Tuesday September 22nd, 2015

So on Monday night I got on a Citibike in my NYC neighborhood and headed over to the Highline Ballroom for the EA Sports FIFA 16 launch party. Members of the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team were there, and so were players from the New York Red Bulls and NYCFC.

I didn’t take any selfies—not so much my thing, plus I was carrying a bike helmet—and I didn’t do any interviews, since nobody in those settings really wants to be doing interviews anyway. But the place was packed, and the stars were there, and the whole thing was fun and it hit me as I was riding home afterward: Soccer is kind of cool these days. It wasn’t always that way in the past. This is a good time for the sport here.

Anyway, it’s midweek. It’s time for the ‘Bag. Here we go:

Is this [Robert Lewandowski] for real??


One of the great things about watching sports—the greatest?—is the feeling that at any moment something can happen that you didn’t think was even possible. One of those moments came on Tuesday when Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski entered the game as a substitute at the start of the second half and, with Bayern down 1–0 to Wolfsburg, proceeded to score five times in minutes 51, 52, 55, 57 and 60. Never before in any of the top four European soccer leagues had a player scored five goals in such a small amount of time.

And it’s not like Lewandowski’s goals came against some lightweight defense either. Wolfsburg finished second in the Bundesliga last season. His fifth goal was the best of the bunch, too, a sidewinder volley that pinged right into the microphone attached to the net. That’s right. He literally dropped the mic. Unbelievable.

Is Copa América Centenario happening or not?


There’s still no definitive answer. I wrote a story about it recently, which outlined how the main problem is Datisa, the South American company that still owns the Copa América marketing rights even though it has been charged with making $110 million in bribes by the U.S. Department of Justice. U.S. Soccer officials have sounded pessimistic whenever I’ve spoken to them on background about the possibility that the tournament will still take place in the U.S. as originally planned.

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What’s fascinating about this story, however, is how it changes so much depending on to whom you speak. This week I spoke to Univision Deportes president Juan Carlos Rodriguez for an upcoming story in Sports Illustrated magazine, and I gave him an additional question: Is Copa América Centenario still going to happen? Univision, after all, has a contract to broadcast the tournament in Spanish in the United States.

“For sure it’s going to happen,” Rodriguez told me. “For CONMEBOL it’s not only about the economic reasons, which are the regular ones, it’s also a credibility issue. The Department of Justice was part of a very broad investigation, and they need to ‘clean their faces of this,’ as they would say in Asia. So making this event available in the U.S. makes sense.

“CONCACAF doesn’t want to be left alone by not being partner of an event that is relevant for them for many purposes,” Rodriguez continued. “So they have, I would say, ‘aligned.’ The complicated part is getting out of the contract with the guys in South America, the Datisa guys, and lawyers will be helpful. And U.S. Soccer, and I have to respect them for this, they have been very clear that until all the threats are tightened they won’t be hosting the event. They are asking for a transparent and very fair operation.

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“I would say 99% of the things are aligned now, except for the Datisa part. We don’t have to be very smart to know that nobody wants to deal with them. If they come to the U.S., U.S. companies will not deal with them because of their background now. So they need to either clean their show or get out of the middle. Or lose a lot of money because it won’t happen for them.

“When I say the event is going to happen, it’s because if it’s not done in the U.S. it will definitely be done in South America. The next one can only be hosted in 100 years, so they won’t lose this opportunity. We’ve discussed with them the opportunity of inviting Mexico and the U.S. and some other teams, and they are keen and eager to do it. So the event is going to happen. The most important part is FIFA has approved this event [and put it on the official calendar].

“For us broadcasters we have an impact, but I would say a very small impact if we don’t do it in the U.S., yet we need to have the U.S. and Mexico involved. At least Mexico, otherwise it would jeopardize our ratings. But if we get to do that then we are set to go. We’re going to push hard to try to align everyone’s interests. We’ve been pushing hard. This is for the sport. And if the U.S. wants to become a host for the World Cup, they need to have friends in South America as well.”

How did the Chicago Fire fall so far, and will the recent changes make any difference at all?


Who do you think would be a good fit for Chicago's coach?


Chicago won six trophies in its first nine years behind successful coaches like Bob Bradley and Dave Sarachan, successful players like Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik and Chris Armas and a successful GM like Peter Wilt. From 1998 to 2006, the Fire were close to the gold standard in MLS, with fantastic fans and a real team identity. But the Fire just haven’t been the same since 2007, which happens to be the year Andrew Hauptman bought the team. Part of the problem has been bad coaching hires, and part of the problem is that Hauptman doesn’t live in Chicago. From what I’ve heard, the problems on the ground in Chicago have been significant behind the scenes leading up to Frank Yallop’s firing, and they likely would have been seen sooner by an owner who was regularly on-site.

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The new GM, Nelson Rodriguez, is a good soccer man who worked at MLS HQ for years and for the past year has been working for U.S. Soccer to help advise young players and their families with career decisions. He ran Chivas USA during its death throes, and he now has a big challenge ahead to turn around a team that doesn’t have much of an identity anymore. My sense is that Rodriguez will hire a coach who knows how to win in MLS, not necessarily someone who’s a big name for big name’s sake. Chicago has money, and the Fire have actually been willing to spend it at times, thought not often very wisely.

