Bradley’s firing gives hope to U.S. national team

The first post in a multi-part series on how American soccer can improve.
The firing of head coach Bob Bradley from Team USA can only mean there are good things to come American soccer.

A few inches one way or the other may have saved Bob Bradley's job as coach of the U.S. Men's National Team, but such is life in soccer. Onto the next.

The development of our national team and our professional league will happen eventually. Simply based on resources that build winning soccer, namely population and money, America can’t stay down for long. It’s not a question of if, but when.

What’s best for a country’s domestic league may not always be best for its national team, and vice versa. The success of one is not always interrelated with the other. Countries with very poor leagues have had success internationally, such as South Korea (2002 World Cup semifinalist), Russia and Turkey (both semifinalists in Euro 2008). Even Brazil‘s national league isn’t great. Conversely, the country with the best league, England, has had very little success in worldwide competition (last major win: 1966 World Cup).

The best way for Major League Soccer to get better is to have its players get experience with national teams, thereby improving the quality and reputation of the league, yet the best way for the national team to get better is to have its players play where the competition is greatest — anywhere but the MLS.

It’s good for American soccer to have American players playing in the American professional league. But that means country-wide feelings on the sport — TV ratings, youth involvement, general acceptance of game — not the U.S. national team.

We want our players playing in their leagues. It’s as simple as that. The competition is so much better. Is it good for soccer in this country — is it good for kids growing up on the game — to have Landon Donovan to be playing at home for the Los Angeles Galaxy? Of course. But would it be better for the national team if he played solely in one of the big three leagues (the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A), or even in Germany or France? You bet.

One of the most important features of a national team is the coach, the glue who brings it all together. If we want the best coach, where does it appear he needs to come from?

I liked Bob Bradley as coach of U.S. soccer, but the team would have more success with a foreigner. Bradley is from New Jersey and Bruce Arena before him was from New York. We need to broaden the scope. Western Europeans dominate soccer in all aspects, from players to coaching to tactics. Nowhere else in the world is not only quality soccer, but also ideas and ultimately, knowledge, so readily available across borders than in Western Europe. Not even Brazil can compare in that metric.

The best build off each other and become that much better that much quicker. Even small countries can learn quickly due to the excess of available information; take for example Greece, which won Euro 2004. In America, we only have ourselves to go up against, and we aren’t really that good.

Even the English, who continue to hold the belief they rule international soccer despite going winless in major tournaments in the last half-century, have swallowed their pride and hired an Italian manager for the national team in Fabio Capello. The big four clubs combine for a grand total of zero coaches who were born in England. Two at least are from the U.K., Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson and Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish (both from Glasgow, Scotland). The others come from abroad: Chelsea’s new head man André Villas-Boas is from Portugal and Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger is French. Even in a local example, the U.S. women’s team, best in the world, is coached by Pia Sundhage, a Swed.

I don’t know if I like the idea from a theoretical standpoint because I think a national team should have to have all of its coaches, trainers, et cetera from that country, but if it helps the USA and it’s within the rules, there’s no reason not to do it. The only coach in the last three World Cup finals not from Europe was Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led his native Brazil to a second-place finish in 2002. A non-European coach hasn’t won the World Cup since 1994.

The Europeans have the experience, the contacts and know-how. They’ve dealt with more talented players than any coach in the American system and might finally be able to whip the Yanks into a winning formation, not Bradley’s midfield mush.

Some players need to be developed as much as they need to be taught. “Mold 21-year-old Jozy Altidore into a star” should be the first bullet on the job description after “play winning soccer.” Here’s hoping the U.S. can get out of its own way and find the right western European coach, a Spaniard, perhaps, for the job. I’d welcome him with open arms.

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CCHA commissioner meets with prospective schools

Central Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner Fred Pletsch and other league executives had an informative discussion today in Erie, Pa. with representatives from the four Atlantic Hockey schools the league is courting.

Athletic departments from the four schools — Canisius, Niagara, Robert Morris and Mercyhurst — released a joint statement regarding Tuesday’s discussion.

“We had a very frank and open discussion with Commissioner Pletsch and members of his executive committee about joining the CCHA. The CCHA offers several exciting opportunities for our institutions, however each of us feels the need to bring the information we discussed back to campus and discuss it with our school president and our hockey staff.

