European Soccer Leagues Don’t Need a Playoff System

Frank Augstein/Associated Press

On Sunday, the English Premier League season came to a close with little to no fanfare.

Chelsea, which had already clinched the league title, defeated bottom-feeding Sunderland 5-1; Sunderland had already clinched relegation with a last-place finish that saw the team attain just 24 points in 38 matches. Sunderland had known this would be their fate after a 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth on April 29, three weeks before the end of the season. Chelsea clinched the Premier League title in their third-to-last game of the year, with a 1-0 win at West Brom. Because the league does not hold an end-of-season playoff tournament, the leader of the standings, or as it’s known in England, the “table”, is crowned league champion.

The only suspense on Sunday would be whether or not Liverpool could finish in the top four of the standings and earn promotion into the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s most elite soccer tournament. Any drama surrounding that game would be easily extinguished, as the Reds scored three goals in ten minutes of game time between the first and second half to pull away with a 3-0 home victory over Middlesbrough. Liverpool will have to win a playoff game to make it through to the group stage of the Champions League, but they will compete for Europe’s top crown, booting Arsenal from the Premier League’s top four for the first time since the 1995-96 season.

The final day of the regular season, otherwise known as “Championship Sunday”, was a complete dud. The other two relegated squads, Hull City and Middlesbrough, had already clinched those outcomes heading into the last game of the season. What had the potential to be a scintillating day of football turned into a Chelsea coronation with very little relevant tension in the final table. Today, the noticeable lack of suspense in the Premier League’s final days has begged this question:

Does the English Premier League need a playoff to obtain relevance and excitement for the end of the regular season and beyond?

Currently, the league crowns its champion based on the results of the regular season. There have been a handful of instances recently where the outcome of the league has come down to the final day of the season, the most famous one being the unforgettable finish between Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers in 2012. Manchester City was down 2-1 in stoppage time before scoring to tie the game. Needing a win and three points to win the league from bitter rival Manchester United, this happened:

The drama of the moment was completely perfect: Manchester City scores two goals in the last five minutes of the game, snatches the title out of Manchester City’s grasp, and very nearly relegates the team they defeat (at the time, QPR could have been relegated, but teams losing below them allowed them to stay in the league for another year).

In general, though, finishes like the 2012 Championship Sunday have been more of an exception than a rule. More often, one team wins the league title by a comfortable margin; we’ve seen this the past three years with teams like Chelsea and Leicester City winning the Premier League by anywhere from seven to ten points. The league places a lot of emphasis on the regular season and particularly Championship Sunday, and when there’s little to nothing for most teams to play for, there is little to no reason to watch.

Because of that, many people have advocated for the league to enact some sort of playoff system, most likely comprising the top four teams in the league. Truth be told, I was triggered to thinking about this by this tweet I saw during Liverpool’s win yesterday:

I began to think about the potential pros and cons of a playoff system for the Premier League and other leagues in European soccer, and how a playoff system would change the state of affairs for several teams as well as the way regular-season games are played.

The clear upshot of a playoff system in European soccer would be the financial boon it would represent, both for the league and television networks. Teams that would hypothetically host playoff games would earn lots of money from ticket and merchandise sales, while the league itself would earn more money simply by having additional games. Also, there would be an added layer of drama that the regular season cannot have. With a playoff format, particularly a single-elimination one, every play, foul, save, and managerial decision is magnified. The United States’ Major League Soccer has this with their MLS Cup, but they are an outlier when it comes to a postseason tournament.

But, in thinking about this for a day or so, this is what I kept coming back to: how could you argue with a system that rewards the best team for winning 100% of the time?

No matter what you think of something like, say, March Madness, you can admit that a team like South Carolina was not one of the best four teams in college basketball this season. Alas, they went to the Final Four in Phoenix, showing just how easy it is for a team in any sport to go on a run come the postseason. The same is true with the 2011 New York Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl after winning all of nine games in the regular season. Playoff tournaments are fun and exciting, but the team that dominates the regular season isn’t always the team that takes home the trophy.

