So sorry soccer fans I have been on an extended Holiday as we were traveling for much of the Christmas and New Year’s season. My return still finds Chelsea on top of a very tight top 6 in the EPL, Real Madrid on top in Spain but finally lost a game for the first time in 40 matches – yes FORTY matches. That is amazing!!
So the Indy 11 will be back and in the NASL – as it remains in the 2nd Division in US Soccer. Should be interesting to see where the league goes in the future now that we have NASL and USL both as second divisions. Bottom line Is we’ll have NASL soccer back in Indy again this season. So yea!
Interesting move by FIFA to increase the World Cup in 2026 to 48 teams. Lets hope the US gets to benefit from that by hosting the 2026 tourney. And lets hope now that Bruce is back in charge we actually make the next World Cup. I am happy to see an American back in charge of the US National Team. Bruce took this program to the Elite 8 in his first go round and I think he’s the guy to pull us out of our current Klinsy built funk.
Marcotti’s Musings – Weekend Results
Bruce Hopes for Quick Start for US –pro soccer talk
Weds, Jan 18
11 am beIn Sport Gabon vs Burkina Faso African Cup
2:45 pm Fox Sport 1 Plymouth Arglye vs Liverpool – FA Cup
Thurs, Jan 19
11 am beIn Sport Algeria vs Tunisia African Cup
1:15 pm bein Sport Atletico vs Eibar Copa Del Rey
3;15 pm bein Sport Real Sociedad vs Barcelona Copa Del Rey
Fri, Jan 20
11 am beIN sport South Africa vs Congo DR African Cup
2 pm beIN sport Morroco vs Togo African Cup
2:30 pm Fox Sport 1 Frieberg vs Bayern Munich
Sat. Jan 21
7:30 am NBCSN Liverpool vs Swansea City
9:30 am FS1 Werder Bremen vs Borussia Dortmund
10 am NBCSN Stoke City vs Man United
12:30 NBC Man City vs Tottenham
Sun, Jan 22
9:15 am NBCSN Arsenal vs Burnley
9:30 am Fox Sports 1 Bayer Leverkusen vs Hertha BSC
11:30 am NBCSN Chelsea vs Hull City
2 pm Fox Sports 2 Cameroon vs Gabon
Wed, Jan 25
3 pm ?? Liverpool vs Southampton League Cup
Arena aims for quick start to save USMNT World Cup hopes
CARSON, Calif. (AP) Bruce Arena realizes he has very little time to get back into his groove with the U.S. national team. After all, two vital World Cup qualifiers are looming just two months away.Luckily for Arena, he has done this job before. He’s also returning to work in extremely familiar surroundings.“I think it’s a great opportunity for me personally, but it’s an important time for this team,” Arena said Wednesday. “Our goal is pretty clear: We need to qualify for Russia in 2018.”Arena convened the first training camp of his second stint in charge of the U.S. team under sunny skies at its training base south of downtown Los Angeles. The complex also is the home of the LA Galaxy, where Arena served as the coach and general manager of the MLS club for the past 8 1/2 seasons.
Arena took over for Jurgen Klinsmann in late November, accepting the task of salvaging the Americans’ World Cup qualification hopes. Two losses last year dropped the U.S. into last place in its qualifying hexagonal, albeit with eight games to go. The transition isn’t easy, and the stakes are high. But Arena seems to be better equipped for the task than just about anybody. “I’m having the time of my life,” Arena said with his usual sardonic tone. “I haven’t had to move. The hotel is about a five-minute drive from my house. I’ve been coming here for the last eight years. I had to move about 30 yards from my past office. So life could be worse.” Although the U.S. players on European club teams can’t attend this camp, Arena held his first practice with 28 players, including several MLS stalwarts who couldn’t crack the Eurocentric Klinsmann’s talent pool.
Sporting Kansas City’s Benny Feilhaber, FC Dallas’ Matt Hedges, the Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget and the Red Bulls’ Dax McCarty will get a look from Arena’s fresh eyes during the monthlong camp. Arena also has changed Klinsmann’s strict rules for diet and fitness, hoping to restore a team spirit that appeared to fade late in the German’s tenure. “You can expect honesty from Bruce,” said the LA Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes, who broke through on the U.S. team under Klinsmann. “He’s easing us into camp, but he’s already made a terrific speech about knowing each and every player, so you don’t have to impress him. I love playing under him.” Arena has personal history with several camp invitees. Along with Galaxy stars Zardes and Lletget, Arena previously coached DaMarcus Beasley, Nick Rimando, Chad Marshall, Jozy Altidore and captain Michael Bradley, who had a thick, lustrous head of hair when he got his U.S. break in 2006.
“I’m very excited to be back playing for Bruce,” Bradley said. “He was the one who gave me my first opportunity with the national team, and that’s something you never forget. … He’s going to create an environment where guys are going to compete, guys are going to enjoy themselves, and there’s going to be a real team and a real spirit and a real feeling that we’re all in something together. But when it’s time to work and time to compete, we’re going to do that, and I think he’s going to be very clear and tell it exactly like it is, which is very important, which is exactly what we need.”
