End-of-year reflections, because you can never have enough
Posted on December 29, 2012 4:16 am
Normally, my contribution to the bounty of 2012 in Review articles would have been published earlier, but the Apertura finals in Central America extended to the very last weekend of the year. While all the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League berths on offer before New Year’s Day have been claimed, the last clubs standing in the Belizean Premier League Opening Season are still in a locked-horns struggle to plant a foot in the next continental championship.
After the first leg of the Final ended 1-1, the Belmopan Bandits and Police United will contest the maiden Premier League title through a practical one-off today at 4:30 p.m. EST. Of course, the game’s greater implications will only come into play if the Football Federation of Belize successfully renovate their namesake FFB Stadium ahead of the CONCACAF inspection team visit in May, and the afternoon scheduling for the Final suggests something less than full confidence in the quality of lighting for a nighttime affair. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any broadcast information; and with the main newspapers on hiatus for the holidays, we may not learn how the match finished until January.
In the meanwhile, let me share a couple of thoughts on key trends in our region over the last 12 months.
First, a disclaimer: Mexico’s Olympic triumph would have easily been the main story, except that I focus on senior national team and club championships. And Monterrey did become the first CCL winner to reach third place in the Club World Cup, but the flags of Necaxa and Saprissa already adorned that particular peak.
Rather, let us consider a novelty: in most of the leagues in North and Central America, the Final either consists of a one-game decider at a neutral venue (El Salvador, Panama) or a home-and-away series (everyone else in Central America, along with Canada and Mexico). Major League Soccer, however, decided to gamble on the consolidation of fanbases across both countries and try something remarkably different. After seeing the incredible atmospheres on display in the Rio Tinto Stadium (for the second leg of the 2010-11 CCL Final) and CenturyLink Field (for two US Open Cup Finals), Don Garber and co. eschewed the former practice of pre-selecting a venue for “MLS Cup”, instead deciding that the highest seed involved would host a one-game Final in front of their own fans.
Ironically, the end result was almost the same as last year, with the LA Galaxy receiving the Houston Dynamo at the Home Depot Center…only this time, the Riot Squad, the Galaxians and the rest of the LA faithful bought up a clear majority of the tickets, resulting in a home field advantage that weighed on the Texans in the second half. And whereas the post-goal exclamations last year came in part from a big-event crowd enjoying the combination play by LA’s star trio, the full-blooded screams this December clearly originated from the lungs of supporters (organized and otherwise) strongly identified with the boys in white keeping the Anschutz trophy under lock and key.
The most common complaint from the UNCAF sub-region (and Canada) about the current CCL format accused CONCACAF of trying to get as many US and Mexican clubs to the knockout round as possible, through keeping them separate in the group stage. Apparently, Herediano and Xelaju did not get the memo: both won their groups by dispatching Real Salt Lake and Chivas (respectively) at home, keeping pace with them in matches against the lowest seed and getting the necessary result on the road to vanquish their supposedly favored foes. Should they both find a way to reach the semifinals, their direct clash would guarantee that the Champions League would finish outside of North America for the first time; while that appears ambitious, their success to date has held off suggestions of Central American decline in this tournament.
At the conclusion of the Caribbean Cup finals in Antigua and Barbuda, CFU President Gordon Derrick did not reserve the highest praise for champions Cuba, nor runners-up Trinidad and Tobago, nor the other Gold Cup qualifiers. Rather, he had this to say on a team that did not even survive their group:
When you see the likes of the Dominican Republic displaying a lot of beautiful one-two football; they were not successful because they came up against more experienced teams, but the quality of play has risen significantly.
I will have to disagree with him on the second point. Without heaping excessive blame on one player, goalkeeper Miguel Lloyd’s spectacular failures to anticipate and control the ball or redirect it away from danger directly contributed to the last three goals received by the Quisqueyanos: the game-winner for Haiti and both goals for Trinidad and Tobago in their last encounter. Unless Arabe Unido’ starting keeper improves his technique in short order, the current Panamanian league champions will suffer all sorts of comedy-hour routines in the CCL.
Unfortunately for the Dominicans, even returning to the Caribbean Cup finals in 2014 cannot be taken for granted, given the rising level of competitiveness among Caribbean national teams. If 2011 fell in favor of the emerging sides like A&B and Guyana, the big guns struck back decisively: Jamaica managed to reach the Hexagonal for the first time since 2001, while Haiti, T&T and Cuba all grabbed 2013 Gold Cup berths and closed the door on any potential debutants.
