Archive for February, 2013

Going South, South of the Border: Which FIFA Region Is The Hardest To Qualify From?

2011 - ?...but qualifying is...tougher?

2011 – ?…but qualifying is…tougher?

A TSG Original, Nick Sindt on World Cup qualifying…

Prior to the last set of FIFA dates where the US secured their passage to the Hex, Jürgen Klinsmann made the following comment:

Europeans and South Americans may think that this region looks pretty easy because they don’t play here and they never experienced it. European coaches tell me you should qualify no problem, and I tell them, ‘Why don’t you come over and I’ll take you to Guatemala and Costa Rica and Jamaica and you’ll see.’ It would be an eye-opener for a lot of people in Europe to see our qualifying campaign.

As the ardent USMNT follower over the last few qualifying cycles can attest the 1970’s-looking Astro-turf in Saprissa, straining in the smog/altitude/urine of Azteca, and various other venues where grass just barely outnumbers ankle-breaking potholes do not make life easy on our boys. But are these assertions founded in objective facts or subjective reality?

Some will argue that Klinsmann is merely setting up the excuses in case things had or will still go all pear-shaped; however, the argument about which region is harder to qualify out of, like a Presidential debate, is rarely grounded in cold, hard facts. Typically these articles or discussions focus on the regions as a whole for example:

  • There are 4.5/5.5 slots for 9/10 CONMEBOL nations (depending on who is hosting) but if you’re one of the lower teams you typically have to play 2 of the top 4.5 teams in the world and another 3 or 4 ranked in the top 20.
  • UEFA is also a tough region because out of the 53 nations you have most of the rest of the top 20, plus a fair number of mid-range teams all fighting for a mere 13 spots.

Or the focus is placed on qualifying format, toughest draw/group of death, or similarly ranked teams (to the US) and their plight.

The problem is that none of these actually quote numbers/statistics that mean anything nor do they ask the real question USMNT fans want answered: Is it easier for the US to qualify for the World Cup out of CONCACAF or Spain, France, England, etc. out of UEFA?

To discern the overall quality of each nation/region we’ll utilize FIFA’s ranking system…you may not care for them but they are, in theory, objective and every nation has one. So we’ll use ‘em, but the question is how? Note: These are based on the January 2013 rankings. Brazil has been included in CONMEBOL’s numbers even though they’re not currently qualifying; also, their ranking is abnormally low due to only playing friendlies recently.

The first instinct is typically to look at the mean ranking of each team in each group of the competition currently – under consideration are: CONCAF’s semi-final and Hexagonal rounds, OFC’s semi-final and final rounds, CAF’s semi-final round, AFC’s 3rd and 4th rounds, and UEFA’s & CONMEBOL’s single round. Here’s how the regions stack up.

Uruguay, yes Uruguay had to go the playoff route just to make the 2010 World Cup. They were a top four finisher. (Here Sebastian Sebastian Abreu films the crowd after defeating Costa Rica)

Uruguay, yes Uruguay had to go the playoff route just to make the 2010 World Cup. They were a top four finisher. (Here Sebastian Sebastian Abreu films the crowd after defeating Costa Rica)

Mean FIFA Ranking –  regions listed below comprised of multiple groups (e.g. UEFA has 9 groups) are the average of those groups’ averages

1)     CONMEBOL = 25.8

2)     CONCACAF Hexagonal = 45.333

3)     UEFA = 64.533

4)     CONCACAF Semis = 70.333

5)     AFC Final = 73.5

6)     CAF = 83.075

7)     AFC Semis = 98.1

8)     OFC Final = 122

9)     OFC Semis = 148.13

While illuminating, these numbers only tell us which region has the densest concentration of highly ranked teams and the mid-points of the groups. But not how comparatively difficult it is for teams to get through to the World Cup. We know UEFA has a lot of top teams but there are also a lot of “minnows” and its qualifying format means that each group typically has at least one 3-point ATM (read: ranked below #150). So what else can be used to discern the difficulty?

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Conor O’Brien: Winning Is the Only Calling Card Needed

O'Brien's current FC Nordsjælland page is emblematic of his club career....an unknown who continues to advance and win at every level....

O’Brien’s current FC Nordsjælland page is emblematic of his club career….an unknown who continues to advance and win at every level….

Brian Sciaretta chats underdogs and Danish football with Conor O’Brien on TSG.