Bradley’s father, Bob, replaced Arena as the U.S. coach after the 2006 World Cup. Bob Bradley was Arena’s assistant at the University of Virginia and with D.C. United.“I knew Michael Bradley as a little baby, which is interesting,” Arena said with a bemused smile. Arena is counting on Michael Bradley and fellow veteran Jermaine Jones to be leaders for the U.S. over the next few months. He also complimented Beasley, the 34-year-old veteran hoping to continue with the American team two years after announcing his international retirement. “Obviously he’s not the same player as he was (when) playing in the 2002 World Cup,” Arena said. “But good players, guys that can think on the field, know how to compete, use their experience well, are always good to have around.” The camp will end with friendly matches against Serbia on Jan. 29 and Jamaica on Feb. 3. The Americans face Honduras on March 24 and Panama on March 28 in World Cup qualifiers.
Qualifying for the 2018 World Cup first and foremost for Arena, the USMNT
The United States men’s national team will kick off their 2017 campaign with the traditional January camp, which opens on Friday. It’s a squad in the midst of a rebrand with new (and old) manager Bruce Arena now at the helm after the up and down Jurgen Klinsmann era came to an end in November. There’s plenty to accomplish, and little time to do so. Here are 17 goals for the Americans in 2017.
- Qualify for the 2018 World Cup
Klinsmann’s ouster occurred at least in part because the Stars and Stripes lost the first two matches of the final qualification round (“The Hex”) and currently sit in last place. Given the large margin for error in CONCACAF, there’s still plenty of time to qualify for Russia. Not doing so would be a disastrous and embarrassing setback for an American program that hasn’t progressed as much as hoped since 2010. Arena has one priority that rises far above all others: find 15 or so points in the eight matches between hosting Honduras on March 24 and going to Port of Spain to play Trinidad and Tobago on Oct.10th.
- Qualify for the 2018 World Cup
So important it gets the top two spots.
With apologies to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, everyone — players, coaches, media, and fans — should calm down about the state of the U.S. The current squad has one of the most talented cores in the program’s history and the player pool is deeper than ever. The ability is there; the vision and implementation of that vision has been lacking. The Americans at the beginning of 2017 need tweaks, not a dramatic overhaul. Anything more would be overkill.
- Win the 2017 Gold Cup
Before the calamitous beginning to the Hexagonal, the low point for Klinsmann’s club had been the fourth-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup. Getting a win at the regional championship (July 7-26) would be an excellent way to prove the U.S. can win something that matters while simultaneously building momentum for the final four World Cup qualification matches.
- Figure out the goalie situation
Tim Howard seems to be the number one for now. But the Colorado Rapids netminder turns 38 in March, which isn’t, you know, young. Can he continue playing at the high level the Americans need, especially given the wear and tear his body will take during MLS’s non-stop flying to and from games? If Howard’s skill slips, how quickly will it be before Arena turns to Atlanta FC target Brad Guzan? And is the third-stringer really 21-year-old Ethan Horvath?
- Win the U-20 CONCACAF Championship
In mid-February, Tab Ramos’ team travels to Costa Rica seeking to qualify for the 2017 U-20 World Cup in South Korea by finishing as one of the top two teams in a four-team Group B and then as one of the top two in the three-squad classification stage. They should do that, and then take it a step further to take home the trophy. (While we’re here, it would be nice to see the U.S. win the U-17 CONCACAF Championship this spring, then show better than the abysmal one draw and two loss performance they put up during the 2015 U-17 World Cup.)
- Reach the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup
Assuming Ramos’ side makes it to South Korea, their goal should be to match the performance of the 2015 team. That group, which featured Gedion Zelalem, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Paul Arriola, Emerson Hyndman, Matt Miazga, and Kellyn Acosta, among others, lost to eventual champion Serbia on penalties in the quarterfinals. This team could be stronger, with Carter-Vickers and Zelalem potentially returning in addition to Christian Pulisic, Justen Glad, Josh Perez, Kyle Scott, Luca de la Torre, Weston McKennie, Brooks Lennon, (and, yes, Jonathan Klinsmann).
- Let Michael be Michael
Here’s the thing about Michael Bradley: he can’t be a team’s best player, but he makes everyone else on the field a little bit better. Klinsmann never quite understood this reality, which resulted in Bradley getting put into positions that didn’t take advantage of his unique skill set. Arena, who has watched Bradley play for years in Major League Soccer and is also a better manager when it comes to deploying talent as it should be deployed, won’t make this mistake. If the new coach lets Bradley return to a place where he uses his intelligence and vision to impact the proceedings, he’ll thrive.
- Put Fabian Johnson somewhere and keep him there
He’s probably the team’s best player at four separate positions. For the sake of the squad, it’s time to write his name down in pen somewhere permanently. My pick would be left back, although putting him on the wing in midfield is another solid option.
