What's new with the USWNT at the Summer Olympics in Rio?

The last we heard from the United States Women’s National Soccer team on a world stage, they were grinning ear to ear and getting showered with confetti after dominating Japan to win the 2015 World Cup. Only a year later, that team is gone, replaced by a new one that’s (believe it or not) younger, deeper, and stronger. The United States entered the 2015 World Cup as one of the three or four favorites along with Germany, France, and eventual runner’s up, Japan. Five Thirty Eight actually predicted that Germany was the slightly stronger team. The situation coming into the Olympics is different. The United States is perceived as being way ahead of its rivals — expected to win the gold medal. So, what happened? Is this simply a case of recency bias? Are we blinded by that last image of our triumphant heroes? What, exactly has changed? To answer these questions, let’s take a quick look at each unit on the soccer field – goaltenders, defenders, midfielders, and forwards.

Goaltenders

Hope Solo is still the best goalie in the world, and her backup, Alyssa Naeher has a reasonable claim at being second. Gone from the World Cup roster is Ashlyn Harris. This is no knock on Harris, but Olympic rosters are only 18 players as opposed to 23 for the World Cup, so there’s no reason to carry three goalies. The United States will have an advantage in goal versus every team they play in this tournament.

Defenders

The 2015 World Cup team was quietly led from behind by a near-unbreakable back four. Center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston anchored the unit while Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger womaned the wings. They were awesome! I wanted to make helvetica style t-shirts with just their last names on the front. Amazingly, just a year later, one member of this fearsome foursome has been supplanted in the starting lineup. Ali Krieger has been replaced by Kelly O’Hara. You may remember O’Hara from the World Cup semifinals against Germany. She came into the game as a sub (apparently Coach Jill Ellis described her own decision making process as, “we need a bitch, get O’Hara”) and scored a goal in the 84th minute to salt the game away. O’Hara is a more attack minded player than Krieger (she was on the World Cup roster as a midfielder) and her ascension to the starting lineup is partially a recognition that the United States is likely to be doing a lot more attacking in this tournament than actual defense. O’Hara is also five years younger than the 32 year old Krieger, and it’s just possible that she’s a step faster at this point. Krieger will be joined on the bench by the smooth defensive defender, Whitney Engen. Engen was on the World Cup roster as well but didn’t get into a game. Gone are elder stateswomen Lori Chalupny and Christie Rampone. The team will miss their presence but not their play.

Midfielders

The biggest on-field loss from the World Cup team has got to be the early retirement of Lauren Holiday. One of the most insightful (literally) playmakers in the world, there’s no one on this team who can see a play develop and pass the ball as well as Holiday. If there’s anything positive about Holiday’s retirement, it’s that it makes the still crowded midfield picture a tiny less cloudy than it would be otherwise. You can pencil World Cup monster Carli Lloyd into the starting lineup. After rehabbing a knee injury between tournaments, she’ll be back at full strength, doing what she does best — scoring enormous goals in enormous games. In case you don’t remember or weren’t following the team before 2015, Lloyd scored both goals in the 2012 gold medal match to beat Japan 2-1 and the only goal in the 2008 gold medal match to beat China 1-0. Lloyd is the epitome of clutch. She’ll be joined on the field by a defensive midfielder. Morgan Brian is the first choice for this position but has been having some nagging hamstring issues. If she can’t go, Allie Long will replace her. Long is new to the team and is well deserving of a spot. She’s a more traditional defensive midfielder than Brian. At 5’8″, she’s only an inch taller than Brian, but she plays a much more physical game. In the other two midfield spots, Tobin Heath and Lindsay Horan are the two most likely starters. Tobin Heath is a shoe-in for the most improved player since last year. Known for a long time as an insanely skilled player on the ball, Heath has grown measurably since the World Cup in other aspects of the game. I’d now rank her as one of the best and most well rounded players in the world. She’ll strike fear in her opponent’s hearts every time she touches the ball. Horan is new to the team. She’s a strange mixture of Holiday-lite passing ability with Wambach-lite destructive aerial attacking ability near the goal. Everyone’s favorite player, Meghan Rapinoe just barely made the team after frantically rehabbing a torn ACL for most of the time between the World Cup and Olympics. She’ll come off the bench as a substitute. Missing from last year’s team, in addition to Holiday, are the retired Shannon Boxx and Heather O’Reilly.

Forwards

Only the United States could lose the greatest striker of all time Abby Wambach… and get better. Wambach’s long time offensive partner Alex Morgan is in better form this year than she was last. She’s fully healthy and has seemingly found the scoring touch that she misplaced during the World Cup. She’s joined by two new dynamic weapons: Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh. Dunn was the last woman left off the World Cup team last year and she’s played like a woman possessed ever since. She led the National Women’s Soccer League in scoring and was named the NWSL’s most valuable player to boot. At 5’1″, she’s all speed and explosiveness. Mallory Pugh may be the most exciting addition to the team. Given what seemed like a “nice story” type of opportunity to play with the USWNT as an 18 year-old, she grabbed the opportunity by the throat and has not let go. At times, she’s looked simply like the best player on the field. As weird as it is to write this about a player so young, there aren’t really any holes in her game. She’s skilled, fast, has a great scoring touch, and looks entirely comfortable on the field with women much older and more experienced than her. Rounding out the strikers is Christen Press. Everyone, myself included, thought that Press was going to be the break out star of the 2015 World Cup. Instead, she got locked out of the starting lineup and barely played. Alas, I fear her fate could be the same in this tournament. It’s a shame, because Press is a player capable of transcendent moments, but she may not be able to get onto the field enough to show us any. Missing from the World Cup team, in addition to Wambach, is Sydney Leroux, who is pregnant, and Amy Rodriguez, who simply couldn’t make the team with the worthy additions of Pugh and Dunn.

