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Keith Olbermann's recent commentary about Gordie Howe 


got me to thinking.

Not just about Howe, a giant of my sports childhood (and he was on the downside of his career then,  although with a decade yet to play), but about something Olbermann says during his tribute. That Howe dominated his sport at his peak like few other athletes, save for Babe Ruth and "one or two others."

So, who are the others? I'm not looking for a sabermetric analysis here. Neither am trying to determine who the greatest athletes were, regardless of their sport (so no Jim Thorpe or Bo Jackson). But if we take Olbermann's proposition as accurate, that Howe and Ruth dominated and influenced their chosen sports like few others, who might those other one or two (or more) be?

An unspoken part of the equation is when Olbermann describes his encounter with Howe when Keith was just ten and Number 9 demonstrated the amazingly fast hands that enabled him to flip wrist shots and jab opponents with aplomb. So, while Ruth and Howe were undeniably gifted athletes, we can also presume that they also had a unique skill set that allowed them to rise above their peers in their particular sport.

The final consideration is that, while I do have a historical perspective when it comes to some sports, I lack meaningful knowledge regarding legendary figures of many others, and so my perspective is  largely limited to my personal observations.

The first athlete that came to mind was Bill Russell. But while Russell was the dominate defensive player of his or any time, he was not an offensive powerhouse like Howe or Ruth who essentially changed the way their game was played.  Michael Jordan on the other hand was dominate at both ends of the court and did change the way the game was played, even down to how the players dressed and whether or not they had hair. He played defense, was impossibly creative offensively, and shared with Howe an insatiable desire to win.

After basketball, I considered football and soccer players that could enter the Howe Pantheon. Those sports are so team oriented, and have so many players on the field at one time, that  they don't lend themselves as easily to finding the seminal, game-altering athletes as hockey, baseball, and basketball do.

In football I considered Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning as possibilities. But did they really change the way the game is played? Otto Graham may well be worthy of consideration but his generation was several before mine and I don't feel empowered to make that call with him.

Lest we forget, however, American football didn't used to be the quarterback-centric game that it has become. And that leads us to an athlete who likely belongs at the the peak: Jim Brown. Brown's combination of speed and power had never been seen before in a running back. Add in the fact that he likely more radically changed lacrosse than football, and I'm comfortable with placing his name in Valhalla with Howe and Ruth. 

In soccer I have only read about or seen grainy highlights of old-timers like Alfredo Di Stefano and Stanley Matthews and really even Pele. The latter seems most likely to fit the bill. He was bigger and stronger and more skilled and more imaginative than any other player of his time. By a long shot. Of course I'd add Lionel Messi to the conversation. But even I can't make the argument that Messi has been the game changer that Pele was.

Perhaps the "safest" best for unique athletes is in the Olympic sports, where performance is easiest to assess. But given modern training techniques and full-time devotion to what was once an avocation, it's too easy to just say that because someone has run or swum or jumped the fastest or highest or farthest now is the best of all time. Measured against competitors of the day and time, though, who clearly stands out as the best ever. Who changed their sport?

Bob Beamon, the Olympic long jumper, is an obvious choice. Beamon's world record jump at the Mexico City Games in 1968 stood for nearly 23 years and shocked the world. His jump of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches broke the existing record by nearly a foot. The record was taken from Beamon in 1991 by Mike Powell (who jumped 29 feet 4 3/8 and who still holds the crown - longer now than Beamon's time at the top), but Beamon's jump is still the Olympic record 46 years later and still the second longest in history.

Beamon in flight in Mexico City
(photo from go.espn.com)

Michael Phelps certainly deserves consideration for the way he dominated swimming in multiple disciplines for a decade. But there's something about Phelps (and I like the guy, despite his screw-ups) that's just so far from Howe and The Babe and Jim Brown that I refuse to include him in that group.

The last name for consideration is Usain Bolt. No sprinter has ever dominated for as long or as completely as the aptly named Bolt. He holds both the 100 and 200 meter world records and has won both events in the last two Olympics. He has the fastest and second fastest times ever in the 100, along with the Olympic record. And, to show that he's a team player, he has been part of two consecutive 4x100 gold medal winning relay teams and has part of the world record in that event as well. It appears self-evident that he is the greatest sprinter of all time, and probably the greatest track and field athlete ever.

Howe and Ruth says Keith, and I agree. Jordan, Brown, Pele, Beamon, and Bolt. That's my list. Who did I miss?

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In case you were sleeping (which is understandable since it happened about 3 a.m. EST), I simply give you the latest amazing feat from Bubba Watson, this on the 18th hole at the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai early Sunday morning.


Even more astoundingly, the hole out came after Bubba had bogeyed 16 and double bogeyed 17 to fall from a two-shot lead to one shot behind five players as he stood on the 18th tee. The bunker shot, which was for an eagle, put him back in the lead by one. Tim Clark, playing in a group behind Bubba, birdied the 18th to force a playoff.  Which Bubba promptly won on the first playoff hole, sinking a curling downhill putt from about 20 feet.

Forget Gandalf, Bubba's nickname has to be stolen from John C. Reilly's character in Talladega Nights. He's The Magic Man.

The Magic Man (photo from imdb.com)







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With college football and professional soccer proving a constant disappointment, I chose to not wallow in my depression, but instead reflect on the pleasure that another sport has provided me this past year - not as a spectator, but as a participant.

Through some luck and some planning, I've had the opportunity to play some great golf courses in 2014.  Here are my top ten favorites:

     1.  Jasper Park. Jasper, Alberta, Canada. A great Stanley Thompson layout in South Central Alberta. Far from a mere resort course, it is both a great test of golf and a tribute to the surroundings, with bunkers mimicking the surrounding peaks of the Canadian Rockies. My favorite hole was the fourteenth, an uphill dogleg par 4 with a carry off the tee over the bright blue waters of Lac Beauvert.

The second shot to the elevated green of the 14th at Jasper.

     2.  Arcadia Bluffs.  Arcadia, Michigan. A links course in the sense that it has few trees and has many holes nestled alongside of or with a view of Lake Michigan. Criticized by some because it is not "natural" (the moguls, dips, hills, and valleys were largely man-made), it is nonetheless a beautiful course with several testing holes. My favorite was the par 5 eleventh, which goes uphill from the tee and then works its way down to the Lake. Arcadia also gets my vote for the friendliest, most accommodating staff (at the course and the hotel) of any that I experienced this year.

Looking back to Arcadia's 11th from a knoll.

     3.  Banff Springs. Banff, Alberta, Canada. I was admittedly underwhelmed the first time I played Banff two years ago, but liked it much more the second time around. Overall, the golf is just a half-notch below that of Jasper, but the memorable holes are spectacular. It's hard to choose between Banff's two signature holes - the par 3 fourth, The "Devil's Cauldron," and the 470 yard par 4 fourteenth (which was the original starting hole) as my favorite.


The Devil's Cauldron. (photo courtesy of Nathan Spencer)


The 14th tee at Banff. (photo courtesy of Nathan Spencer)

     4.  Forest Dunes. Roscommon, Michigan. My experience and that of my playing partner Charlie was tempered somewhat by the twosome we were paired with for our first 18 and boorish golfers around us on the second loop, but on reflection we both really liked the course. Not exactly a links course, but there are some links-like holes that wind through the dunes, particularly on the second nine. My favorite hole was probably the tenth, a par 4 that's not particularly long, but has both its fairway and green split by bunkers, without having a "tricked up" feel to it. 


View of Forest Dunes from off of the putting green.

     5.  The Old White (TPC) Course at The Greenbrier. White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. I last played this course probably 20 years ago, before the renovations. Then it was just another short, vanilla resort course, albeit one with a long history and distinguished pedigree. Restored to C.B. MacDonald's original vision, it's now a great track and visually much more appealing. It's still a resort course in that it's highly playable, especially from the white tees (which I wussed out and hit from). Favorite holes include the "Redan" par 3 eighth (having actually played the original Redan hole at North Berwick I'm particularly fond of them) and the dogleg par 4 sixteenth.


The Old White's 16th hole.

     6.  The Blue Monster. Doral GC, Miami, Florida. I've never played on a course with as much groomed sand as The Blue Monster. Hard as heck, but in great shape and an interesting layout. Don't know if I can say it's my favorite but the most memorable hole for me was the dogleg par 4 tenth, which requires a 180 yard carry over a lake to hit the fairway, with bunkers behind and a tight out-of-bounds on the right. I hit the fairway (laying three after I blocked the first one OB on the right).

The view from the 10th tee at Doral.

     7. Stewart Creek. Canmore, Alberta, Canada. Unlike Banff, I didn't like this course quite as much as when we played it two years ago. May be due to the extensive flooding which damaged the course, or the fact that the staff didn't seem nearly as welcoming as the first time. Still a beautiful course with spectacular views. Built around an old mine site, the front nine hugs the ridges of the mountains while the back is more pastoral. The course reminds me of the Pete Dye Course in Bridgeport, West Virginia, but the Canadian Rockies provide a more dramatic backdrop. While the front is pretty and tough, the hole I remember most clearly is the tenth, a dog leg par 4 which starts in a meadow with a wide landing area, then narrows to a small green nestled in a pine grove with traps on all sides but the left back.

A good place to start - the view from the 1st tee at Stewart Creek.

     8.  Edgewood Country Club. Sissonville, West Virginia. Yeah, it's my home course and, yeah, I'm biased. But I think it's a well-maintained course and a fine layout in the hollows of Appalachia. There are some tough par 3s and playable par 5s. The most memorable hole is the tough seventeenth, with a big dip from the fairway to the green and water lurking on the left. My favorite is probably the par 4 third, which winds its way around a ridge to an elevated, multi-tiered green. A straight tee shot leaves you feeling good about the second, but missing the green, or even hitting the wrong level, can lead to headaches.

