Portuguese, led by one of the world’s top players in Cristiano Ronaldo, slight favorites to slip past the Americans and out of the Group stage.

If all goes according to form in Group G, the Germans will advance without too much trouble. The 2nd team to move on will come from a scrum between the USA, Portugal, and Ghana. The results of games among those teams will be pivotal. Ghana has become an American nemesis, eliminating the USMNT with 2-1 victories in both the 2006 Group stage and the 2010 round-of-16.

Between now and the 2014 World Cup Final to be held in Rio de Janeiro on July 13th, the drama will unfold, first in those Group stages, and then through the three Knockout stages, until one nation is left standing, it’s players holding aloft the gold World Cup Trophy as the citizens and fans of that nation party in the streets.

And also between now and the Final, approximately half of the population on the planet will tune in to the matches on television. From the frozen tundra of Antarctica to the African desert, from the war-ravaged Middle East to the Far East of Japan. From pubs in England and Ireland to American homes across our own country, support will come for the national teams, and even if eliminated, interest will continue all the way through.

The soccer World Cup is simply the greatest sporting even on Earth. As much as I personally love baseball and as big an event as the World Series is here in America, and even recognizing the growing global interest in the Super Bowl, perhaps the planet’s most-hyped single day sporting event, the scope and impact of the World Cup cannot be denied.

If you are a soccer fan, you don’t need me to sell you on this tournament. If you are just a casual sports fan, try to tune in at some point. Many of the games will be covered on TV here in the United States by the ESPN and ABC networks. Here is the schedule for Group stage matches involving the USMNT:

Monday, June 16th, 6pm: Ghana
Sunday, June 22nd, 6pm: Portugal
Thursday, June 26th, 12pm: Germany

World Cup 2010

American culture is filled with sporting events which have become major cultural events. These include the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Indy 500, Kentucky Derby, NCAA basketball tournament and many, many more.

To our closest cultural neighbors, the Canadians, there is nothing comparable to hockey and winning the Stanley Cup. An appreciation for what is known here in North America as ‘soccer’ has been slow in building at the professional level.

But elsewhere around the globe, from Europe to South America, Asia to Africa, Down Under and everywhere in between, no game is bigger than soccer, or what is actually known as ‘football’  to the rest of that world.

Today begins the biggest event in the biggest sport drawing the most interest the world over as the World Cup gets under way. It has been estimated that approximately 715 million people the world over watched the 2006 finals in which Italy defeated France in a shootout for the title.

Held every four years, the World Cup is the championship of football. Competitions actually begin three years earlier, so for this 2010 championship the competition began in 2007.

The early competitions occur within geographic regions of the planet, as nations battle against their neighbors for the right to advance to higher levels in the tournament.

The World Cup tournament began officially in 1930 with Uruguay dumping South American rivals Argentina by a 4-2 score.

There have been 18 World Cup tournaments, as the competition was not held in either 1942 or 1946 due to the events surrounding World War II.

The most successful nation has been perennial South American power Brazil, which is the only nation to appear in every tourney and which has won a record five times.

For this World Cup, a record 204 countries entered teams to the competition. Once the nations work their way through a qualifying period, a final 32-nation field is rewarded by earning their place in the official tournament. These 32 teams are now about to begin playing for the 2010 World Cup being hosted by South Africa, the first time the tourney final is ever to be held on the continent of Africa.

The final 32 qualifiers are now in South Africa, and have been split into eight ‘groups’ of four teams each known as Groups A-H. These groups of teams will meet the others within their group in a round-robin format with 3 points awarded for a win and 1 point awarded for a tie. The two teams with the most points at the end of group play will advance into the quarter-finals which are known as ‘knockout’ play. If a tie exists, goal differential and other tie-breakers are utilized to determine which nation advances.

The top eight teams have been ‘seeded’, or selected 1-8 as the best, although the host team is also seeded, meaning that the lowly-ranked South Africans are a seeded team this time around. The rest of the teams are ranked based on a formula developed by FIFA based on their performance in previous competitions. The seeded nations for 2010 are South Africa, Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Argentina, and England.

