Women's World Cup; MLS Cup; and other mailbag topics

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From what you have seen do you believe that the U.S. women's team can stay competitive for the title in next year's Women's World Cup (assuming they qualify)?

--James, Los Angeles, Calif.

With the U.S. carrying a 1-0 advantage (and an away goal) into this Saturday's return-leg playoff against Italy in Chicago (2 p.m. EST, ESPN3.com), the Americans are in pretty good shape to snag the last berth for next year's World Cup in Germany. And let's be honest: getting the ticket is all that matters right now, aesthetics be damned. Will the U.S. have to play better if it wants to win the WWC next year in Germany -- which has won the last two World Cups? Of course. In last Saturday's opening leg the U.S. dominated possession, but struggled to create many scoring chances in the final third until substitute Alex Morgan's huge strike late in stoppage time.

But remember, this is the same U.S. team that beat Germany 4-0 and 3-2 earlier this year. The talent is there for the U.S., the reigning Olympic gold medalist, to win its first World Cup since 1999.

My question right now is this: At what point does Morgan deserve a spot in the starting lineup up top next to Abby Wambach? An exciting 21-year-old forward and the only college player on this U.S. roster, Morgan has already scored some big goals: the game-winner against Italy, a late equalizer against China last month (to preserve the U.S.'s six-year home unbeaten streak) and the decisive strike to beat North Korea in the 2008 Under-20 World Cup final in Chile.

U.S. coach Pia Sundhage has said that Morgan's late sub stints allow her to keep things simple and go straight for the goal, implying that she doesn't think Morgan's tactically ready for a 90-minute game. Maybe so, but it's not as though Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Cheney have been lighting it up in Wambach's sidekick spot. If the U.S. can seal the deal on Saturday, it'll be interesting to see if Morgan gets more playing time between now and Germany 2011. There's definite star potential there, and though I'm told she has yet to sign a shoe contract (her college career ended this month, so she's eligible to do so), it wouldn't surprise me if there was a battle for her signature after her breakout year.

Keep in mind, if the U.S. can finish off Italy, the Americans will find out their World Cup group-stage opponents on Monday at the draw in Frankfurt, Germany.

Don't you think people get too hung up on the (low) MLS television rating, notably the Cup final? On a Sunday night, going up against the Giants/Eagles, it's NEVER going to get a good number, especially with two totally anonymous clubs in the final. And throw in the fact there is so much saturation of soccer on the tube, why is someone randomly going to tune in for that game? Shouldn't the league focus on its in-game stadium experience, rather than chasing television viewers, which is going to take years, if not decades to realize?

--Mike Cardillo

The overnight ratings for Sunday's MLS Cup final were down 44 percent from last year's Los Angeles-Salt Lake final and were the lowest overnights of any final in the past decade. That's not surprising, considering there weren't any big names like David Beckham, Landon Donovan or Thierry Henry on the field, but it's still sobering news for MLS. (The problem this year wasn't the Sunday-night time slot, which was the same in 2009.) The actual number of viewers are less important right now than showing growth, but TV ratings are still important. For one, no sports league will make the leap until it gets real TV money. Also, I don't see why making the stadium experience enjoyable for fans and going after TV ratings have to be mutually exclusive.

I do think it's time to switch from holding the MLS Cup final at a neutral site to staging it at the home of the higher-seeded finalist. I understand the complications of that: namely, short turnaround travel scheduling for league sponsors and media. But the positives more than make up for it. A home-team finalist would make for a great fan experience, would look good on TV and would reward a team for playing well in the regular season. What's more, MLS ticket staffs are capable of selling a lot of tickets in a week's time to meet the demand for a home-team finalist. Let's make this happen, MLS owners.

While I'm a fan of MLS and seem to understand most of the obscure procedures, such as designated players and even the re-entry draft, I'm in the fog on "allocation money." What exactly is allocation money? How does it work and why are teams so willing to trade players for it?

--Brian Schneider

Good question. Here's the link to MLS's description of allocation money and other roster regulations. An MLS exec told me this week that they are working to finally start publicizing how much allocation money each team has on the league website. Let's hope it happens sooner rather than later.

Do you have any idea why FIFA president Sepp Blatter is so obsessed with MLS adhering to the FIFA international calendar? Last I checked, there were other leagues around the world that follow a similar spring-to-fall season that seem to do just fine. Perhaps Don Garber could treat him to a playoff game at Lambeau Field this year to show him what he's actually suggesting?

--Bob Hunt, Seattle, Wash.

Having MLS join the international calendar is a huge priority for Blatter: It was the first thing he mentioned when I asked him about American soccer in 2009, and he brought up the topic in an Oval Office meeting with President Obama last year. I have no idea why MLS's spring-to-fall schedule would be so much more important to Blatter than, say, Argentina's or Russia's, but then again, maybe it's not: Russia and Argentina have already announced plans to make the switch as well. If the U.S. doesn't win the World Cup '22 bid on Dec. 2, I don't think MLS will make the move. But U.S. Soccer and MLS clearly felt it was important to signal publicly to Blatter that they're considering the switch. We'll see if it pays off on voting day.

Wondering what you think U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati's future will hold if the USA's bid for the 2022 World Cup falls short? Is this a make-or-break scenario for the bigwigs at the Soccer House in Chicago?

--Brian Morse, Charleston, S.C.

I don't think it's make-or-break. Keep in mind, nobody even ran against Gulati at this year's election (which keeps him in office until 2014), and I don't see any credible challengers right now. (That's a problem in itself, but a topic for another day.) Also, if the U.S. loses out on the '22 World Cup bid, it will be a huge thing for soccer people in America, but I'm not so sure it would get that much mainstream media coverage here. My guess is it would pale in comparison to the coverage Chicago got for missing out on the Olympics after President Obama went to Copenhagen and spoke in support of that bid.

Are the wheels falling off at Arsenal? What's going on at the Emirates?


I wouldn't say the wheels are falling off yet, not least because other contenders are also struggling in the Premier League lately. But Arsenal's three losses at home are definitely cause for huge concern. Championship teams don't let Tottenham come back from a 2-0 deficit the way Arsenal did the other day, or lose at home to middling teams like West Brom and Newcastle. The Gunners can still look overpowering at times (see the first half against Spurs), but players like Laurent Koscielny may just not be good enough for the Prem.

What are your thoughts on Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos earning second yellows for Real Madrid by stalling on free kicks?


Bad move by Madrid and José Mourinho. UEFA is now looking into what appears to be a purposeful move by the two to get their suspension out of the way before the knockout round.

How worried should I be about Qatar's World Cup bid?


Well, Qatar is the slight favorite to win the '22 World Cup bid on the major betting sites, followed closely by Australia and then the United States. (South Korea and Japan are considered longshots.) Russia is the slight favorite to win the 2018 bid (ahead of England and Spain/Portugal). We'll see how it plays out next week, but I'll tell you this: If Russia and Qatar are the big winners, it will send a clear message that having big oil money pays off. And I'm not sure if that's a message the FIFA wants to send.

You're an Arabian prince starting a team. Do you buy Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi first?


I think it would be hard to go wrong with either, but I'd choose Messi. He's 23, two years younger than Ronaldo, and I like his temperament on the field slightly better than Ronaldo's.

That's all for this week. Have a happy Thanksgiving, and I'll see you next week from the World Cup bid announcements in Zürich!

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