A view across the water to the green of the
risk/reward dogleg par 5 5th at Edgewood.

     9.  Harding Park TPC. San Francisco, California. Unfortunately, I was playing Harding Park as part of a group outing and only got to complete 13 holes because of the "golfers" in front of us. It would probably rank higher if we had been able to complete our round. Still, it was a great municipal course (when you got over being startled by the firing at the nearby rifle range).  The uphill par 3 third, surrounded by cypress trees and the green surrounded by sand, was among my favorites, although apparently the fourteenth through eighteenth are the stars.

The 3rd (I think) at Harding Park.

     10. Country Club of Jackson (Woods/Marsh). Jackson, Michigan. The course I grew up playing and got to play twice this summer. Twenty-seven holes, only the first 18 (the Pines and Woods nines) were there when I lived in Jackson. The newer Marsh has some great holes and a few space fillers, but overall is probably my favorite nine now. The course is always impeccably maintained. My favorite hole on the Marsh is the par 5 third, a big uphill dogleg left with marsh to the left and mounding in the fairway.

From the 3rd tee on the Marsh course.
 The green is somewhere way off to the left.

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While the U.S. Women's National team has qualified for the 2015 World Cup (and, if you remember, that was not a given four years ago), the question remains: on what surface will its members be playing?

You may have heard that FIFA, in its imperial wisdom, has sanctioned next summer's Women's World Cup in Canada to be held at six venues, all of which have artificial turf. Unlike in 1994, when U.S. Soccer was required to lay natural turf fields over the artificial surfaces of the Pontiac Silverdome and The Meadowlands (which, admittedly, were vastly inferior AstroTurf as opposed to today's FieldTurf), FIFA has not required the Canadian Soccer Association to alter the turf of the host stadia for the 2015 tournament to comply with what has been a consistent FIFA requirement: that World Cup matches take place only on natural grass.

In responding to concerns over requiring women to play on plastic grass next summer, FIFA czar Sepp Blatter has declared that "artificial pitches are the future." Well, for women anyway. While many clubs in the Russian professional leagues have fake grass due to the extreme winters, there hasn't been even the faintest whisper that any of the venues for the 2018 men's World Cup will be played on artificial turf. The same for Qatar and its 110F summers, which are seemingly not conducive to growing grass (it's a desert!) and the pitches for the 2022 tournament.

Blatter has also responded by cranking up the FIFA propaganda machine, with its Head of Women's Competitions Tatjana Haenni declaring that "we play on artificial turf and there is no Plan B" for the Canadian games and by directing that a Roger Goodell-esque "interview" be performed with "independent consultant Prof Eric Harrison" in which the virtues of plastic pitches are touted and the merits of installing temporary real grass fields are poo-pooed. 

The reaction of women players to FIFA' double-standard has been emphatic and increasingly militant. It appears that, left out of the inscrutable process that is decision-making in FIFA, they've decided that they've got nothing to lose by actually fighting back. Megan Rapinoe, never one to mince words, summed up her reaction to FIFA's inaction in response to unofficial entreaties from women asking to play on real grass like their male counterparts, this way: "Maybe you're not having a thousand times more injuries [on turf], but there's an aspect to the purity of the game and the quality of the game that is played on grass that is different on turf. They can say what they want, but it's all bullshit to me."

Tell it like it is Megan (photo from espn.com)

Instead of just engaging in what would likely be a losing war of words, the women decided to take action. Earlier this month they filed an application before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario seeking a ruling that FIFA and the CSA be ordered to provide "proper, lawful playing surfaces [i.e., grass turf] for FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015."

The complaint contains a damning laundry list of past discrimination against women by FIFA and the CSA as well as an extensive analysis of the dangers and game-altering properties of fake grass. Amusingly, the players' counsel turns FIFA's words on itself, quoting from an article in the March 14, 2014 FIFA magazine "The Weekly" in which an English journalist examined the use of plastic pitches by four MLS teams and stated that "non-grass pitches are widely regarded as deeply problematic."

While in their complaint the players do refer to numerous studies that establish a possible link to increased lower extremity injuries to turf fields and the certainty that minor injuries (contusions and abrasions) occur with greater frequency on fake grass, the primary emphasis in the complaint is simply that FIFA and the CSA are clearly comfortable with requiring women to play on inferior surfaces as opposed to their male counterparts. This strikes me as a smart strategy -- arguing fundamental fairness is much less complicated than quibbling over whether or how much the risk of substantial injury is increased when playing on turf instead of grass.

In support of their assertion that there is a clear mandate that men's games be played on real grass, the players quote CSA officials who have declared in the past that play on turf for male World Cup qualifying matches is a "dealbreaker" and that the surface that that men's team plays on "has to be grass." They also cite FIFA's past and on-going requirement that World Cup matches take place on real grass, mentioning the Silverdome, The Meadowlands, and the future World Cups to be held in Russia and Qatar (seriously, Qatar). 

The players also note that FIFA "invited" female players to express whether they had a preference to play on grass or turf (the vast majority responded in favor of the former) and then promptly ignored their input. Finally, the players seek an expedited ruling on their application to allow FIFA and the CSA sufficient time to comply with the Tribunal's anticipated ruling before the games begin next June.

Having had Canadian courts described recently to me as "California on steroids" as far as their proclivity to find for litigants asserting discrimination, I find it difficult to believe that the Tribunal will find against the players. This seems rather clear-cut gender discrimination.

While undoubtedly FIFA and the CSA will oppose the players' application, it's difficult to conjure up many good arguments that they will have in response. The usual recourse followed by FIFA, to ignore or obfuscate issues, is not going to work this time around. The response that "there's no Plan B" won't either. And certainly, if it reads the same handwriting on the wall, it is not in either organization's interests to attempt to delay the proceedings since it will only make identifying alternative stadia or planning to overlay existing turf fields well in advance of the competition more problematic. 

My guess is that there are two different sets of conversations taking place in bowels of FIFA and the CSA right now: one in which FIFA, the CSA, and their lawyers are trying to figure out how to respond to the application without looking like bigger misogynists than it already depicts them to be; and the second between FIFA and the CSA to figure out who is going to foot the bill for the temporary surfaces. 

If we've learned anything about Blatter, it's that his only true concern is FIFA's bottom line. It would be completely consistent for him to be less concerned at this point with defending the "pitch of the future" and more worried about how he can strong-arm the CSA into paying for the renovations while holding on to every penny of proceeds that he can from the tournament.

Will the women play on grass next summer? There's a very good chance they will. Will it be FIFA that pays for the same playing surface that it demands for its male players? There's a better chance that the 2022 World Cup will be held in the middle of a desert in July.
Footnote: The only World Cup match I have seen in person was at the Silverdome in 1994. The U.S. men played Switzerland to a 1-1 draw thanks to a fantastic free kick by Eric Wynalda. What I remember most about the game was it was the most miserably hot I have ever been for an extended period of time (well, until I spent three days in a field in Southern Tennessee in July). The Silverdome wasn't air conditioned and since it was a true domed stadium, they had to keep it ridiculously humid to try to keep the grass alive, without sun, for as long as possible. The first step into the arena was like walking into a sauna.

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I started this post Saturday night.

Indignant about the University of Michigan football team's desultory performance against Minnesota, the post started with the premise that big time college sports ought to be treated as any other revenue producing enterprise and that when it is clear that the CEO is not and never was up to the task of leading his team, he or she needs to go.

But over the last two days, there has emerged an eminently more compelling reason that Michigan should fire Brady Hoke. Now.

Because Hoke has demonstrated an utter disregard for his players' health. And that, as a coach, is inexcusable.

While watching the Minnesota game and texting with E, a more loyal Maize and Blue fan than even me, I promised him that I would turn the channel if Hoke insisted on playing quarterback Shane Morris when it was clear that he was ineffective. Then Morris hurt his leg, was clearly not at full capacity, and Hoke put him back in. That was it for me.

But what I missed was Hoke's inexplicable handling of Morris and his well-being after that point. Shortly after I stopped watching, Morris received a vicious helmet-to-helmet blow from a Minnesota defender. He was clearly wobbly, needed help from a lineman to stand, and players were calling for the training staff or telling Morris to get down and stay down so that he could receive medical attention.


Morris stayed in the game despite all the obvious signs of a concussion. Then he came out, then he went back in again when his replacement (the former starter Devin Gardner) lost his helmet and had to be removed for a play by NCAA rule. So one player loses his helmet and Hoke's answer is to put back in the player whose helmet just did him no good.

Morris being held by lineman Ben Braden while tight end
Khalid Hill urges him to take a knee. (photo from heavy.com)

I have been a loyal Michigan fan since I was old enough to walk. I saw Ron Johnson set a school record in 1968 when he ran for 347 yards against Wisconsin in a snow storm. I've been back to Ann Arbor many times since, always rooting for the Maize and Blue (except once, when they played by alma mater Wake Forest and even then I knew that pulling for the Deacs was akin to tilting at windmills, and I was okay with that).

But this. This is the last straw. I will still pull for the players. I will still wear my Michigan shirt, still sing Hail to The Victors. But I will not waste one more breath defending Hoke. Or even countenancing his continued presence at the school.

I've used this blog as a bully pulpit to disparage coaches and schools that are Michigan's rivals. But while I still dislike (even loathe) Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly, I would not accuse any of them of intentionally putting a player in harm's way. But today I can, and have to, make just such an allegation against Michigan's coach.

Hoke's disingenuous explanations for why Morris was left in the game, his insistence that Morris may not play next week not because of a concussion but because of his leg are frankly sickening. Hoke insists that the decision was not his to make to leave Morris in the game but Morris' and the medical staff's. And that he didn't see Morris wobbling on the field. 

