Sports reads: Is winning everything? Is it anything?

The topic of winning is a natural one in sports. Sports are, after all, one of life’s few activities that have clear and objective winners and losers. That’s one of the appeals of sports. It’s therefore very interesting when things happen to subvert the reward of winning, even within sports. This week, we’re featuring four articles that approach the topic of winning from a different point of view.

Fuck Winning

by Albert Burneko for Deadspin

Burneko got his start on Deadspin writing about food and quickly became hotly anticipated must-read-out-loud material in my household. Recently he’s made the move to non-food commentary and his stuff is just as good. This week, he responded to James Harrison, and NFL veteran, who publicly and triumphantly returned a participation trophy that one of his children had been given. 

The big grown-up world is coming up behind my children—behind James Harrison’s kids and yours, too, if you have them. To sort them: those who will prosper, or falter; those whom the barbarism we have enshrined into our way of life will reward, and those it will devour; those who will strive with their whole selves to make their way in that grown-up world and then unknowingly choose to attend the same prayer meeting as Dylann Roof and be snatched out of it in violence and fear and confusion, whether they got trophies for participating in sports or not.

For now, for now, for as long as I can have it, the reason to do things—to play sports, to do work, to get out of bed in the morning—is because the privilege is a fucking miracle, because it might allow my children to be children now, now, today, before the least consideration of long-term goals and competition and getting ahead may intrude upon the impulse a little kid gets to put a balloon inside his shirt and make another little kid laugh.

Soccer’s Poor Little Rich Clubs

by Joshua Robinson for the Wall Street Journal

Although European countries tend to be more socialist than ours, European club soccer is way more capitalist. The movement of teams from one level-league to the next higher or lower carries with it incredible financial consequences. For smaller teams, just making it into the top league, even if they then lose all their games, is a giant victory.

Europe’s major leagues all operate on a system of promotion and relegation. The bottom two or three clubs every season are demoted to the division below and replaced by the best teams beneath them. In the richest leagues, it’s like a revolving door to the billionaires’ club… 

And as television revenue reaches new heights, the microclubs all make the same bet. A couple of seasons at their country’s top table can translate to years of financial stability. It isn’t about winning titles. It is about surviving—even briefly.

Roger Goodell vs. Tom Brady: The Ultimate Revenge-of-Mediocrity Story

by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone

In court, no one wins, not even the winner. That’s the message of this acerbic article about the continuing Deflategate “scandal” in the NFL.

If Goodell wins this court battle, sports pundits will line up to talk about what a “brilliant” PR strategist Goodell is, how he’s “masterfully” scored a public relations “knockout” of the once-iconic Brady.

Except this Iago-esque campaign of diabolical leaks, secret indictments and double punishments has been conducted against his most marketable player for…why exactly? What other business would spend such an awesome amount of time, money, and most of all cunning undermining its key employees?

It’s like concocting a brilliant plan to break into a supermax prison. Hey, you made it, congratulations, that’s a hell of a tunnel you built there. Now what was the point again?

Medieval Times: The Armored Combat League Makes Sport Out of Swords and Shields

by Jason Concepcion for Grantland

Concepcion spends a fair amount of time marveling at the wild sport that people have forged from a history of armored combat, but its his ironic take on the appeal of this history that caught my eye. 

Once upon a time, the subset of Americans who are drawn to the ren-faire-style wizards, wenches, and knights trappings of medieval Europe were looked upon by their countrymen with collective fascination, if at all. Such behavior existed under the general umbrella of Nerd Shit. But now, after the one-two punch of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Game of Thrones becoming a global phenomenon, a not-insignificant portion of Americans have a cursory knowledge of heraldry and feudalism.

For all its courtly affectations, Europe’s medieval period was essentially a religiously fractious, war-torn dystopia… Which is to say, its appeal has never seemed more obvious.

Sports Stories: Derek Blackman, a fan of Miroslav Klose

Miroslav Klose is a 37 year-old German soccer player of Polish descent. Derek Blackman was born in New Jersey but moved to North Carolina when he was four. He kept his early allegiances to the New York Jets and New York Yankees, added a love for the Chicago Bulls, and adopted UNC as his North Carolina college basketball team. He became a soccer fan recently, during the 2014 World Cup. Germany and specifically Klose jumped out at him. He became a fan, and the rest is history. We captured some of that history in this podcast. Enjoy!

 

On why he roots for Klose:

He took it upon himself to be a leader… He was always creating opportunities and always scoring goals.

