Another NFL season is upon us, and so is one of the greatest inventions known to man: the NFL Red Zone channel, which whips around from city to city, allowing you to see live look-ins, real-time highlights and all the scoring plays from every NFL game on any given Sunday.
Not long ago it hit me: Why couldn't FIFA do the same thing with the 824 World Cup qualifiers that take place on action-filled matchdays around the world? I'd pay for that channel, and so would millions of soccer fans all over the planet.
Take this past Tuesday, for example. There were 20 World Cup qualifiers that started at 3:30 a.m. New York time and continued until 11 p.m. that night. You had 67 goals. You had surprise results (Uzbekistan 1, Japan 1) and impressive comebacks (Haiti's three second-half goals to beat Curaçao). Sure, some small-time teams were involved, but so were countries that you'll probably see in Brazil 2014 like Japan, Australia and South Korea.
Once the European and African nations get going, there will be even more action on World Cup qualifying matchdays. On October 11, 2008, a total of 50 games took place around the world involving the sport's biggest national teams and most recognizable stars. That was a Saturday. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't have left my couch for 24 hours.
There no reason this channel shouldn't happen. Call it whatever you'd like -- World Cup Goal Zone, World Cup Real-Time, FIFA Matchday Live -- but there are plenty of incentives for fans, as well as FIFA and its member nations. The fans get a fun, addictive, all-in-one service that currently doesn't exist (and would be of far higher quality than pirate online livestreams). Meanwhile, FIFA and its confederations would receive income that could be shared with their member nations.
This is only a baseline idea, too. I'd be willing to pay for a tier on my satellite provider that would include all the World Cup qualifiers, just as you can now get the UEFA Champions League games live on DirecTV in the United States. I'd also be interested in Red Zone-style channels for the English Premier League and Champions League. The more globally appealing soccer that could be put on one channel, the better for everyone.
UEFA and its president, Michel Platini, seem to see the future in this area better than anyone in the world of soccer administration. Earlier this year UEFA voted to centralize the sale of international TV rights for UEFA qualifiers starting in 2014. Retaining the rights for a World Cup Matchday Live channel on multiple platforms could certainly be part of that.
Of course, UEFA and Platini have their acts together in ways that other confederations (and FIFA itself under Sepp Blatter) do not. My hope is that if Platini becomes FIFA president in 2015 he'll take my World Cup Matchday Live idea under the auspices of FIFA and ensure a high level of quality TV production in multiple languages around the world.
Centralizing international TV rights sales in responsible hands would likely prevent situations like the one U.S. fans faced in October 2009, when the U.S. clinched a berth in World Cup 2010 with an electrifying win at Honduras that was only available in the U.S. on old-fashioned closed-circuit TV in a few hard-to-find bars and restaurants. (In other words, almost nobody could see it here live.)
That unfortunate situation was the result of the Honduran federation selling the rights to a third party, which tried to hold up ESPN with a ridiculous rights-fee price to the point that ESPN said no. U.S. soccer fans would have paid to see that game on their home televisions, but it simply wasn't possible. That's bad for hard core fans, and it certainly doesn't grow the game here.
Handled the right way by leaders the public trusts, the potential revenue streams for a FIFA Matchday Live channel are there for the taking. The fact is that FIFA should be making a lot more money than it does considering the global appeal of the World Cup, and this is one way to start that would be great for the sport -- and the fans -- worldwide.
• As we all know by now, Jurgen Klinsmann has yet to win in his first three friendlies as the U.S. coach. Does that matter? Not much, if you ask me. Whether the coach is Klinsmann or anyone else, results should only truly matter in official games like the World Cup, World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup, and the U.S.' next official game doesn't take place until World Cup qualifying starts next June. That said, you do want to see improvement in the U.S. team in these friendlies, and it's true that Klinsmann is all about creating a positive spirit within the team. Nothing creates a positive vibe better than winning, and in that case getting a W for the new coach in one of two games next month is important.
• I'm thinking the best formation for the U.S. might be a 4-1-3-2. As we've seen over the years, playing with a lone center forward hasn't gone very well for the Yanks, and that has continued to be the case under Klinsmann. U.S. Soccer may say the team has been going with a 4-3-3 in recent games, but my eyes see a 4-1-4-1 with the flank attackers not getting upfield enough to be a true 4-3-3. U.S. forwards Jozy Altidore and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Juan Agudelo have fared better with front-line partners. If the U.S. had healthy players to choose from right now, here's the lineup I would go with:
Goalkeeper: Tim Howard.
The easy No. 1 choice.
Defenders: Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra, Timmy Chandler.
Not a lot of youth here, obviously, which is why it would be good to get Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez in the center back mix. Eric Lichaj also has a future at right or left back, and any number of guys could get a look at left back, from Heath Pearce to Fabian Johnson to Todd Dunivant.
Holding midfielder: Michael Bradley.
There should be plenty of competition for this spot between Bradley, Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman.
Attacking midfielders: Landon Donovan, Stuart Holden, Brek Shea.
It's amazing how little Holden has played for the U.S. due to injuries, but his presence would be a big help. Shea is the biggest bright spot of the Klinsmann regime so far. José Torres has looked good at times but needs to be more decisive when it counts.
Forwards: Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore.
Altidore and Agudelo should compete for one of these spots. As for Dempsey, a lot of his U.S. goals have come when he has pushed upfield into a forward spot. He'd work well just underneath Altidore or Agudelo.
• What a strange game that was on Wednesday night in Philly, where the Union came back from a 4-1 second-half deficit to tie 4-4 against lowly New England. Give some credit to Philly for not giving up and engineering an entertaining rally, but you have to wonder if Peter Nowak will be in the market for a more seasoned goalkeeper to replace Faryd Mondragón, who's out for up to a month with a broken finger. Rookie Zac MacMath didn't do anything terribly wrong individually, but the back line was woefully disorganized on Wednesday. As for New England, what can you say? Teams should never fail to finish off a 4-1 advantage.
• Columbus coach Robert Warzycha got a new contract recently, but I would have waited until after the season to give him one. Columbus has exceeded expectations this year and Warzycha has a pretty good record in the regular season, but the Crew's postseason pratfalls have had a lot to do with the coach in recent years. Why not wait until after the playoffs?
• My coach of the year choice right now is Dallas' Schellas Hyndman for somehow managing to keep his team near the top of the West despite losing reigning league MVP David Ferreira for most of the season. Not far behind are Seattle's Sigi Schmid (who lost a big contributor in Steve Zakuani) and Salt Lake's Jason Kreis, who has been missing Javier Morales for a long time. Even better for Dallas and Salt Lake, Ferreira and Morales are training again and could still play a big role in the playoffs.
• Does anyone else shake their head when they see the term "mild concussion" to describe what's happened to players like Chelsea's Didier Drogba, who was out for almost 30 minutes after an awful collision in a recent game? There was nothing mild about Drogba's injury at all, just as there is no such thing as a mild concussion. Soccer in the U.S. has started to take stronger measures addressing concussions, as I wrote about in a story last year. Here's hoping European soccer catches up in its awareness of concussions to what we now know in U.S. sports.