What the Hell was he looking at? What was he paying attention to? And, yes, it was your decision coach, or, more importantly, your responsibility to insure your players' health. That's not just my opinion. It's the NCAA's:
Recognition and diagnosis of concussion: All student-athletes who are experiencing signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a sport-related concussion, at rest or with exertion, must be removed from practice or competition and referred to an athletic trainer or team physician with experience in concussion management. 
There is no provision for the player insisting that he's capable of staying in, or returning to, the game. For the simple reason that that's exactly what is expected of a "team player." It's the coach's responsibility to recognize the situation, get the player out of the game, and then depend on competent medical staff to evaluate the player.

The buck stops with you Brady. But it shouldn't any more. Not for a single minute. Certainly not for another game.

If you need a better written, and more passionate (and profane) analysis of why Hoke should be fired, I recommend this blog post to you. And this post has a detailed timeline of the events after the hit and why Hoke's demurer of responsibility and knowledge is, simply, unbelievable.

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No, not a post about the NFL and its various hypocrisies (both Jon Stewart and Trey Parker and Matt Stone have already covered those topics with much more wit and biting sarcasm than I could muster).

Rather a follow-up to my post from February this year about the NCAA and its legal struggles. Thanks to the contributions of Alex Greenberg, it was transformed into what at first glance may appear to be an honest-to-goodness legal article. But cites to Deadspin and ESPN rather than to case law or a scholarly article hopefully rescue it from complete law review nerddom.

Here's a link to the article:

http://www.huddlestonbolen.com/assets/pdf/H0949444.PDF


The NCAA's $1.7 Million Man (photo from usatoday.com)

And, yes, it appears from this piece run by USA Today last April that Emmert has more than a little in common with Sepp Blatter and Roger Goodell

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While forces outside of the NCAA's control are compelling it to change the way that it administers its revenue-churning men's football and basketball competitions, at least one group is attempting to address issues from within. And in a "non-revenue" sport at that.

Led by WVU's Athletic Director, Oliver Luck (a former quarterback at the school and, perhaps more importantly for this subject, the former General Manager of MLS's Houston Dynamo) a group of college coaches, athletic directors, and administrators are trying to convince the NCAA and MLS that college soccer should move to all-season sport status, with the College Cup to take place in June, not November as it currently does.

The proposed changes would also allow more training time to college soccer teams and are aimed at improving training techniques and game preparation. Such a move would, hopefully, raise the level of play to that of lower division soccer in other countries. 

If the proposal is adopted, it would inject new life into college soccer in the U.S., which has been marginalized by MLS and its youth teams. Whether that diminution is a bad thing or not depends on who you ask. And when you ask them.

U.S. men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been particularly vocal about the need for the top-level U.S. players to play in Europe and its young national team players to train year-round with the best teams in the best training facilities, whether they be in Europe or with an MLS youth team in the States.

It's undeniable that the very best players in the World have, for generations, honed their craft in just that way - by playing constantly, with the highest level of coaching, against the best opponents. That is in fact how Klinsmann rose from an apprenticeship at his family's bakery to his fame as a World Cup hero and as feared striker for a number of prominent clubs in Europe.

But the problem with the European model is that for every Klinsmann or Messi or Rooney that it produces there are hundreds of faceless youngsters who became adults with no vocational ambitions to fulfill, tossed to the side because they're not quite big enough or fast enough. While some of the best youth programs offer education as well as soccer as a part of the curriculum, the primary reason that players are enrolled is to learn how to play soccer, not learn in the classroom.

Klinsmann, too, seems somewhat equivocal with regard to how he views American soccer, at both the developmental and professional levels. While he insists that the best players should play in Europe against the best of the world, he made Clint Dempsey the national team captain at the World Cup despite Dempsey's return to MLS last season. And, least we forget, Dempsey came of age as a player not after training in the depths of some professional team's youth ranks, but at Furman University.

Dempsey during his playing days at Furman,
(photo from furman.edu)

Perhaps most interestingly, among the players named to the U.S. squad for the recent friendly against the Czech Republic was Jordan Morris, the first collegiate player to appear on the roster since 1999. Morris apparently impressed Klinsmann while the national team trained at Stanford, where Morris is a sophomore, in scrimmages between the school's team and the U.S. men. While Morris was a player for the Seattle Sounders' youth team, he chose education over professional soccer in signing with Stanford instead of the Sounders.

Morris did not appear in the match, which the U.S. won 1-0 on an Alejandro Bedoya goal. But Morris' inclusion in the squad is hard to read as anything other than an indication that Klinsmann both recognizes his talent as a 19 year-old and validates the developmental training that he received in the Sounders' youth organization and at Stanford.

There are undoubtedly serious problems with the way the NCAA administers its revenue sports. Luck's proposal, however, presents an opportunity to the organization and its member institutions to make strides toward providing education for both sports and for life after sports, with the latter undoubtedly being the vocational destination for a vast majority of their players. 

The Soccer America article linked above suggests that Luck's proposal may well fail because, as a non-revenue sport, soccer simply isn't on the radar of may college athletic directors and presidents. They may either not want to set a precedent for other sports to seek a similar change, or simply not care enough about the development of college soccer to devote time to consideration of a change in how and when it is played.

Such a reaction (or non-reaction as the case may be) will simply be further confirmation of what the true "value" of college athletics to those that administer them is. And it would once again expose the NCAA's insistence to refer to those that play college sports as "student-athletes" for the sham that it is increasingly perceived to be.

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You may have heard about the NFL's plan to auction off the right to entertain at halftime at the Super Bowl. The latest edition of the game will be held this coming February in Phoenix.

It's Super Bowl XLIX, if you're scoring at home (or even if you're alone, as Dan Patrick used to say), slightly less unwieldy but more optically jarring than last year's XLVIII edition. Do we really care which Super Bowl it is? They don't number the World Series, or UEFA Champions' League finals. 

Yep, you got it. Roger Goodell, in all his wisdom, has decided to make artists pay to entertain.

While having avoided the embarrassment of either being forced to move XLIX or hold it in a host state with an overtly discriminatory law, the NFL still has a lot of other issues on its plate that would seem more pressing. Like the fact that one of its franchises has an overtly racist nickname that is coming under increasing derision. And concussion lawsuits

Nonetheless, Goodell has blithely pressed on with his main mission: to make NFL owners lots and lots of money.

The latest well of cash to be fracked is the Super Bowl halftime show. The NFL has reportedly asked the three "finalists" (Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Coldplay) in contention to perform to pay for the right to. While even seemingly sympathetic news sources have questioned the idea, it's the reaction of the music industry that interests me more.

They're not very fond of it. 

The halftime show is undeniably a marketing boom for the performer that gets the gig (Madonna and The Who both saw huge bumps in the purchase of their music after recent appearances). Some agents have acknowledged that there may be some benefit to up-and-coming artists to have the spotlight in front of 100,000,000 viewers, but that need hardly seems to be the case for the three finalists.

But there's just something, well, smarmy about the whole idea of making artists pay to play. Not to mention the fact that the kind of artists the NFL wants (those who will keep fans glued to their sets and halftime commercials) both have the least need for the exposure and likely the biggest egos to be offended by the demand to pay.  

One thing is fairly certain. Arcade Fire will not be headlining at the University of Phoenix stadium at XLIX next year, and probably not at any Roman numeral in the future. Their agent, David Viecelli delightfully summed up his response to the NFL's attempted extortion when he said that he hopes "that everyone tells them to get stuffed."

Not coming to a Super Bowl near you. (photo from Spin)

A lot of us feel that way.

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All the big European clubs are doing it.

Come to America, play a few friendly matches to tune up for the real "football" that starts in a few weeks. Sell some shirts, make some new fans from the burgeoning U.S. soccer culture. Goodwill tours can be very good business.

Except when there's no goodwill.

For ten years running, the MLS All-Star game has featured the best of the league (at some point anyway -- the fans seem to have a different idea of who the first 11 should be than me) against a European club. Fulham of the English Premier League was the first, followed by Chelsea, Celtic, West Ham, Man United twice, and others.

This year it was Bayern Munich, Champions League champ two years ago, finalist last year, winner of the most Bundesliga titles including the last two, chock-full of members of Germany's World Cup championship team, taking on the all-stars in Portland. Bayern is lead by Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona coach whose style and temperament I previously admired.

The game was several steps above the usual all-star game fare in any sport. The players played hard, actually defended, and scored two great goals. Bayern went on top through a fabulous strike by Robert Lewandowski. That remained the best goal of the game for 43 minutes, until Bradley Wright-Phillips unleashed an unstoppable shot of his own in the 51st minute to tie the game.


Then things really got interesting. Osvaldo Alonso, the tough midfielder for Portland's rival, the Seattle Sounders, received a yellow card for a hard challenge on Bayern's Shaqiri. It was a foul deserving of a booking, but not horrendous. Six minutes later, Landon Donovan, who had come on three minutes after half time, was the recipient of a gorgeous ball from Portland's Diego Valeri and put the Americans ahead 2-1.

With a minute of regular time left, Portland's Will Johnson was carded for a foul against Bastien Schweinsteiger, who was last seen receiving a public beating administered by various Argentines in the World Cup Final. When the match ended, Guardiola refused to shake MLS coach Caleb Porter's hand, with two of his assistant coaches shoving between Pep and Porter like jackbooted Storm Troopers, ostensibly to protect Porter from Guardiola's wrath. 

It's hard to tell which of the above events set Guardiola off.  The refusal to shake Porter's hand after the match, while presumably under the guise that the match had turned out somewhat less friendly than Guardiola had anticipated, was just as likely because the result was something other than what Guardiola had anticipated.

Pep wags his finger at Porter while the SS begins to intervene in the background. 

As if it was somehow Porter's fault that Alonzo and Johnson had chosen to go into those tackles hard. Again I find myself agreeing with Alexi Lalas: "This is a game of soccer. If you don't want to risk anything, don't play the game. Don't come here, don't come here for the money, don't come here for the pre-season, don't come here for the game."