Okay, I’m ready. How do I watch?

The United States plays their first game of the Olympics tonight, Wednesday, August 3, against New Zealand at 6 p.m. ET with coverage on NBC Sports Network. They play against France on Saturday, August 6, at 4 p.m. ET with coverage on NBC Sports Network and NBC Universo. The USWNT’s final group stage game will be Tuesday, August 9, at 6 p.m. ET against Colombia with coverage on NBC Sports Network and NBC Universo.

Summer Olympics: All About Badminton

All About Badminton

For most people who grew up in the United States, badminton is a sport played in middle school gym classes or lawn parties. It is to tennis what wiffleball is to baseball. Globally, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In Asia, particularly China, badminton is a deadly serious sport. Olympic badminton moves at a lightning pace, often faster than the uneducated eye can see.

How Does Badminton Work?

“Badminton is played by two or four people on a small rectangular indoor court split down the middle on the long edge of the court with a five foot tall net. Each player has a light racquet with a strung head like a tennis racquet. Instead of a ball, the game is played with a shuttlecock. The shuttlecock is a “”a high-drag projectile, with an open conical shape”” according to Wikipedia. In English, this means that it looks like a bunch of darts whose points are all gathered up in a little round rubber nose. The peculiarity of the shuttlecock gives badminton its curious look. Players wind up and swing with all their might at the shuttlecock. This propels it very quickly for a short distance before it begins to decelerate. This deceleration gives opposing players a chance, if they can react quickly enough, to return the shuttlecock.

Matches consist of a best two out of three series of games, each of which is played to 21 points with players having to win by two. Each point ends when the shuttlecock hits the ground — unlike tennis, no bounces are allowed.”

Why do People Like Watching Badminton?

Badminton is enjoyable on a number of levels. First is the mildly humorous one that many American viewers approach it with. It’s kind of like race walking (more on that later) in that it’s funny to see people so good and so serious about something that lots of people do without considering it a sport. Once you get past that, the enjoyment comes from the way players handle the strangely shaped shuttlecock. Most sports are played with a ball or puck designed to make it go as fast and hard as possible. Only badminton, that I can think of, is played with a ball designed to go slow. This perversity is enjoyable to watch in much the same way a fumble in football is enjoyable to watch as players struggle to pick it up.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Like tennis, Badminton has singles events for men and women and doubles events for men, women, and mixed gender pairs.

How Dangerous is Badminton?

Badminton is quite safe. As humorous as the thought of getting an eye injury from an errant shuttlecock is, most badminton injuries come from turning an ankle or knee or over-swinging for a shot and straining a shoulder or elbow.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Badminton?

Very good. 38 singles women competitors and 40 singles men badminton players qualified for the Olympics. Equal numbers for doubles also qualified. So, no big disparity in entrants and no, as far as I could tell, difference in rules or equipment.

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Badminton is from Thursday, August 11 to Saturday, August 20.

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Fencing

All About Fencing

Fencing is what happens when a type of fighting, in the process of becoming obsolete, takes a detour and goes down the road of extreme codification that leads inevitably to sport. Fencing is sword fighting with unfathomably complicated rules where no one gets hurt.

How Does Fencing Work?

As you might figure, the point of fencing is to hit the other person with the pointy end before they hit you. (Shout out to all my Game of Thrones peeps out there.) The problem is, Olympic level fencers quite often hit each other at virtually the same time. One solution to this is to put electronic sensors in the swords and the clothing of the fencers. That way, a computer can figure out who hit first when the swords are moving too fast for the eye to see… which is almost all the time. Unfortunately, even electronic sensors can’t tell a lot of the time. So, a complicated set of rules was invented. Without delving too far into these, it’s safe to say that the rules generally favor the more aggressive fencer. If one fencer is on the attack, they will get the point when there is a simultaneous hit.

Why do People Like Watching Fencing?

There’s little doubt about the popularity of sword fighting as a spectator sport. Fencing, on the other hand, is a little more challenging. I imagine a lot of people tune in to fencing to see swashbuckling of the sort they are used to seeing in television shows or movies. You know what I mean, attractive muscly people swinging swords slowly at each other and sustaining attractively placed shallow cuts on just the right parts of their faces or arms. Olympic fencing is not that. The swords often move too quickly to see, and hits happen so fast and simultaneously, that unless you’re an expert in fencing and have amazing eye-sight, you probably can’t see them. Instead of watching the swords, spend some time watching just the feet and legs of the fencers. Divorced from their upper bodies, fencers lower bodies look as though they are engaged in an athletic, balletic, and deadly dance.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Fencing has three disciplines, each tied to a different weapon with different rules. Foil has skinny, flexible swords that you can only score with if you hit the point of the blade on the torso of an opponent. Sabre has a slightly shorter, lighter blade with a larger hand-guard. This is because the entire weapon, not just the point, may be used to strike at the entire upper body of an opponent. Epee blades are heavier and stiffer. Epee is kind of a throw-back event, the closest to “real” sword fighting. The entire body is a target, and, unlike in the other two events, there are no right-of-way rules. In epee, if two fencers hit each other too closely to tell who was first, both get a point. There are also team events. In 2016, men will have a team competition in foil and women in sabre.