A hypothetical playoff tournament for any European soccer league would have to be a one-and-done, single-elimination format; after all, soccer players run roughly six to eight miles in a game and subjecting themselves to that three or four times a week in a potential series would be inhumane. Also, the game of soccer is generally a little more random, meaning that an arbitrary bounce or call could decide the outcome of a game. While this would make for some very exciting television, it doesn’t necessarily ensure that the best team always wins.

Take the NBA as an example. While many have griped about their playoff format, it is designed to ensure that the best team just about always carries home the hardware. That’s why we are about to have Cavaliers-Warriors III in the NBA Finals; Cleveland and Golden State are the two best teams in the league and no one has risen to meet their respective talent levels. This is similar to how no team in the Premier League rose to meet the excellence of Chelsea this season. While you may not like it, the best teams are winning in both sports, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.

One final note: Chelsea finds itself in the FA Cup final on Saturday and will play Arsenal. This June, eight international teams will descend upon Russia for the Confederations Cup, one of the final tune-ups before the 2018 World Cup. As a practical matter, it would be very hard to ask European players to compete in a postseason for their club teams without those clubs sacrificing games on the original schedule, something very few sports owners are willing to do. This makes it all the more difficult to schedule a playoff because players need their rest. Therefore, the regular season would need to be truncated, something that would also be a very hard sell on soccer owners across Europe.

In the end, I’m just fine with a fair, if less-than-compelling, way to decide a league champion. Chelsea was the best team in the Premier League this season, and they deserved to win the league.

After all, in the Premier League and across European soccer, the best team is always crowned champion. Since when was that ever a problem?

What Happened to Leicester City?

Leicester City
Photo Credit: Getty Images

A season ago, the Foxes of Leicester City were the toast of European soccer.

As you may know, the team overcame 5,000-1 odds (longer championship odds than the Browns‘) to win the English Premier League title in one of the most stunning triumphs in the history of sports. The rest of the world noticed and appreciated their Cinderella performance. I wrote about them, and in that piece, I noted that Leicester earned 22 points in its final nine games the year before just to avoid relegation to England’s Football Championship League. The miracle finish in 2014-15 at least partially precipitated the miraculous title run in ’15-’16.

But halfway through this season, Leicester City may need to harness their relegation-dodging magic once more.

Yes, just a little under eight short months after winning the Premier League title, Leicester finds itself far closer to relegation than it does to defending their championship. Granted, a regression to the mean was to be expected this season; after all, the Premier League has not seen a repeat champion since Manchester United won back-to-back championships in 2008 and 2009. Even with many of the same pieces returning from last year’s team, expecting a similar performance from LCFC this season would be insane.

Still, you would expect them to at least be competitive in the league. So far, their 2016-17 season is slowly morphing from a championship defense to a survival quest just to stay in the league.

At just about the halfway point of the season, Leicester find themselves 16th in the Premier League table. Just as a reminder, the bottom three teams in the Premier League at the end of the season are relegated to the Football League Championship; the Premier League has twenty teams. The top three teams in the Football League Championship (currently Brighton, Newcastle, and Reading) are promoted to the Premier League while the bottom three of the top league are relegated to the Football League Championship, and so on and so forth for England’s lesser leagues, as well.

Leicester played in England’s second and third leagues from 2004 until 2014, the year in which they were promoted to the top level of English soccer. This year, they will have to fight to remain in the top level.

Following a 2-0 home loss to Everton on Boxing Day, opposing midfielder Gareth Barry had this to say about the defending champions’ confidence:

“They’re not the team they were this time last year […] Football is about confidence, it was always going to be tough for them to repeat what they achieved last year. It was once-in-a-lifetime what they achieved.

Barry is absolutely right, but still, these are the defending champions we’re talking about here. In the States, we think that the Denver Broncos had an unsuccessful season after losing one of the best quarterbacks ever and going 8-7 to this point in the season. Imagine if Denver went 2-13 to this point in the year and still had Peyton Manning. That is the equivalent of what has happened to Leicester this season.

There are any number of reasons as to why the Foxes have fallen off from last season. One would be crazy to expect the squad to repeat their dominant performance from last year; anyone could see that last year’s team over-performed under once-in-a-lifetime circumstances. After all, that’s what made the title all the more astounding. However, this season’s failure has been team-wide and systemic, and worst of all, it hasn’t been a fluke, either.

