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?


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

Why is tonight's USA vs. Mexico men's soccer game so big?

When the United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) plays against Mexico tonight, it will be one of the biggest non-World Cup games in memory. I’ll be watching, starting at 9:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1, and I encourage you to do the same. Of course, just saying it’s an important game shouldn’t be enough to get you interested, so I’m going to try to explain why it’s so big in this post.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup is the biggest men’s soccer tournament in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. In it, teams from all over those regions compete every two years to determine which country is the best. It’s an important tournament for world rankings but even more so for continental bragging rights. In the 26 years (13 tournaments) since the Gold Cup began, Mexico or the United States has won the cup all but once. Mexico has won it seven times, the United States five times, and Canada surprised the world and won it in 2000. Must have been some kind of Y2K bug. In the two most recent tournaments, the United States won once (in 2013) and Mexico won once (this year). This is pertinent, because that split over the past two tournaments is why Mexico and the United States are playing tonight.

The Confederations Cup is another international soccer tournament. This one happens every four years. It’s a small tournament, only eight teams, and highly exclusive. The only way to get an invitation is to win one of FIFA’s regional championships, like the CONCACAF Gold Cup. There are six of these tournaments throughout the world. The other two teams invited are the current World Cup champions and the next country to host the World Cup. The tournament is offset from the World Cup by a year (the next World Cup is in 2018, the next Confederations Cup is in 2017) and is hosted by the host of that World Cup. It’s almost like a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Playing in the Confederations Cup is important to countries like the United States and Mexico because it offers a rare chance to play in a World Cup-like atmosphere against the best teams in the world without quite the same unbearable pressure that the actual World Cup brings.

There have been two Gold Cups since the last Confederations Cup. The United States won one and Mexico won one. So, in order to determine which country should be invited to the Confederations Cup in Russia, the teams will play a single playoff game tonight. Win and book your tickets to Russia for the 2017 Confederations Cup. Lose and go home.

If those stakes weren’t enough on their own to make this a big game, there’s also a long-held and simmering once again rivalry between Mexico and the United States in men’s soccer. The general arc of the rivalry is this: Mexico was the undisputed power in CONCACAF forever, until around the mid 1990s when the United States started to challenge them a bit. Then, in the 2000s, the United States seemed to surpass Mexico, which was the cause of much gloating on the U.S. side and much angst on the Mexican side. Now things have settled in to a murky stalemate. Neither team is as good as they once were and both sides have a strange mixture of existential pessimism and swagger. Leading up to this game, the Mexican TV station Azteca ran a frankly hysterical advertisement with clips of Donald Trump, whose idiotic comments about Mexico are well known, interspersed with pictures of Mexican soccer players doing awesome stuff. This was pretty great — it stirred the rivalry up while also bringing soccer fans on both sides together, since even the most partisan U.S. fan should be able to see the humor and irony in the ad. Then, just a few days ago, Fox Sports 1, which is televising the match, ran their own ad featuring Trump. This pro-U.S. ad comes across as jingoistic and arrogant and has been widely criticized. It’s unlikely that Fox’s misfire will mean much to the players but it’s equally unlikely that they needed any more motivation to bring the simmering rivalry to a roiling boil tonight.

If you want to learn more about the USA vs. Mexico men’s soccer rivalry, I recommend these two oral histories from ESPN and MLS Soccer.


Soccer 202: Culture

Have you graduated from our Soccer 101 course? Blown through our Soccer 201 course on positions and logistics? Have your diplomas framed and on your wall? Great! Here’s your next challenge. Soccer 202: Culture is a five part email course with information about many of the more curious aspects of the culture surrounding the world’s favorite sport. Good luck!