“In addition, we will need to have discussions with Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio and his executive committee. Once we have completed our due diligence, we have agreed to meet at a future date to continue to explore our opportunities. At this point in time, no decisions have been made about leaving Atlantic Hockey or joining the CCHA.”

The following members were in attendance from the four schools:

— Canisius: Athletic Director Bill Maher and Associate Athletic Director John Maddock.
— Niagara: Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin.
— Robert Morris: Athletic Director Craig Coleman.
— Mercyhurst: Athletic Director Joe Kimball and Senior Associate Athletic Director Aaron Kemp.

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UPDATE: Representing the CCHA at the meeting along with Pletsch were Ferris State Athletic Director Perk Weisenburger and Bowling Green Associate Athletic Director Jim Elsasser, according to UpperMichigansSource.com.

“We are committed to having further dialogue in the future to potentially accommodate those schools, while representing the interests of our member schools that are committed to staying in the CCHA for the 2013-14 season and beyond,” Pletsch said, according to the report.
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McLaughlin is the only one of the six who appears to have an active Twitter account (@NiagaraPurpsAD), though not surprisingly, he has not tweeted anything about the hockey team.

All four schools are set to compete in Atlantic Hockey next season. Any potential conference switch is likely to going into effect starting in the 2013-2014 season, when several current CCHA schools will leave to enter new conferences.

 

Canisius, Niagara to meet with CCHA tomorrow

Representatives from the Canisius College hockey team, as well as those from Niagara, Mercyhurst and Robert Morris, will meet tomorrow with Central Collegiate Hockey Association executives in Erie, Pa. to further discuss the possibility of joining the league.

Attending the meeting for Canisius will be Athletic Director Bill Maher and Associate Athletic Director John Maddock, the athletic department said today. No formal agreements are likely to be made, rather the schools are going to “explore opportunities” presented to them by the CCHA.

All four schools currently play in the 12-team Atlantic Hockey Association, with Niagara and RMU joining last season after their previous league, College Hockey America, folded.

The CCHA is likely looking to add member schools starting in the 2013-2014 season, when three of its current members (Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State) will leave to join the new Big Ten hockey conference and Miami (Ohio) University leaves for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

The biggest selling point to joining the CCHA, aside from the prestige, is the increase in scholarships schools are allowed to award. Schools in Atlantic Hockey are limited to 12, while the CCHA allows 18 scholarship players.

Administrators from the four schools have been in contact with each other about the possibility of moving conferences. Canisius said it is still a ways off from announcing anything formal, but the prospect of playing in the CCHA is “very interesting to the college.”

As for the rumors regarding Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula funding a hockey arena on the Canisius campus, the athletic department said the Sabres have “had conversations” with the school, though discussions are still in the beginning phase.

There is still no plan at this point where the rink would be placed. Several sites on the Canisius campus, such as the Demske Sports Complex and the Health Science building and its surrounding lots, are off-limits for a hockey rink because water extending from Forest Lawn Cemetery flows beneath them.

The athletic department did not say whether it was Pegula personally who has been in contact with the school or just front office members, but offered this prepared statement from Maher:

“We have had discussions with the Buffalo Sabres front office concerning a practice site for the Sabres on the Canisius campus, and we are very excited about the possibility of developing a partnership. The partnership being discussed would not only benefit the Sabres and our NCAA Division I hockey program, it would also have a significant impact on amateur hockey in Western New York. Canisius College is carefully studying this opportunity with the goal of putting together a plan that benefits both organizations.”

The last CCHA school to win a national title was Michigan State in 2007. The conference’s 11 current members (in order of last season’s standings) are: Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami, Western Michigan, Ferris State, Northern Michigan, Alaska, Lake Superior, Ohio State, Michigan State and Bowling Green.

The Great Debate

Every high school in America encounters the same argument: “You play on that team? That’s not even a real sport!”

Most of the you-play-a-fake-sport insults are directed at cheerleaders, who more than likely have it coming. The catch, however, is that the people who poke fun at cheerleaders should be “real” athletes themselves, who are in a position to judge. You can’t come at somebody for playing a “fake” sport if you play one that is just as bad.

