Wednesday, September 01, 2010

OK, A Soccer Post

When former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was realigning the divisions in 2002 to accommodate the new team in Houston and to make the divisions make geographic sense (until that point, Atlanta was in the NFC West and Arizona in the NFC East), he made one decision that, from a geographical standpoint, was a little questionable. See, Dallas has no business being in the NFC East from a geographical standpoint. Look at a map - it's nowhere near Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. Carolina, located in Charlotte, would have been the logical choice here, and Dallas would have been moved to the new NFC South in its stead. So why didn't this happen?

Well, could you imagine the size of the riots that Dallas and Washington fans would have staged if they had separated those two teams? I'm a lifelong Redskins fan, and the best part of being a Redskins fan is the two times a year we get to play our arch-rival Cowboys. The entire fan base goes nuts, players on both sides get pumped, and as a result, those two games are some of the most relentlessly entertaining sporting events you'll ever be a part of if you're a fan of one of the teams. If Dallas and Washington had been split up, they would have played each other about once every three years. Tagliabue would have been a moron if he had tried to pull that. So despite the geographical incongruity, Dallas remained in the East, and both fan bases got to continue their rivalry.

Why do I bring this up? Because CONCACAF, the federation that manages World Cup qualifying for North America and the Caribbean, is about to do what Tagliabue was wise enough to avoid doing - break up its two biggest rivals by instituting a new qualifying format.

CONCACAF is a unique region in qualifying for two reasons. One, it is dominated almost exclusively by two teams - the USA and Mexico - who have a fierce rivalry. Two, its final qualifying round was a single-group affair that placed six teams in a round-robin for three World Cup places. This meant that the US and Mexico got to face each other twice (home and away) each cycle. Which leads to pumped fan bases, players pushing themselves, and an atmosphere so special and intense that there's nothing like it almost anywhere. Read this Simmons column for an idea of how intense this rivalry is in Mexico.

What CONCACAF wants to do is to split this final qualifying round up into two groups of four. Now everywhere else in the world, where qualifying is done by groups, the teams are seeded. Europe doesn't want Italy, France, and England all being in the same group with only one team advancing, so they separate their big powers out into different groups. There's no reason to believe CONCACAF wouldn't do the same.

Which means Mexico and the US are all but guaranteed to be in different groups.

Which means Mexico and the US have virtually no chance of playing each other during qualifying.

Which really, really, really sucks for the fans.

The CONCACAF qualifying process may have been quirky and idiosyncratic, but it was a barrel of fun for the fans. We got two games to showcase our hate against our biggest rival in an extremely meaningful game. Think Dallas-Washington in the NFC Championship - only multiply it by 10. The only place we'll get that kind of atmosphere now is in the Gold Cup, and that's only if both teams make the final of the first post-World Cup tournament. (You'll remember no one cared about the 2009 Gold Cup, since it didn't carry a berth to the Confederations Cup with it.) We didn't get that in 2007 - Panama took out Mexico in the semifinals.

Now? We have to play a bunch of the second-tier teams, and then... that's it. No chance for glory in Azteca. No defending our home turf in Columbus. I'm sorry, but I just can't get that worked up about Costa Rica.

What's more, rivalry games have a way of making both teams better. The effort and training that we put into big games against Mexico have been a huge boon to us as a soccer power - we've been forced to raise our game far beyond where just playing Costa Rica and Honduras could take us. That's not something you can replicate in the inevitable friendlies between the two teams.

Is there hope? Of course. We could play Mexico in the finals of the Gold Cup next year. We could play friendlies, except add a trophy or something to make it a little more meaningful, and hope that that tradition catches on the way, say, Paul Bunyan's Axe caught on for Minnesota and Wisconsin college football fans. But it just won't be the same.

Our soccer world just became a little bit darker, thanks to CONCACAF. Cheer us on to our rivals, indeed.

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