  • What do the 20 most common strange soccer terms mean?
  • Why do soccer fans whistle?
  • Why is soccer so liberal?
  • Why do players blame the ball?
  • Playing good vs. playing well

Soccer 201: Positions and Logistics

Have you graduated from our Soccer 101 course? Have your diploma framed and on your wall? Great! Here’s your next challenge. Soccer 201: Positions and Logistics is a week-long email course that will bring you into the know in a number of ways. You’ll learn all about each of the positions soccer players can play — what each position’s responsibilities are and what characteristics are needed for each role. You’ll also become an expert on some of the most meaningful logistical details about soccer. Together, this information will fill in a lot of the gaps in the understanding needed to feel confident watching and talking soccer with the biggest of fans. Good luck!

  • How do substitutions work?
  • What are strikers?
  • What are midfielders?
  • What are defenders?
  • What are goalies?
  • What is stoppage time?
  • How do overtime and shootouts work?

What's the easiest way to learn soccer? Soccer 101

If aliens were to descend to the surface of the earth today and demand, not to see our leader, but to see our most popular sport, delegates of the human species would undoubtedly bring them to a soccer game. Soccer is the most popular sport on the World and it’s not even very close. As a beginner fan, the sport can seem hard to understand or even boring but it’s not that hard to break through the wall to begin to enjoy soccer. Once you do, you’ll join literally billions of other people in the thrills of playing, watching, and understanding soccer.

Whether the pull to learn comes from an upcoming World Cup, a soccer loving parent, child, colleague, partner, or friend, or even just a self-generated hankering, Soccer 101 course is for you! Sign up for our six-part email course, and within a week, you’ll be walking and talking soccer like a knowledgeable novice soccer fan.

Note to current subscribers — to sign up for this course, click on the Update Subscription Preferences link on the bottom of any Dear Sports Fan email.

Here’s what Soccer 101 will cover:

  • Why do people like soccer?
  • How do the basics of soccer work?
  • How does the World Cup work?
  • How do fouls in soccer work?
  • Why do soccer players dive so much?
  • Why do soccer teams spend so much time passing the ball backwards?

Meet the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team: Shannon Boxx

The 2015 soccer Women’s World Cup begins on Saturday, June 6 in Canada. The United States team is one of a handful of favorites to win the tournament and they’ve got a great story. Despite decades of excellent play, the team has not won a World Cup championship since 1999. That’s a whole generation of dreams denied and all the reason anyone should need to root for the team this year. To help prepare you to root for team and country, we’re going to run a short profile of every player on the 23-person roster. When female athletes take their turn in the spotlight, they often receive coverage that is slanted toward non-game aspects of their stories — marriage, children, sexual preference, perceived lack-of or bountiful sexiness, social media activity, etc. In the hope of balancing things out, just a tiny bit, these previews will strive to stay on the field, with only a little bit of non-gendered personal interest when possible.

Shannon Boxx

Position: Midfielder

Number: 7

National team experience: 190 caps, played in three previous world cups, has scored 27 international goals

What to expect from Shannon Boxx:  Unless something goes terribly wrong, Boxx will be playing a supporting role at this year’s world cup. In her prime, Boxx was a dominating midfielder who could just as easily shut down opposing attacks as score goals. Now at 37, she’ll look to use her experience and rangy 5’8″ frame to make things difficult for the opposition when she’s in the game. She can still close down on an attacker quickly and punish them physically. In most of the team’s recent games, Boxx has either come on between the 75 and 80th minute. In the World Cup, with fewer subs and higher stakes, I would expect her not to play as much, if at all, but it’s nice to know that the team has someone with her experience on the bench, who will be ready if needed.

Video: Here’s a typical offensive Shannon Boxx play. She gets her head to the ball, stays in the play, and gets her head onto the ball a second time to score.

Non-gendered personal interest item: Boxx has had lupus for more than a decade. Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects skin, joints, and energy level, all things that are pretty important for a top-flight athlete. It’s pretty amazing that she’s been able to play through the disease. Recently she’s become an advocate for sufferers of lupus. You can read an article she wrote about living with lupus and what can and should be done for people with lupus here.

Check out her US Soccer page and follow her on Twitter.