How Dangerous is Fencing?

Fencing has freak accidents, like any other activity, but unless a sword breaks it is relatively safe. Fencing outfits may be reinforced slightly, but sabre and especially epee fighters just get used to bruising. It may not be for the weak of heart, but it’s not going to kill or badly hurt anyone.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Fencing?

Very good, at least on the surface. Inclusion of women’s events in the Olympics were a long time coming, but they are here now. Don’t worry about the weird and non-matching team competitions. The Olympics won’t give fencing more medals, so they rotate through the different events for team competitions from one Olympics to the next.

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Fencing is from Saturday, August 6 to Sunday, August 14 with medal events every day!

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Archery

All About Archery

Visions of Robin Hood splitting a rival’s arrow may flash through your mind as you watch this Olympic event. At this distance, the chance of splitting an arrow is slight or, perhaps, impossible, but that won’t prevent you from imagining it happen.

How Does Archery Work?

Archery is a relatively simple sport. Line up 70 meters from a target, stand still, and shoot at it. In concentric rings, where your arrow lands determines how many points you score. The bullseye at the center is only 4.8 inches wide and an arrow there gives the archer who shot it (or their team,) ten points. The farther an arrow is from the center, the fewer points it gets. Many arrows are shot, and each score is added up. When all the arrows are gone, whoever or whichever team has the most points, wins. Archers or teams are matching in single elimination games and keep shooting as long as they keep winning matches.

Why do People Like Watching Archery?

I can’t blame you if the idea of sitting still watching other people stand still and shoot arrows seems dull. All I can say, is that Olympic archery is surprisingly mesmerising most of the time. And, if a match is close at the end, it can be surprisingly exciting. Archery is an activity that requires complete calm to succeed at, so it’s interesting to watch what happens as archers struggle to remain calm with an Olympic medal on the line.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Archery has men’s and women’s individual and team events.

How Dangerous is Archery?

If you got in the way of anyone who was shooting, it would be pretty dangerous!! Otherwise, it’s completely safe.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Archery?

Aside from the qualification target being ever-so-slightly lower for women (600 instead of 630), this sport has complete gender equality. Maybe it will be one of the first to get rid of gender all together.

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Archery is from Friday, August 5 to Friday, August 12.

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Table Tennis

All About Table Tennis

We all know table tennis or ping pong. It’s that game we played with our grandparents in Florida or with our friends in their basement. Forrest Gump was good at it. It’s become a mild hipster/tech favorite. No! You do not know table tennis until you watch world class table tennis, like the table tennis in the Olympics. Casual ping pong is to Olympic table tennis as a school yard fight is to World War I.

How Does Table Tennis Work?

For as different as I just described Olympic table tennis being from recreational ping pong, I have to admit the rules are basically the same. There are a few interesting wrinkles though. First, the rule of hitting the ball across the table on a diagonal during serves (like the tennis rule about serving) is only present in doubles table tennis, not singles. In singles table tennis, the serve can go anywhere once it crosses the net. That’s sneaky! There have also been a bunch of equipment changes to slow down the game so that people can enjoy it more as a spectator sport. The ball was enlarged, the paddles restricted. Games are also played to 11 with who serves switching every two points instead of the casual standard of 21 and five.

Why do People Like Watching Table Tennis?

Well, tennis is fun to watch, isn’t it? So why wouldn’t you want to watch tennis as played by GIANTS?! That’s basically what table tennis is like. It’s surprisingly athletic, but instead of running around on the court, these athletes run around the court. Shots force an opponent to lunge from side to side and sometimes even run backward or forward or dive. The mixture of speed and control required to get the paddle into the right spot but not hit the ball too hard is amazing.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

 

What are the different events?

There are singles and doubles events for men and women.

How Dangerous is Diving?

Table tennis is safe!

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Diving?

The simplicity of the events (singles/doubles) make this an easy event for gender equality. What’s more, the rules are set up such that there are exactly the same number of men and women competing. Nice job table tennis!

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Table Tennis is from Saturday, August 6 to Wednesday, August 17.

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Diving

All About Diving

Once you’re done with the truly elemental sports — running, jumping, swimming, fighting — you get to the next level of sports. These are sports that add or combine parts of elemental sports. Diving, jumping from land into water, has its roots in that type of combination, but it’s become much, much more. Plain diving, was first an Olympic sport in 1904. By 1908, a second form of diving, called “fancy diving” had gained Olympic status. Fancy diving added acrobatics to the mix. These two forms of diving stayed separate until 1928 when the two were combined. These days, the whole transitioning from land to water thing seems like merely a footnote in the sport of diving. Divers do so many incredible, eye-catching spins, flips, and tucks in mid-air, that it seems as if they’ll never actually hit the water!

How Does Diving Work?