Straight out of Long Island.

If–bulletin–helping teams win soccer games is the most important attribute for a player, it’s easy to see why Conor O’Brien is one of the most underrated American players in Europe and now the Long Island native will be aiming to lead Nordsjaelland to a second straight trip to the Champions League.

Things looking up for O'Brien in the land of the Danish...

Things looking up for O’Brien in the land of the Danish…

O’Brien, 24, parted ways with Sonderjyske in December after his contract expired and just signed a two year deal with defending Danish champions Nordsjaelland.

Demand was strong O’Brien told me recently by phone after his move.

“There was so much interest from other clubs in other countries,” O’Brien said. “We knew all along that if they were going to come with a good offer, that it was he place I wanted to be. We were able to reach something economically that we were both happy with. I couldn’t be happier about the move. “

It’s easy to see why the ambitious and fast-growing club was so eager to sign the Long Islander: everywhere he has played, his clubs have won at an unprecedented level.

In high school, O’Brien was the captain of St. Anthony’s high school and he lead the school to its first ever New York state championship in 2005. Two years later in 2007, O’Brien pulled off a stunning accomplishment when he lead his club team, the Terryville Fire, to a U-18 national title. For those who follow youth soccer in this country, Terryville’s national title was a Hollywood –style Cinderella run that would surpass what was seen in either “Miracle” or “Hoosiers.”

In 2009, O’Brien was an integral part of the Cary Clarets of the Premier Development League that unexpectedly advanced to the national semifinals.

Champion of the Patriots...

Champion of the Patriots…

At Bucknell he started every game over four years and lead the club to their first ever Patriot League title.

“I always thought Connor had special qualities,” says Bucknell head coach Brendan Nash. “The unfortunate thing is that everyone always sold him short because of his size and speed. We really didn’t get caught up in that. When I saw him at Terryville, I saw him impact the game no matter what. Whether his team needed him to defend or set something up, he was pulling the strings for his team.”

Despite his ability to win games as a youth player, O’Brien also continued to be underrated no matter where he went.

After finishing his Bucknell career, O’Brien went undrafted in the 2010 MLS Superdraft despite rave reviews at the MLS Combine in 2010. Not wanting to give up on his professional ambitions, O’Brien joined Blokhus FC, a tiny club playing in the third division of Denmark.

At Blokhus, O’Brien did what he usually does and helped his team win games and earn an unexpected promotion to the Danish First Division which was the highest standing the club has ever had. In 2011, O’Brien transferred to Sonderjyske which was one of the smallest clubs in terms of wage budgets in the Danish Superliga.

It was at Sonderjyske where O’Brien blossomed into an effective professional player as eventually he grew into becoming the focal point of the team’s midfield. Many in the Danish media expected Sonderjyske to be in a relegation battle in the 2011/12 season, but instead the club succeeded with O’Brien on the field.

“I have nothing but positive things to say about it there. It was the first club to ever give me a professional contract. I knew when I first got to Sonderjyske, I had to work hard for playing time and to become a Superliga player. After my first six months, I really figured out what I needed to do to get on the field.”

The move to Nordsjaelland is now the latest move in a career that has progressed with continuous steps up in terms of quality. Nordsjaelland is unlikely to win the Danish title again like they did last year since Copenhagen have a firm 12 point grip on first place. But Nordsjaelland currently sit respectably in second place and have a three point lead over third place Aalborg BK.

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Downloading the MLS 2012-2013 Season Break

From RSL superstar, to tentative injury returnee, to wanted by La Liga ... to what in 2013?

From RSL superstar, to tentative injury returnee, to wanted by La Liga … to what in 2013?

Jay Bell comes out of retirement one more time to inventory the 2013 offseason.

Prepare to download the MLS 2.5 mod update

The 2013 season promises to be one of the most defining seasons yet for Major League Soccer. The busiest offseason in the league’s history will give way to the first season without some form of expansion since 2004.

The league has come along way since the days of doubt in 2002. Contraction asked plenty of questions of MLS and its viability. The 2013 season is likely to be the most testing year since, albeit a completely different kind of test. In 2002, MLS proved that it could survive. In 2013, MLS has the chance to prove that it can thrive.

Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake began play in MLS in 2005 and the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston in 2006. MLS then added David Beckham, a legion of Designated Players and at least one expansion team every season since.