Whatever goodwill Bayern had built through its whirlwind tour was squashed under Pep's designer loafers, rejected by his wagging finger. Childish and petulant are adjectives that come to mind. Guardiola's players seemed embarrassed by his snub of Porter as several stayed on the field longer than usual after the match to exchange shirts, talk with the all-stars, and acknowledge the fans.

It didn't help. I know I'm not rushing out to buy a Bayern shirt any time soon. I doubt that many others in the stands in Portland or watching on tv had a different reaction. And it can't have been the denouement that the Bayern brass was hoping for.

Goodwill indeed. Get your arrogant butt back on the plane Pep, and play your European football all you want. We play soccer here, and we play to win.

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I used to love NASCAR.

It doesn't fit in with the on-line persona I have intentionally or otherwise cultivated. Soccer coach and fan, sports observer, lawyer, alternative music aficionado. Doesn't really seem to fit with redneck, beer drinkin' race fan. But that was me.

Before soccer really. Before I coached or played, except for the few odd weeks when I was eight or in college or at summer camp. Before just about anything but Little League baseball and shooting hoops in the driveway and playing touch (or tackle when the grownups weren't watching) football in the yard, I went to races.

My indoctrination started when I was a kid, growing up 20 miles from Michigan International Speedway. 

I had a classmate through junior high and high school whose father owned a very successful Indy car team. I went to some of those races, watched the cars, even got to meet some of the drivers (my friend's favorite was Swede Savage, who raced for her dad, the best racing name ever short of Dick Trickle). 

But I always favored the NASCAR guys. Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, and The King, Richard Petty. I went to some races at MIS, watching what were truly stock cars zip around the track at 200 MPH, drafting when it could really be done, and I was enthralled.

Then I went to college in the heart of stock car racing, North Carolina. I worked the sports desk at The Winston-Salem Journal, answering the phones on Friday nights when writing my story about the high school football game that I had just covered. About half of the calls (this is pre-internet days, of course) were very simple: "Where did The King qualify?"

The Petty Blue number 43 Plymouth Superbird
(photo from nascarbehindthewall.blogspot.com).

When I moved to West Virginia I remained a fan. My friends Steve and Howard and I had season tickets to Bristol International Speedway. Never figured out where the "International" came from, but that was okay. It was us and about 150,000 others, watching 42 (I think?) cars careen around a half-mile oval with ridiculous banks, crashing and passing and finishing backwards.

I went to races in Charlotte and Martinsville and Richmond and Darlington and North Wilkesboro and the Poconos and Dover. And I had a great time.

But kids and sports caused us to eventually give up our tickets and drew us to other pursuits. Gradually I became less and less interested as NASCAR attempted to appeal to a wider audience and gentrified itself and became vanilla and boring and popular and then not-so-popular.

All of the cars look the same. Few of the drivers have Southern accents and almost none can claim a lineage to the bootleggers and bandits who started the sport.

Now when there's a race on, I'll watch for a few minutes, but turn the channel as I realize I really don't care if a guy from California or Indiana or wherever wins. There's one on now, but I'd rather write than watch.

And I miss the good old days.

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I watched the U.S. vs. Belgium match in a pub in Canmore, Alberta with C and a bunch of U.S. vacationers. 

I marveled, with my countrymen, at Tim Howard.

I wondered how many would say "I told you so" when Wondo missed the sitter.

No caption necessary (photo from grantland.com).

I groaned when Belgium scored, and scored again. I said to C after the first goal "Klinsmann has to sub Green for Bedoya" (honest, I really did). He listened after the second, and we cheered Green's fantastic goal, then groaned again as chances went wanting at the death.

I listened to Columbia vs. Brazil on XM radio driving from Lake Louise to Jasper, glad I was watching the Canadian Rockies out the car window instead of the match as I heard the cynical play of the former purveyors of the beautiful game and the exasperating refereeing described, convinced that FIFA had stacked the deck in Brazil's favor in every conceivable but subtle way.

I saw two German tourists, faces painted with the German flag, on a sunny Tuesday morning in Banff. Little did they, or I, know what lay in store a few hours later. 

I passed a bar in the Calgary airport those few hours later, saw the game was on, and did a double, then a triple, take. The graphic read: "0 Brazil 4 Germany". In the 27th minute. I asked the guy standing next to me, still incredulous, "is that score right?" He assured me it was with a wry smile. I rushed back to the gate to tell C (she's of 100% German ancestry) of the score and that I was going to watch the rest of the first half, at least.

I rubbed my eyes when, not five minutes later, back at the bar, the graphic said: "0 Brazil 5 Germany." This time I just looked at the same guy, and he just nodded. Not a word was exchanged or needed.

I watched the French CBC station coverage at half time, deciding that even that lovely language couldn't put a pretty face on being down 0-5 in your own World Cup.

I decided that, at least this once, I was wrong about FIFA.

I followed The Netherlands game against Argentina, getting home from work to watch la Albicelestes win on PKs, a result that seemed neither deserved nor undeserved. Then I saw the Dutch destroy a slightly less desultory Brazil in the Third Place match.

I ambiguously watched the Final, half rooting for Germany because of that familial connection, half rooting for Argentina because I believe Messi to be the best player of this, and perhaps any, generation and that this was probably his best chance to add "world champion" to his resume. 

I was pleased that it was not another boring, tentative final, at least not in the first half, and that it was settled not by PKs but by two moments of brilliance (Schurrle's cross and Gotze's finish).

I was glad that a record number of my countrymen watched with me.

Welcome to the World's Cup and the World's game, American. Stick around for a while.

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I'm spent.

I've written before about my ambivalence about my love of sports. Particularly soccer. Particularly a soccer tournament run by an organization as corrupt as FIFA.

But I've also resolved to embrace my obsession. And so I watched the U.S. game against Germany with E, didn't sit the whole first half, didn't even sit at half time while eating and pacing. E didn't either, although I'm not sure out of superstition or just nervousness. I hadn't been so nervous since my last Regional championship game. Or my last trial. Or the Ghana match.

I in my Klinsmannesque blue USA polo, E in his brand new away jersey that he had just opened, a present on his 23rd birthday. Moaning, muttering, yelling at the ref (which will either amuse or confirm the suspicions of my referee friends - and, no, I do not count the zebra in the photo to the right giving me a card among them).

This one (photo from ussoccerplayers.com)
Only after Muller scored (and what a fabulous strike) did I decide that particular talisman was broken and sat and watched, as much what was happening in the Portugal-Ghana game as ours, and fretted and groaned and, in the end, exalted. At a loss.

Some of my friends and family, new to soccer, still have problems with the nuances. What is up with added time? Why do players dive with impunity? How can losing a battle mean winning a war?

It's all part of the magic, my friends. There's often the chance of a last gasp. There's always the hesitation for the whistle, the pointing of the arm, the brandishing of the card. And there's also the ability to rely, in the group stage anyway, on good work already done and grinding out a result, and hoping that someone else keeps playing hard on the biggest sporting stage in the World. 

Thanks Portugal. Thanks Ronaldo (never thought I'd say that).

We're through. And that's really all that matters right now. The shirt can stay. 

I'm sitting for the Belgium game, though.

Some random thoughts:

Klinsmann got it right again. I thought Geoff Cameron needed to go after Portugal, and evidently Klinsmann did too. But he stuck to his guns that Omar Gonzalez was his right central defender on the bench and started Gonzalez against Germany. And Gonzalez was very, very good.

Tim Howard was fantastic. Jermaine Jones again was huge, but about as spent as me when the game ended. Bradley not great but better. Dempsey also exhausted (time to get someone else up front -- Altidore or Johannsson -- and let Dempsey play withdrawn?).

If you like soccer, or humor, or even better both, check out the Men in Blazers podcast from Grantland. Spider bites with questionable consequences, tiny bananas, Tiricoism, and, best of all, #wetherrara. These guys are fantastic.

Ian Darke was driving me crazy during the match. E and I kept yelling at him to quit restating the obvious and jinxing us. Michael Ballack, on the other hand, has gotten much better as a studio analyst.

And speaking of improved performances, I begrudgingly give credit to FIFA for lowering the boom on Suarez.

Belgium? I'll take our chances. And Argentina after that? That would be something not to miss.

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I take back all the bad things I've been writing about Alexi Lalas. His observations immediately after the Americans' 2-2 draw against Portugal were spot on. It was a great match and the Yanks would have been thrilled with four points from the first two games if they had been offered prior to the start of the World Cup. 

It's up to Jurgen Klinsmann to convince the team of that. That we're still in good shape and have showed the world what teamwork and hard work can accomplish. But while the last play of the Portugal match was the most disappointing, there were several things to be concerned about coming out of the match.

One is that Klinsmann's magical substitution touch abandoned him at a crucial point of the game. I understand the idea behind taking Graham Zusi out and putting Omar Gonzalez in the center of defense with a few minutes left (to waste time, for starters). But Gonzalez hasn't done much right in the last month and he was completely absent (out wide to the right and behind the play) when Portugal equalized. Perhaps he was in to man mark Cristiano Ronaldo, but he did a poor job of that as well. He should have been in front of the cross from Ronaldo to head it away, but even with fresh legs was out of the play as it occurred.

Which brings us to the worst performance over 90 minutes - that of Geoff Cameron. Lalas forgave him the horrible miss hit that put the ball at Nani's feet five yards out with only Tim Howard to beat five minutes into the match, but I can't. It was the kind of mistake you excuse at lower levels of soccer, but not in the World Cup. Cameron then compounded the error by being behind Varela when he headed in Ronaldo's cross to tie the game at the death. Ball watching in the 95th minute? Amateurish.