Diving is one of the many Olympic sports that combines aesthetics with athleticism. Dives are scored by a panel of judges who evaluate each dive based on how well executed they are. A dive has three distinct elements that are scored: the approach, the flight, and the entry. An easy way to think about this is that each phase represents the diver in a single element: land, air, and water. If the diver has to deal with fire, something is very wrong. Of the three, the easiest to watch as a casual observer is the entry. The bigger the splash a diver makes, the worse they have done. This usually corresponds with another element of the entry — how vertical they are when they enter the water. Because it’s hard to know what a diver is trying to do in the air, it’s harder to know how well they have performed in the flight. The eleven judges don’t have this problem, both because they are experienced and expert viewers of the sport and also because all the divers must submit their dives before-hand. There is no free-lancing allowed. As in other similar sports, there is a balance between execution and technical difficulty. A well executed very difficult dive may score better than a perfectly executed easier one. In synchronized diving, where two divers execute a dive simultaneously, a fourth element is added into the mix — how closely one diver mirrors the other.

Why do People Like Watching Diving?

Grace in the air, precision timing, tumbling athleticism, chiseled minimalist bodies, and even more minimalist swim suits. What’s not to like? Plus, it’s the only sport where competitors get to chill out in a hot tub before and after their performances!

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Diving has two different apparatuses, a traditional semi-flexible diving board, like the kind you see at your local pool. In olympic competition, this is called a springboard and is three meters off the ground. There is also a concrete platform to dive off of which is 10 meters (more than three stories!) high. Each apparatus has an individual event for each sex and a synchronized event. Although the individual events are more high-profile, the synchronized events may be more impressive. As hard as it is to believe anyone can perform tumbling acrobatic olympic dives, it’s even more amazing that two people can do it simultaneously.

How Dangerous is Diving?

Despite involving leaping and tumbling in such a way that a diver’s head passes within inches of the diving board or platform, diving tends not to be particularly dangerous for international quality athletes. Even the 10 meter platform, which would be horrifying to leap off of for most of us, is not normally a problem. When injuries do happen, they can be very scary. No one who was watching Greg Louganis’ famous head injury (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5nqeFWufrE) will forget it.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Diving?

Quite good. Countries may bring up to sixteen divers with no more than eight of them being mon or women. The diving events are the same for men and women and they are judged identically. Plus, the men’s swim suits are as or more skimpy than the women’s!

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Diving is from Sunday, August 7 to Saturday, August 20.

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

Why are the semis bigger than the finals in Olympic qualifying?

Dear Sports Fan,

Apparently the two semifinal games in the women’s soccer tournament to qualify for the Olympics are tonight and they’re a big deal. It seems like they’re a bigger deal even than the finals on Sunday. Why is that? Why are the semis bigger than the finals in Olympic qualifying?

Thanks,
Joy


Dear Joy,

You’re absolutely right – the two semifinals of the CONCACAF (North and Central American plus the Caribbean,) women’s Olympic soccer qualifying tournament tonight are a very big deal. When Canada plays Costa Rica at 5:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Live Extra and when the United States plays against Trinidad and Tobago at 8:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network, each team will be playing for a spot in the Olympics. Win and they are in, lose and they’re out. This is because the CONCACAF region gets its top two teams into the Olympics.

Not every region gets the same number of teams into the Olympics, nor do they all use the same mechanism for choosing teams. For example, Europe, which gets three teams in, uses results from the most recent World Cup to determine which teams get in. Germany, which placed fourth, and France, which made it to the quarterfinals, automatically get in. (England, which came in third, cannot play in the Olympics because the Olympics recognize Great Britain as a competing entity, not the component nations, like FIFA does. Competing as a unified team would, apparently, risk FIFA revoking England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland’s right to compete separately, so they regrettably don’t compete. It’s a mess.) There were four other European teams that made the Group Stage of the World Cup, so those four play a tournament to see who qualifies for the Olympics.

With the stakes as high as they can get in the semifinal games, it’s worth wondering what is going to happen. The game between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago is unlikely to be close. Trinidad and Tobago is a tough team with speed but they’re unlikely to pose a problem for the world champions. The United States is at least as fast and physical as Trinidad and Tobago and many times more well-organized on the field. The bottom line for the U.S. when it plays most teams in the world, and certainly almost every Caribbean nation, is that they have an incredible resource advantage. The American team is able to train together for large parts of the year in very good (although not good enough and not equal to the men’s team) circumstances. They also all play competitive professional soccer in the NWSL. None of these things are true for the women of Trinidad and Tobago and it will show on the field. The second semifinal, between Canada and Costa Rica, should be more interesting. It’s the one I’m most excited to see. Costa Rica, led by coach Amelia Valverde, are the Central American or Caribbean team closest to erasing the resource gap that the U.S. and Canada have had over them for decades. Costa Rica fell to the United States 5-0 in their first match of the tournament but then took out their frustration on Puerto Rico, 9-0, and outplayed Mexico in a 2-1 game to qualify for the semifinals. Canada is still probably the better team, but anything can happen, and if it does, it will signal a massive shift in the soccer landscape.

Why the CONCACAF qualifying tournament has a final game is a mystery to me. As far as I can tell, it is completely meaningless. The two teams that win the semifinal games will have qualified for the Olympics and there’s nothing else at stake in this tournament. If, as is expected, the game matches the United States and Canada, it will at least probably be a good game. The U.S. and Canada have been rivals for so long that even their friendly matches are often contentious and competitive.