But what counts as a “real” sport?

I was reading the ESPN book “Those Guys Have All The Fun” this week when I decided it was time to settle the argument. I got to page 442, where Charlie Steiner says he doesn’t think golf is a sport. It got me thinking.

I dated a gymnast in high school, and her mother’s boyfriend and I gave her a hard time about the whole gymnastics-isn’t-a-sport thing over dinner one night. Just as the joke was dying out, he said something along the lines of, if you want to see a real athlete play a real sport, come to the driving range tomorrow and watch me hit a golf ball.

I almost lost it.

You can’t make fun of someone for being a fake athlete when you’re a golfer. Give me a break.

I wasn’t going to call him out at the dinner table, but started making a list in my head of where sport should rank. I finally put it down on paper, and after polling some people around me and a heated debate with my brother, the list looks ready to go.

***

I had to start with some criteria. A standardized rating was a must. Saying “this isn’t a real sport to me” is not a good way to go; my personal opinions toward a sport don’t make it any less challenging. Putting sports I don’t care for high on the list — admitting their validity — was not always the most fun but was something I had to deal with to preserve fairness.

There are four elements I decided on that make up a sport:

  • Substantial athleticism involved.
  • Having winners and losers.
  • Keeping score (not by judge).
  • Significant skill required.

Athleticism was a wide topic. A sport has to be somewhat physically demanding. Another way I thought of it was “could some fat guy off the street come do this?” Winners and losers is self-explanatory. Someone wins, right?

You know what you call it when you mix vodka with an Arnold Palmer? A John Daly. You have to be kidding me with golf.

Keeping score was important. I’ve never fully valued events that are scored solely by judges. That makes it a matter of opinion. A goal in hockey is always worth one point, whether it trickles into an empty net or you rip a slap shot bar-down. But five different judges may assign the same performance five different values. That’s a problem. Everyone should know who wins by the play on the field, not by having to wait for what a judge thinks. For racing events, times count as scores.

Significant skill was a little bit of a judgement call I awarded based on the difficulty of the game itself. I understand that anyone who plays a sport will say how difficult it is, but it’s a concept thing. If anyone can do it, that doesn’t count. I’m sure there are skills to be learned in dodgeball (dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge?), but really anyone can pick up a ball and play… it’s not that hard.

I threw out two other categories I was considering. One was Steiner’s reason for discrediting golf: there’s no defense. It’s an interesting point that I gave a lot of thought to, but when you think in terms of, say, a track race, one of the purest forms of sport, there is just no way to play defense (legally, at least). That was out.

The other I wanted to consider was what I called “relevance to society,” meaning how important the sport is in our culture. Rugby, for example, meets all of the qualifications, but doesn’t really matter in American society, sorry. Should it still be grouped with the best of the best? I decided it should. I threw out this element because I kept using it to try to demote sports I didn’t like by saying they aren’t important, when really that has no effect on how legitimate of an athletic event it is.

***

I grouped sports into three categories: Group 1A, which are absolutely sports, meeting all the criteria; Group 1B, which are sports, but not really, because they fail to meet one of the four elements; and Group X, which fail to meet two or more criteria and are not sports at all.

If you think I missed any sports (or wanna-be sports), let me know. After each list is a discussion of the points mentioned. Read ’em and weep.

1A: The real sports

  • Football
  • Soccer
  • Hockey
  • Baseball/softball
  • Basketball
  • Track & field
  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Volleyball
  • Lacrosse
  • Skiing
  • Water polo
  • Cricket
  • Rugby/Australian rules football
  • Field hockey
  • Boxing, wrestling, martial arts*

These are all pretty obvious. They are all bona fide competitive sports that require skill and athleticism. There are winners and losers, which we can tell by the score. I’m sure there are arguments to be made everywhere, but this category should have the fewest.

The last group gets an asterisk because of the involvement of judges. In a boxing match, for example, the judges all score the bout, and they can decide a winner, but that only happens when the fight goes the distance and a winner was not decided by knockout. Another thing my brother (who I’d totally link to on Twitter if he had one) and I talked about is the purpose of the judge. Much like an umpire who is only there to be the definitive voice of reality, judges (and referees in wrestling) award points based on what actually took place, not their opinion on it. Theoretically, you could train a robot to do the exact same thing. You can’t teach a robot artistic impression.