I understand a coach wanting to keep his defense consistent absent suspensions or injury, but one has to think that John Brooks will be seriously considered to replace Cameron against Germany on Thursday. After the Ghana match Klinsmann said that Brooks is his left central defense substitute (i.e., for Matt Besler) and Gonzalez the sub on the right. But Brooks and Besler have to be considered to pair against Germany, particularly given Brooks' familiarity with many of the German players.

He's convinced me as a commentator, but is it 
too late to put him back in the center of defense? 
(photo from content.usatoday.com)

As for the good news -- I start with Besler. He was fantastic throughout the match. Apparently Howard was voted Man of the Match, but for me it was Besler without question. Things could have fallen completely apart after Cameron's miscue, but Besler held it together, stepping when he needed to and distributing well from the back.

Jermaine Jones was very good again, although not as good as against Ghana, save for his fantastic goal. Kyle Beckerman worked hard and had some good touches, although he also was not as outstanding as he was against The Black Stars. One has to wonder, at 32 years of age apiece, whether Jones and Beckerman will have enough left in the tank to go the full 90 minutes against Germany (particularly with three days of rest while the Germans have four - thanks FIFA!).

Clint Dempsey worked very hard and deserved his goal (I had a player score a goal with her stomach once - in a 1-0 upset win over the school that at the time was ranked first in the state - so I appreciate particularly that method of scoring).  Zusi gave away the ball too much, but his perfectly weighted pass set Dempsey up for the belly ball that looked at the time like it had put the Yanks in the Final 16. Howard made one fantastic save, but on a rebound shot from a ball off the post that seemed to go right through his hands.

Honestly, very few of our players except for Besler had outstanding games. Michael Bradley was once again sub-par (but please don't talk to me about how Klinsmann should pull him for the next match - we have no one else who can even come close to being able to do what Bradley does even on a bad day). That should bode well for our chances against Germany.

A win or draw against Germany and we're on to the Round of 16. A loss, and we might still get in depending on the result of the Portugal v. Ghana match. And if Germany draws against us they are not only in, but top the group. 

Don't think that it hasn't already crossed my mind (and those of the powers-that-be in both the Ghanaian  and Portuguese Football Federations) that a dull, goalless draw against a German team that the Americans' coach starred for as a player and coached on this very stage would suit both countries' purposes just fine, thank you very much. 

Such an approach, however, doesn't seem to be in Klinsmann's DNA (remember when we could have sent Mexico packing if not for two stoppage time goals that broke Panama's heart eight months ago?). And it's hard to see the Germans giving either Klinsmann or the U.S. any quarter either ("uh, Ms. Merkel, about that whole listening to your phone calls thing? We're really, really sorry now").

If only we had held on. If only Cameron had taken a better touch early or marked his man late. If only Bradley hadn't given the ball away in the center of the field. If only Gonzalez had done the one thing he was put in the game to do.

But this is American soccer. We're second in the Group of Death with everything to play for, coming off of two gutty performances with a warrior leading us on the field as our captain. We don't coast or dazzle or do things the easy way. But, more often than not, we find a way.

Still, just this once, I would have been fine with us taking the easy way.

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When your job is not that of full-time blogger, work sometimes gets in the way of posting. So it was with me on Monday, as I watched the U.S. v. Ghana match not at an American Outlaws watch party, or in the comfort of my own home, but on a boat in the middle of the Hudson River.

Fortunately a combination of my on-and-off whining for several weeks and the ingenuity of the good folks at USLAW meant that we had our own watch party on board, even though it was via the internet and on Univision (there was no sound anyway, so the fact that few of us could have understood any part of the broadcast other than "Gooooooooaaaaallllllllllll" really didn't matter).

As we motored under the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge (under which there was also a watch party significantly better attended than ours), some ate, some took in the sights, and others watched the game and cheered and groaned and critiqued (it was a bunch of lawyers after all) and was on the edge of its collective seat for 90 minutes plus stoppage time -- interminable, excruciating stoppage time.

And while, admittedly, the reaction of those lawyers wasn't as exuberant as that of many of those shown in the video below, I wouldn't trade the experience for any others - except maybe for those who were in attendance in Natal. 


Just as with Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria in 2010, I suspect I'll always remember where I was when I jumped and shouted and acted like a fool when John Brooks' header went in and the U.S. vanquished the demon of Ghana in the World Cup. After the game, we glided past the Statue of Liberty and I took a picture and Tweeted this:


Good on you John Brooks, the unlikeliest of goal scoring heroes, and you Jurgen Klinsmann for, once again, making magical substitutions at crucial times (thinking more of the addition of Graham Zusi - who delivered the cross that Brooks headed - than Brooks here).

Aaron Johannsson kept yelling in his Brooks' ear after the goal, "just believe it." John's not alone Aaron. It took us all a while to believe.

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I'm going back on my word to not post again before the World Cup starts. I'll just eke this one under the wire. And all at the risk of appearing a bigger and bigger Jurgen Klinsmann apologist. Or his lawyer.

Still, I'm about to start tearing my hair out. And this is good therapy.

The newest hubbub surrounding Klinsmann concerns his comments, made  in a New York Times Magazine article and repeated yesterday at a press conference in Brazil, that it is not realistic to talk now about winning the 2014 World Cup.

The media and the social media sphere went into a frenzy. "That's un-American!" was the general theme. Since Alexi Lalas has blathered on for months about how we ought to go into this World Cup planning to win or we shouldn't bother showing up, I'm sure he made plenty of comments along those lines last night on ESPN's two-hour extravaganza previewing the tournament.

I'm not sure that he did because the show was so painfully bad that I couldn't watch for more than a minute at a time. ESPN paraded out panels and panels of so-called experts, most of whom speak English with one unintelligible accent or another. Including a woman from the UK who will be some sort of studio host and immediately flubbed her second line on the show. Why does ESPN insist on having foreigners talk to us about soccer? I'm sure Julie Foudy could do her job more intelligently and intelligibly than she. Michael Ballack was particularly ill at ease, which would have made continued watching a little like gawking at a wreck. I was tempted, but kept driving at normal speed and ended up in South Park, Colorado instead.

But I digress. While I can only assume Lalas's indignation, there are plenty of examples in print. The devastating observations of Gregg Doyel, (a columnist for cbssports.com whose bona fides are that he "covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association" Alrighty then, he's got the credentials!) are one example.

Doyel goes on, and on, and on shaking his pompoms and rattling his saber, using the tired trick of repeating Klinsmann's statement in italics while railing about how it's obvious from the statement that Klinsmann ain't "from around here" and that he has a lot to learn about American guts and ingenuity, blah blah blah. Another noted soccer journalist, Mike Wilbon of ESPN, apparently took umbrage with Klinsmann's questioning of Kobe Bryant's salary in the article and told Klinsmann to "[g]et the Hell out" of the country. 

The only problem with Doyel and his ilk is that they are taking Klinsmann's statement completely out of context. Klinsmann did not say and has not said that the U.S. cannot win this World Cup. He has simply said that now is not the time to talk about it. 

Clearly uninterested in winning (photo from nytimes.com)

Klinsmann's exact quote yesterday, as reported by several different sources was: 
"I think for us now talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic,” he said. “If you do it like Greece in 2004, I think that nobody from Greece would have said, ‘We’re going to win the European Championship,’ but they did. At the end of the day, soccer, the beautiful thing is it’s unpredictable. You don’t know what happens.
“First we’ve got to make it through the group," he says, "so let’s stay with our feet on the ground and say, ‘Let’s get that group first done,’ and then the sky is the limit. But before and half-a-year before and even now (a day) before the World Cup starts, to say that we should win the World Cup is just not realistic.”
Makes sense, right? Brazil has won five World Cups. Italy has four. Germany has three. The U.S. has been to one semi-final, in 1930 when no one was paying attention. Klinsmann is merely saying "let's not get ahead of ourselves here. There are countries that can realistically say before the World Cup 'we want to win.' Or even 'we expect to win.' But the U.S., with its pedigree, is not yet one of them. Let's get through the group and then see what happens."

Over and over everyone reports, or even defends, the comment as "Klinsmann: Unrealistic for U.S. to expect title." But the quote was "for us now talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic." Now, as in right now or "half-a-year before." I am not parsing words, just taking them at face value. And what Klinsmann clearly said was absolutely correct, absolutely defensible, and absolutely coach speak. Let's take one game at a time. Let's put one foot in front of the other. Let's talk about our chances of winning a World Cup sometime after we make it out of the Group of Death.

I don't know what works the rabble rousers into their collective froth about Klinsmann. Is it the temerity that he showed to come from another country to coach "us"? Is it axing Donovan? Or is it just the usual soccer haters who seize the opportunity to throw cold water on the American psyche when once every four years (or two if the women do well) millions more Americans pay attention to soccer than the rest of the time?

Any way you choose, perhaps they could begin to show at least a shred of journalistic integrity by accurately quoting the man before excoriating him for something he did not say. Or just simply keep ignoring the game as they do the rest of the three years and eleven months of every four years.

Go back to covering high school football. We've got soccer to watch.

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I ended my post about the U.S. vs. Turkey match saying that Jurgen Klinsmann might have trick or two up his sleeve before the first World Cup match against Ghana next Monday.

Turns out he had at least one, and we didn't have to wait until that game to see it.

The U.S. won its final warm-up match before Brazil, beating Nigeria 2-1 with two goals from Jozy Altidore (the first among the easiest he'll ever score, the second a vicious strike from 12 yards out).  Nigeria pulled back a consolation goal on a penalty kick in the 86th minute to ruin keeper Tim Howard's shut out in a match in which he won his 100th cap for the Stars and Stripes.

The U.S. rolled onto the pitch against Nigeria in a formation featuring two defensive midfielders (Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones) and no true left winger. That left Graham Zusi on the bench (apparently confirming the opinions of those who were less than impressed with his performance against the Turks) and the Americans with no right wing. While a departure from the previous two matches, this was the formation that had guided the Yanks through qualifying, including topping the Hex for the third straight time.