Enjoy the games,
Ezra Fischer

The best sports stories of the week 7.14.15

The themes for this week’s best sports stories are the widespread nature of sports and unintentional consequences. A blue musician grew up in Texas before professional baseball existed there, so he became a New York Yankees fan. Now he travels all around the country and roots for his team from afar… even in Boston. A man from Finland travels to the United States over a hundred years ago. Today, the version of baseball he created in Finland still thrives. A trend in naming soccer teams in America suggests emulating common European club team names but doesn’t take into account the history of those names. An international sporting event comes to a town obsessed more with government ethics than sports. Read all four of these pieces in your leisure time. You won’t be disappointed!

The Tainted History of the ‘Dynamo’ Team Name

by Michael Baumann for Grantland

This is a brilliant look into the history of soccer in Eastern Europe during the Cold War that leaves its readers wanting much more.

After ditching one offensive name, Houston stumbled onto something worse, either not knowing or not caring that “Dynamo” carries with it perhaps the darkest connotations of any team name in modern European soccer.

In a communist dictatorship, sports franchises obviously aren’t for-profit businesses the way they are under capitalism. Instead, the major soccer teams in Eastern Bloc countries were founded as club teams for various state-run entities. You’ll see repeated names throughout former Warsaw Pact countries: CSKA for the army, Lokomotiv for the transportation ministry, and Dynamo for the secret police.

In an Indifferent Toronto, the Pan-Am Games Land With a Thud

by Ian Austen for the New York Times

Did you know the Pan-Am games were happening right now? Did you know they were in Toronto? If you answered “no” to both questions, you’re not alone. Even many people in Toronto don’t know or don’t care.

In a country where even minor misuse of public money can be the stuff of scandal, some observers think the Toronto games never got over the black eye.

“For the general public, there has been an apathy which is being driven by a dissatisfaction with the management of the games,” said Cheri L. Bradish, who teaches sports marketing at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Making matters worse, officials have been issuing early and frequent warnings to adjust travel plans because of the expressway lane closings, resulting in apocalyptic news coverage.

“You can’t do that for weeks and then turn around and say: ‘It’s going to be great,’ ” Ms. Bradish said.

What Finland Can Teach America About Baseball

by Brian Costa for the Wall Street Journal

This article is worth reading for the sheer thrill of learning about a strange version of baseball whose evolution diverged from American baseball more than a hundred years ago. The fact that it’s hysterically written and includes video (video!!) of pesäpallo is a bonus.

And those are only some of the quirks of a game that includes a zigzag base path, a rectangular outfield, trios of designated hitters called jokers and managers whose primary mode of communication resembles the feathers of a peacock.

“If you dropped acid and decided to go make baseball, this is what you would end up with,” said Andy Johnson, a Minnesota Twins scout based in Norway.

Jarring as it might look, pesäpallo is no mere curiosity in Finland. It is considered the national sport, and has been known to elicit uncharacteristic displays of emotion from the famously stoic Finns. Clapping, for instance, and speaking.

Country Legend Steve Earle Talks Breakups, The Blues And Baseball

by Amelia Mason for The Artery

Why include an interview of a blues man from an art-focused part of a Boston-area NPR outlet? Well, for full disclosure, Mason is a friend of mine, but it certainly qualifies as a sports piece thanks to a series of long wandering comments about sports that the subject of the interview, Steve Earle (who you may know from The Wire) makes. 

I’ll never forget, the funniest thing, it was a light moment in a dark era, is I was leaving Boston—I was going through security at Logan [Airport]. My sister lived in Boston for years, she’s married to a guy from there, she lived in Weymouth for a long time. And I don’t remember whether it was business or if it was seeing my sister but it was after 9/11, and not long after 9/11, and they still had a city cop and a state cop and a National Guardsman standing at security at every checkpoint. And I was going through, and I pulled my computer out of the bag and I had a great big top hat Yankees sticker on it. And the sate trooper that was standing there looked at it and goes, “Aw, strip search this one.” And everybody, including me, busts out laughing. And at this point, this was probably in October or November, and one of the planes did leave from Logan, you know, so security was really tough and everybody was really afraid to joke about anything.

Do you really always "play to win the game" in sports?

Sports are constructed universes that each have their own set of rules. One of the most attractive aspects about being a frequent visitor to a sports world is that it’s rules are so much clearer and more well defined than the rules of the real world. Each sport has a clear objective and every game that’s played has a winner and a loser. It’s no coincidence that virtually every sports arena has a large screen in it which shows the current score at all times. Unlike the other facets of most people’s lives — workplace dramas, romantic relationships, friendships, etc. — a sports fan always knows how their team is doing. Every game ends with a win or a loss. Every season ends with a championship or no championship. In a blurry, grey world, sports offers black and white contrasts. Fans, athletes, coaches, and general managers are free to pursue a single goal with an unwavering commitment rarely available or wise outside the realm of sports.

“You play to win the game.” If you were to watch ESPN 24 hours a day (not a real recommendation) you would probably hear this phrase at least four or five times a day. The phrase first assaulted the  sports Zeitgeist in 2002 when New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards said it in a post-game press conference.