- Let Pulisic drive
When it comes to creating chances, both for himself and for his teammates, is there a better attacking player on the U.S. than the 18-year-old? Pulisic is a viciously talented, game-changing winger. Put him there, get him the ball early and often, and get out of the way.
- Find out what the MLSers have…
An abridged list of names: Dax McCarty, Keegan Rosenberry, Chris Pontius, Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman, Justin Morrow, Robbie Rogers, Juan Agudelo, and Kekuta Manneh. Those are MLSers who might be able to make an impact on the U.S. squad, and Arena will give them a shot. Throw in Benny Feilhaber and Darlington Nagbe, and you get almost an entire starting lineup worth of players who could impact the Russia roster.
- …and the Euros, too…
There’s also room for players like Eric Lichaj and maybe Perez — who is making inroads at Fiorentina at just 18 years old — to get a shot, along with players in the Mexican league, including Jorge Villafana and Jonathan Bornstein.
- …then limit the pool with an eye toward Russia
This year isn’t a time for finding a ton of new players. Arena has a couple months and a couple camps to figure out his team, then turn his focus to building a cohesive starting lineup and bench depth that can succeed at the 2018 World Cup.
- Have a little fun
It’s not fun to lose and international soccer should be taken seriously, but for the last few years, there was little in the way of charm coming from the American locker room. That was partially a function of Klinsmann, who always wanted to be the biggest personality, and partially because of the nature of team leaders like Bradley and Clint Dempsey. Arena is a different type of manager, however, and players — both new and old – might feel okay letting loose a little now. That’s good, as the U.S. desperately needs some levity. (Looking at you, Benny Feilhaber.)
- Find their fans
This goal goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. While attendance at qualifiers and the Copa America was strong, the team failed to draw 10,000 fans to any friendly in 2016. There’s clearly an enthusiasm gap, borne out of poor results but also from a lack of excitement. At points, rooting for the red, white, and blue felt like a responsibility. They need to figure out a way to make fans enjoy the games again. Playing in Chattanooga in February, a city that’s seen amazing support for its fourth-division side, is a good start.
- Bring Landon Donovan back
I kid. (But also, don’t rule it out.)
- Qualify for the 2018 World Cup
Because really, nothing else matters.Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC
Feilhaber’s second chance with the U.S. could be just what Arena’s team needs
CARSON, Calif. — Benny Feilhaber could barely contain himself as he left his first U.S. national team practice in almost three years.The 1½-hour session was done, but the Sporting Kansas City midfielder looked as if he were ready for another. Feilhaber didn’t have long to wait, as he took part in a second practice later on Wednesday, but he was clearly savoring the moment.”It feels amazing; it’s very exciting,” he told reporters about his return to the U.S. fold. “It’s something I wasn’t sure would ever happen again, so it feels like a second chance and because of that it’s very motivating. So I’m very excited to be back and want to make my stamp in this camp.”That second chance is down to who is in charge. Bruce Arena is now the U.S. manager, replacing Jurgen Klinsmann, who made it abundantly clear with each passing day — at least in this cycle — that regardless of the numbers Feilhaber put up at club level, there was no room for the midfielder.It was a snub that Feilhaber wrestled with privately for the most part, though at last year’s Major League Soccer media day he finally unloaded, saying that Klinsmann didn’t pick the best players. As for his own situation, on that day he described it as “almost sad.” Feilhaber concedes now that he was resigned to his fate.”It didn’t feel like I would be back,” he said Wednesday as it related to the U.S. team. “I kind of turned that page a little bit in my career and tried to focus on the things that I could. I always watched the national team; it’s always something I looked very fondly back on, when I did have my opportunities with the national team with Bob [Bradley], but I had kind of closed that book. To have it reopen again unexpectedly was an amazing feeling.” Feilhaber’s opportunity comes at an auspicious time. The U.S. is in dead last in the final six-team round of World Cup qualifying. His skill set — that of a creative, attacking midfielder — is one for which the U.S. would seem to have a need.Arena remarked that Feilhaber is “a little different than most [U.S.] players,” given his passing and creativity and that he and Sacha Kljestan would both get “a good, hard look in this camp.”The question of course is: Has Feilhaber’s opportunity come too late? Players often find themselves in a race against time, and the midfielder is no different. Physical ability erodes as the years pass, but experience is acquired. It makes for an odd kind of hourglass. The sand is slipping through, but any knowledge gained adds some additional grains to the top and lengthens careers. Feilhaber’s greater attention to his fitness has added some years as well and helped rebuild his career in Kansas City after some barren seasons in Europe and with the New England Revolution.”[Fitness] has always been one of my things that I’ve really had to work on to be at my top game,” he said. “It’s something I’ve definitely taken more seriously as my career has gone on. Other than that I think you get smarter, whether it’s on the field trying to find spaces, trying to find areas where you know you’re good, trying to avoid places where you might not be as good. It’s a lot about being smarter, experiencing those mistakes and kind of learning from them and mostly a smarter player on and off the field at this point.”It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. team’s needs are more immediate at this stage. This is about acquiring results in the short term, and Feilhaber’s attributes could be just what the team needs. He’s shown a greater attention to defensive duties since joining Sporting KC. At minimum, he could be the kind of game-changing substitute he excelled at being when playing for the U.S. under Bradley.”I want to bring what I’ve learned at the club level and my experience at the national team level six years ago to make myself a better player and a more influential player for my team,” he said.”Now he’ll get his chance.Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. natinal team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.