1B: Quasi sports

  • Golf
  • Cross country
  • Bowling
  • Curling
  • Synchronized swimming
  • NASCAR/auto racing
  • Kickball
  • Dodgeball
  • Ping-pong
  • Billiards
  • Cycling
  • Gymnastics
  • Yachting
  • Team handball
  • Polo
  • Rifle/archery
  • Crew
  • Squash/racquetball
  • Diving
  • Figure skating
  • Fencing
  • Extreme sports

The 1B group is littered with 1A snubs, which for sure makes it the most controversial. Plenty of discussion to have.

The two biggest debates my brother and I had were over team handball and squash. I argued that there isn’t enough skill in handball for it to be 1A. It’s basically just organized running and throwing, skills that are too basic to qualify it for the top tier. We watched some videos online just to make sure, but being cool doesn’t qualify you to move up… otherwise curling would make the jump too. I heard out his argument, but decided to keep it 1B.

Squash, he said, is basically indoor tennis and the two should be grouped together; either in A or B, but together. I said that tennis is much more skilled than squash, which basically just requires hitting the ball back off the wall. There’s more to it than just that, as a trip to YouTube confirmed, but I still didn’t think it had enough to move up and tennis was too good to move down.

Golf is a 1B sport simply because there isn’t enough athleticism involved. People of all shapes and sizes can (and do) play. You hit the ball, get in the cart, drive to the ball, and hit it again. Not cutting it.

Cross country is relegated to 1B due to the lack of skill needed to perform it. Sprinting is very technical and there are skills to be learned in every field event. Distance running, on the other hand, is just one repetitive motion. No handoffs, no starting blocks, no skills to perfect. You just run. Everyone can run; they just do it longer and quicker than you can. Not to take anything away from the sport, it is very challenging, but there’s no skill you work on to get better, it’s just repetition.

No figure skating, no Kenny Wu.

There is similar reasoning for crew (rowing). Both are very athletic and hard to do, but not very skillful. Getting in rhythm takes practice and there is some skill in maneuvering the oar, but not enough to be a 1A sport. It’s all repetition. Cycling too. Everyone can ride a bike, they just do it faster.

NASCAR may get TV ratings like a 1A sport, but can’t match up in this comparison. You’re driving a car. There’s nothing athletic to it. Yes, I know it is difficult and you sweat a lot and there is significant downforce thrusting you back into your seat. Great. You’re pressing a foot pedal and turning your hands a few inches. Operating a vehicle at 200 mph takes some skill, but NASCAR isn’t cutting it. Polo is similar; it might be hard, but you’re on a horse. That’s athletic for the horses you bring, but not enough for you to qualify.

I’m going to take some heat for synchronized swimming, figure skating and gymnastics, especially since Canisius College has one of only four Division 1 synchro teams in the country, but these just aren’t sports. In every 1A sport, the goal is to be the best — the fastest, the longest, or the highest-scoring. Never is the goal to be artistic, which all three of these have events that are scored by that measure. It’s a judges opinion what you did or didn’t do and how it made them feel. They give point values to different moves, but how do they decide what a Lutz is worth compared to a Salchow or an Axel? They’re subjective, which means they aren’t real sports. Besides, anyone who knows anything about synchro knows how biased the scoring system is. The NFL may not like small markets, but the Bills’ touchdowns are always worth the same as the Cowboys’.

Skateboarding? Surfing? Athletic and skilled, but scored by judges. Still love you, Tony Hawk.

X: Not sports, not even a little bit

  • Darts
  • Fishing
  • Hunting
  • Cheerleading
  • Card games
  • Spelling bee
  • Equestrian/horse racing
  • Dog show
  • Falconry
  • Video games (yes, even Wii)
  • Weight lifting/bodybuilding
  • Yoga
  • Mountain climbing
  • Tetherball
  • Lawn games (Kan Jam, boccie, horseshoes, croquet, etc.)
  • Competitive eating
  • Chess, checkers and other board games
  • Beer pong
  • Dancing
  • Cup stacking
  • Laser tag, paintball

I’m sorry cheerleaders, but you don’t play a sport. Actually, I’m not sorry. Stop kidding yourselves.