For example, take star forward Jamie Vardy. After a season in which he scored 24 goals for the league champions, Vardy was seriously courted by Arsenal FC. Arsene Wenger’s team, based largely on one productive season from the striker, decided to offer Vardy a £22 million transfer (or a little over $27 million in American dollars). Vardy declined the offer and re-upped with Leicester, citing the decision as an easy one that allowed him to continue his career with the Foxes.

This season, though, Vardy has not lived up to LCFC’s £100,000 per week investment in him. To this point, Vardy has scored just five goals; needless to say, this is a massive decline in production from a season ago. At the halfway point of the season, Vardy is on pace for roughly ten goals, which leaves Leicester fans wondering why the organization overpaid for his services and Arsenal fans feeling lucky that they did not pay up to bring him to Emirates Stadium.

However, Leicester’s failures are not solely Vardy’s fault. One of the biggest reasons behind the Foxes’ championship last season was their defense, one that surrendered just under one goal per game. This year, that figure has ballooned to 1.72 goals per game with virtually the same roster from a season ago. The only starter to leave the organization from a season ago was N’Golo Kanté, who signed a £32 million contract with Chelsea in the offseason. Kanté was a significant loss but that alone does not explain the precipitous decline in performance from last season to this one.

And that’s the frustrating thing. There really isn’t anything that does explain what’s going on. Most of the same team from last year has returned but almost no one has matched their performance from a season ago. Many praised Leicester for the team nature of their victory last season, as the squad came together like we had not seen before.

Unfortunately, that also applies to how they’ve fallen apart this season. The Foxes won as a team last season; this time around, they’ve lost as a team. Unfortunately, things are not getting easier for the Foxes anytime soon. Out of the twenty matches they have left this season, only four of them are against teams currently below them in the Premier League table. Even worse, another six of those matches come against teams in the top six of the league standings. Currently, LCFC finds itself just three points out of the bottom three of the league standings.

Sure, stars like Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have under-performed. But so has just about the entire rest of the team. That has made this long, nightmarish collapse all the more unbelievable: there’s not just one place where manager Claudio Ranieri can look to find a solution to his team’s woes. Their problems are littered all over the field.

The Foxes find themselves in serious danger of something they were able to avoid 21 months ago: relegation.

Who would have thought that would even be possible going into this season?

How Much Blame Does Jürgen Klinsmann Deserve for U.S. Soccer’s Struggles?

Photo Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today

United States Soccer coach Jürgen Klinsmann has been getting absolutely hammered recently for the play of his United States soccer team. From inconsistent performances in tournament play to sluggish showings in World Cup qualifying, the U.S. squad has seen nearly everything over Klinsmann’s five-year reign. Unfortunately, that has not often included sustained success.

As of the past few days, the hard feelings for Klinsmann’s group have come to a head after the national team’s stunning 4-0 shellacking at the hands of Costa Rica, a team the U.S. beat 4-0 just five months ago in June’s Copa America Centenario. This does not seem to be a one-off, either, as the international team lost to Mexico last Friday and drew 1-1 last month with lowly New Zealand, a team that has made the World Cup just twice in the past nine times the event was held. So things aren’t exactly going so well on our side of the pond, at least in terms of international football.

But how in the world does the United States get itself out of this mess? And is there anything that can be done to save the sinking ship that is United States soccer?

For starters, we should cut Klinsmann some slack because of the squad he is coaching at the present moment. Goaltender Tim Howard is expected to miss the next four months to undergo groin surgery for an injury he sustained in the Mexico match. Howard is 37, and he may not be the team’s starter when the 2018 World Cup rolls around (which, by the way, is by no means assured for this U.S. team). Brad Guzan has filled in for Howard and his performance has been somewhat uneven; he allowed seven goals in five games at Copa America and allowed three the other night in the Confederations Cup loss to Costa Rica. By the time 2018 comes, he may be a better option than Howard in goal (or Howard could possibly be retired, too). But his play as of late has been up and down, which is the primary difference between this U.S. team and the 2014 squad that lost to Belgium in the World Cup Round of 16.