FIFA Council unanimously approves World Cup expansion to 48 teams
The FIFA Council has rubber-stamped plans to expand the World Cup in 2026 to 48 teams, adding 16 nations.FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s revamp plan received unanimous backing at a meeting in Zurich on Tuesday.Delegates were asked to vote on four proposals to change the existing format or stick with the current format of 32 teams.This is the first time since the 1998 World Cup that changes have been made to the makeup of the tournament, with the 2026 competition set to feature 16 groups of three.Infantino’s preferred option for change was for a 2026 competition featuring 16 groups of three, followed by a 32-team knockout, increasing the number of games from 64 to 80 but remaining inside a 32-day schedule.”We have to shape the football World Cup of the 21st century,” said Infantino, who also promised funding increases for FIFA’s 211 member federations at his election last February.”No guarantees have been made,” Infantino said. “The only sure thing is that obviously with 48 teams everyone will have a bit more than they have today.”There were also options to have a 40-team tournament, with 10 groups of four or eight groups of five, but the only other 48-team makeup would see a 32-team one-game knockout round with the winners joining 16 already-qualified teams.Infantino has also suggested that penalty shootouts be brought in to settle the results of all drawn games, thereby minimising the risk of teams colluding in their final group games to eliminate others from the tournament.The Swiss has repeatedly said his main motivation for expansion is to give more nations a chance of experiencing the joy of a World Cup, which will bolster international football in developed markets and help its growth in new ones.With 80 matches instead of 64, FIFA forecasts $1 billion extra income from broadcasting and sponsor deals, plus ticket sales, compared to the $5.5 billion forecast for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.FIFA’s six continents should find out by May how many extra places they will get.The African and Asian nations are expecting significant increases on their current allocation of four spots apiece, while UEFA wants 16 European teams in the tournament.The other major decision regarding 2026 — who will host the event — is not scheduled for consideration until 2020, with a bid featuring United States, either on its own or in conjunction with one or both of Canada and Mexico, the overwhelming favourite.The European Club Association continued its stance of opposing the move, calling it “regrettable” and claiming it had been made because of “political reasons.”
48-team World Cup will be a good thing if FIFA get details right
Gab MArcotti – ESPN FC – World Cup.Cue the outrage. Cue the anger. Cue the sneers.Because, if it comes from FIFA, it has to be bad. Or self-serving. Or corrupt.In this case, the objection appears to be driven by two things. One is that this was a decision made for the wrong reasons. FIFA boss Gianni Infantino promised to expand the World Cup in exchange for votes from middling nations who want to feed at the trough. He did it to get elected, not for the good of the sport, kind of like politicians who (depending on your political stripe) either cut taxes or increase welfare benefits so they can gain support.And, of course, Infantino also promised that he would increase FIFA’s payments to each member association, which is also a move designed to gain votes, according to the cynics.To do that, however, he needs to grow the pie, and because more than 85 percent of FIFA’s revenues come from the men’s World Cup, the only way to do that is to squeeze more cash out of the biggest sporting event in the universe. The easiest way to do it is by expanding it.The first argument can be thrown at anybody running for elected office. Would it be better if Infantino had promised more World Cup slots and then, once elected, had run out of the room shouting “Ha-ha! Psych! Fooled you guys”? Probably not. He ran on a platform; people voted on that basis; and he’s implementing it.As for the decision being a financial choice, I’m not sure that’s automatically a bad thing. FIFA’s mandate is to grow the game, and giving money back to the member associations is probably more desirable than having it sit and accumulate in a Swiss bank account.Sure, we’ve all heard about mismanagement and corruption and FIFA development funds being wasted or used to enrich friends and relatives. But if Infantino delivers on his promises of more accountability and transparency, effectively telling FAs “you can have this money but you need to account for every last penny and you need to put contracts out to public tender and you must allow for oversight and audits,” then this is far from a tragedy. In fact, it might actually give some of the less responsible FAs the opportunity to grow up and not be run like somebody’s personal bank account.On to the other big complaint: that a 48-team World Cup will dilute the quality of the competition. I’ll say it straight away. There is no rational counterargument because it’s a subjective point to make. But simply pointing to the expanded Euro 2016 as evidence that more teams equals a poor tournament won’t cut it.Why?First of all, because some — including yours truly — enjoyed the tournament.Second, because it’s one tournament. Sample size and all that. Pick and choose your moments and you can prove just about anything, even that Cristiano Ronaldo is technically awful. Third, because two-thirds of the teams at the World Cup won’t be European sides. They might be better, they might be worse, but what we do know for sure is most of the teams in the expanded World Cup won’t be the ones we saw at the Euros. It’s apples and oranges.Fourth, if it was a bad tournament, who’s to say that was down to having 24 teams and not, say, chance or fatigue after the most fixture-packed club season in recent history?Of course, having the top 48 sides in the world means the average side will be worse than if you have the top 32. By that logic, a 16-team World Cup would be even better. Maybe even an eight-team World Cup.But worse teams don’t necessarily engender worse games. Better teams doesn’t equal better games (ahem, remember last year’s Champions League semifinal between Real Madrid and Manchester City? Not exactly a two-legged humdinger, was it?).