The winners of the tournament are awarded the FIFA World Cup Trophy which was designed back in 1970 and approved by the leading football playing nations. The winners receive a gold-plated replica of the actual solid gold trophy, and can keep the replica in their nation until the following tournament at which time it is returned to FIFA. The trophy is engraved at the bottom with the year and national winner of every tourney since 1974. FIFA, the Federation International de Football Association, is the international governing body of the sport.

So with those basics in mind, it’s time to take a look at the top teams and nations for this 2010 World Cup, and the chances that the U.S. team can bring home the nations’ first-ever title. The Americans will begin play in dramatic fashion, meeting seeded nation and historic rival England in their opener. Though the game is almost a religion in England, the nation has won the World Cup only once, way back in 1966 by 4-2 over then West Germany, and it’s only other final four appearance was a loss in the 1990 semi-final.

England has a strong club led by one of the best and most relentless players in the world in Wayne Rooney. You can think of Rooney as a sort-of Pete Rose in soccer shorts. He plays the game all-out, all the time, and at age 26 may be entering his prime at just the right time. The rest of the English squad is made up of regulars in the English Premier League, widely considered the top professional league in the world. It would be sort of like a bunch of Americans from Major League Baseball performing in the World Baseball Classic or other such competition. The English always expect their team to win, are some of the most passionate on earth, and usually end up as ultimately disappointing, feeling that their team is snake-bitten.

Other strong clubs and players include Brazil, with 27-year old midfielder Kaka leading the way. Kaka distributes the ball to his scoring teammates as well as any player ever, but has had knee problems that might effect his play here. Even if he is off his game, the single-named Brazilians still have high-scoring Robinho and others, and will definitely be a strong factor as usual.

My personal pick to win will come from one of two nations, Spain and the Netherlands. The Spaniards have never finished above 4th, and that all the way back in 1950. They are frequently considered one of the most disappointing teams in World Cup competition. The talent, led by the great Xavi Hernandez, says this time should be different. The Dutchmen of the Netherlands advanced to the finals in back-to-back World Cup finals in 1972 and 1976, but lost heart-breaking matches each time. They are again among the most talented passing teams in the world.

The defending champs from Italy have won the World Cup four times (1934, ’38, ’82, 2006) and are famously nicknamed the ‘Azzurri’. They are a veteran team this time around that should advance at least to the final eight. Argentina has perhaps the best player in the world in Lionel Messi, and their coach is the legendary Diego Maradona. Portugal has another of the planet’s top players in Cristiano Ronaldo. Both of these teams are serious World Cup title contenders, and both Messi and Ronaldo are legitimate stars and national heroes who could make the difference in making that happen.

Traditional power Germany will again be a factor, but has suffered some serious injuries to key players who will not be able to compete this time around. The Germans lost the 2002 final and finished with a win in the 3rd place game four years ago. They also finished 3rd in 1934, and as West Germany they won the World Cup in 1954, 1974 and 1990.

As with every major sporting event, there are dark-horse teams that could seriously disrupt the plans of the major contenders. One such club is the secretive Koreans, who advanced all the way to the semi-finals when they hosted the World Cup four years ago. Mexico, Serbia, Uruguay, Greece and Paraguay are among the others who are talented enough to pull an upset or two and advance farther than some anticipate.

Another of the dark-horse teams are the Americans, who are favored in their Group C to be one of the two teams (along with England) to advance into knockout play. The game, known as soccer here, has been building in popularity among American youth over the past 2-3 decades. The American professional game finally appears to have a serious, long-term answer with the growing popularity and market expansion of Major League Soccer. And the USA is finally developing the talent and experience to be competitive against the world’s best.

Leading the American team this time around is 28-year old forward Landon Donovan (pictured). The star of Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS play, Donovan has become the face of U.S. soccer, and this should be his time to shine on the world stage. The team also has 20-year old striker Jozy Altidore, who many consider the future national team star goal scorer. No player is hotter right now than forward Edson Buddle, the leading scorer this season in MLS play. Players such as forwards Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, and defenders Carlos Bocanegra (the team captain) and the physical Jay DeMerit, give the USA it’s deepest, most talented side ever. The goalkeeper, Tim Howard, is considered one of the best in the world.