When you show up to participate at someone else’s sporting event, that really does a number on your credibility. When you’re leaving a football game, no one says, “Wait, which cheerleading team won??” No one cares. Cheerleading exists solely to serve other sports and wouldn’t exist had they not been invented. The only score they keep is in the amount of pushups they have to do after a touchdown. I’ll give the ladies a pass on athleticism and talent, but there’s serious debate that can be held there too. Zamboni driving goes on during another sporting event and is arguably as entertaining as cheerleading, yet no one has ever considered it to be a sport.

Now just a second, you say, there are cheerleading competitions that they compete in and keep score and everything! (Note the unnecessary exclamation point a cheerleader would use for something mundane.) I’ll be honest with you, aside from dating a few cheerleaders and seeing the movie “Fired Up” with a some guys on my hockey team as a joke in high school, I really don’t know much about cheer competitions. But I can tell you this: when you have to specify “in competition,” you ruin any shot you have.

I don't see a scoreboard there, ladies. But then again, who's looking for one?

Is fishing a sport? No. The essence of fishing is trying to catch food. You can fish in a competition (e.g. Bass Pro), but that is taking an aspect of life and trying to make it competitive. That doesn’t count, that’s not what sports are about.

Even if cheer competitions were what cheerleading was for and basketball games were just something on the side, they’d still be going for style points and be scored by judges. It isn’t a sport either way. Sorry ladies… at least you look good doing it. Usually.

The same thing goes for weight lifting. Everyone does it, but it isn’t a competition until you make it one. Bodybuilding is an aesthetics thing. Read that as: not a sport.

The only other thing left to explain is horse racing. Let’s get something clear. Riding on top of something else does not make you an athlete. It’s like NASCAR, only with less required athleticism. It’s still hard to do, but nothing with a maximum weight of — what, 130 pounds? — is adequately athletic. No amount of effort or skill can make your horse win the race, not alone at least. Some jockeys are better than others, but most of their success comes from the horse.

Horse racing is about the animals. Horses get famous, jockeys get mentioned. That’s why Secretariat is immortal and Ron Turcotte is a trivia question. The horse puts in the work, not the one riding it.

***

That’s all she wrote, folks. I wonder who she was. I listed as many sports as I could, but I know there are more out there. Doing this for Olympic events would be tough. Speed skating is basically sprinting on ice and it would meet all the qualifications, but can that be a 1A sport? What about biathlon, which mixes a 1A and a 1B? There are endless questions that can be asked, but for now, I’m done arguing. If you think of a mainstream sport I missed, let me know. I’ll add it on.

Disagree with me? Great. It wouldn’t be a debate without it.

Mr. 3,000

Derek Jeter stands just two hits away from reaching a batting landmark that others can only dream of. But for him, does it really matter? Michael Heiman/Getty Images

Three hundred wins. Five hundred home runs. Three thousand hits. All of these statistical milestones are said to be the benchmarks for no-doubt status as a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer.

Every eligible member of the 300-win club is in the Hall of Fame. The only three eligible members of the 500-home run club not enshrined — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro — have steroid allegations, and the only players with 3,000 hits not in Cooperstown are Craig Biggio (hasn’t been retired long enough), Palmeiro (steroids) and some guy named Pete Rose (who I’d put in the HOF, but that’s another story for another time).

As Derek Jeter approaches the 3,000-hit plateau, his Hall of Fame status is imminent. A contract extension this summer would make him the face of the world’s most successful franchise for a nearly 20-year period. Love him or hate him, Jeter will go down as one of the most successful athletes in history, in terms on-field production, championships, and I guess what Rod Tidwell called “the quan”: “Love, respect, community… and the dollars too. The entire package.” Derek Jeter is Mr. New York Yankee, and soon enough he may be Mr. First Ballot Hall of Famer.