Fans can point to a number of different events that have happened in the last decade as giving rise to what is referred to as MLS 2.0: the Chivas USA and RSL expansion, the Beckham rule, the return of the San Jose Earthquakes, the signing of Tristan Bowen to be the first MLS academy product, etc.

For the sake of this piece, Seattle fans created MLS 2.0.

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Denouement: Nigeria Raises The Africa Cup of Nations 2013

Nigeria, glass on high!

Nigeria, glass on high!

Matt Pentz rounds up the best of Africa 2013

The curtain closed on the 2013 African Cup of Nations with a match that neatly encapsulated the prevailing plot of the tournament: Disjointed, uneven stretches of play punctuated by decisive flashes of brilliance.

Sunday Mba’s goal late in the first half clinched the title for Nigeria, as the Super Eagles held on to down Burkina Faso 1-0 in Johannesburg.

Neither the Super Eagles nor the Stallions managed to hit the highs they’d managed earlier in the tournament – a playing surface that hosted the Red Hot Chili Peppers last Saturday didn’t help – but Mba rose to the occasion.

A deflected shot found its way to the Nigerian midfielder at the top of the box in the 40th minute. A controlling flick with the outside of his right cheat allowed him to dart past an onrushing Burkinabe defender, and he then rocketed a left-footed volley into the corner of the net before further help could arrive.

It was more than enough for the deserving champions, the most consistent, purposeful team at the tournament.

The template for success at this tournament is becoming increasingly clear – balance and unity outweigh the influence of international stars. Nigeria featured more household names than the close-knit, disciplined Zambia side that prevailed last year, but it showed a familiar willingness to choose functionality over flash by picking a number of locally based players.

More importantly, at least in terms of long-lasting impact, the Nigerian triumph provides a strong counterpoint against African teams’ fascination with European coaches.

It was a widely circulated belief that the very best African sides, those with stars based in the world’s top leagues, wouldn’t take native coaches seriously. The managers that did break the trend seemed to be on a shorter leash. The continent is far from alone in its tendency to defer to Europe for expertise – ahem, here are the keys to the entire U.S. soccer system, Jurgen – but it has been far more systematic and widespread than elsewhere.

Enter Stephen Keshi.

The native Nigerian boss rose eyebrows at the beginning of the tournament by leaving out West Brom striker Peter Odemwingie. It was a gamble, but one that clearly made an impression on his side. The no-nonsense approach brought home his country’s first AFCON trophy side 1994.

Combined with the stirring quarterfinal run of Cape Verde under home-based coach/full-time air traffic controller Lucio Antunes and the fact that we were a Ghana win away from the first final between native coaches in 15 years, and a changing of the guard may be in order.

The other finalist, Burkina Faso, showcased the rise of African soccer’s middle class. The talent pool on the continent is as deep as it’s ever been, and as the Stallions’ run to the final showed, the favorites can no longer sleepwalk their way into the later stages of the event.

This year’s Cup of Nations may have lacked the quality and drama of the 2012 tournament, but it functioned as a powerful measuring stick of the robust health of the African game.

Top player: Emmanuel Emenike, Nigeria

It can seem a bit nonsensical to tab someone who missed out on the final with injury as the player of the tournament, but that’s how integral Emenike was to Nigeria’s run.

He scored in both of the two matches that set the stage for later success. The 1-1 draw against defending champion Zambia was the moment when Nigerian belief began to germinate. And the 2-1 upset of the Ivory Coast solidified the notion that the Super Eagles really could win at all.

Emenike set the table for Nigeria throughout the tournament, a bullish, powerful striker who functioned as the pivot point for the attack. His co-tournament leading four goals were just one measure of how influential he was up top.

He personified the dogged, relentless spirit of the new era of Nigerian soccer.

Best celebration: Muteba Kidiaba, DR Congo

And there isn’t even a remotely close second. The man behind the creatively titled YouTube video “Goalkeeper for the DR Congo national team Hops on Ass” was the highlight of the short but memorable Congolese campaign.

The Leopards may not have made it to the knockout rounds, but they thrillingly came from two goals down to draw with powerhouse Ghana, dazzled with their tournament-best kits and injected some life to a bland run of group stage games.

It had been seven years since DR Congo last made the field, but here’s hoping it doesn’t take as long this time. You’re welcome back any time, Leopards.

Nigeria v. Zambia...