Also, the midfield unit of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones has struggled mightily in World Cup qualifying, as neither has scored a goal in a combined 13 matches and 1,212 minutes on the field. To make matters even worse, Bradley and Klinsmann don’t even agree on what position the midfielder should play; Bradley would like to be positioned as a purely defensive midfielder while Klinsmann would like to have his captain play in more of an attacking role. Ironically enough, Michael’s father, Bob, was the USMNT coach from 2007-2011 and is now the manager of the English Premier League’s Swansea City. When Michael played for his dad, he was used in the exact role he is now, but he has evolved into more of a defensive midfielder as his career has progressed. Klinsmann probably isn’t using his player in the right role, which may be part of why he has struggled so much in international play.

As a general rule, though, this United States team is in transition; stars from past squads such as Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, and others have all moved on or are on their way out from the national team. This group is currently moving on from its past and addressing its complicated future, all while still trying to qualify for a World Cup. This is not the easiest task in the world, but it also hasn’t been helped by some of Klinsmann’s tactical decisions, not the least of which include placing Bradley in the attacking midfielder role.

And that brings us from the makeup of the team to the team’s coach. It’s interesting to note that most national team managers don’t stay on for more than one World Cup; Klinsmann himself left the German national team shortly after the 2006 World Cup and was only with the team for about two years. However, he was hired by the United States Soccer Federation in 2011 and coached the Stars and Stripes to a Round of 16 appearance two years ago. The performance was praised by critics as baby steps for a team that has often struggled in major tournaments. It was widely thought that Klinsmann’s U.S. squad was on the rise.

There reaches a point, though, when players who have been in the team’s system for several years begin to tune out the coach’s message; that’s why many international coaches don’t stay on with one country for more than one World Cup. Unfortunately, that may be what is starting to happen for the United States team. Klinsmann’s message was surely effective at the beginning of his reign, but that message might be getting old now. That seems like a speculative thing to say, but many of the players who have been in the program for several years are the ones who are struggling the most. Connect the dots and the reason why might be Jūrgen Klinsmann.

One of the few bright spots for the United States team has been 18-year-old phenom Christian Pulisic. Pulisic has risen from nearly complete obscurity to arguably the best and most important player on the USMNT right now. He is one of the most exciting U.S. soccer prospects in recent memory, and he holds the keys to the United States’ international football future. No pressure, man.

The question is: will Klinsmann stick around for his development? More importantly, should he? I would say that the answer is no: the U.S. team will likely still make the World Cup, but this squad has more talent than what they have shown recently. They do have one of the most promising players in recent memory, but it’s far more important for Team USA to build for a potentially exciting future.

And while it’s not all his fault, that future does not include Jürgen Klinsmann.

Penalty Kicks Really Aren’t So Bad After All

Switzerland v Poland - Round of 16: UEFA Euro 2016
Photo Credit: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

This article probably sounds like it’s coming out of nowhere.  It is, but I’m writing this for a reason.

Earlier today, I found myself watching the end of the UEFA Euro 2016 Switzerland-Poland match.  The winner of the game would advance to the tournament’s quarterfinal.  With Poland clinging to a 1-0 lead and time running out, Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri scored the goal of a lifetime to tie the game and give the Swiss side life.

That goal would cap the regulation scoring and the game headed into extra time.  And that’s when I was inspired to write this.

In the 100th minute and about a third of the way into the extra period, Poland made a substitution, replacing Krzysztof Maczynski with Tomasz Jodlowiec.  On his way off the field, the ESPN broadcast flashed a graphic stating that Maczynski ran 12.7 kilometers over the course of the game.  Even more interestingly, next to Maczynski’s distance traveled, the graphic said that on average, each player on the Polish team covered around 11.1 kilometers in the first ~100 minutes of the game.

My first reaction to these numbers, just like every other American, was to Google “conversion from kilometers to miles,” or “km to m,” for short.  I could lie to you and tell you I knew how to convert between these units, but 1) honesty is very important in journalism and 2) no, I didn’t.

When Google told me that 1 kilometer equals roughly 0.621 miles (I’ll definitely forget that one by tomorrow), I got to crunching the numbers.  If the average distance traveled was 11.1 kilometers (6.897 miles) in the first 100 minutes, how much farther do the players run over the course of an entire game?