Coach Bob Bradley has guided the national team all the way in preparing for this World Cup. The coach since 2006, he has led three teams in MLS and was a 2-time assistant with the national team. His team does not need to defeat England in it’s opener in order to advance, but a win or a draw against the Brits would be considered a major step forward for his team, and is very much within reach. A loss would mean the USA would need to beat out Algeria and Slovenia in order to advance, something they would be favored to accomplish.

The World Cup is the single most important and popular sporting event in the entire world. Despite the fact that the United States has not had much international success and that the game has been slow to catch on here in the hearts of the general public, it is indeed beginning to emerge into the American consciousness. This South African World Cup now beginning is the best opportunity for the American team to advance the game here that has ever existed. Let the play begin!

Philadelphia Union make their MLS debut

There was a big local football event last night that was covered fully by ESPN2 for hours in prime time. No, I’m not talking about the Philadelphia Eagles and trade talk involving Donovan McNabb or their other quarterbacks or their upcoming draft. I’m talking about the game that the entire world outside of the United States knows as ‘football’, but that we here refer to as ‘soccer’.

A new era dawned for our sports-crazed town when the Philadelphia Union stepped on to the pitch at a jam-packed and rowdy Qwest Field in Seattle to take on the host Seattle Sounders in the Union’s first-ever official MLS regular season match in franchise history.

The sport of soccer has been the fastest-growing sport in America for two decades now. Youth programs have exploded across the country since the 1980’s. Yet still the game has generally floundered here at the pro level as it has attempted to emerge from the huge shadows cast by Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NHL, and the NBA. Those days may fast be coming to an end.

The youthful generation that grew up playing the sport is now reaching the age where the spending power of their pocketbooks and their interest in watching such events is opening up a legitimate place in the market for Major League Soccer to succeed and now even expand here in the States, including now finally returning the game to the Philly market.

Soccer’s professional history in Philadelphia has been mixed but ultimately futile in the past. On April 16th, 1967 the Philadelphia Spartans took to the field at Temple University and shutout the Toronto Falcons 2-0 in front of more than 14,000 fans in the inaugural game of the fledgling National Professional Soccer League. It would ultimately mark the only season in the team’s history.

At the end of that season, the NPSL merged with United Soccer Association to form the North American Soccer League (NASL), but Pennsylvania lost out completely when both the Philly and Pittsburgh teams from the NPSL were folded. NASL would last from 1968 all the way through 1984, and would see a return to Philly of pro soccer as well.

In 1973 the Philadelphia Atoms were born for their first season of play in NASL at the new Veteran’s Stadium. Led by one of the earliest big American stars, goalkeeper Bob Rigby, the Atoms won the East Division and then won the NASL championship in their first season of existence when they downed the Dallas Tornado 2-0 in the title match.

The first-year success of the Atoms did not last. The club played on for three more seasons, the final one at Franklin Field, and never again recorded a winning season. The franchise was finally placed in ‘receivership’ by NASL, and Philly would find itself completely without pro soccer for the 1977 season. Few seemed to know, and even fewer to care.

Then in 1978, NASL returned pro soccer to the city with the birth of the Philadelphia Fury. The Fury was owned by a rock star group that included Paul Simon, Peter Frampton and Rick Wakeman and would be an ‘indoor’ team playing at the Spectrum. Rigby played for the Fury, but the team itself failed to secure a winning record in any of it’s three seasons and drew just over 18,000 total fans in those years. The team was sold after the 1980 season and moved to Montreal before being dissolved after the 1983 season.

It was a long dry spell for pro soccer fans in Philadelphia at this point before finally in 1996 the indoor Philadelphia Kixx were born in the National Professional Soccer League. The club would go on to win two titles in the Major Indoor Soccer League in 2002 and 2007. The Kixx continue to compete in indoor professional soccer, playing to a mostly niche audience.

The wait for real, full-blown, world class outdoor-style professional football/soccer stretched for almost three decades until finally it was announced that Philadelphia had been awarded a franchise in Major League Soccer. MLS had begun in the early-90’s, and has proven to be the most successful and stable professional league in American history.