To me, Klose will always be the GOAT (greatest of all time). Some poeple say, “Oh no, Lionel Messi is the GOAT, some people say Pele is the GOAT… but this is my generation and I never really paid much attention to Klose before i started watching the World Cup last year, but he always stands out because he’s the greatest.

A little known Klose family fact:

Miroslav has a brother, Timm, who is 6’4″ and also plays soccer professionally.

On Klose telling a ref he scored a goal illegally with his hand:

When he said he scored a goal with his hand and told the ref about it, he was being modest. He didn’t want to take credit for a goal he didn’t score. I’m just going to tell the ref… so they might view me in a different light.

The one thing Derek would like a non-sports fan to know about sports or sports fans:

That sports unites all. Even if you don’t like sports, you can sit with someone who watches sports and you can ask them a question as a non-sports fan… like, “hey, why did they throw that flag” or in soccer, “why did the ref pull the yellow card.” And if you explain something to them, they might be actually interested in it.

 

What are the terms for starting a game in different sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

One of the things that I find confusing about sports is the unique technical language that goes with each sport and which sports fans seem to all know without needing to learn! For instance, I know that the start of a football game is called the kick off but I’m not sure about other sports. What are the terms for starting a game in different sports?

Thanks,
Lauren


Dear Lauren,

There are a lot of different terms for when a game starts in different sports. The good thing is that you can almost always get by with a generic term and still fit in, even amongst the craziest of sports fans. For instance, if you’re running late to a game and you’re encouraging a friend to walk faster, you could say “Come on! I don’t want to miss the start of the game.” No matter what sport you’re headed to, that’s a reasonable thing to say. If you do want to learn the specific terms for each sport, here’s a list of them with a little detail on what happens at the start of each one.

American Football begins with the kick off

At the start of an American Football game, one team kicks the ball off to the other. The ball is placed on the 35 yard-line of the team that is kicking off. Their team’s kicker kicks the ball down the field while his teammates sprint down it, trying to make sure that they are in position to stop any return. The other team can catch the ball and run down the field with it. Wherever they run to before they’re tackled is where they start their offensive possession with the ball. If the kick goes out-of-bounds, the receiving team gets the ball on their 40 yard line. If the kick goes out the back of the end-zone or if the receiving team catches it in the end-zone and decides to stay there, the receiving team gets the ball on their 20 yard line.

Basketball starts with the tip or tip-off or opening tip

The first event in a basketball is a jump ball. In a jump ball, the referee throws the ball straight up between two players and as soon as it reaches its apex, both players try to tap the ball into the hands of one of their teammates. Whichever team gets control of the ball first gets the first offensive possession of the game. Jump balls used to be much more common than they are today. Early in basketball’s history, jump balls were used after almost every stoppage and skill at corralling them was important. These days, they happen at the start of the game and not too many other times, so basketball players don’t practice them that much.

Soccer starts with a kick off

Soccer games start at the center of the field with two players from one team standing right near the ball and no one else in the center circle. The game begins when one of the two players kicks the ball and it rolls forward. The player that kicked it initially can not be the next player to touch the ball, so frequently her teammate steps up and then kicks it backwards to another teammate. The ball does need to roll forward though to begin the game. Although it’s rarely attempted and even more rarely successful, a goal can be scored directly from the kick off, so if you feel like taking a shot, go for it!

Baseball begins with the first pitch

This one is a little confusing because there is a ceremonial first pitch and an actual first pitch and they are both referred to with the same phrase. Before a baseball game begins, there’s usually some celebrity or honoree who goes up to the pitching mound and throws a ceremonial first pitch to the catcher. Although it’s just for show, first pitches of this type can be very important. Politicians, in particular, are believed to be judged by their ability to throw out a good first pitch. Whatever you think about President George W. Bush, you have to admire his first pitch in the World Series following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. President Obama didn’t fare quite as well although you’ve got to appreciate his trolling of the home town Washington Nationals fans. It may seem idiotic to compare the two presidents on something as prosaic as throwing a baseball, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it. Just check out this somewhat bizarre video. Anyhow, after the ceremonial first pitch, there’s usually a commercial break (in person, this is just empty time with everyone standing around) and then the teams come on the field and the starting pitcher throws the real first pitch to get things started.