I found this result by dividing 6.897 by 5, yielding another 1.39 miles.  I then added that number to 6.897 and got 8.28 (rounded to the hundredths place).  Since I assumed that fatigue, cramping, injury, and even weather conditions could play into the distance covered in the closing minutes of the game, I knocked that figure down to roughly eight miles.  (Note: the high temperature was 74°F today in Saint-Étienne, France, the site of the match.)

I then shared my findings with my mini Twitter community, because that’s what you do every time you have an a-ha moment:

So, this discovery also got me to thinking about something else: if players are running around eight miles per 120-minute game and over six miles per 90-minute game, why do so many fans insist that going to penalty kicks after 120+ minutes is a bad idea?  

There are some people who believe that the best way to decide the game after a half-hour extra time is to go to sudden death overtime.  That way, the next goal of the game also ends it.  The problem with that solution is that the game may not end within 15 or even 30 minutes, especially in international play, with some of the best goalkeepers in the world ensuring low-scoring games.  For example, consider what Tim Howard did to Belgium two years ago.

In that game, the United States was thoroughly outplayed in every area… except goalkeeper.  Howard carried the U.S. to extra time, where he finally surrendered two goals in a 2-1 defeat. Howard and the U.S.A. lost, but not before the goalie recorded a World Cup record with 15 total saves.  If that game had two evenly-matched teams and sudden death overtime after 120 minutes, well, we might still be playing nearly two years later.

And think about it this way, too: on their own, penalty kicks really aren’t that bad.  They’re a great way to win and an even worse way to lose, but they really are an all-or-nothing proposition.  Isn’t that exactly what we want out of sports?  We just had an all-or-nothing Game 7 in the NBA Finals and we treated it like the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Were the Cavaliers the best team in the NBA all season?  No, not even close.  However, they won when it counted.  That’s all that mattered.  Penalty kicks are no different; the best team doesn’t always win, but it’s a very exciting finish that ensures the safety of the players.

Penalty kick finishes have also given us some great moments. For example, the United States’ Brandi Chastain is synonymous with the removal of her shirt after netting her PK to defeat China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final.  In 2006, the Men’s World Cup Final between Italy and France came down to penalty kicks.  While that game is more generally remembered for the Zinedine Zidane headbutt incident, Fabio Grosso’s winner in PKs sent the entire country of Italy into a frenzy.  

Penalty kicks are everything sports is supposed to be.  We don’t appreciate that because we get too wrapped up in the imperfection of the system.  What we need to realize, though, is that PKs were put in place to protect players who have already covered almost one-third of a marathon in two hours’ time.  If we made the players run for, say, 150 minutes, they might cover 10 miles, get hurt, and leave the uninformed among us wondering why they’re not in better shape.  

Anyway, the game I was watching just happened to conclude with a penalty shootout.  Poland, which had been badly outplayed in extra time and most of the second half, won the shootout and advanced to the Euro 2016 quarterfinal. Switzerland was the better side for most of the game; it didn’t win in the end, however.

I guess this is the perfect encapsulation of everything right and wrong with this way of deciding a winner.  It is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s rife with drama; you legitimately don’t know who’s going to win until it’s over.  It is by no means a perfect system, but it does give us a fun ending that also keeps already fatigued players from injuring themselves (or worse) in game action.

So maybe it isn’t such a bad system, after all.

5,000 to Won: Making Sense of What Leicester City Just Did

Photo Credit: English Press Association
Photo Credit: English Press Association

We’ve seen some pretty awesome underdogs in the history of sports, but we’ve never witnessed one quite like this.

Today, these underdogs completed the conquest of their sport and attained what might be the most unlikely title in the history of sports. Yes, the history of sports.

Going into the English Premier League season, nothing very little was expected of Leicester City FC.  That lack of expectation has followed the Foxes since last March; the team was ranked last in the English Premier League with seven games to play last season.  Things were so bad that they were seven points behind the 19th and second to last place squad, facing the very real prospect of relegation to the Football League Championship.  (The bottom three teams in the Premier League are relegated and the top three teams in the Football League Championship are promoted to the Premier League each season.)

However, the team pulled off a miracle, securing 22 points in its final nine games and finishing in 14th place to ensure another season of Premier League football.  As it turns out, the comeback finish would be a harbinger of things to come.