There are some bright spots on the current roster, guys like Harry Shipp and Matt Polster and David Accam and Sean Johnson and Joevin Jones. But a big infusion of human capital is needed. Rodriguez is a good start.

Your thoughts on new proposed Americas Champions League?


It’s certainly an ambitious idea that Riccardo Silva of MP & Silva is taking on: A 64-team club tournament of the Americas that would basically combine South America’s Copa Libertadores and the CONCACAF Champions League. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has signed on in some sort of advisory role. In theory it sounds like fun, but the logistics would be kind of insane for a midweek tournament if, say, Vancouver has to fly to Buenos Aires for a game. Have Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic signed on as well? Because you’d need some sort of space travel to make this thing work.

Is Diego Costa bad for the sport?


Nope. Sports needs villains, and Costa is becoming a terrific villain in the vein of former Detroit Pistons center Bill Laimbeer. Plus Costa scores goals, or at least he has in recent seasons. Did he deserve the three-game suspension he got on Tuesday for his antics against Arsenal? Yes. Is he terrible for soccer? I don’t think so. He can’t afford to miss games like this on a regular basis, so his act will change to some degree. How much remains to be seen.

Is there any evidence that participating in Confederations Cup improves results at the following World Cup?


Not really. Brazil is the three-time defending Confederations Cup champion, and many Brazilian fans would say the last three World Cups have been disastrous. The U.S. did just as well at Brazil 2014 (without playing Confed Cup the previous year) as it did at South Africa 2010 (after reaching the ’09 CC final). My general line: Participating in Confederations Cup doesn’t necessarily help you at the next year’s World Cup. But (and this is a big but) for teams like the U.S., I think it’s important to make Confederations Cup if you can. Events like the United States’s 2009 run to the final help grow the sport in the U.S., and that’s a good thing.

Are the absences of Andrés Guardado and now Rafa Márquez confidence boosters for USA?


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I would think they increase the U.S.’s chances of winning on October 10—especially Guardado, who was Mexico’s best player at the Gold Cup (Márquez has had some brainlocks playing against the U.S. over the years, so that may be a wash). I usually like the idea of each team being at full strength, though, which makes for more excitement. In other CONCACAF Cup news, U.S. Soccer tells me it came “very close” to selling out its full allotment of around 25,000 tickets for the game (Some 83,000 tickets are being sold for the Rose Bowl). The unused tickets went back into CONCACAF’s ticket lottery. American Outlaws co-founder Korey Donahoo tells me he thinks the breakdown among U.S. vs. Mexico fans should be at least 30–70 (an improvement over the 10–90 at the 2011 Gold Cup final) and that more than 4,000 AO members are expected to be on hand.

Any news on which network the men's Olympic qualifying will be shown?


CONCACAF told me on Tuesday that Telemundo will broadcast the men’s Olympic qualifying tournament in Spanish (NBC Universo will as well) in the U.S., but currently no English-language U.S. broadcaster has signed on yet.

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Prediction for U.S. Open Cup final?


It’s Philadelphia hosting Kansas City in this year’s final, coming next Wednesday. For Philadelphia it’s the last real chance to win a trophy this season, and there’s a sense that there will be a deep gloom around the team if it isn’t able to win this year after losing to Seattle at home in the final last season. For Kansas City, which has taken this tournament seriously over the years, it’s another opportunity for silverware. KC is the better team, and its performance in a 3–1 win against Dallas last week should give its fans some confidence after a recent slide. Philly looked pretty good in a 2–0 win over Houston on Sunday. Bottom line: I think it’ll be close, and in those cases you look to the team with the most players who can make a big play. Advantage: Kansas City.

Why will U.S. Soccer put down temporary grass fields for USMNT friendlies but not the USWNT?


Great question. My sense is that for the men’s friendlies, the temporary grass comes when the opponent is a big-name foe (like Brazil recently) whose representatives refuse to schedule a game on any kind of artificial turf. The USWNT’s opponents aren’t likely to make such demands. Obviously, what the USWNT and USMNT players want should matter too, but the fact is we’ve seen far more women’s than men’s games on fake turf (The only domestic USMNT game I can recall on artificial turf was the 2013 Gold Cup game in Portland).

Playing on artificial turf is a more complex issue than most people want to acknowledge, as we learned during the controversy over FIFA’s decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on the fake stuff. I happen to think temporary grass fields laid out over artificial turf are often worse than high-quality next-generation artificial turf surfaces. But I still think for the WWC FIFA should have looked at previous examples in which good grass surfaces were allowed to take root over artificial turf given the right amount of preparation time.

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What's going on in Portland? We keep waiting for Darlington Nagbe to break out, but his development hasn't panned out. Is Caleb Porter to blame?


Will Parchman of Top Drawer Soccer went really deep on this topic. You should read what he wrote.

Who gets the final playoff spot in the MLS East?


Montreal—unless Montreal overtakes Toronto, which is hardly outside the realm of possibility. Let’s just say the Montreal-Toronto game on the last day of the regular season could be interesting.

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Do you think Minnesota will end up building its MLS stadium in Minneapolis or St. Paul?


Judging from everything I’m hearing these days, all signs are pointing to St. Paul.


Sir Alex Ferguson’s new book, Leading, came out on Tuesday in the United Kingdom, and it’s already getting a fair amount of attention over there. The U.S. release is coming soon, too, on Oct. 2.

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