Jeter is in a tier with immortals of our sporting culture: the Larry Birds, the Mario Lemieuxs, the John Elways. When I think of these players, the next word to come to mind is “greatness.” It’s a greatness that goes beyond statistics, though they have the numbers to back it up, anyway.

AP Photo/Frank Franklin

Maybe it’s the quan, or perhaps even the eye-test, but these players also have the respect that goes with being great. Just as Bird certainly isn’t Michael Jordan, Jeter is not Babe Ruth, yet their names are idealized as if they were the greatest to ever play the game. Is Barry Bonds the best hitter ever to walk the Earth? You could argue that. But is he the greatest to ever play? Few people would support you there, largely because he also happens to be one of the biggest jerks ever to put on a uniform. Greatness cannot be achieved without respect, and it’s a trait Jeter has by the boatload. It also happens to be just as important as stats when looking back on a player.

An awful big deal is being made about Jeter’s quest for hit No. 3,000. It’s a marketing opportunity for the Yankees, but as a student of baseball (and even as a guy with Jeter’s face on my bedroom wall), I’m really not sure it matters. Currently sitting on 2,998, he’ll have one more hit than before when he gets 2,999, and one more than that when he reaches 3,000.

This is Derek Jeter we’re talking about. He’s not a borderline guy like Mike Mussina, whose HOF stock would’ve drastically improved had he reached a major milestone like 300 wins. Even if he gets in an accident on the way to Yankee Stadium this weekend and can never play again, Derek Jeter is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who goes down as one of the best to ever play the game.

Even those who knock Jeter’s defense can’t argue against how great his offense was and is, especially in a position that was not known for hitting. Jeter’s offensive wins above replacement is the third-best ever among shortstops, only behind Alex Rodriguez, who switched to third base so Jeter could play shortstop, and Honus Wagner, whose rookie season was 1897. In terms of regular WAR, even with his weaker defensive abilities in a normally defensive position, he is still 55th all-time, and every player ahead of him a Hall of Famer, save Pete Rose (banned), Bill Dahlen (rookie season 1891), Barry Bonds (steroids), and the players who haven’t been retired long enough yet to qualify.

In the movie Mr. 3000, Stan Ross comes out of retirement to collect the last three hits in his 3,000 that were taken from him when a counting mistake was uncovered after he went of the Hall of Fame ballot.

The sportswriters didn’t vote him into the HOF probably because he was a jerk, and without 3,000 hits they could point to that as a reason for rejection. He needed the last three base knocks to potentially elevate his Cooperstown status, as well as secure the chain of “Mr. 3000” stores he owned in Milwaukee.

Derek Jeter doesn’t need any of that. All he has left to do is pick out a head shot for his plaque in Cooperstown, and,this may just be a hunch, but I don’t think he’ll have to worry about money after retirement. Unlike Stan Ross, Jeter is married, and has his life together. The spotlight has never been too big for him and he has always handled the media very well.

Another milestone for Jeter is like buying a Christmas present for someone like him: what do you get a man who has everything? Three thousand hits is nice, but not only does it not matter to Jeter, it doesn’t mean that much to anyone else in his position who achieves the feat. Anyone who gets that far already has a slew of achievements, and the 3,000-hit club is the least exclusive of three major milestones.

There was hardly as much fuss about 3,000 hits when Craig Biggio became the club’s 27th member; most of the hype is because the player is the captain of the Yankees, not because it matters that much.

Twenty-five players have hit 500 home runs and 24 players have won 300 games. When Jeter becomes the 28th player with 3,000 hits, you might say 28 isn’t that far from 25 and 24, but it is when you take into account the differences in today’s game. Baseball may never have another 300-game winner. CC Sabathia currently has the best shot, but he is just over halfway there. It looks as if a few players could surpass 500 home runs, but with steroids finally on the way out, long ball totals will taper off, as we are already seeing this season.

However, 3,000 hits is a milestone that will be passed again. A-Rod, for example, will be in the chase towards the end of next season. Will anyone care?

If a lesser player (say, Johnny Damon) ever achieves the milestone, he may need to have “3,000 hit club” flashed next to his name on ESPN to give him credibility when they’re discussing his name for HOF potential. For players like Jeter and A-Rod? ESPN will have a hard time fitting that one in.