Hockey begins with the puck drop

Now that we’re nearing the end of our list, we can begin building on what we’ve already explained. The start of a hockey game shares some elements with baseball and some with basketball. Like baseball, there is a ceremonial puck drop with an honored guest emulating the act that’s going to start the game in earnest in a few minutes. Like basketball, the first act involves the referee putting the puck (ball in basketball) into play evenly between two players who fight to gain possession. In hockey, the drops the puck instead of throwing it up in the air and the action is called a face off not a jump ball. In both cases though, the term that describes the start of play is a description of what happens (in basketball the players try to tip the ball, in hockey the referee drops the puck). In either case, referring to the start of the game with the technical term – jump ball or face off – would also be acceptable.

Car racing starts with the green flag

Car racing comes in many different forms involving different types of cars on different courses with different rules. One thing that’s constant in almost all forms of racing is a simple set of flags that convey meaning to the drivers. These flags come from a time before every race car driver had a speaker in his ear and a microphone in front of her mouth. The signal for the start of the race is a solid green flag. It’s also used during the race to signal the end of a caution period (yellow flag) when the drivers must slow down. The end of the race is symbolized by a white and black checkered flag.

There we go — five terms for the start of six different sports. I hope that helps to assuage your fitting in jitters. There are lots of other sports, each with their own technical languages. If you’re a fan of one of those sports, send me a note at dearsportsfan@gmail.com with your sport’s term for the start of the game.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Did EA Sports' FIFA '16 rate the USWNT players fairly?

EA Sports’ newest installment of their soccer video game, FIFA 16, will be coming out on September 22, 15. When it does, it will feature women’s soccer players for the first time ever. This is an exciting development for fans of gender equality AND fans of the U.S. women’s soccer team. One of the most hotly anticipated aspects of the release of any new sports video game is the rating of players. Fans (and even players) obsess over player ratings. Is Player A too high? How could they possibly have made Player B only a 75 (all the ratings are out of 100)? For the first time ever, we get to obsess over the ratings of our favorite female soccer players as well as male. On Twitter today, I saw the first leak of the overall ratings of the players from the U.S. Women’s soccer team from Women’s Football Comp. Here they are, in order, with my comments. If you want to know more about any of the players, I’ve linked to the profiles of them that I wrote before the World Cup.

  1. Abby Wambach – 88: Okay, this is clearly an honorary legacy rating for the greatest international soccer goal scorer of all time. At 35, she’s no longer the best striker in the world, not even on her own national team. She came in off the bench in the last few World Cup games and that’s one of the reasons the team won the Cup. After all she’s done for the country and sport, I’m okay with this. Wambach forever!
  2. Megan Rapinoe – 87: This is an interesting rating and perhaps shows what strengths the FIFA game weighs more heavily than others. The U.S. vs. Germany semifinal notwithstanding, Rapinoe is normally a player who emphasizes technical skill over speed and strength. She’s can strike a set piece with the best of them and hit streaking attackers in stride with her accurate passing. The best non-Wambach player though? I’m not sure.
  3. Hope Solo – 87: Now we’re cooking with gas. Solo is still the best goalkeeper in the world. An intimidating presence in the net, Solo has earned every one of those 87 rating points.
  4. Carli Lloyd – 86: The hero of the World Cup for the USA, Lloyd’s strengths translate well to video gaming. She’s a physical beast, strong and durable, and if her long-range shooting rating is not 100, something is very, very wrong at EA Sports headquarters.
  5. Becky Sauerbrunn – 84: I could not be more happy with this rating. The back-four for the USA were my favorite part of the World Cup and, although she didn’t get as much acclaim as some of her defensive teammates, Sauerbrunn was the solid foundation that made it all happen. She’s totally dependable, which is exactly what you want out of a defender.
  6. Alex Morgan – 84: Yeah, well, okay, fine. I’m not a big fan of Morgan, either on the field or off, but she does have some very easily replicable skills. She’s very fast and extremely clever at making threatening runs through the defense. Her finishing touch leaves something to be desired, but at 84, I think that’s probably represented in her rating. She does everything else very well.
  7. Tobin Heath – 83: This overall rating is surely bolstered by the fact that Heath has the dribbling skills of an alien whose entire evolution has been devoted to soccer dribbling. She’s a freak.
  8. Christie Rampone – 83: Another honorary rating and another acceptable one based on her overall career arc. The only woman who was on the team that won the 1999 and 2015 World Cups deserves everything she gets. Just get her out of your lineup if you play as the United States in the game. Don’t break up the true back four for Rampone’s honorary strength.
  9. Sydney Leroux – 82: Leroux had trouble breaking into the U.S. lineup at the World Cup, but this rating rings true nonetheless. She’s virtually interchangeable with Alex Morgan, just ever so slightly worse. It’s why it’s hard for her to get playing time in real life and in video games.
  10. Lauren Holiday – 81: If I had my druthers, I’d push Holiday’s rating a little bit farther up, but her true strength, vision, is virtually impossible to capture in a video game.
  11. Julie Johnston – 81: If Johnston had been able to continue her scoring streak from the Algarve Cup into the World Cup, she’d be one of the top five players in the game. As is, this rating probably reflects that we should expect a little bit of regression to the mean in her play. She had a sublime streak of about fifteen games but there are cracks in her armor, which we saw against Germany and Japan.
  12. Heather O’Reilly – 81: I guess? For her have played only nine minutes in the World Cup and to be higher than several players who played key roles seems strange to me.
  13. Kelley O’Hara – 81: The proverbial spark plug off the bench for the U.S. in the World Cup, O’Hara looked every bit as good as her rating suggests. I might even push her up past Leroux and Heath, but at this point we’re quibbling over a few rating points.
  14. Ashlyn Harris – 80: Being stuck behind Hope Solo is no shame. The second best goalie on the U.S. team may also be the second best goalie in the world.
  15. Ali Krieger – 80: I’m surprised to see a core member of the U.S. defense so far down the list, especially one whose public profile is as high as Krieger’s.
  16. Whitney Engen – 79: Engen could have, might have, would have been the starting central defender if an injury had not given Johnston a chance to seize the day (and the position.) Engen is a solid player but given her lack of playing time in the World Cup, I’m surprised she was not at the bottom of the list.
  17. Morgan Brian – 74: Here’s where things start getting crazy. Brian was a key piece, some would argue THE KEY PIECE, that, once inserted into the lineup, made the U.S. team’s run to the World Cup championship possible. Even playing slightly out of position at defensive midfield, Brian was a rock. At 22, she’s also has one of the brightest future’s in the game, something that, in many game modes, players should actually get to experience. I hope that the programmers at least put that in. If you play more than a year or two into the future, Brian should be the top rated U.S. player seven times out of 10.
  18. Amy Rodriguez – 74: Oh, fine. I think Rodriguez gets a raw deal, but she’s used to it. There’s no way she’s ten rating points worse than Alex Morgan.
  19. Christen Press – 72: This is just stupid. Anyone who can do this to the French defense should be rated much higher. The awkwardness of her fit with Lloyd and Rapinoe in the midfield held her back from World Cup stardom and now it’s being reflected in this rating. That’s a shame!