Nigeria v. Zambia…

Best game: Nigeria v. Zambia, group stages

Apologies to the Super Eagles-Elephants quarterfinal and the Ghana-DR Congo group stage epic, but the 1-1 draw between the defending and eventual champions left the deepest impression.

A pair of surprising opening day draws meant that both sides needed all three points, setting the stage for a positive, attacking showdown. The intensity and desperation was even more vibrant in contrast to the conservativeness plaguing the rest of the opening round.

The teams traded blows – if not goals – in a captivating first 45 minutes before Emenike turned Nigeria’s second half dominance into a lead with a powerful, first-time finish.

Zambia poured forward and, just when looked out of bullets, earned a dubious penalty. If the call was questionable, the finish was emphatic. Copper Bullets keeper Kennedy Mweene made the long trip upfield to deposit the spot kick into the very top corner of the net.

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The Weekend: Live Commentary

Could Burkino Faso be this year’s Zambian surprise? The Africa Cup of Nations concludes Sunday.

Faso!

Faso!

USA v. Honduras Goes Live Right Now, Cue Klinsmann Eval Time

Hey! We gettin' points down here!

Hey! We gettin’ points down here!

The Hex is here. Will it break Klinsmann or will the German striker ripple the CONCACAF tourney from the touchline?

The US starting line-up shortly and the battle to get to Brazil about to begin in earnest.

AFCON 2013 Is At DEFCON 4 As The Ivory Coast Falls a Tusk Short Again

Mali, just dark-horsing around...

Mali, just dark-horsing around…

Matt Pentz reminds us it’s getting close at the Africa Cup of Nations

The 2013 African Cup of Nations has been whittled down to four.

In theory, the final four is perfectly balanced: The runaway favorite (Ghana), the resurgent challenger (Nigeria), the sentimental dark horse (Mali) and the outsider (Burkina Faso).

The quarterfinals provided plenty of flashpoints – Nigeria’s fortuitous deflection off Sol Bamba’s ass both vaulting the Super Eagles into the semis and encapsulating the absurdity of Ivory Coast’s futility, Mali joyously celebrating a shootout triumph in front of a stunned host nation for the second year in a row.

Yet the moment that left the deepest impression took place off the pitch.

sdfsd

Antunes

In the wake of his team’s quarterfinal defeat to Ghana, Cape Verde coach Lúcio Antunes straightforwardly questioned the value of underdogs at major tournaments.

It many ways, it was a familiar complaint. His underdog Blue Sharks had, on balance, actually outplayed the heavily favored Black Stars. But a series of close penalty decisions, one in Ghana’s favor, others denying Cape Verde, allowed the Black Stars to narrowly survive.

In truth, it was a series of phenomenal saves by Ghanaian goalkeeper Fatau Dauda – including a diving effort to claw Djaniny’s curling free kick out of the top corner in added time – that ultimately decided the outcome.

Antunes chose to blame more sinister forces.

“They (the organisers) would want to see Ghana move into the semi-finals. Or do you want 200 spectators to watch Cape Verde against Togo in the semi-finals?” he asked.

This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking point – see the grumbling over the lack of prestige after a Champions League draw matches up Porto and Malaga or the ratings of a World Series not involving either New York or Boston.

But it is more glaring at an event already struggling to draw crowds, where a quarterfinal can look like it’s being played in an empty stadium.

Antunes’ comments can be easily dismissed as paranoia, yet they struck a chord because of just how improbable his team’s run was. Cape Verde, after all, stood out as a particularly compelling story in a tournament never lacking for them.

It’s useful to place it in a different context.

Imagine that it is 2024. France is approaching its peak as the dominant force of international soccer and facing a surprising upstart in the Euro quarterfinals.

For 90 minutes at the New Singapore National Stadium – following the wild success of spreading Euro 2020 all over the continent, UEFA decided to go global, don’t ask – unfancied Liechtenstein goes toe-to-toe with the mighty France. Les Blues advance thanks to a Gael Kakuta strike against the run of play, but Liechtenstein and their full-time clockmaker head coach become the darling of the tournament.

Closer to home, the Bahamas have become the darlings of the 2024 Copa America Unidos, the rebranded, third edition of the merged Gold Cup and Copa America, by pushing Mexico to penalties in a thrilling quarterfinals.

Seems unrealistic, no? Yet both Liechtenstein and the Bahamas are currently higher in the FIFA rankings than Cape Verde was a decade ago.

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