The appeal of Edward’s rant is, at first glance, obvious. It’s a strident statement of the foundational truth about sports that we described above. Sports is objective. There is a winner and a loser and the goal is to be the winner. The second level of enjoyment for many people is in how dismissive and obnoxious Edwards is being towards the media member who somehow suggested that winning was not the ultimate purpose of sports. Bullying media members is, at this point in the United States, basically its own sport, and Edwards (who now works for ESPN himself,) is a champion at disdain. Forget those first two levels though, it’s the third level that we’re interested in today. The third level of interpretation reveals that this quote is complex. The thing about “playing to win the game,” is that it isn’t really true. Or at least, it’s a more paradoxical truth than it seems at first glance.

Today we’ll look at some of the ways in which teams don’t always choose to win games at all costs in two sports: NBA basketball and European club soccer.

NBA Basketball

Not trying to win or even trying not to win is one of the biggest topics in basketball right now. It’s seen as a crisis by many. There are two main ways in which teams subvert the single-minded goal of winning each game. The first is a strategy commonly known as tanking, where teams try to increase their chances of getting a high draft pick in an upcoming draft by losing as many games as possible in the current season. In an article on mathematical elimination, I described tanking as “a scourge to the sports world roughly equal to the flu in the normal world or sarcoidosis on House.” Tanking is trying not to win. The other focus of attention in the NBA is teams not trying to win an individual game by choosing not to play a player who is theoretically healthy enough to play that game. Unlike tanking, this tactic is used more by teams that believe themselves to be in championship contention.

Tanking

More than any other team sport, basketball teams are only as good as their best player. If you start in 1980, and list out the NBA Championship winners by their best player, the names are almost all recognizable, even to non-sports fans: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Magic, Julius Irving (Dr. J), Bird, Magic, Bird, Magic, Magic, Isaiah Thomas 2X, Michael Jordan 3x, Hakeem Olajuwan 2x, Jordan 3x, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant 3x, Duncan, the exception to the rule that is the 2004 Detroit Pistons, Duncan, Dwayne Wade, Duncan, Paul Pierce, Kobe 2x, Dirk Nowitzky, LeBron James 2x, Duncan. Only once in the past 35 years has a team without a super-star won the championship!

The clear lesson for teams is that if they don’t have a super-star, their chances of winning a championship are drastically reduced. By far the easiest way of getting a super-star on a team is to draft him, usually with one of the first picks of the NBA draft. There’s some chance involved, but at the end of every season, the team with the worst record has the best chance of getting the first pick, the second worst team, the second best chance and so on. If a team is going to be in the bottom third of the league, there’s a clear incentive to be as bad as possible.

Teams pursue this strategy in a number of ways, most of which don’t involve actually instructing their players not to score. By far the most common form of tanking is for general managers to manipulate the chances of their team winning by trading its best players. The goal is to have a set of players and coaches that all try their hardest to win but simply don’t have enough experience or talent to do it. The current Picasso of tanking is General Manager Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers. Hinkie, who was recently profiled brilliantly by ESPN writer Pablo S. Torre, is taking this strategy farther than anyone has ever taken it before. He’s drafted injured players so that they cannot possibly cause the team to win the year after they are drafted. He’s drafted players from Europe and the rest of the world who will not actually come to the United States to play for the 76ers for several years. One of his first moves when he got the job was to trade away the 76ers best player, Jrue Holiday, and just a week ago, he traded two of their best players away again, mostly for future picks.

It remains to be seen whether this strategy will work or whether it will be a complete disaster. It’s also unclear how much longer it will be possible. Tanking is odious enough to people in the sports world that the NBA is likely to make structural changes to how it decided its draft pick order to take away the incentive to tank.

Resting Players

Unlike tanking, where a team is eager to forgo winning games in one season for the potential of winning games in a future season, this tactic involves reducing a team’s chances of winning a game in order to increase the team’s chances of winning the championship that year. Increasingly, basketball coaches and executives are realizing that most players cannot play at peak effectiveness for an 82-game regular season and then a playoff run that could involve as many as 28 additional games.  Smart teams that hope to make it deep into the playoffs have adjusted to this knowledge by managing the number of minutes their players play during the regular season in the hopes of keeping them fresh for the playoffs. Often that means reducing a player’s normal time on the court per game from 35 minutes (out of 48) to 30 minutes over the course of the season. Other times, that might mean sitting a player for the entire second half of a game that is evidently going to be a blow-out win or loss by half-time. Even more blatant is the tactic of choosing not to have a player on the bench and available to play for a particular game.

Teams that choose to rest a player who isn’t seriously injured often choose one of the many small hurts that player is suffering from and use it as an excuse. A team might say, “Oh, So-and-So is out tonight because of a knee injury. They should be fine for the next game.” Usually the media knows this is nothing more than an excuse, but the gesture is enough to maintain the appearance that the team is optimizing to win every game. Some coaches, led by the example of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, don’t even bother with the excuse. They simply list players as “DND – CD” which stands for “Did Not Dress – Coach’s Decision.” Popovich famously thumbed his nose at the practice of using half-true injury designations to excuse coaches’ decisions to rest players in 2012 when he listed Tim Duncan as “DND – Old” for a game.