What matters is that games will be competitive and we don’t have blowouts like this one. But, in fact, recent tournaments — not just World Cups, but regional competitions, too — have seen the number of one-sided blowouts diminish significantly. Indeed, the one notable blowout from the last World Cup was this one and the team getting stomped happened to be Brazil, who are only the most successful nation in World Cup history.
People raise the issue of a “bloated” World Cup, but we’re talking about 80 games versus 64. The semifinalists will end up playing seven games, just as before. FIFA say they’ll wrap up the whole thing in 32 days, just as they did with 32 teams in 2014. They insist they can do it with 10 or 12 venues, which would be no different from 2014.If FIFA can keep those last two pledges, you can’t really complain about white elephants and overspending, either. What will be more problematic is finding a host nation that can provide 48 acceptable training bases. If 2026 is in the United States — as many expect — that won’t be a problem. Elsewhere, it could be.But, again, there are solutions. A training camp, more than a stadium, offers the opportunity for legacy and some of the extra revenue could be used to provide some to hosts who don’t have enough of them (they’re also considerably cheaper than 40,000-seat stadiums). Or, depending on the host nation, you could have teams based in neighbouring countries flying in for games. That would have the added benefit of spreading some of the World Cup around to smaller nations who won’t ever get to host one.The most valid reason not to do an expanded World Cup has to do with the format. A three-team group lends itself to all sort of chicanery. You want an obvious example? Let’s imagine a group with Klingons, Vulcans and Romulans. Klingons beat Vulcans 1-0. Vulcans draw with Romulans 0-0. Then, in the third game, Klingons fix a draw with Romulans and it finishes nil-nil, allowing both teams to advance.Yes, that’s a risk. It would stink to high heaven. Sure, we’ve had situations like this in past tournaments, such as Germany vs. Austria in 1982 or Denmark vs. Sweden in 2004. These were games where there was a mutually beneficial result to the detriment of one of the other teams. There’s no evidence that anything untoward happened, but it left a bad taste and a cloud of suspicion.
Or you can have a situation in which all three games end in identical draws, in which case how do you decide who advances?
Both situations could arise with the current format, too, but it’s less likely. But there are ways around it. The penalty shootout after a draw solution would have been one, albeit a foolish one.A better option is to minimize the risks by having the top seeds play the first two games. In most cases — you would hope — they’ll win one of the first two, which means the third game will have something at stake for both teams. The other is to eliminate goal difference as a tiebreaker and, instead, if teams finish level on points, determine who goes through based on FIFA ranking. Probably a revamped FIFA ranking — let’s put the eggheads to work — but nonetheless the point would be that if you want to advance, you need to win games.Incidentally, a revamped FIFA ranking would also help with another potential complaint: that World Cup qualifying, already rendered largely irrelevant in many confederations, would become even less meaningful than it is now. If countries were playing for their seeds — and the seeds were more valuable — perhaps we’d see a bit more oomph in the qualifying process.Again, another big if, but if FIFA do this or something like it, the format can work and limit the stitch-ups.We’ve been through the negatives. The positives ought to be obvious. You would have far fewer dead rubbers (provided the top seeds play first). You would have another round of knockout games, which tend to be more tense because the stakes are higher. Most of all, you would turn the game’s global showcase into a truly global event, offering a greater shot to countries who would otherwise only watch it on TV.
It’s the end of the World Cup as we know it: Expansion to 48 ruins FIFA’s showpiece
- FIFA’s unanimous decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams has some pros, but it’s outweighed by a litany of cons.
GRANT WAHLTuesday January 10th, 2017
I want to keep an open mind, I really do. Change is inevitable in life, and it isn’t always bad.But I’m worried that January 10, 2017, will be seen as the day FIFA ruined the World Cup.On Tuesday, the FIFA Council made it official, unanimously approving an expansion of the men’s World Cup field. Starting in 2026, the field will increase from 32 to 48 teams. There will be 16 groups of 3 teams, with the top two finishers in each group advancing to a 32-team knockout stage.The number of World Cup bids per continent has yet to be finalized, but reports suggest it could look like this:
|UEFA||16 (13 currently)|
|Host Country||1 or more if co-hosted (1)|
What’s good about the expansion? What’s bad? Let’s break it down:
- If you’re the United States or Mexico and purely looking out for your self-interest, an expanded World Cup means it will be almost impossible to miss out on qualifying for the tournament, as Mexico nearly did for 2014 and as the U.S. may be on its way to doing for 2018 after losing its first two games in the CONCACAF Hexagonal.