Missing – A few players were not included in @jigsawwill’s Twitter posts. Here is my best guess at what their rating might be and why.

  • Alyssa Naeher – 80: As a Boston Breakers fan, I get to sit right behind Naeher and watch her work on a regular basis. She is an extraordinary keeper. I’m putting her even with Hope Solo’s other backup, Ashlyn Harris, who I haven’t seen play as much, but who I assume must be equally good.
  • Meghan Klingenberg – 82: Ahead of Julie Johnston and Ali Krieger? Yes — Klingenberg’s ridiculous speed bumps her above those players and will maker her a particular joy to play as in the video game. Speed kills in video games, just ask fans of Michael Vick and Bo Jackson.
  • Shannon Boxx – 72: At 38, Shannon Boxx’ time as a world class holding midfielder has come and gone. Unlike Rampone and Wambach, Boxx doesn’t have a high enough profile to get one of those charming honorary rating boosts.
  • Lori Chalupney – 74: Versatility is another quality that’s hard for video games to represent. Without Chalupney’s ability to play every position on the field (except, I assume, goalie) I’m not sure she would have been included on the team. Being a Swiss Army Knife is valuable, but not when quantifying the skills required to play each position.

Women in sports: the plight and the fight

With the women’s World Cup firmly in the rear view mirror and Serena Williams cooling her heels for another couple weeks until the U.S. Open, women’s sports and women in sports have faded slightly out of the spotlight. That doesn’t mean there still aren’t awesome women doing fascinating, frustrating, and forceful things in sports. This week we bring you three stories about the challenges that women face advancing in the world of sports.

The Lingerie Football Trap

by Jordan Ritter Conn for Grantland

Have you ever heard of the Lingerie Football League? Recently renamed to the Legends Football League (you’re not fooling anyone, guys, but it is a step in the right direction), this is full-on tackle football played by women with far less protective padding and far, far, infinitely far less reward than their male counterparts. Women playing football is a feather in the cap of progress. But women playing for noting and wearing almost nothing? Is it a step back? A small step forward? Or a stalemate? 

