Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Turn and face the strange

How odd it is to be able to throw around "why, back in my day" in a non-ironic fashion.

I am admittedly not as big of a sports fan as I was in past years. Five or 10 years ago, I would have made time to watch the entirety of the United States-Iran game at the FIBA World Championship (you can relax, Glenn -- the good guys won). Instead, I watched most of the first quarter while enjoying some post-work cumin fried rice at NZBM and made a couple cursory check-ins as the US ran away with the game. Odds are the teams won't be as lauded for their sportsmanship as when the US and Iran met at the hypothetical 1998 World Cup (which never actually happened).

Still, I can't help but feel both intrigued and a bit wistful at the latest developments in the two sports I enjoy the most -- soccer and college football. Even the bluest of bluehairs know Nebraska is leaving for the Big 10 after this season, but what wasn't known until just now is how the new-look conference would be aligned. The Big 10 Network blocked off time tonight for a live broadcast that is likely for that announcement, but leave it to ESPN to leak the news.
The Big Ten will announce its much-anticipated, two six-team divisional setup for the 2011-12 season later Wednesday, with traditional football powers Ohio State and Michigan in opposing divisions and new member Nebraska aligned with the Wolverines.
Multiple sources told that the two divisions in the Big Ten will look like:
• Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota.
• And Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana and Illinois.
The Big Ten issued a press release saying it would announce its divisional alignment at 7 p.m. ET Wednesday. According to sources, the divisions were decided upon Monday.
According to multiple sources, the Big Ten wanted to preserve a number of traditional rivalries such as Michigan-Michigan State, Iowa-Minnesota, Purdue-Indiana and Indiana-Illinois.
The Big Ten is also expected to announce a consistent crossover game in football similar to Ohio State-Michigan that will be played each year. Expect to see longtime rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota playing every season.
The potential alignment isn't too surprising, though I thought the Big 10 would rather keep Northwestern and Illinois together. Then again, Champaign is pretty much halfway between Chicago and Bloomington. In addition to Michigan-Ohio State, my guesses as to the crossover games are Nebraska-Penn State, Iowa-Wisconsin, Illinois-Northwestern and two more games few people will actually care enough to notice. Nebraska fans can moan about 1982, Penn State fans will counter with 1994 -- boom! A rivalry is born.

My other beef is with CONCACAF -- the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, for our hipness-challenged readers. What bothers me isn't the weakness of the region (as deep as a kiddie pool), its referees (laughably inept) or its leadership (so corrupt Trinidad & Tobago's team from the 2006 World Cup still hasn't been paid).

No, my issue is with the restructuring of the region's World Cup qualifying tournament and abandoning of the one thing that sets CONCACAF apart from the rest of the planet -- the Hex. (That's short for hexagonal, or six-team tournament, not some voodoo curse.) Rather than have one group in the final round of qualifying, FIFA is expected to rubber-stamp a proposal that will eliminate the early home-and-away rounds and the Hex in favor of three group stages -- eight four-team groups, then four groups, then two. The winners of the final groups qualify for the World Cup, with the runners-up playing off for the other place.

So what's the problem? After all, this will allegedly help the smaller nations by giving them more games against the big boys, and a deeper CONCACAF can only be good for the US and Mexico. For starters, this idea came from CONCACAF, so it's worth taking with an Everest-sized grain of salt. These are the same masterminds who brought us the Giants Cup, a continental tournament for the clubs with the highest attendance, not to mention retain an unabashed crook in charge of the confederation.

More so, though, it's about the loss of the two US-Mexico games, the biggest dates in the CONCACAF calendar. The region's top teams only play games that matter so often -- Hex matches at Crew Stadium and Azteca, plus the occasional Gold Cup final (the 2002 World Cup meeting was sheer dumb luck). They can play all the friendlies they want -- and they will, seeing as Mexico is the US Soccer Federation's one sure-fire box-office attraction -- but it just won't be the same. I was in attendance at the new Mile High Stadium in Denver when the US and Mexico played a friendly in April 2002, a game the US won 1-0 when the Mexican goalkeeper collided with a teammate and Clint Mathis cleaned up the rebound. Even with the majority of the stadium decked out in green (El Tri verde, alas, not Rapids green), there was nothing on the line and not much in the way of intensity. If CONCACAF gets its way and the US and Mexico are kept apart as the two top seeds in qualifying, that's the best we'll be able to do.

Team USA vs. Mexico is supposed to be a nasty, intense and fun clash of cultures -- playing and otherwise. La Guerra Fria, when the US opened 2002 World Cup qualifying by beating Mexico 2-0 in frigid Columbus, Ohio, is cemented in US soccer lore. Not nearly as legendary but no less important was the Golden Point, when a 10-man US earned a 0-0 draw in front of 115,000 hostile fans at Azteca in November 1997. That point is the only one the US has taken off of Mexico on its soil since they started playing in 1934. Winning at Azteca is the last great hurdle for the US in CONCACAF, but with both sides and the confederation well aware they all make more money when games take place in the US, even the opportunity to keep chasing that elusive first win may be hard to find.

It's bound to happen since the CONCACAF leadership has its Caribbean voting bloc in lock step and North America is just along for the ride. FIFA is not about to sign off on the US and Mexico (and maybe Canada?) leaving for South America and any of the aforementioned staging a coup de federation isn't happening in our lifetimes, so soccer fans have to hold their nose and jump in with two feet. Of course, if the US opens up with a group of Belize, Bermuda and the Bahamas, fans may be too busy calling their travel agents to protest too much.

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