The team was, and you may want to be sitting down for this, 5000-1 underdogs to win the league this season.  We’ll come back to that figure later.

Anyway, the team wasn’t expected to go very far this year.  The odds of their relegation were assuredly greater than those of them actually winning the league.  Despite these slim chances, Leicester got off to a strong start, accumulating 40 points in its first 17 games to top the league table on Christmas.  A winless three-game stretch from December 26 to January 2 dropped them to second, but a three-game winning streak kickstarted by a 1-0 January 13 win over Tottenham Hotspur put the team back on top.  And that’s where they would stay. Tottenham blew a two-goal lead with seven minutes to play and ceded a 2-2 draw to Chelsea today, clinching the title for LCFC.

Impressively, the team would lead the table for a total of 147 nights over the course of the season.  This means that it led for 52% of the year; this certainly wasn’t a wire-to-wire championship, but leading the league for over half the season isn’t bad either.

With all of that being said, the team was a 5000-1 longshot to win the league.  How is it possible that they actually pulled this off?  That we may never know, but it is important to add context to this championship.

For example, the Weber State Wildcats made this year’s NCAA Tournament as a 15-seed.  They would ultimately fall, 71-53, to Xavier in the first round.  As a team in a mid-major conference (Big Sky) that has never had a national champion, you would figure that their odds of winning one next year are pretty long.  They are; according to, the team is a 2000-1 longshot to be featured at the end of next season’s edition of One Shining Moment.  The Wildcats still aren’t nearly as big underdogs as Leicester was this year.

The closer you look, though, the worse it gets.  The Cleveland Browns look like they might be one of the worst teams in the history of the NFL this coming season.  They’re a glorified expansion squad, and that is a serious, majority opinion.  The Browns are so bad that they turned to a baseball executive, albeit an analytics guru, to run its front office.  Not to pile on, but the team will probably be an underdog in every single one of its games.  Translated: Las Vegas thinks the Browns will go 0-16.

But do you know what their odds are to win the Super Bowl?  200-1. I’m not sure how that is possible, but that’s the Browns’ chances of winning it all in 2016.  If it’s any consolation, Cleveland’s odds to win the AFC are 100-1.  Let’s do one more of these, shall we?

The Atlanta Braves have been baseball’s worst team so far this season, winning 5 of 23 games in the month of April.  They’ve hit a grand total of five home runs to this point in the season; three of them have come from star first baseman Freddie Freeman.  Atlanta is quite obviously going nowhere this year, and as I write this, the Braves are losing 4-0 to the Mets.

The best part of all of this?  They only face 500-1 odds to win the World Series this season.

The point of this exercise was to demonstrate how disrespected the Foxes were by oddsmakers and pundits going into the season. Relegation was the most likely outcome for the team and anything more would have been considered a pleasant surprise.  But a championship?  That is a complete and utter shock, to say the least.

There have been many memorable, inspiring, and shocking underdog championships in the history of sports.  Some that immediately come to mind are the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack, the 1985 Villanova Wildcats, the 2008 and 2012 New York Giants, the 1969 New York Jets, the 1969 New York Mets, and the 1980 U.S. Hockey Miracle on Ice.

This is the difference with Leicester, though: they did it for a full season.  There were no playoffs for the Foxes to win and there would be no getting hot at the right time.  The team would have to be the best team in the Premier League for an entire season, all while having to manage injuries and cold stretches.  All of the aforementioned squads weren’t the best in the regular season and simply played their best at the most opportune time.

It’s hard to win consistently in sports, but to be the best team in the sport for the majority of the season at such long odds is far more difficult.  Leicester City did that and defied every prediction and prognostication in the process.  They also took much of the world by storm, captivating those who may not have been otherwise interseted in the Premier League season.

Not bad for a team that should have been relegated.

Why You Should Care About the Women’s World Cup Final

The above headline is absurd.  I know.

With the hopes of two countries riding on the result of Sunday night’s tilt between the United States and Japan, there are plenty of reasons to be interested in the game.  However, the question of how interested we should be is much broader and more difficult to answer.

I’ll admit something: I wasn’t initially interested in the Women’s World Cup.  I didn’t watch a single game during the group stage or the earlier knockout rounds.  That all changed, however, on Tuesday night.