Resting players is not as noxious of a strategy as tanking, probably because the teams that do it are more well-respected (because they win) and because the future gain is so much closer and more concrete than the gains that teams tank for. The largest criticism of resting players is itself problematic. People often criticize resting players because the one game Tim Duncan sits out may be the only time a fan sees his team play in person all season or ever. By choosing to sit a player, a team is intentionally lowering the entertainment value of the game for its fans without a commensurate lowering of the cost. That argument make sense but only if sports is primarily entertainment rather than competition — and if it’s entertainment, then that in and of itself threatens the principle of trying to win every game. Uh oh, logical black hole alert! Let’s move on to soccer.

European Club Soccer

The structure of European club soccer creates a few scenarios where not winning is enough of a draw that even the most obsessed coaches are tempted to instruct their teams NOT to play to win the game. This subversion of what seems to be an obvious truth about sports is one of the curious and interesting things about learning how another continent organizes its sports leagues. Here are three common times when soccer clubs in Europe may be intent on something else more than on winning.

Balancing priorities

In American sports, there’s only one primary goal: win a championship. In European soccer, club teams compete for several different championships during a year, often simultaneously. A team may be playing in one or more domestic tournaments against teams within their country, an international club tournament like the Champions League or Europa League, at the same time as playing their normal league schedule against teams in their own country in their own league. This sometimes leads to conflicts of interest. If a player has a slightly injured ankle, will the coach choose to play him in a league game on Saturday knowing that there’s a Champions League game on Wednesday? What if the coach senses that the whole team is weary? Would it be better to lose in a domestic cup early on to clear the calendar for more rest days and practices? Will the benefit of rest and practice mean the difference between fifth and third place in the domestic league? Is that worth it? Which competition does the team have a better chance of winning? Which competitions are more lucrative and prestigious to do well in?

In American sports, coaches and teams don’t need to balance priorities like this, but in European club soccer, it’s a regular part of life. I wonder what a European soccer fan would think of Herm Edwards’ saying “you play to win the game?” Would they think it was funny because it’s true, funny because it’s not true, or just inaccurate and confusing?

The logic of aggregate goals

Many of the competitions that European soccer clubs take part in are tournaments. These tournaments often have a group round-robin stage and a knock-out stage, just like the World Cup. Unlike the World Cup and most other tournaments we’re used to, instead of one game against each opponent, European soccer clubs play two — one at each team’s home stadium. The team that has scored the most goals at the end of the two games (called aggregate goals) wins the matchup. The rules about breaking ties vary from tournament to tournament but they often have something to do with which team scored more goals when they were playing in their opponent’s stadium. The result of this is that teams pretty frequently go into games with goals other than simply winning. An underdog playing on the road in the first half of the two game series (often confusingly called a “tie”) may think that their best bet is to play defensively and try to leave with a 0-0 tie. A team that goes into the second game down a goal or two knows they need to not only win but to win by two or three or four goals. Likewise, a team going into a second game with the lead in aggregate goals knows they can lose the second game and still win the two-game series. They are not playing to win the game, they’re playing to win or tie or lose by a small enough margin to still win the series. Put that in your remix and smoke it!

When a tie is better than a win

Even in the most twisted of aggregate goal logic, it’s still always better to win than tie or lose but there is one situation when a tie is preferable than a win. Some tournaments, England’s FA cup being the most famous example, are set up as single elimination tournaments but, instead of overtime, if the score is tied after 90 minutes, the teams pack their bags, go home, and schedule a second game to decide who advances and who is eliminated. The second game is played in the stadium of the team that didn’t host the first game. Since the FA Cup is an association cup, open to every team in English soccer, from the rich, famous Premier league teams all the way to tiny seventh tier virtually semi-professional teams that no one has heard of, this leads to an interesting point. When a tiny team plays in a giant’s stadium, they get an enormous financial benefit from exposure, television money, and ticket sales. The bigger and more famous their host opponent, the more money they make. So, it’s often financially better for a tiny host team to tie a giant visiting team so that they get an extra game to play against the giant in the giant’s home stadium. Oh, sure, they’d love to beat the giant and move on to the next round of the tournament, but if they did that without ever playing at the giant’s stadium, especially if their potential opponent next round is not as rich or famous, they’ll really be losing out on an enormous payday. Small teams in this type of tournament have an incentive to tie, not win, games they host against storied opponents.

How does European club soccer work?

European soccer has a bewildering array of teams and competitions. It’s often hard to understand how European club soccer works, even for people who love soccer. Many of the things sports fans in the United States take for granted about how professional sports works are simply not true in European soccer. As with many elements of sports, almost no one in the sports media ever stops to explain the intricacies of a system that, once you start to grapple with it, is not that hard to understand. So, without further ado, let’s answer the question: how does European club soccer work?

Domestic Leagues

The first stop on our journey through European soccer is the domestic leagues. A domestic league is an organization of soccer teams within a single country that play a schedule of games against other teams in their league each year. In U.S. professional sports, only the NFL is truly a domestic league. The other major sports leagues, the NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS are all quasi domestic leagues because they have at least one team in Canada. What the heck, let’s annex Canada for the purpose of this post and call these domestic leagues. The similarity between these leagues and Domestic soccer leagues in Europe are create much of the confusion for North American sports fans in understanding European soccer, because the truth is, they’re not very similar at all. Understanding how they are different is key to understanding how European soccer works.

