Friday, February 24, 2006

Explanation Continuation

Again, I want to get casual fans and would-be fans caught up to the United States Men's National Team, as they ready themselves for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, to take place this summer in Germany...

On January 4th, 2006, Coach Bruce Arena summoned 3o players to a training camp to prepare for the World Cup Finals. All but one of them were from our own domestic league, known as MLS (Major League Soccer). The one who wasn't from MLS plays in the Danish Super League. His team was on an extended winter break, and that allowed him to participate in Arena's camp.

Many of our best players play in Europe, and most European teams cannot (or will not) release their players to play for their national teams. Under FIFA rules, the club teams (which represent a city in a national league, like, for example, the New York Mets) are not obligated to release their players for National Team activities. It would kinda be like if U.S. Olympic team coach wanted to pull all the NHL players from their teams to have an American Olympic Team practice session. Well, most (if not all) NHL GMs would say, "stuff it," (or worse) to the National Team coach.

In the soccer world, FIFA has stepped in, and mandated dates and windows where club teams *must* release their players to their National Team coaches. I believe the next such date is the 1st of March. But until then, players need to play for their clubs. Club play is very important in Europe. Let me try to give an example why:

Everyone in America can understand why teams at the top strive to perform their best. If your team makes the playoffs (in any given sport), you have the possibility of winning out, and being crowned the champion for that season. According to Win-Loss records, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the worst team to make the NFL playoffs last season. Out of the six teams that made the playoffs for the American Football Conference, they were the worst. The sixth-seeded Steelers, however, went on a 4-game playoff winning streak, culminating in a Superbowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks, to be crowned "world" champions of the National Football League.

But, what about teams at the bottom of the standings? The European soccer leagues have an excellent way of handling that. Let me compare one of the best soccer leagues in the world, located in Italy, to Major League Baseball in the U.S. Serie A (pronounced Seree Ahh) is one of the top domestic soccer leagues in the world. Only England, Germany, and Spain, have a top to bottom league that can compare to Italy's. If your team is at the bottom of the standings in Serie A, what keeps the team from packing it in at the end of the season?

I'll tell you, in terms of Major League Baseball. The worst four teams in MLB this year were the Kansas City Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Colorado Rockies, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Each of these teams lost at least 95 games out of 162, with the Royals losing a whopping 106 games! In America, they get to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again next year (after having the top choice in the draft). Not in Europe, though.

In Italy's Serie A (as well as in every other country's national soccer league), these teams would get "relegated," which means they would be removed from the top league, and placed down in one of the lower leagues. In Italy, it's called "Serie B," and the American baseball equivalent would be AAA. That's right -- if you stink up the season like the Royals, the Pirates, the Rockies, and the D-Rays did, you would find yourself as a triple-A team the following season.

The best triple-A baseball teams would get promoted into the Major Leagues the following season. It really is a great system. If, as a Major League team, you don't fight until the end of the season, you risk losing your MLB status. That means no 1st draft pick, less revenue at your stadiums, and a severe lack of sponsorship from corporate sponsors. What corporate sponsor would pay top dollar for a triple-A team? No company would. Your team would get a reduced sponsorship rate (if any at all) so that the big bucks could go towards a team where you used to be -- the Big Leagues.

So yes, a hypothetical single-A Durham Bulls baseball team, under the European system, could win the A-league one year, and get promoted to double-A the next year. If they were able to win the double-A league the following year, get promoted, and win the triple-A baseball league in the subsequent year, you would have the Durham Bulls in the Major Leagues! Crash would've loved that.

And that is what makes the bottom teams in European leagues continue to fight for wins late in the year. You don't have to rely on tired old clich├ęs, such as, "Oh, they are playing for pride, now!" No, you really have something substantial to lose if you finish at the bottom in Europe.

So, to tie this back into the U.S. preparations for the FIFA 2006 World Cup, we were not able to assemble our best players to train together as a team due to some players having European club team obligations. Other country's teams, however, are at the same disadvantage when it comes to gathering the nation's top players to practice together.

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