With the USA playing Germany in the semifinal of the tournament, the action was gripping.  With double zeros registering on the scoreboard in the 59th minute, Germany was awarded a penalty kick.  With Celia Sasic taking the kick, this happened.

The Americans came into the game as underdogs. That miss, in that moment, changed the entire game. The U.S. women gained confidence out of dodging the bullet and the Germans became stagnant on both sides. In the 67th minute, a questionable penalty kick was awarded to the United States, on this foul against Alex Morgan:

Carli Lloyd was chosen to take the penalty kick, and she scored.

As the game progressed, the U.S. got more opportunities, and in the 84th minute, Kelly O’Hara converted for the second goal, which proved to be the dagger for Germany.

There would be another game the next day to decide who would play the United States in Sunday’s final. Japan and England were tied at 1-1 in the 92nd minute; there were 3 extra minutes of stoppage time, so the game was nearing its conclusion.  Japan tried to complete a pass that would’ve ended up right in front of the England goal.  British defender Laura Bassett made the right play in breaking up the pass, but would not get her reward.

And just like that, England’s World Cup run was over.  Bassett has gotten widespread sympathy across the world today (as she should) and the level of shock from everyone involved when the play happened is one that is rarely reached in sports. People seem interested.  This is good.

However, the level of worldly interest is not the same as it was in the men’s game a year ago.

The double standard regarding the treatment of men’s and women’s soccer players was never more evident than in 1999, when the United States played China in the Women’s World Cup Final.  The game went to penalty kicks, and the U.S. was in position to win the game on the last kick, which was to be taken by Brandi Chastain.

You probably know what happened, but for those that don’t, Chastain scored.  After the goal, Chastain ripped her shirt off in celebration, revealing only a sports bra underneath the jersey. It was awesome.  It was wonderful.  And it became the defining moment in the history of women’s sports, for better or worse.

This country was enthralled with the team in 1999, much like it is now.  However, the controversy surrounding Chastain’s actions at the end of the game was widespread and stunning. Some felt that she overreacted in ripping off the shirt, but those same people have no issue with men’s players when they take off theirs.

I’m not saying it isn’t okay to do it, especially when the moment warrants.  In 2012, when Manchester City needed to defeat perennial basement dweller Queens Park Rangers in order to take the Premier League title away from rival Manchester United, Sergio Aguero scored in the final moments of the game. Manchester City would win the title.

Aguero took his shirt off after the play, and the moment, the roar, and the call from legendary soccer voice Martin Tyler (AguerOOOOOOOOOOO) were all absolutely perfect.

However, there is also another element of this debate that needs to be examined: Sepp Blatter.

In early 2004, Blatter made the following comments about the women’s game, as reported then by the British newspaper The Guardian:

Football’s most senior administrator attracted the wrath of the women’s game last night by suggesting female players wear tighter shorts to promote “a more female aesthetic”.

Sepp Blatter, the president of the world governing body Fifa, said women should have skimpier kit to increase the popularity of the game. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” he said.

“They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”

Blatter’s comments outraged leading European female footballers, and have threatened to undermine the sport, which has 30 million registered players worldwide.

That was, and probably still is, Sepp Blatter’s attitude on women’s soccer.  He obviously does not care too terribly much about the women’s game, and doesn’t care whether or not the rest of the viewing public cares either.  He won’t be attending the Final on Sunday, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the fact that he is under investigation by Swiss and American authorities.  The New York Times reported on this on Tuesday:

“He’s not going to go to the finals in Canada,” Cullen said, according to the Reuters report. “He has informed the organizers of that and cited personal reasons.”

FIFA later confirmed that Blatter and his top deputy, Jérôme Valcke, would not attend because of “their current commitments in Zurich.” Cullen said that the FIFA vice president Issa Hayatou of Cameroon would preside at the trophy ceremony after Sunday’s final in Vancouver, British Columbia, in Blatter’s place.

Blatter has taken a personal interest in the growth of women’s soccer during his tenure as FIFA president, including the expansion of this year’s World Cup to 24 teams. In May, he declared himself a “godfather” of the women’s game.