The Leones del Caribe in particular have ratified their status among the Caribbean’s finest. As I wrote back in October, their continued success serves as a testament to their domestic player and coach development (Haiti and the Dominican Republic also relied on a Cuban coaching staff), as well as the disappointly underwhelming state of Caribbean football. It is true that the scheduling of the Finals in December deprives other countries of their Europe-based personnel, but what realistic alternatives does the CFU have? The FIFA Calendar only includes tournaments under its own auspices or those of a confederation, and I highly doubt anyone is keen on making an exception for subcontinental tournaments like the CECAFA Cup, Baltic Cup or WAFF championships. And as for moving the Finals to June or July, how exactly do you think that would turn out in 2014 (especially if the Reggae Boyz make it back to the big stage)? Frankly, the onus is on the Caribbean FAs to improve their own development programs, whether independently or through cooperation with the US lower divisions, so that local players learn to play something resembling 21st-century football.
To finish up, just in case the power-brokers in Miami have not written up their own New Year’s resolutions, let me take the liberty of providing a few.
1. Commit to the practice of live draws.
CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb shared after the Hexagonal Schedule Draw in November that he had learned from the English FA’s practice of conducting live draws for their own tournaments, and General Secretary Enrique Sanz reiterated this goal at the Soccerex Global Convention in Brazil:
We’re engaged in ongoing efforts to increase transparency and accountability including instituting public draws for matches for the first time…
The Hexagonal draw was a good start, but there is no reason that the next big competitions on CONCACAF’s radar (the 2013-14 CCL and the 2013 Gold Cup) should be handled with any less professionalism.
For the Champions League, the first step would be to mandate that the CFU get their Club Champions Cup completed by the end of May, so that all of the qualifiers can be determined ahead of the draw. Proceedings could be broadcast either on Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Sports Latin America or via CONCACAF TV (if the first option is unfeasible). The draw would involve four Pots: A1 (US and Mexican top seeds), A2 (Central American top seeds), B and C, in reverse order.
Pot C: As the first one to be emptied, the teams would be randomly drawn into Groups 1 through 8 with no caveats.
Pot B: The only potential country conflict would be between the Salvadoran clubs. Thus, the first non-Salvadoran team drawn from Pot B would be placed in the same group as SLV2; or if the first team drawn is SLV1, then they would get placed in the first group not including SLV2 (most likely Group 1). The rest of the teams would be randomly drawn without caveats.
Pot A2: Only the groups with a US or Mexican team would be involved; and the potential conflicts would involve the Guatemalan and Panamanian representatives. If GUA2 and PAN2 did not end up in one of the groups, then the teams can be drawn randomly. Otherwise, the same principle would be used as for Pot B, with the first non-conflicting team(s) placed alongside GUA2 and/or PAN2, or GUA1 or PAN1 placed in the first eligible group if either one is drawn before their Costa Rican and Honduran counterparts.
Pot A1: Only the groups without a US or Mexican team from Pot B would be considered, so the teams would be randomly drawn.
As for the Gold Cup, CONCACAF first has to define its criteria for setting up the groups other than “sports, geographic and economic factors.” I’m personally partial to having at least one team from each sub-region in each group, in the following manner:
Pot A: North Americans 1
Pot B: Three best Central American qualifiers
Pot C: Three best Caribbean qualifiers
Pot D: Remaining sides
In this case, CONCACAF would need some team with strong fan support to accompany Canada’s group. Even this could be done transparently, with a separate “marquee” draw between the likes of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti, so long as the chosen team enters the group according to its pot. For instance, if El Salvador were to be selected, then that group would be completed with random entries from Pots B and C. Finally, CONCACAF could give itself one or two days after the draw to set up a schedule placing the group games where they would be best attended. 2 However they do it, CONCACAF must not abandon this most overt departure from the Ancien Régime.
2. Make the 2016 Copa América a reality.
I’ve written ad nauseum on how and why they should pursue negotiations with CONMEBOL until a joint tournament is formalized, regardless of FIFA reservations, so let me simply add an extra benefit that this sort of cooperation would provide for the Gold Cup. If my suggested new World Cup cycle were to become the norm, the singular Gold Cup would carry greater significance and prestige with the discontinuation of the off-beat editions. More than that, after taking care of other line items (e.g. administrative expenses, unconditional transfers to member associations), CONCACAF would be able to take some of its revenue from the Copa América and significantly increase the prize money on offer to Gold Cup participants (and perhaps even in the UNCAF and CFU championships). The teams would take the competition more seriously as a result, and CONCACAF would eventually be able to negotiate heftier TV contracts for its improved golden goose, which would allow it to increase the prize money even further and keep the positive feedback loop running.
3. Start handing out annual Player of the Year awards.
No, I have no idea if Dan Loney thought ahead to secure intellectual property rights for his independently-administered ones. If he did, then wresting them from his hands should be a priority, whether for a price or a concession. Perhaps including BigSoccer’s featured writers among the voters?
1 – Pre-placed in groups, with US and Mexico unable to meet before the Final unless one finishes 3rd.
2 – For instance, a randomly-drawn group of Canada, Panama, Haiti (marquee selection) and Martinique would be set up as an East Coast tour, including stops in Miami and Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.