  • There are no playoffs in most domestic European Leagues. Teams generally play every other team in the league twice during the season. At the end of the season, the team with the best record wins. If there is a tie, a single tie-breaking playoff game might be played, but that’s it. This is really different from North American sports leagues, where the regular season is primarily a race for playoff seeding.
  • Domestic leagues in Europe are not solitary organizations. They exist within a hierarchy of leagues in their country. This exists to some extent in North America, most successfully in Major League Baseball, which has a series of minor leagues. The difference is that in baseball, only players move from league to league. In European soccer, teams do! It’s called relegation. At the end of every domestic league season, a few (the numbers vary by country) of the worst teams in each league move down to a lower league while a few of the top teams in each league move up. Teams that are promoted up a league stand to gain an incredible financial boost, from the league, television contracts, endorsements, and fan support. Being demoted or relegated down a league is a sporting and financial disaster.
  • Club teams don’t just play games within their domestic league. They simultaneously participate in other competitions against club teams within their country and internationally. We’ll cover those competitions below.

Here are some of the most famous and competitive domestic leagues in Europe. I’ve organized them into tiers based on how many qualification spots they get into the most prestigious international club soccer competition, the Champions League. More on that soon.

Top Tier Domestic LeaguesLa Liga – SpainPremier League – EnglandBundesliga – Germany

Close but not quite the bestSerie A – ItalyPrimeira Liga – PortugalLigue 1 – France

The best of the restPremiere League – UkrainePremier League – RussiaEredivisie – NetherlandsSüper Lig – TurkeyJupiler Pro League – BelgiumSuperleague – GreeceRaiffeisen Super League – SwitzerlandFirst Division – CyprusSuperliga – Denmark

That’s a lot of leagues, but there are at least 39 others in Europe, from Wales to Macedonia and back again.

While these 54 or so domestic league seasons are taking shape, many of the teams in those leagues will play in other tournaments. These tournaments, generally called Cups or Leagues themselves, have a format that will be familiar to most soccer fans. They begin win one or more group stages, where teams, usually four, in a group play each other in a round-robin to decide which team moves on to the knock-out stage. The only wrinkle to many of them is that instead of a single game against another team, most of these tournaments have teams play each other twice, once at each team’s home stadium. After the two games, the team that has scored more goals in the two games combined, advances.

Domestic Cups

During a soccer club’s domestic league season, they will usually also take part in at least one Domestic Cup. A Domestic Cup is a tournament of club teams within one, a set, or all the domestic leagues within a country. These tournaments can be divided generally between League Cups and Association Cups. League Cups are those that restrict their entries to teams in one or two or a handful of domestic leagues. Association Cups are open to every team in an entire country’s domestic league system. There’s something very attractive and truly crazy about the open-endedness of an Association Cup. If sport is supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy, then why not let a team of semi-professional players with a budget of only a few thousand euros or pounds go up against one of the biggest and richest teams in the world? Miraculous upsets really only happen once every twenty or thirty years but when the do, they’re worth savoring, and they lend the entire tournament an air of romance.

A few of the most famous domestic cups and most widely televised ones in the United States are:

The Copa del Rey in Spain, which is a League Cup with only teams from the top two divisions, plus a select group from the third and fourth divisions, invited. The FA Cup in England. This is England’s famous association cup. The Football League Cup in England. Now called the Capital One cup, this is England’s most famous league cup, open only to teams from the top two leagues.

International Club Competitions

As you might suspect from the interrelated nature of Europe’s politics, some of its best club soccer comes in games between teams from different countries who play in different leagues. The Champions League is the premier international tournament of club soccer in the world. It’s such a big deal, that for most teams, winning a Champions League title is a bigger deal than winning a domestic cup or their league championship itself. This is a little hard to understand for most American sports fans. Once we identify the parallel between the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL and a domestic soccer league in Europe, it’s hard for us to imagine that anything could be more important than winning a league championship, but it is.

The Champions League is itself a complicated beast. I wrote a post just about how it works, which I suggest if you want a more detailed description. The short story is that the top one, two, three, or four teams from each domestic league are invited to play in the Champions League. The exact number is based on the overall strength of the league in recent years. In the tiered set of leagues above, the top tier gets four spots, the second tier, three, the third tier, two, and the other 39 leagues only get one spot for their domestic league champion to enter the Champions League. The Champions League happens throughout the soccer season, during and in between domestic league games. So, one year’s Champions League is made up of teams who qualified based on their performance in domestic leagues the year before. The current domestic league season determines qualification for next year’s Champions League. It’s all a little like the famous pre-taped call-in show.

The Europa League is to the Champions League what the NIT is to the NCAA Tournament in American college basketball. It’s a second-tier international club competition. It’s recently become more interesting because the overall winner of the Europa League will get a (close-to) automatic spot in next year’s Champions League. That alone is worth enough to a soccer team and its fans to make this once-mostly-ignored competition more interesting.

Well, I hope this has helped. I’ve found that watching European soccer can be quite rewarding. Its strange elements make me think about how sports leagues are set up and open my mind to thinking about the benefits of different forms of competition. A lot of the soccer is also very high quality — some say it’s actually better than the World Cup. It’s more accessible now than it’s ever been before. Games are televised live, mostly on NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and beIN Sports, but also on NBC and Fox. Game times are often mid-afternoon during the week and on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Give it a try sometime and let me know what you think!