As predicted, Alejandro Bedoya was back at left wing against Nigeria after making way for Brad Davis in the Turkey match and DeMarcus Beasley was again at left back in place of Timmy Chandler, unimpressive against the Turks.

Contrary to what you might imagine, this formation actually created more chances than did the one used against Azerbaijan and Turkey which featured two forwards, two out-and-out wingers and two center-mids. Dempsey played more like a withdrawn striker than a partner alongside Altidore, Jones was more offensive, often drifting out wide (but tracked back as well), and Michael Bradley bossed the midfield and teamed with Dempsey to direct the attack.

This allowed more room for Altidore to roam, and also opened up the wings for marauding attacks from Beasley and right back Fabian Johnson who was brilliant offensively once again. Bedoya lacked quality in the attacking half of the field, but his defensive work was a big improvement over Davis's. Nigeria had the majority of possession in the first half but never looked particularly threatening, while the Americans' counterattack always looked likely to score.

The U.S. defense was solid most of the game. Central defenders Matt Besler committed a late foul that was whistled for a deserved penalty, but while he has been downgraded by some for the foul (and his play in general), the penalty was largely the fault of Omar Gonzalez, who came on late and was badly beaten by a Nigerian attacker in the build-up that resulted in the penalty and the goal.

Beckerman (15) sorts things out with Cameron and 
Besler (5) in the Nigeria match. (photo from usatoday.com)

After dominating the African champions, it seems likely that the U.S. starting 11 against Nigeria will take the field in the same formation against Ghana. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. has the strength and speed in the midfield, and the familiarity and organization in the back, to deal with the Ghanaian attack. But Beckerman's insertion into the line-up gives some hope for a more organized defense and a more creative attack.

And that hope is needed after Ghana demolished South Korea 4-0 last night in its last tune-up for Brazil. While the scoreline is intimidating, apparently Ghana did not dominate play as comprehensively as it indicates and South Korea was hurt by poor finishing.  Still, Ghana is spoiled for choices in the midfield and up top and will probably give the U.S. more to worry about as far as attacking options go than will Portugal.

Klinsmann appears to have this group as ready as it can be for the Group of Death. Two teams will survive, that much we know. Klinsmann has admitted that a win over Ghana is essential to the U.S. being one of those two. The time for analysis is over. Only the true test on the field remains.

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We can assume, barring injury, that these players will be in the starting eleven when the U.S. men's team takes the pitch against Ghana on June 16 in Natal: Tim Howard, Matt Besler, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore. 

So that leaves us with the questions of who will man the position alongside Besler in the center of defense, who the two outside fullbacks will be, and who the two wings will be.

Against Azerbaijan, Jurgen Klinsmann started Geoff Cameron at center back, DeMarcus Beasley (left) and Fabian Johnson (right) at fullback, Alejandro Bedoya (left) and Graham Zusi (right) on the wings. Many who know more than me thought that this line-up was also the one likely to start against Ghana and at least one blogger noted that it is arguably "the best eleven players that the U.S. has on the roster." Dempsey didn't start after having some discomfort in his groin while warming up for the match (Chris Wondolowski started in his place), but Dempsey's place is in the lineup is a foregone conclusion.

Omar Gonzalez seemed a lock a few months ago to start at center back, but some nervy play and a tweaked knee seemingly have him on the outside looking in for a starting spot. Beasley started the final qualifying matches at left back, almost out of desperation, and did passably well and was the clubhouse leader to man that position in Brazil as well.

Howard, Besler, Cameron, Jones, Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore, Johnson and Zusi started, in the same positions, against Turkey on Sunday. Brad Davis and Timmy Chandler manned the left wing and back positions, respectively, in place of Bedoya and Beasley. Neither Beasley nor Gonzalez played at all, even though Klinsmann used all six of his substitutes.

The U.S. won the match 2-1 thanks to a marvelous one-two from Johnson to Bradley and back that earned Johnson his first international goal for the U.S. and man of the match honors (along with his defensive play). Dempsey added a tap-in following a mistake in the Turkish defense before the U.S. surrendered a late goal on a penalty kick awarded after Cameron handled the ball in the box (on a play that was started by a bad defensive mistake by Chandler).

Johnson celebrates his goal (photo from usatoday.com).

My impression was that all who have started both matches did nothing in either one to severely hurt their chances to start on June 16. Being the dutiful blogger (and researching lawyer) I decided to see how soccer experts rated the U.S. performances against Turkey. The results confirmed that, much like legal research, there is no clear answer, only varying opinions. Some rated Zusi's performance highly. But Soccer America found his performance the "[m]ost disappointing of the projected World Cup starters."

That Chandler was the weakest link on the pitch was agreed to by most if not all the commentators. And if not him, then the honor went to Julian Green, the 18 year-old starlet who looked overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation after coming on as a substitute and who, honestly, should not see the field for any of the matches in Brazil.

Brad Davis, while putting in some good crosses, did nothing to lead one to conclude that he should start instead of Bedoya. His lack of pace and inability to consistently defend his side of the field probably put more pressure on Chandler than would allow a completely fair assessment of Chandler's play.

One interesting option for Klinsmann would be to play Johnson at left fullback instead of the right, where he has started both friendlies. Johnson played both left back and left wing for his club team, Hoffenheim. But Klinsmann likely has Johnson at right back to allow his best outside defender to match up with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo in Brazil.

Johnson on the left would enable Klinsmann to start Davis, who offers more interesting offensive options than Bedoya and, if Davis pinches toward the middle as he often does, allow Johnson to make more effective offensive runs from the back. That would likely leave the right back position to DeAndre Yedlin another youngster (he's 20) who has buckets of pace but seems to rely on it at the expense of proper defensive positioning (Ronaldo would likely tear him up).

Or Klinsmann could move Cameron to right back, the position he plays for his club, Stoke, in the English Premier League, and start Gonzalez in the center of defense with Besler. But to do so would seemingly sacrifice the speed that Klinsmann values in his full backs.

All in all, it seems that those three positions, left back, left wing, and right back are the only ones up for grabs. And that Johnson will start at one of those outside back spots. So who's it going to be between Davis, Bedoya, Beasley, Johnson, and Gonzalez? My guess is Bedoya and Beasley. Saturday's match against Nigeria may tell us for certain.

Or Klinsmann may have one or two tricks up his sleeve yet ...

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I could say I saw this coming.

Then again, I could say I didn't.

I admit that after his performance during last year's Gold Cup I thought that Landon Donovan had secured a place on the 2014 U.S. World Cup team. But a lot has happened since then. 

Donovan's poor form in MLS so far this season (he has yet to score and while he has two assists, has not significantly influenced the L.A. Galaxy's performance this year) for one. And Donovan's admission that his age (or his current physical or mental condition) no longer allows him to train as hard for as many days in a row as he used to be able to for another.

Ultimately Donovan's form, age, and competition from younger or more in-form players led Jurgen Klinsmann to leave Donovan off of the 23-man roster that will travel to Brazil. The reaction from fans and pundits of the team has been vocal and varied.

Some believe that the decision will be disastrous for the team. Some believe that it's indicative of Klinsmann insuring that everyone understands that he, and he alone, is in charge. Others believe that it was warranted or even inevitable. 

I just don't see this as a display of power by Klinsmann. If anything, I believe that he clearly established last year that this is his team, not Donovan's or anyone else's, when he excluded Donovan from the squad for a series of friendlies and qualifiers. 

As for all the fans and supposed experts who criticize the move as stupid or wrong or biased I can only say: "Shut. Up."

I'm particularly sensitive to individuals who are wont to second-guess strategic coaching decisions, especially those who arrive at their conclusions based on what they've read or heard or seen on television. Most have no idea what has gone on at practice, in the locker room, in Klinsmann's conversations with his staff, or in his head.

Unless we start with the premise that Klinsmann is intentionally making decisions that are bad for the team and its chances for success in Brazil (which is nothing short of crazy), now hardly seems to be the time to criticize them. Does the specter of Donovan bearing down on them strike more fear into Portugal's or Germany's or Ghana's defenders than, say, Brad Davis or Julian Green? While the armchair managers certainly seem to think so, on what possible basis can they reach that conclusion other than pure speculation?

If the U.S. trails late in a match and Donovan isn't there to be brought off the bench, no doubt some will point to that moment (if the Yanks don't rally) as proof of Klinsmann's mistake. But in all likelihood the player that Klinsmann has in mind for that situation is Chris Wondolowski, whose inclusion in the roster is a cause for celebration. 

Wondolowski played college soccer for NCAA Division II Chico State, then worked his way through the reserve teams of the San Jose Earthquakes, the Houston Dynamo, and then San Jose again before bursting on the scene with the senior San Jose squad in 2010. Wondo made his first national team appearance at the advanced age of 29, scored his first international goal in last year's Gold Cup at 30, and followed that up four days later by notching a hat-trick against Belize while wearing a shirt with the misspelled "Wondowlowski" on the back.

Making a name for himself, even if the wrong one.
(photo from prosoccertalk.nbsports.com)

Wondo has earned a reputation for hard work and for being a consummate poaching forward. He doesn't always look pretty doing it, but the guy just scores goals when he's supposed to, and sometimes when he isn't. In other words, just the player you want to come off the bench late in a match when a goal is needed.

Surely, Klinsmann turned just such a scenario over in his head when deciding who to include on the roster. As well as who to use for late match set pieces (Brad Davis) or who may provide some late match toughness in the midfield (Kyle Beckerman), or who could serve as a replacement for a potentially suspended Jermaine Jones (Beckerman again).

As with the end of my last post, I note again that whether Klinsmann's 23-man roster is the "right" one will be proven, at least in part, by how those players perform in Brazil. Or, perhaps, even in qualifying for (and hopefully at) the 2018 World Cup.

