Columbus Discovers Soccer

Pregame hype

Dempsey vs Chicharito

With a 2-0 win tonight the USMNT has all but qualified for Brazil 2014. CONCACAF is always dominated by the big two USA and Mexico teams, leaving the rest of us sorry North/Central American and Caribbean countries to fight over the scrap spot and a playoff against New Zealand. So the prospect of Mexico stumbling out at this point – and they may – is rather shocking for any place that conveniently finds itself covered by the Monroe Doctrine.

That’s not really what interested me about the game though. I was watching (and listening) to see how the Columbus, Ohio fans reacted to their new cheerleaders. Not a Dallas Cowgirls sort of cheerleading, but the Capos that were sent on the USMNT dime from Seattle to Columbus to help get the fans going. So you get the privilege of hosting a national team game, but are then told basically that another city’s fans are better than yours. Whether you agree with the fan evaluation or not is beside the point, it was done in such a way that came off a bit insulting to Columbus fans. I don’t think it got to the point where those fans would then stop supporting their team, but I’m guessing that the American Outlaw (US supporter group) membership in the Ohio region just dropped significantly. As one tweet I saw during the game said, “this is our house. being sung at Mexico or the Seattle Capos?”

Aside from the slight to the Columbus fans, one thing really bothered me about the Seattle Capo’s plans, a moment of silence for 9/11 in the middle of the game. Yes, I know it’s September 11 and there was a horrible event on this day 12 years ago, but it is difficult to stop a crowd from making noise for 71 sustained seconds during a match (from 9:00 to 10:11, the American Outlaws wanted a moment of silence). That Mexico was putting on a lot of pressure at that point and had a free kick during that span ended up ruining the effect by ineffectively taking the crowd out of the match. Silent crowds can be incredibly intimidating – usually against the home team, but the moment of silence is best left for pre-game ceremonies, not for the middle of the match where the action can ruin what would otherwise be a solemn remembrance. What would have happened if either side scored during that time? An effective use of the silent crowd was last December when German fans around the Bundesliga were silent for 12 minutes (!) to protest changing fan policies and ticket prices, but that’s German fans for you, they get all kinds of respect for their fan community. Something Columbus fans can only dream of at this point.

 

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Home Field Advantage

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.

USA gets Hexed

LA Times

Tim Howard (USA) reacts to Honduras’ second goal

Three months after Canada’s horrific exit from the World Cup Qualification in Honduras, it was Team USA’s turn to visit San Pedro Sula and enjoy the hospitality of Honduras. Despite a opening goal by Clint Dempsey, the Hondurans came back to win 2-1 in the opening of the final round of World Cup Qualification.

What does home field mean? Well, set the kickoff time for mid afternoon when those USA players used to either Europe (or a winter off from MLS) will have to play through the heat and humidity of San Pedro Sula; fill the Stadio Olympico with thousands of hostile fans that can boost the Hondurans and wear down even the toughest Americans and you get a chance for FIFA’s 59th ranked team to knock off the 28th ranked team in the first round of CONCACAF’s hex round of 2014 WCQ.

While the USA has been a fixture at the last few World Cups, their position seems a bit more tenuous this time as several of the other CONCACAF nations seem to have made up some ground on the Americans. Despite Jurgen Klinsmann securing a rather rare victory for the Americans in Mexico City last year, his tenure as coach has been a little underwhelming. The team lost to Jamaica for the first time in the previous round of qualification and were very nearly knocked out in a tight finish between USA, Jamaica and Guatemala in their Pool. Add to that, they have struggled in their last two matches against Canada (both 0-0 draws), and you have a Team USA that does not seem up to repeating the progress of the past few World Cup editions of the team.

Honduras does not have the star power that USA has available, but as Canada discovered (and both countries already knew) the environment and fans of Central American countries provides a much tougher opponent than they are used to. Perhaps this is the weakness of Klinsmann as the USA coach; he’s not as fully versed in the environment that is CONCACAF. Yes, Klinsmann has coached a team all the way to the World Cup final, he has even hoisted the trophy himself as a player, but he has not dealt with the hot and cold environment of North American soccer. Hot in that the passion in Latin America rivals anything in Europe, and cold in that USA can barely manage home field advantage in the USA (the last Gold Cup final in Kansas City was a pro-Mexico crowd). As long as there is relative apathy in Canada and the US, it will always be difficult for those teams to develop the same level of home crowd intimidation that the Latin American countries can provide. That will leave open the possibility of dropped points at home (Canada wouldn’t have needed to worry about getting any result in Honduras had they won at home), that means the those difficult road games take on even more importance.

The USA still has four more road games in the hex, five if you count their home game against Mexico. While they only have to finish 3rd to qualify and even 4th gives them a qualifier vs Oceania, look at your map and you will find that the road to Rio runs right through Central America.