What’s more, it will be easier to advance to the knockout rounds with two teams in every three-team group advancing to the round of 32 (as opposed to two of four teams in each group advancing to a round of 16). And with more emphasis on the results of one game—in a sport where crazy bounces, fluke goals and bad officiating often decide games—it could also be easier for the U.S. or Mexico to advance deeper in the knockout rounds against easier teams than they faced before.
- If you’re a country that has never made it to the World Cup before—and there are plenty of nations in this group—your chances of qualifying just increased immensely. That is no small thing as the world’s game becomes increasingly global. In general, inclusion is a better thing than exclusion.
- Despite having a bigger tournament, it won’t take any more days to complete. The 48-team World Cup in 2026 will last 32 days, just as many as the 32 days it will take with 32 teams at Russia 2018. The tournament winner will still play seven games, no more than is currently the case, so I don’t totally understand the European Clubs Association’s opposition argument saying that the new format will put more wear and tear on players.
But then there’s the other category, which is a big one:
- Three-team groups are a joke. Why was Euro 2016 so unsatisfying? A big reason was the expanded 24-team field, in which teams that finished third in their four-team groups still advanced to the knockout rounds. Anytime you have more than half the teams advancing to the knockout stage creates a problem, with poorly performing teams being rewarded.
Three-team groups may also incentivize teams to play for 0-0 ties, and they remove the simultaneous final group games, which may incentivize teams to lay down and play for a mutually beneficial result if they happen to be in the final group game. FIFA is considering staging penalty shootouts at the end of any tied group games to help alleviate the problem, but that’s lame and won’t alleviate it entirely.
- Bad games at the World Cup will become more frequent. FIFA’s own research says the quality of World Cup games will suffer in a 48-team tournament. Look for more blowouts between Germany and, say, Curaçao. Look for more small teams to park the bus and hope for a tie. Look for more mutually beneficial snoozers. Some of these games could be brutal. Too much of a good thing can easily become a bad thing. Again: Look at Euro 2016.
- World Cup qualifying becomes a joke. Let’s say eight CONCACAF teams end up qualifying for World Cup 2026, with the U.S., the current favorite, as the host. The top eight CONCACAF teams in the current FIFA rankings are Costa Rica, Mexico, the U.S., Panama, Haiti, Honduras, Curaçao and Jamaica. With CONCACAF promising more qualifying games to tiny island nations, look for World Cup qualifying to become a watered-down mess of easy games with next to nothing at stake for a team like the U.S. or Mexico. One of the U.S.’s biggest current problems is it doesn’t play enough games that matter against tough opponents. This system makes that problem even worse.
The club game is already being played at a much higher level than the international game. An expanded World Cup makes that worse, both during the long time period between World Cups and at the 48-team World Cup itself.
- If you’re FIFA, which has money concerns in the wake of the U.S.-investigated FIFA scandal, you’ll make more money off TV rights (more games!) and sponsorships. And if you’re Gianni Infantino, the recently elected FIFA president, you’ll increase your chances of being reelected, since so many more countries will have an opportunity to reach the World Cup. Each of those countries has a vote in the FIFA election. This is patronage politics straight out of the Sepp Blatter handbook, and it goes along with the massive increase in annual money grants that Infantino promised and got passed for each FIFA nation.
Growth and making money aren’t necessarily bad things, but the biggest problem that Infantino needs to fix is FIFA and confederation corruption—remember, there was a giant FIFA scandal!—and not the size of the World Cup, where 32 teams was just about perfect. Simply following the Blatter patronage blueprint and raising payouts only increases suspicions that the same shady folks at the end of those handouts (and most of them are the same people that there were there during the FIFA scandal) will continue with business as usual. My hope is that Infantino will use the political support he gains from pushing expansion to address the biggest issues facing FIFA, which include becoming a cleaner organization and building women’s soccer and the role of women in soccer globally. My fear is that he will think his work was done in those areas with the passage of last year’s FIFA reform package, which should be just a start.How would I have changed the men’s World Cup? Instead of expanding it to 48 teams, I would have kept it at 32 and instituted more intercontinental playoffs to give more teams outside of Europe and South America a chance to make the 32-team field. And if the 32-team field absolutely had to be expanded, I would have gone ahead and increased it to 64, which at least is a number that makes for a competitively smart tournament. We’re probably headed for 64 eventually, anyway.But here we are. A 48-team World Cup is now official, and I worry they have ruined the showpiece event of the world’s greatest sport.