But, for now, let's let Klinsmann be the coach and we be the fans, nothing more and nothing less. And let's celebrate Donovan's career as one of the best player to ever put on the shirt of his nation's team. And let's celebrate the fact that a guy whose name that team couldn't even spell right a year ago will don that same shirt (for the first, and probably last, time) at this year's World Cup.

Post Script: Came across this blog post while researching my next one. Eeriely similar to mine. I swear I hadn't seen it when I wrote mine.

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Meanwhile, over on the XY side of things, last week Jurgen Klinsmann announced his preliminary squad of 30 players that will go to camp in California to train for the World Cup this summer in Brazil.

There were no real surprises on the list, including the omission of Eddie Johnson from the team. And while not surprising, and seemingly handled well by Klinsmann, Johnson's omission is unfortunate given his service to his country's team.

While Klinsmann kept his word and chose players for the squad who were, for the most part, performing well for their clubs (Landon Donovan being one notable exception), it's not easy to forget Johnson's play during the CONCACAF qualifying rounds that was one of the biggest reasons that the U.S. is going to Brazil in the first place.

The men struggled early in the third round of qualifying and, with a record of 2-1-1, were playing away to "minnows" Antigua and Barbuda. In danger of coming away with no better than a draw, Johnson  scored both goals in a 2-1 win, including the game winner in the 90th minute.

Then Johnson made appearances in eight of the Hex (fourth round) qualifying matches, scoring two goals including the game winner in the latest Dos a Cero victory over Mexico in Columbus.


But that was while Johnson was flying high and scoring goals for the Seattle Sounders last MLS season. After finding success in MLS with Dallas and Kansas City, his career had taken a wrong turn in stints in the English Premier League and the English Championship, only to be revived in 2012 and 2013 with Seattle.

After last season, Johnson, feeling he was underpaid, essentially forced a trade from Seattle to D.C. United (Seattle was unable to meet Johnson's wage demands because of the MLS salary cap). While the salary increase was merited, Johnson didn't do his potential spot on the national team any favors by moving to the team with the worst scoring record in MLS history in 2013, or by explaining his scoring futility since joining D.C. by saying that in Seattle he was fed by "better guys that had more quality on the ball."

Johnson's complaint and the resulting fallout were consistent with the general perception of Johnson, which that he is moody and not a team player. In explaining why he had felt compelled to explain to his teammates why he threw them under the bus, Johnson said: "I don't want them to think I am better than them. That's always been the perception of my career: I'm a prima donna, I'm a bad teammate, I'm bad in the locker room. That's not the case." 

Klinsmann specifically said that the incident "had nothing to do with the decision" to not name Johnson to the 30-man squad, instead implying that Johnson had simply fallen behind other players vying for forward spots on the team. And it is arguable that Johnson's exclusion is less painful now than it will be for the seven players who will train in Palo Alto and participate in the friendly matches between now and June 2 only to not make the 23-man team that will travel to Brazil.

Klinsmann has more difficult decisions ahead in determining the
final roster of 23 that will play in Brazil. (photo from ussoccer.com)

It is, however, a bitter pill for Johnson to swallow, particularly given his role in getting the team to Brazil in the first place. And another example of how U.S. soccer has become both more internally competitive and more cold-hearted. Perhaps that's what we need to be able to compete with the best in the world. It will be up to Klinsmann and those 23 players with him in Brazil to prove that we can on the pitch as well as we recently have off of it.

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You could take two recent decisions involving the U.S. Men's and Women's national teams as good signs. As indications that we are big time now, that we make heartless decisions based on what we think is best for our programs, nothing more and nothing less.

Or you could see it as the passing of an era, from a time when our national soccer teams, perhaps to a fault, recognized past service or gave longer leash to a coach because it was the right thing, even if it wasn't necessarily in the best interests of the team (Briana Scurry starting in the 2007 World Cup semifinals instead of Hope Solo comes to mind, but perhaps then-coach Greg Ryan would disagree, since the fallout from that determination cost him his job).

The first decision involved the "shocking" dismissal last month of Women's head coach Tom Sermanni. Unlike Pia Sundhage's last game, there was no celebration after Sermanni's last match as coach, in which the U.S. beat China 3-0. In fact, other than Sunil Gulati and perhaps handful of others, no one knew that it was Sermanni's last match.

That victory came on the heels of a disappointing performance by the squad in the Algrave Cup, an annual women's tournament held in Portugal. The U.S. drew with eventual runners-up Japan in their first group match before losing to Sweden 1-0 and to Denmark by a shocking 5-3 score. Sweden is now coached by Sundhage, adding insult to the injury of a seventh place finish.

Sermanni coaching during the match vs. Japan at the Algrave
Cup. The team's performance at the tournament was at least a
part of his undoing. (photo from soccerblog.dallasnews.com)

While the team's performance in Portugal was admittedly underwhelming, it did not seem to be sufficient justification for a change. The termination came as a shock to Sermanni who is universally beloved by his players and seemingly deserved better, or, at the least, some notice that a change was being considered.

In the aftermath of the firing, pundits offered varying theories on the reasons for and the timing of Sermanni's departure. With CONCACAF Wold Cup qualifying set to take place in October for the 2015 Women's World Cup to be held in Canada, time is short for another coach to impose his or her vision on the team.

Gulati denied that a player revolt provoked Sermanni's dismissal, but it's hard to believe that the veterans of the squad were happy with Sermanni's habit of thrusting players new to the national team into starting spots (and, in particular, leaving Abby Wambach on the bench for the entire match against Japan and for all but five minutes against Denmark). Gulati did admit in his press conference that he gained information from "people in and around the team" that played a role in the decision, along with an assessment of "where the team's going and heading," and the performance in Portugal.

It's inconceivable that the decision was made with anything other than the best of intentions - clearly, Gulati and others in the U.S. Soccer brain trust thought the team was headed in the wrong direction (or, more likely, in no particular direction). With a qualification tournament upcoming that was nearly the team's undoing four years ago (remember the loss to Mexico? the play-off matches against Italy?) surely part of what played into Sermanni's firing was that if a change had to be made, it had to be made soon.

So, Sermanni wasn't the answer. Fair enough. But who is? The anticipation was that a new coach would be named by early May, but it's nearly the middle of the month and still no new coach. The list of candidates, frankly, isn't that inspiring (although Sundhage's former assistant, Tony Gustavsson, is an intriguing option). And time is growing short.

One thing is certain: if we are in a new, cold world of soccer with our women's national team, the choice this time had better be the right one. Or heads other than just the next coach's ought to roll.

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That was my tweet as I sat in the stands at Sporting Park in suburban Kansas City, soaking in the atmosphere before Sporting Kansas City's match against the Columbus Crew last Sunday. And I think I got it just right.

The crowd was fantastic throughout, singing, chanting, banging on drums and rooting their club on. And, I have to admit, that while I've supported the Crew since their inception, I certainly got caught up in the atmosphere and understood why the fans loved the team and that the feeling was clearly reciprocated by the players. Maybe that's why I wasn't the least disappointed that KC won the match 2-0.

Sporting KC's magnificent facility.

The contrast between the Kansas City crowd and those at Crew games was stark. While, admittedly, the Crew haven't given their fans a whole lot to cheer about in the past few years, the suspicion sneaked over you that there was something more fundamental at work - that the KC fans have embraced the sport and their club, while the Columbus fans have not, and probably never will.

More's the pity because the clubs are siblings of the same father - Lamar Hunt, one of the founding members of the MLS originally owned both franchises. But while, despite its professional football and baseball teams, the Kansas City area has become fervent about professional soccer, Columbus has not.

Rather than dwelling on the contrasts between the two franchises, however, I found more comfort in contrasting my experience at Sporting Kansas City Park with that of the first few MLS matches I ever saw in person. They were Crew games at what was then a decrepit Ohio State Stadium. Even putting aside my person distaste with regard to the facility and its regular tenant, it was a cold tomb in which the 10,000 or so in attendance on a good day were swallowed up by 80,000 empty seats.

From those humble beginnings, MLS has grown to scenes like those I witnessed last Sunday, on a beautiful day, with the sun streaming down on the natural grass pitch in a beautiful stadium dedicated to professional soccer. And similar scenes play out every weekend from one coast to the other, particularly in Seattle and Portland (although both have Field Turf pitches, which I can personally attest is beneficial where grass doesn't grow well, but is still not real grass) and Salt Lake City and Philadelphia and Houston.

Columbus corner kick in front of the "Cauldron".

We have become a soccer nation. And, at least some times, we play soccer the way it's meant to be.

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Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy: "This is for Venturi, who thinks I should lay up."

Romeo Posnar: "Yeah, what does he know? He only won this tournament before you were born."

I've compared Bubba Watson to Gandalf and Arnold Palmer before, but, for all those who have seen "Tin Cup", the similarity between Bubba in the 2014 Masters and Roy McAvoy, the fictional range pro from Salome, Texas played by Kevin Costner in the film, was unavoidable.

Much as Tin Cup knew that Ken Venturi, former U.S. Open champion turned television commentator, was advising his viewers that McAvoy should play it safe on the 72nd hole of the tournament, hopefully Bubba was aware of the chatter between David Feherty and Nick Faldo regarding his shot on 15 at the Masters on the final day.

Faldo had spent much of Saturday tut-tutting about Bubba's "nervy" putting, all but flat-out saying that Watson was choking. One got the feeling at the time that Faldo, who's game was tedious and precise (and won him six majors) was relishing what he saw as the anti-Faldo's collapse. Even on Sunday, when Watson seized the tournament on the 8th and 9th holes, Faldo seemed to assume that another meltdown was only a sweeping left-handed hook or missed putt away (and he never did give credit to Bubba that his putting was anything but nervy on Sunday as he one-putted 10 of the first 16 holes).