The LFL’s core audience wants to see skin. The players want to play real football in real arenas, to feel the rush of high-stakes competition. The commissioner wants to make money. The LFL, for better or worse, is their middle ground.

The relationship between the LFL’s uniforms and the players who wear them is complex. “I mean, yes, we’re wearing basically a bathing suit,” says Melissa Margulies. “But you can’t argue [with] sex sells. That’s going to fill the seats.” Even among players deeply critical of the league, there is often little patience for this debate.

They joined the league knowing full well what it sells. They agreed to market both their bodies and their talent. But that choice is limited, bound by certain realities. “Sometimes, when you’re a female athlete, you have to suck it up,” says Nikki Johnson, another former player with the Las Vegas Sin. “You have to do whatever it takes to get people to your games.”

Jen Welter Is the NFL’s First Female Coach and Nobody Had a Sexist Reaction to That (Just Kidding)

by Jenna Mullins for E Online

It’s amazing that the hiring of a training camp coaching intern made news, but such is the popularity of the NFL and such has been the complete dominance of NFL coaching jobs by men. Despite the fanfare over the first female hiring, what happens next will be far more meaningful. Will there be other teams that dare to hire a female coach? Will Welter get a permanent position?

“Coaching is nothing more than teaching,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “One thing I have learned from players is, ‘How are you going to make me better? If you can make me better, I don’t care if you’re the Green Hornet, man, I’ll listen.’ I really believe she’ll have a great opportunity with this internship through training camp to open some doors for her.” Arians added that after speaking to the veteran Cardinals players, they were all “very cool” with Welter taking on the position.

You know who is not “very cool” with Dr. Welter? Humans who still think women are the inferior sex and shouldn’t dare set food out of the kitchen. Also known as people who apparently time-traveled from 1951. What bummed us out most about seeing these comments on Facebook and Twitter is that a lot of them came from women. We’re bumming hard over that, you guys.

Why England’s women’s soccer team won’t be playing at the 2016 Olympics

by Karla Adams for the Washington Post

Before you get your indignation machine started, this story has nothing to do with gender — at least, the reason the women’s team won’t be playing in the Olympics has nothing to do with gender. Still, you can’t help but wonder whether Great Britain would find a way to make this work if it meant missing or making an important men’s soccer tournament.

At the heart of the debate over whether Britain will field any soccer teams at the Olympics are questions about British identity, and which of Britons’ multiple identities gets priority.

The four constituent nations of the United Kingdom compete as individual teams in soccer tournaments such as the World Cup and the European Championship. But in the Olympics, the athletes must compete under the single banner of “Team GB.”

England lays claim to inventing the modern game of soccer, and on the men’s side, it is wildly popular, with England’s Premier League being one of the most popular in the world. The Olympics, which on the men’s side has an age restriction of younger than 23 (with the exception of three players), is arguably not as important for the men as other tournaments… But the sport is still developing for the women, and some fans say it’s disappointing that the women won’t get the sort of high-megawatt exposure that a platform such as the Olympics can offer.

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.

What leagues and people should I follow as a new soccer fan?

Dear Sports Fan,

Ok, so I downloaded the app FotMob and being a newbie to soccer (thanks to Fancred), I have a few questions. What are all the different leagues in the U.S.? I thought I would start out following those and the World Cup stuff when it comes around. Just trying to figure out what all is going on. Would take any suggestions on who else to follow. What leagues and people should I follow as a new soccer fan?

Thanks,
Tim Lollar


Dear Tim,

Congratulations on getting into soccer! Learning any new sport can be a fun and intellectually stimulating experience. As you learn the new sport, it subtly changes the way you think about sports you already understand well and even other aspects of your life. You may even find yourself having eureka moments about something at work or with a relationship and be able to trace it back to something you thought of while learning soccer. Long story short, learning about anything sparks learning about everything. If you haven’t already explored them, we offer a few easy email courses on soccer: Soccer 101, Soccer 201: Positions and Logistics, and Soccer 202: Culture.