48-team World Cup puts greed, awful group stage ahead of common sense
It’s very easy to resist change, especially in football. Partly, this is because we over-sentimentalise the sport in the form it took when it won our heart; we’re blinded to its imperfections because they’re natural to us.Sometimes we should be forced to ask ourselves if it’s the specific change that we fear or the notion of change itself. And, equally, sometimes we should answer back that, if it’s FIFA doing the changing, our fears may well be justified. The decision to expand the World Cup to include 48 teams from 2026 is precisely one of those times.The impact of UEFA expanding the European Championship last year should have been taken as a warning by the game’s governing body, but it’s entirely unsurprising that it was received in exactly the opposite way. Granted, the qualifying stage brought the unexpected bonus of energising nations that had rarely made it to finals previously, such as Iceland and Wales, but the tournament itself was a damp squib.It took a draining 36 group-stage matches to reduce 24 teams to 16, with one of those advancing being eventual winners Portugal, who didn’t need to win a single game in order to progress. On the flip side, it made record profits. And in a straight choice between good sport and big profits, was there ever any doubt where FIFA’s loyalties would lie? It’s not that expansion is wrong as a concept. In 1998, the World Cup’s move from 24 teams to 32 brought a clear increase in excitement for exactly the same reasons that going from 16 teams to 24 brought a decrease at Euro 2016. It’s not how big it is, it’s what you do with it. It’s all about the format.This new, bucket-sized World Cup will feature 16 groups of three with two qualifying for the knockout stage, meaning that we’ll endure an exhausting 48 games to eliminate 16 teams. That’s a lot of low-risk games, in which two 0-0 draws can be enough to qualify for the next stage. In other words, a lot of running around to achieve very little.FIFA has raised the prospect of putting a penalty shootout on the end of every group stage drawn game, like some kind of global Checkatrade Trophy, but when you begin to consider ideas like that, you do wonder if it’s worth having a group stage at all.If results must be distinct and there is nothing to be gained in playing for a draw, why not just have a great big knockout competition to start with? Has enough time really be spent considering other options for the group stage, or are we advancing straight to FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s preferred option?It’s a shame, because the 32-team knockout stage is actually a really good idea. It means we move from 15 to 31 all-or-nothing games where there’s no safety net for elite sides like Germany and a puncher’s chance for perennial failures like, well, England. The only problem for the those watching is that, after 48 cautious qualifiers — one after the other — you might be so footballed-out by then that you’re in need of a break.Less is generally more in football; that’s why we have one-off finals rather than five-match series to determine our cup winners. Excitement is derived from risk and there are far fewer of those in a sprawling group stage where the quality has been diluted and there is larger margin for error.That’s why the current system works. As England discovered in 2014, in a group where only two of four teams qualify, you have to be on your toes from the start. Lose your first game and you go into the second knowing that another defeat will almost certainly send you home.The last World Cup also had a 48-match group stage, but it meant that 32 nations were reduced to 16. It was long, but it had a decisive effect on the field. It made sporting sense. This does not.This expansion will make more money and new, influential friends. If Infantino, whose presidential candidacy included a pledge to increase the World Cup’s size, can offer more nations more chance to qualify, he’ll lock in political support across the confederations.There are far fewer successful nations than there are successful ones. With a three-term limit now imposed on the FIFA presidency, Infantino could oversee the 2026 World Cup and use the tournament to firm up his legacy.FIFA exists for the whole world, not just the glamorous bits. And making money is not necessarily a bad thing, given the good it can do when it’s properly distributed. But this is FIFA, so scepticism is understandable.(Up until recently, remember, one of the organisation’s leading lights was so well rewarded that he rented a penthouse suite just for his cats. FIFA’s record on wealth redistribution leaves something to be desired.) And so FIFA will grow richer and Infantino’s position will be secure for years to come. Smaller nations will do well too, taking their chance to make their mark on the world stage. And the viewers, in the stadiums and on the sofas, will enjoy more knife-edge knockout games than ever before.But that group stage … don’t let anyone try to convince you that there are any positives in that group stage. That interminable dirge will be the price we pay, partly to benefit the global game, but mostly to benefit FIFA itself.Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.
BY THE NUMBERS – Indy 11 A SLEW OF SIGNINGS
Familiar names, faces lead off Indy Eleven’s first round of player signings
Jan 13, 2017
“All around me are familiar faces…”
Gary Jules may have said it with different context in “Mad World,” but the phrase is applicable to the first nine signings Indy Eleven announced during Thursday’s frenzy. All nine players who put pen to paper are familiar to the Indy Eleven fan base – or at least they should be, as they were all a part of the team that helped Indy Eleven rocket its way to a Spring Season championship and, eventually, to a place in The Championship Final.Leading off from the back, IndyEleven.com examines the statistics behind the returning players and what they bring to the fold again in 2017.
GP/GS: 30/30 Min: 2700 GA: 27 SV: 74 SO: 12
GP/GS: 3/3 Min: 270 GA: 6 SV: 7 SO: 0
Indy Eleven went 2/2 in keeping their ‘netminders from the 2016 season, so we will see both Jon Busch and Keith Cardona commanding the back line for at least one more year.For Busch, this is year #21 of his career, and while it may be his last he is determined to give it everything he’s got. Undoubtedly one of the top three ‘keepers in the NASL in his debut season in Indy, Busch helped Indiana’s Team earn more than its fair share of points with multiple standout performances, including six saves against Fort Lauderdale, five against Jacksonville and New York, and four against Minnesota, Edmonton, and Carolina on separate occasions.Busch helped organize a back line that began the year hot (allowed one goal or less in 12 of his first 13 contests) and finished even stronger (shutouts in his last five games, including The Championship). Constantly proving that age is just a number (he turned the big 4-0 last August), Busch will be the first to tell you there’s no reason he can’t beat those impressive marks in 2017.For Cardona, he will push to see more of the field this year after making just three league appearances plus one in the U.S. Open Cup. The will be 24-year-old Cardona’s third year in Indianapolis, and he will likely want to stake a claim for the future starting right now.