Feherty meanwhile, who can be wildly entertaining and is not hypercritical, assessed Watson's lie after his drive on 15 left him amongst the pines on the left-hand side of the hole, with water in front of the par 5 to carry and a three shot lead to protect. "He has to lay up," said Feherty more than once. "It's the only smart play," said Faldo, or words to that effect.

Watson, however, had other ideas. His second shot darted through the limbs, crossed the water, and landed behind the green.

It may have truly been the smart play. A lay-up might have left Watson out of position for a third shot over the water. Or he may have been concerned that it would carry all the way to the water.

I prefer, however, to think that, much like McAvoy, Bubba decided to tilt at another windmill and told his caddy Ted Scott "This is for Faldo, who thinks I should lay up." And then, unlike Tin Cup, cleared the water, made par, and won the tournament by three strokes.

What makes the comparison complete? Bubba, in either a knowing nod to Tin Cup or just because he truly is a small-town boy from Bagdad, Florida, celebrated his victory with friends and family at a Waffle House, just like Roy after his record-setting 62 in the second round of the Open.

Bubba's selfie at Waffle House (from @bubbawatson),
"That shot was a defining moment, and when a defining moment comes along, you define the moment … or the moment defines you." Roy McAvoy.

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First there was the call for the anonymous trailblazer, the modern day Jackie Robinson.

Then there was Robbie Rogers (although the "American" sports-centric press barely gives him passing mention).

And now Michael Sam. And Jason Collins (although Collins was really before Rogers or Sam, but wasn't playing professionally at the time).

This is the third year in a row that I've felt compelled to write about sexual orientation in sports, right around this time each year. And my how the dialogue has changed. From the (apparently) radical idea that athletes can hasten societal change, we are now at the point where the vast majority of the country recognizes that Rogers, Sam, and Collins are helping do exactly that. 

Sure, there has been the predictable backlash (primarily behind the anonymous curtain of social media), but there has been much more pubic praise for the fortitude that was displayed in coming out (Sam) and signing an NBA contract as its first publicly gay player (Collins). There's even the interesting symmetry between Collins' debut with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets, and Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers.

Michael Sam (photo from theshadowleague.com)

To be clear: I am by no means claiming this as a victory for sports over society. Obviously, a conscious decision has been made by many in our country over the last few years to reexamine our attitudes toward sexuality, both individually and collectively. But, because they are such a part of our social consciousness, sports, more than perhaps anything else, cause us to examine issues that we may have casual or even subconscious predilections toward in a new way.

Interesting, too, is that "news" regarding female athletes coming out is no longer really news. While one might think that this is due in part to simple stereotyping (i.e., female athletes being regarded as "mannish"), I believe it's more likely attributable to the realization that female athletes were the real ground breakers regarding sexual orientation long before males made, or more precisely were required to make, their sexuality a public issue.

Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Sheryl Swoopes paved the way for Megan Rapinoe, Britney Griner, and Abby Wambach. To such an extent that, while Wambach's marriage to her long-time partner last year did make the headlines, it seemed that it was more because of who she was (one of the most visible female athletes in the country) not because she was marrying another woman. In other words, just another celebrity wedding in Hawaii.

Wambach said as much when she commented: "I can't speak for other people, but for me, I feel like gone are the days that you need to come out of a closet. I never felt like I was in a closet. I never did."

It certainly won't be tomorrow, and it may not be next year, but sooner or later, that day is coming for male athletes as well.

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The hypocrisy of organized sporting institutions (particularly those that were founded as "amateur" associations) is not limited to FIFA, nor to European-based fiefdoms. But one of the elements that enables FIFA's and the Olympic Organizing Committee's, continuing high-handed corruption is the lack of a governing body to, well, govern them.

Not so in the United States, where the NCAA is facing attacks in several judicial bodies by the individuals who have made it and its member schools billions of dollars, the same folks that the NCAA insists on calling scholar-athletes.

The Through the Looking Glass logic of the NCAA is hard to deny, particularly after the recommendation of its football rules committee this month that offensive teams be charged with a delay of game penalty for snapping the ball within the first ten seconds of the play clock. You read that right: delay of game for playing too quickly. The proposed rule has been dubbed the "Saban Rule" after Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who supports the rule apparently because "run and shoot" offences provide opponents with the opportunity to actually compete with a school that routinely has the best recruiting class in the nation. Whether the fact that only one of every five college coaches support the change matters more to the NCAA than what Saban desires remains to be seen.

While court action is unlikely with regard to the Saban Rule, the NCAA does face serious challenges in several other areas which may well force its hand with how it administers college sports. First came former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon's law suit against the NCAA and its corporate partners EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company seeking compensation for players who either appeared in video games or in televised broadcasts while in college.

O'Bannon's case has slogged its way through the legal system and reached a tipping point in late December 2013 when U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken certified a class of former college players (comprised of O'Bannon and other named plaintiffs including Bill Russell) that sought licensing fees from EA Sports and CLC, but ruled that they could not proceed as a class on their claims against the NCAA for the use of their likenesses in televised broadcasts.

The ruling may appear a victory for the NCAA, but it still faces the claims made by the individual plaintiffs in the case, and it could have to face the daunting prospect of trying to resolve not one but hundreds of individual cases brought in all 50 states instead. Just as importantly, because the certification of the class against EA Sport and CLC would give the former athletes the rights to their own images while in college, the NCAA sought the stay of a ruling regarding a similar class in another class action which was denied by the United States Supreme Court.

In the back-and-forth between lawyers after Judge Wilken's ruling was issued, the NCAA repeated its mantra regarding "student-athletes" and the many benefits to which they are entitled in yet another attempt to justify the fact that it and its member schools make billions of dollars from the labor of their football and basketball players (and pay their coaches millions of dollars at the same time). 

Meanwhile, Northwestern University football players have taken steps to organize and join a union. The critical issue in that case, is, of course, whether football players are employees of the university or are merely (wait for it ...) student-athletes. The NLRB held hearings last week in Chicago in the case, in which Northwestern introduced a number of witnesses to testify that its athletes (who, with their 97% graduation rate, are probably more "students" than at most U.S. universities) receive academic support and are limited in the amount of time that they are allowed to practice or otherwise participate in their sport.

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who is leading
the effort of its football players to organize (photo from Deadspin).

If past cases are any indication, the players may have a tough go of it. An effort by graduate assistants at Brown University to organize last decade was denied by the NLRB, which found that the assistants were primarily students, not employees, and reversed a prior decision of the Board to the contrary. But left unanswered is the question of why one cannot be both. "I don't know that there's anything inconsistent with being a student and an employee," noted Craig Becker, the AFL-CIO's general counsel.

The ultimate decision in the NLRB case may rest on the next Presidential election, as it's unlikely that it will be submitted to the consideration of the entire Board until 2016. Just as in Brown case's George W. Bush's Board reversed precedent regarding the organizing efforts of graduate assistants at private institutions, so too the next Board is likely to be comprised of a majority of pro-union or pro-employer members depending on whether a Republican or Democrat next sits in the White House.

Regardless of the outcome in that case, however, the O'Bannon case is likely to have a more immediate impact, both because it appears to be nearing it apex (trial is scheduled for this June) and because it will likely hit the NCAA where it hurts the most - its pocketbook and that of its member institutions. It's hard to see the NCAA's position regarding compensation of players for the use of their likenesses as anything other than archaic, last ditch attempt to cling to the same arguments that Major League Baseball made and ultimately lost long ago regarding its reserve clause, which essentially made players indentured servants to their mother clubs.

While the NCAA has a valid point that players do receive at least the opportunity to receive a higher education through their scholarships, the value of that education so pales in comparison to the billions of dollars flowing to the NCAA and its members that it is difficult to perceive that as adequate or just compensation in the 21st Century. While O'Bannon's case against the NCAA may or may not ultimately succeed, one suspects that the recent movement toward paying football and basketball players some amounts in addition to their tuition and room and board may be an avenue to at least limit whatever future financial bleeding may result from his case and thousands of others that will follow if it is successful.

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Unless the European leagues all decide that they should change their seasons to a March to November schedule. Which is exactly what they appear to be considering.

The acting chairman of the European Club Association, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (who is also the "top official" of Bayern Munich, almost indisputably the best soccer club in the world at the moment), just last week floated the idea that the European leagues should consider playing a Spring to late Fall season just like ... well, just like the MLS season that has drawn Sepp Blatter's wrath for years.

Rummenigge's reasoning makes so much sense, highlighting the issues (particularly bad weather) that Russian professional soccer has been endured since it switched its season to coincide with UEFA's, that FIFA will find very hard to ignore.

First, Rummenigge points out that, in Germany, France, or England "summer is the best period of the year. And that is the season we don't play. In deepest winter, when it is very cold and snowing, we play nearly all the time in conditions that are disagreeable for both players and spectators. It is not logical."

Not that logic has ever gotten in the way of Blatter's or FIFA's edicts in the past.

What may well appeal to both, however, is his second argument: that switching to a March to November season would ease the pressure on those who play for both club and country by clearly demarcating the club and international seasons. Many clubs now agonize over losing players in the middle of their seasons to train and play with their national teams, taking them away from their "paying jobs" and risking fatigue and injury.

And who knows? Maybe Rummenigge's idea was floated as part of a wider scheme by Blatter himself to justify what I wrote about in the first part of this post -- moving the 2022 Qatar World Cup to the winter of 2022-23. This may be the first step in allowing Blatter to retreat from his previous hard-line position on the seasons of the MLS and Russian professional leagues and appear as eminently reasonable in doing so.

The Russians listened when Blatter told them to move their
season. And for that these players say: "Thanks Sepp!"

Either way, if the European leagues move their seasons Don Garber, the MLS Commissioner, will breathe a huge sigh of relief. And all of Blatter's blathering about its non-competitiveness because of the position of its season will be revealed as just that.

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