The Philadelphia Union name was selected by a combination of fan and ownership input, and a site was chosen on the banks of the Delaware River in Chester, PA for building a brand-new 18,500 fan capacity state-of-the art outdoor soccer stadium. That stadium, PPL Park, is near completion and should open this summer. The Union will play their first two home matches, including the April 10th opener vs. DC United, at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philly.

For last night’s franchise debut, the Union could not have been given a more formidable task. The opponents were the Seattle Sounders, one of the leading contenders for the Western Division and overall MLS titles in 2010. The Union took the field with the youngest roster in MLS, while the Sounders field a lineup of strong, skilled, experienced stars.

Seattle was an expansion franchise just a year ago, and proved to be the most highly successful such franchise in league history. Fans flocked to Qwest Field and made noise from start to finish. The team responded with a winning record before being shocked out of the playoffs. This year, Seattle and their fans are primed for a run at the MLS crown, and last night both the team and the fans were in roaring form.

Manager Peter Nowak’s young Union actually came out pretty strong, mostly setting the pace for the first 10 minutes. But a breakdown in their defensive zone in the 12th minute resulted in a fairly easy goal for the Sounders’ Brad Evans. The Union had yielded the first goal in team history and were down 1-0 on the road, and momentum for the rest of the first half shifted overtly to the Seattle side.

As the Sounders continued to apply pressure to the Union side and halftime approached, things went from bad to downright ugly. In the 41st minute, Union defender Toni Stahl’s rugged play dealt them a fatal blow. Already yellow-carded (warned) once for rough play, Stahl received his 2nd yellow and the accompanying automatic red-card (ejection), leaving the Union to play the rest of the match a man short.

This was a bit too much for the youthful expansion club. Less than two minutes after Stahl’s exit, Seattle star Fredy Montero banged in a shot from close range, and the host Sounders had a big 2-0 lead. The Union appeared on the ropes and were lucky to get to halftime trailing by that same margin.

Having to play an entire second half on the road in a steady rain against a more experienced opponent in front of a vocal crowd and already down 2-0, things looked bleak for the Philadelphia side. However, the team acquitted itself well for the most part. The shorthanded situation generally kept them from any real, quality scoring chances, but they were able to dodge some bullets and play securely enough that the same 2-0 halftime score would end up being the final.

The bright side for the Union on the field came from the performances of a number of players. Goalkeeper Chris Seitz was generally steady and showed that he can succeed if given a full opportunity as a starter protecting the Philly nets and leading the back end. Forwards Sebastien Le Toux and Alejandro Moreno looked good and each had bright moments on the offensive end. Tiny American teenager Jack McInerney showed steely-eyed determination, speed and skill in a late cameo appearance.

The Union were also forced to play the entirety of their inaugural game without Fred, the 30-year star Brazilian forward who is expected to be a huge part of their team. Fred was serving a 1-game suspension for an incident while playing at the end of last season for D.C. United, and will return to the Union lineup for their home opener on April 10th at the Linc against his former team.

So professional soccer is back in Philadelphia. The Union will play approximately once a week now through a 28-game season that will end in October. There will be a 2 1/2 week break in mid-June for the playing of the World Cup. The team may be young, but it has talent and showed under extremely adverse circumstances last night that it has heart as well. That characteristic is something which will serve it well in this always tough sports town.

I turned in to the MLS Cup championship last fall and watched a thrilling game as Real Salt Lake battled David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy to a 1-1 tie in regulation, then won 5-4 on penalty kicks. That game and the pending birth of the Union have me excited about and interested in pro soccer for the first time in my life. My wife and I will be attending the Union’s first-ever home opener, and I’ll be following them regularly.

It’s time, Philadelphia. This is a truly great sports town, and there is really no reason that we cannot devote a portion of our loyalty and attention to this extremely worth game. The franchise seems to have made a longterm commitment to our area, so we can safely put our affections into it’s hands. Go ahead, watch some games. Go to a game or two. Let down your guard, Philly, and embrace the new kids in town, the Philadelphia Union.