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Let it snow!

Let it snow!

After the last round of CONCACAF qualifiers I wrote about the trouble the US faces in attempting to make the 2014 World Cup. Friday marked the second set of qualifiers for the group, with game 3 for all teams set to take place tomorrow. Match day 2 may have helped the Americans  a little, but the road ahead is still going to be tough based on the game they played against Costa Rica in Denver.

The game was notable for more than just the score, the Costa Rican FA has lodged a complaint with FIFA about the conditions under which the match was played. The game was played in the middle of a blizzard, and had to be stopped temporarily in the 2nd half so that grounds crews could clear the lines to allow play to continue. Ultimately, the US won 1-0 on a Clint Dempsey goal in the 16th minute. I don’t expect the Costa Rican challenge to amount to much as it is unlikely that FIFA will overturn a game that was played to completion, but again it highlights the desperate situation that the US faces in qualification. Despite the weather, the Costa Rican team managed some sustained pressure on the US, showing again the difficulty the US faces in ensuring its home points, much less picking up something on the road.

The justification for playing in Denver was not the potential for a late winter storm, but the need for the US to play at altitude before heading to Mexico City for the game on Tuesday. The US now goes into the most difficult venue in the confederation to play a Mexico team that is now desperate to show its fans that they can win. As much difficulty as the US faces, Mexico is making its own trouble after starting with two straight draws against Costa Rica (Mex blew a 2-0 lead) and then drawing Jamaica 0-0 on Thursday. Mexico is a stronger team than their record so far has shown, expect them to play their best on Tuesday.

Across the Atlantic and in contrast to the game in the blizzard, Northern Ireland was forced to cancel its qualifier against Russia because of snow, originally the game was postponed one day, but when conditions were not any better the following day officials were forced to cancel the match. This brings up another problem, as there are not to many open international dates left before qualification needs to be completed. Russia wants the match rescheduled to just before its match in Portugal on June 7, but Northern Ireland thinks that is too long after the end of their competitive season (early May, while Russia plays a spring to fall schedule like MLS) and the N. Ireland captain is getting married the day after the proposed make-up date (I don’t think FIFA will really take that into consideration).

Costa Rica and the US would be placed in much the same situation as both teams still have eight qualifiers to play out before the end of the October (the November international dates will be needed for the playoff qualifier between CONCACAF 4th place vs New Zealand), making for a very full international calendar already. That hardly allows for one more to be worked into the schedule. Had the game been abandoned when play was stopped in the second half, there would have been little choice but to reschedule the qualifier, but with a completed game FIFA will not want to revisit the result. And the US escapes a marginal performance with an act of God, rather than a hand of God.

Seeing Red, Seeing Stars, Seeing Bars

I was recently referred to by one of my friends as a “soccer mom” because I didn’t like his little facebook post of “Soccer players pretend they’re hurt, hockey players pretend they’re not.” I can take the kidding from him, let’s face it I drive Marcus to about 3 practices a week despite the fact that there’s several inches of snow and ice on the ground and it only recently managed to get above freezing for most of a day. But I’ll keep my kid in soccer thank you very much if it means not having to worry about concussions. What is permitted in hockey as part of the game is turning the sport into a literally bloody mess. That brings me to today’s tour of violence in the two sports and we’ll see where you want your kid afterward.



Seeing Red: First stop Manchester, for the game between Manchester United and Real Madrid. With United up 1-0, Nani (Man U) went up for a ball with his leg way out in front of him and basically ninja-kicked Arvalo Arbeloa (Real) in the chest. Nani was focused on the ball, but by leading with that leg he was judged by the ref have used “excessive force” to win the ball and so out came the red card. While many have argued the ref’s decision (including everyone in the city of Manchester), the response from Real was telling, they simply subbed Luca Modric in who almost immediately scored and then minutes later Cristiano Ronaldo put in the winner. No need to “even things up” no need to “send a message”, Nani was gone and so was Man U’s game plan. I’m going to back the ref on this one – it was excessive, whether he meant to or not is irrelevant, only that he did do it. I think what was so shocking to Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t that it could happen, but that one of his players could receive a red at home. He was counting on the intimidation of the crowd at Old Trafford to nudge the ref to a yellow rather than the straight red.

Seeing Stars: Our travels take us now to Toronto, for the Leafs – Senators game the following day. 26 seconds into the game Frazer McLaren of the Leafs and Dave Dziurzinski of the Senators dropped gloves and had the good ol’ fashioned punch out. Suddenly, Dziurzinski was down and not just down, but out cold. McLaren needed stitches, but at least remained conscious. The consequences for the deliberate fight that had nothing to do with the play of the game: 5 minute majors for both, and then all was forgiven and McLaren went back on the ice. Oh, and there was another fight later in the first period, probably to “even things up”.

Dziurdzinski after the fight

Dziurzinski after the fight

Compare the two sports now – in one (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) a dangerous, but likely unintentional play ends up in a player being ejected for his conduct. In the other, two players deliberately stop the game so as to fight one another, one ends up with a concussion and the other receives only a five minute ban from the game, and this leads to a further fight soon after. The league may review McLaren’s actions, but this is largely accepted and tolerated in the sport.

I’m going to tie this back to my research now with the importance of the crowd to the teams involved. In the soccer example, Sir Alex was furious, not because there was a card, but because the ref wasn’t swayed by the emotion and intensity of the stadium (the affect, for you theory junkies) into giving a yellow, or a warning. In sending off Nani in such an unexpected way the ref did have a huge influence on the game, it rocked the management of Man U, the players and the fans. But I’m not going to say this was a negative effect, since it was the right call for a bad tackle.

On the other hand, in the hockey example the players were trying to create that emotion and intensity for their teams by starting the game with a fight, in this case it seems to have backfired as you can’t really get all riled up when someone is lying unconscious on the ice. And one has to wonder about the mentality of deliberately attempting to injure someone as a way of motivating your fans and teammates. Affect is a two-way street, rile up the fans and they’ll rile you up too, that’s the intent of this relationship – get the extra boost from the home crowd to put you over the top. But it isn’t just something that you turn on or off, it has a life of its own and can react in strange and unpredictable ways. Which brings me to…

Seeing Bars: The consequences of playing with emotions and intensity can sometimes spin off in ways that you never mean it to. Last week former youth hockey coach Martin Tremblay was sentenced to 15 days in jail for tripping a 13 year old player during the post game handshakes. I don’t think that there is any excuse for what he did, but I wonder if a sport that so strongly encourages its “toughness” aspects does not set itself up for exactly this sort of situation? It is Sarah Palin’s pitbulls with lipstick image come true.

Tremblay trips a 13 year old

Tremblay trips a 13 year old

My argument isn’t perfect, there’s a lot that goes on in a soccer crowd in some places that makes hockey fans positively tame, but the example that is set in the game itself is critical for setting the mood of the crowd around the game. How will fighting in hockey stop? When people stop watching because of the fighting. I gave up. We’ll watch the Olympics next year because there won’t be fights. The hockey will be good, but without idiocy, because as international hockey has shown, you can play without the fights.