But with Swiss and American officials looking into other cases involving FIFA and refusing to rule out charges against Blatter, he has been keeping a low profile by speaking mostly to Swiss newspapers and appearing at private, FIFA-controlled events in Zurich. He hired Cullen, a former federal prosecutor, to advise him in those cases.

The Vice President of FIFA, Cameroon’s Issa Hayatou, will preside over the trophy presentation. This is basically like President Obama making Vice President Biden forge his signature on the Affordable Care Act; it’s ridiculous.

Second of all, Blatter is not a “godfather” of the women’s game, either.  If he was, then why is he making the women play on artificial turf, which is historically worse on the knees than natural grass? There may be more to the story, but the issue reeks of gender equality and women being treated in an inferior manner as opposed to men, at least in soccer.

About a month ago, comedian John Oliver, on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight”, took the time to hilariously deconstruct FIFA in light of the investigation regarding allegations of corruption and racketeering from high-ranking officials.  It is 13 minutes long, but good God, is it worth your time.

The segment perfectly illustrates Blatter: the hard-to-like, corrupt, and yet incredibly powerful overseer of soccer. However, Blatter announced that he was resigning on June 2 and the reaction was predictable:


FIFA, everyone.  An outright joke.  Now, let’s move back to women’s soccer.

The players in the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) are making anywhere between $6,000 to $30,000 a year, while MLS players make a minimum of $50,000 (h/t to Alicia Lorene Johnson at for the numbers).  This has led some teams to set up host family programs; an example of a sports league doing this is the Cape Cod Baseball League in Massachusetts, which hosts summer baseball for college players.

One of these teams is the Houston Dash, and two of their players, Morgan Brian and Meghan Klingenberg, are also playing for the USWNT. However, they stay with a host family during the Dash’s season, and this has led to a crazy story about them and their famous hosts, per USA Today’s For The Win:

OTTAWA — Sunday mornings mean pancakes at Jeff Van Gundy’s house.

Jeff cuts fresh fruit, his wife Kim flips the pancakes, and Meghan Klingenberg fixes bacon.

Yes, the same Meghan Klingenberg who has played every minute on the United States national team’s back line this World Cup has “Pancake Sundays” with the Van Gundy family in Houston because she lives with them while playing for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League.

When Van Gundy learned of the team’s host-family program last year, he jumped on the opportunity knowing little about soccer. The former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst didn’t realize his family received an “absolute blessing.”

Then this past spring, U.S. midfielder Morgan Brian moved in, too.

“I can’t tell you how fortunate we are,” Van Gundy told For The Win. “You don’t know when you have people, but the example they set and also for me having been in the NBA for a long time, they just have a different perspective because they’ve never had it easy. And it’s interesting to watch them. They’re just really excited about the opportunities and how they go about it is impressive.

“The utter lack of sense of entitlement was actually startling for me. For professional athletes, I always think about it in these terms: the most difficult diva of women’s soccer would be the easiest NBA player ever.”

Yes, that Jeff Van Gundy.  The NBA coach that coached the Knicks from 1996-2001 and the Rockets from 2003-2007.  Two world class athletes are relegated to having to stay with a host family.  Two world class athletes had to be taken in by “The Notorious J.V.G”.

The reason why this is appalling for women’s soccer is that the games are so exciting.  The NWSL is the fourth attempt at an American women’s soccer league in the last 20 years; the other three (W-League, WUSA and WPS) all folded.  If the games at the club level are even half as exciting as they are at the national level, the league has the potential to be really, really good.

Women’s soccer is very similar to men’s soccer.  The game is played the same way, and the drama, excitement, and emotion of the games are the same as they are in the men’s game.  There is no reason why American sports fans cannot get behind the U.S. women and cheer them on at 7:00 Sunday night.

So yes, you should care about the Women’s World Cup Final. Unlike in the men’s game, this is probably the only chance you will get to see stars like Abby Wambach, Lloyd, Morgan, Hope Solo, and others. The people are different from last year to this one, but the cause is the same: to win a World Cup.

In spite of FIFA, Sunday’s game should be a great exhibition of soccer, the way it is supposed to be played.  However, and most importantly, both countries will be behind their teams to win the game.  Of course, I’m rooting for the U.S., as most, if not all, Americans probably are.  And this is why you should care about the game: the hopes of a country are riding on it.

I believe that we will win.