It’s a particularly interesting time to become a new soccer fan. Thanks to this year’s women’s World Cup and last year’s men’s World Cup, both of which were conveniently located for U.S. soccer fans, there’s a tremendous amount of excitement about soccer. Unfortunately, it will be another three years until the next men’s World Cup and four until the next women’s. That’s a shame because, especially for the non-totally-hard-core soccer fan, the World Cup is the ultimate competition. Luckily, the alternatives are plentiful and exciting in their own right:

  • In the United States, the two main professional leagues to follow are Major League Soccer (MLS) for men and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) for women. Both leagues are in the middle of their seasons, so now is a good time to become a fan. Choose the team closest to you and start rooting. One of the great things about professional soccer in the United States is that tickets are still quite accessible, even for normal people. NWSL tickets can be had at most stadiums for between $15 and $40 and MLS tickets go from $25 to $100. I wrote an entire post about how to follow the NWSL because, although all its games are available on YouTube for free, because only a handful of games are on TV, people often don’t know how to watch them. MLS games are carried weekly on ESPN and Fox Sports channels.
  • If you want to follow a professional league outside of the United States, your two best bets are Mexico’s Liga MX and the British Premier League. Virtually every game from both leagues is now available in some form in the United States. Liga MX is carried on Univision, Azteca, UniMas, and ESPN Deportes. The right to the British Premier League (the BPL but also sometimes called by its old abbreviation, the EPL) are owned by NBC and its child channel, NBC Sports Network. Unless you have a real connection to Mexico or England, choosing to follow either league as your primary league could be thought of as a slightly pretentious move. Don’t pay too much attention to that. Unlike with baseball, basketball, football, or ice hockey, the best professional league in the world is not in the United States, it’s widely thought of as being the BPL, so if you simply need to watch the best, that’s the league to follow regardless of the pretension.
  • Also unlike club teams in other sports, professional soccer teams play in many different competitions simultaneously, often against club teams from other leagues. These tournaments provide another exciting opportunity to watch extremely good soccer. The most prestigious of all inter-league tournaments is the european Champions League which pits the best teams from each of Europe’s many soccer leagues against one another. North America (plus Central America and the Caribbean) has its own version of this called the CONCACAF Champions League. Teams from every league in the United States play against each other in the U.S. Open Cup. As you can tell, there’s a wide array of competitions to track.
  • Even without the World Cup, there is a lot going on in international soccer if you want to focus on that. The U.S. men’s national team is playing in the Gold Cup right now. The Gold Cup is held every other year and is a World Cup-like tournament between only the teams in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Next year, the Summer Olympics will have their own soccer competition. Soccer at the Olympics are a funny proposition because they are almost as important as the World Cup to women’s soccer but they’ve never been seen as important in men’s soccer. Either as a result or as a cause, men’s olympic teams are restricted. All but three players on each team must be under 23 years old. The most important international men’s soccer tournament in 2016 will be the European Championships. The Euros, as they’re called, are a 24 team tournament that also closely resembles the World Cup, just with only teams from Europe. Some people argue that because of the depth of European soccer and the geographic requirements that the World Cup have to ensure representation from all over, the Euros are actually a more competitive tournament. They’re definitely fun to watch.

As you can tell, there’s always something to follow in the world of soccer! Apps like FotMob, which provide news and schedules for virtually every league and competition in the world are great resources to have. Twitter is another great resource for following soccer. I would start by following Grant Wahl, a leading U.S. soccer reporter who works for Sports Illustrated. He maintains lists of other people in the soccer world to follow for breaking news, as well as the men’s and women’s World Cup. Poke around in his lists and you’ll find some great soccer people.

Thanks and good luck,
Ezra Fischer

 

How do suspensions in soccer work?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you explain to me how Clint Dempsey was supposedly suspended from games but is starting tonight? I’m confused. How do suspensions in soccer work?

Thanks,
Brian Cadavid


Dear Brian,

As we now know, Clint Dempsey did play in last night’s Gold Cup match between the United States men’s national team and Honduras. It’s a good thing for the team that he did, too, because he scored the team’s two goals on their way to a 2-1 victory. It was a bit of a surprise though. Last night’s game was played less than a month after Dempsey was thrown out of a game he was playing for his club team, Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders, after grabbing a referee’s notebook out of his hands and tearing it up.

This violation, as silly as it seems, by the letter of the rules, qualifies as assaulting the ref. A violation of this type is supposed to come with a minimum of a six game suspension. If Clint Dempsey had received a six or more game suspension for assaulting the referee, he would have been banned from taking part in any official soccer while serving the six game suspension. Since the Sounders only had three games between Dempsey’s infraction and last night’s USMNT game against Honduras, a six game ban would have excluded Dempsey from participating. SB Nation’s Sean Steffen wrote a post about this logic before the ruling had been handed down. When the ruling came, it was a major surprise: only three games. As Doug McIntyre wrote for ESPN, “It’s good to be a big-name star like Clint Dempsey in Major League Soccer.” Crisis averted – Dempsey would be able to play in the Gold Cup.