GP/GS: 24/24 Min: 2146 G: 1 A: 0 SH: 5 SOG: 1
GP/GS: 25/250 Min: 1795 G: 0 A: 1 SH: 4 SOG: 2
GP/GS: 32/31 Min: 2818 G: 3 A: 3 SH: 36 SOG: 13
The core of the defense in 2017 is weakened only by the retirement of stalwart Greg Janicki, but don’t undermine the importance of returning experience in leadership in the three players listed above.Another important return that can’t be touched on enough is that of the captain, Colin Falvey. Though he did not score as much as his partner in central defense (just one goal), Falvey gave life and limb to see his team succeed in the fashion that they did in 2016. For added bulletin board material, the Irishman also made it quite clear at the end of The Championship Final that he expected to be back fighting for that trophy the next year… and he’s indeed backing those words up and ready to earn that chance.Lovel Palmer’s tenacity and commitment to his game is matched by few in the league, and his extended stay in the Circle City is just as important. Rotating at right-back with Marco Franco, Palmer was a major part of Indy’s defensive excellence in the Spring Season and also earned some looks at center back near the end of the season – and looked good in doing it. He’s a player who steps up to the call, whether that’s in the starting XI or coming off the bench, and fans won’t be the only ones glad to have ‘Balla Palmer’ back in the lineup.Ending with “Ironman” Nemanja Vukovic, the left back who shattered the record for most Team of the Week honors in one season and put in the most minutes for head coach Tim Hankinson’s side at 2,818 (though Eamon Zayed will tell you he was close behind at 2,776). Vuko’s tendency to fly up the left side of the pitch often allowed him to break forward into enemy territory, hence the high goal/assist return, and also spread the pitch giving his teammates space to work with. Having the Montenegrin back in 2017 will again pay dividends for Indiana’s Team.
GP/GS: 23/18 Min: 1589 G: 2 A: 3 SH: 13 SOG: 5
GP/GS: 15/13 Min: 912 G: 1 A: 3 SH: 5 SOG: 2
The duo of Don Smart and Sinisa Ubiparipovic headline the signings in midfield for the first round. Both had their part to play in Indy Eleven’s success last year and both get their chance to shine as the season wore on, but under different circumstances.One of the original members of Indiana’s Team, Smart comes back after multiple clutch performances in 2016 that included game-winning goals and assists. The steady Jamaican contributed a trio of assists for a third straight season, his nine helpers now sitting second on the all-time Indy Eleven career chart in regular season play. Injury kept him out for the early part of the Fall season, but Smart fired back and became a mainstay in Hankinson’s side by earning all of his five combined goals and assists after July 30.Out of the team through part of the Spring, Ubiparipovic saw his form reinvigorated when coach Hankinson made the move to bring him back into the starting XI on Sept. 17 vs. Miami, and it paid off greatly. Ubiparipovic turned in performances that molded the way his side attacked, and his goal in Indy’s first-ever postseason appearance isn’t exactly hidden on his resume. Should he stay fit, the No.10 has the chance to further influence the midfield this season.
GP/GS: 32/31 Min: 2776 G: 15 A: 6 SH: 69 SOG: 37
GP/GS: 26/24 Min: 2111 G: 8 A: 5 SH: 51 SOG: 21
It’s no secret that these two formed a budding and productive partnership in the 2016 season, and it should be to the thrill of every Indy Eleven fan that they’re both back and hungry for more. Zayed smashed club records and earned his way to the top of the all-time Indy Eleven career goal scoring charts. In addition, his increasing penchant to dish the ball resulted in six assists, placing him third on the all-time Indy Eleven chart (just below Don Smart’s nine and Dylan Mares’ 13). His pair of hat-tricks last year vs. Carolina (June 11) and Jacksonville (Aug. 3) were the first two in NASL play by an Indy Eleven player, proving that he was indeed the instinctual goal scorer Hankinson brought him in to be. Falling just short of earning the NASL’s Golden Boot last year (a stated goal of his by the way), Zayed wants to make sure he’ll top the chart this time around. Justin Braun was the perfect complement to his strike partner Zayed, but the Utahan also made a solid name for himself with solid production throughout the season. His five assists put him a tier below Zayed (and Dylan Mares) on the team’s single-season assist record chart, while his eight goals catapulted him to third all-time on the team’s list. A true work horse, Braun’s running and movement off the ball were just as crucial to the strike force as his play when he was on it. The only question remains whether the pair can replicate their remarkable success again this year.
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