The way that this suspension worked is the exception, not the rule in global soccer. In the vast majority of leagues, and even in the MLS for non-assault based infractions, yellow cards, red cards, and suspensions that a player receives do not bleed over into other forms of competition. This is important because soccer players, way more than players in any other sport, play in different competitions simultaneously. In the course of a month, a player may play for a national team and for his or her club team in a league game and in one or more cup or tournament games. For example, Clint Dempsey was playing in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup when he earned that red card. His team’s next game was a normal MLS league game. And then, as we know, he went and played for the national team. The same trichotomy exists, perhaps even more, for players who play in European club soccer. Each league and cup and tournament has its own rules about suspensions. Although they are all quite similar, thanks to the octopus-like international soccer organization, FIFA, when it comes to suspensions, they each have mostly separate jurisdictions. A yellow card picked up in the Champions League does not carry over into the British Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. A suspension a player gets during an international game for their country usually only pertains to international games.

The fact that if Clint Dempsey had been suspended for six games for his “assault” on a referee, his suspension would have applied not just to games played for the Seattle Sounders but also to games played by the U.S. men’s national team is the exception that proves the rule. Most suspensions in soccer only apply to the form of soccer being played when the player commits the act that gets him or her suspended.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

The best sports stories of the week 7.7.15

Now that the excitement of the World Cup is beginning to die down, it’s time to empty my inbox of some amazing non-World Cup articles from the past couple weeks. Our first two articles are serious journalism about how sports can be an enormously positive part of living in restrictive environments. Our second two articles are lighter fare, concerned with the junction of sports and words. Enjoy all four of them.

Thriving in a Barren Land

by Jere Longman for the New York Times

One of the reasons why soccer is the world’s most popular sport is that it’s so universally easy to play. All you need is a field, a ball, and some friends/opponents. But what if you live in the Arctic and there is no grass, only tundra? And traveling so expensive that you can only reasonably find opponents once a year? Well, you’re going to have to improvise…

Assis, the chief referee, stood at the front desk of the Frobisher Inn, using a pair of scissors to make yellow cards and red cards from construction paper.

“Think FIFA does this for the World Cup?” he said, smiling.

Occasionally, travel in Nunavut called for extreme alternative transportation. In 2011 and 2012, a soccer team from the village of Igloolik traveled about four hours over ice to Hall Beach, riding in an oversize sled called a qamutik, pulled by a snowmobile and bundled in winter gear and caribou skins.

[Soccer] helped provide a year-round activity, a sense of community, a connection to the outside world and a distraction from social problems like alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse and the alarming suicide rate.

Run on Sentence

by Rick Maese for the Washington Post

In this second story of the week, we enter an environment even more forbidding than the arctic; prison. In a handful of Utah prisons, sport is being used as the basis for rehabilitation. And it’s working.

[Kurtis Hunsaker] initially spurned treatment behind bars. [He] said he’d “rather pull my toes off with pliers” than attend AA meetings. He attended the initial Addict II Athlete meeting last spring and for the first time felt a sense of control. In contrast to programs that encourage patients to surrender to the addiction and call upon a higher power, he was in charge of his own workout, had an outlet for the pent-up emotions and anxieties and was part of a team. And perhaps just as important, he finally had something to look forward to each day.

Most games in prison have the familiar rules with minor wrinkles: In Ultimate Frisbee, for example, when a disc hits the fence, it sets off an alarm in the control room and is therefore considered a turnover; and in softball if the bat comes into contact with a person, the game is automatically over.

Where Ott and Orr Are Most Valuable: 15 Across, or Maybe 7 Down

by Victor Mather for the New York Times

They’re obviously nothing compared to living in the arctic or being in prison but for many of us, New York Times crossword puzzles are the toughest part of our week. One thing that makes them ever so slightly easier is the frequent reuse of some short, vowel-heavy names. Often, these are athletes whose crossword puzzle notoriety has outstripped their athletic achievements.

Of course, there is no conspiracy of delusional Ott-loving crossword constructors. Mel has gained his fame because of his last name, which is short and starts with a vowel. The clunky “DiMaggio,” with its double G, is much less useful to a crossword creator.

The Real Reason Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Is All England’s Fault

by Tony Manfred for Business Insider

While we’re on the subject of words, if you grew up a soccer player and fan like me, you may have developed a slight inferiority complex about calling the sport “soccer” instead of “football” or “futbol.” Read this article and hold your head high evermore.

The interesting thing here is that Brits still used “soccer” regularly for a huge chunk of the 20th century. Between 1960 and 1980, “soccer” and “football” were “almost interchangeable…” [After 1980] British people stopped saying “soccer” because of its American connotations. So, no, it’s not wrong to call it “soccer” if you’re American.

The lesson of the 2015 World Cup champion USWNT

It’s hard to believe in retrospect but after their first three World Cup games, the U.S. women’s national soccer team was in a state of crisis. After their first game, a 3-1 win against Australia, a staff writer for the Australian Football Federation concluded that the USA “just aren’t that good.” After the U.S. team’s next game, a 0-0 draw against Sweden, some of their fans were beginning to wonder if that staff writer had been correct. After the team’s third game, a lackluster 1-0 win over Nigeria in what was supposed to be the easiest game of the group stage, the rumors, doubts, and criticism began to flow freely. Despite being undefeated through the group stage and advancing to the single elimination knockout stage as a group winner, the American team did not look or feel like it could win the World Cup.

The problem, according to a consensus of critics, was that the team’s talented players were being misused by coach Jill Ellis. She was playing the wrong combination of players in the wrong formations with the wrong tactics. Although soccer is a very fluid game, players (other than the goalie) can generally be said to be playing in one of three positions, defense, midfield, or striker. Formations are referred to in soccer short-hand by a series of numbers referring to the number of players in each position, starting with defense and moving through midfield to striker. The U.S. had been playing a 4-4-2, which is a traditional formation made popular by Brazilian men’s national teams and Milan’s club team in the 1990s. When it’s at its best, the four midfielders each have distinct roles. Two play on either side of the field, supporting the outside defenders when the other team has the ball and joining the attack when their team has it. In the center of the field, one of the remaining two midfielders plays a primarily defensive role, almost as a fifth defender, while the other focuses on being an offensive playmaker. Of the U.S. team’s four starting midfielders throughout the first three games, three of them prefer to focus on being the offensive playmaker. As is said about cooks in a kitchen, that’s too many. As is said about having two starting quarterbacks in football, if you have that many playmaking midfielders, you really have none, because none of them can be effective.

The United States entered the elimination stage of the World Cup without any major changes to their lineup and were able to beat Colombia 2-0 without ever looking truly commanding. During the Colombia game, two of those three playmaking midfielders, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament (a yellow card is like a misdemeanor offense in soccer) and were suspended for the team’s next game, a quarterfinal matchup against China. This crisis, the loss of two of the team’s most talented players, provided an opportunity for coach Ellis. Forced to replace Rapinoe and Holiday with lesser known players, Ellis made sure that each of her four midfielders had distinct roles, well suited to their games. Enter 22 year-old Morgan Brian who played that defense-first midfield role which freed Rutgers University’s own Carli Lloyd to push up into her preferred offensive midfield role. The team responded with their best game of the tournament, beating China only 1-0 but looking dominant throughout.

Coach Ellis had clearly found something that worked but the question remained, would she have the nerve to bench Holiday and Rapinoe, two of her most well-known and talented players, in the team’s next game now that they were no longer suspended? And if she did, would that even be a wise decision against the powerful German side? Surely, going back to the team’s setup from the first four games was not the answer, but what was? Building off the success of the lineup against China, Ellis found a third solution. She reinserted Holiday and Rapinoe but changed the team’s shape. Instead of playing a 4-4-2 as she had throughout the tournament, she switched to a 4-5-1. This created distinct roles for Holiday and Rapinoe without interrupting the newfound and effective dynamic between Brian and Lloyd. The U.S. beat Germany 2-0 in Montreal in front of 51,000 screaming fans. In the tournament’s final game, Ellis repeated this setup and was rewarded with an almost unheard of four goals in 16 minutes and a long-awaited World Cup Championship.

The lesson of this parable is that talent is nothing without correct deployment. Okay, perhaps not nothing, the U.S. was still able to advance to the quarterfinals before finding a better way to play, but they likely would not have met their ultimate goal without being redeployed. Putting players into distinct roles which they understood and which fit well with each other was the key to propelling the team to a World Cup championship. The biggest benefactor and most obvious exemplum of this is Carli Lloyd. Winner of the tournament’s version of an MVP trophy, the Golden Ball, Lloyd scored six goals and had two assists, all after the formation change. Before then? Nothing. Whether you’re a player or a coach, a musician or a conductor, an employee or a manager, the message is clear: find a way to put yourself and the people you direct into well-defined roles that play to strengths. Success will follow.