Landon Donovan: Life and how to live it

When it comes to Landon Donovan, I have to admit a bit of bias — one that goes beyond the typical reporter’s bias of having good interview experiences. Sure, he’s been helpful whenever I’ve talked with him, from a USA TODAY chat in 2000 (he had to delay to drive his sister to school) to a 2009 cover story in which he talked frankly about his relationships with everyone: David Beckham, Bianca Kajlich, even Eric Wynalda. He’s consistently one of the most interesting people in U.S. soccer. (Men’s soccer, especially.)

My bias stems more from being able to relate to decisions he has made that have puzzled other people. He has put family and his own well-being first. I get that. It’s why I’m no longer a full-time employee of a large national newspaper. It’s why I turned down opportunities to do techie-type things in journalism and opted instead to keep putting words together in this thing … what’s it called … oh, right … writing.

Ever since he won the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Cup in 1999, Donovan was supposed to be a big star in Europe. He was supposed to lead the U.S. national team to greener pastures.

To an extent, he’s done both. No one can deny his impact in the 2002 and 2010 World Cups or in plenty of vital qualifiers along the way, and he was a key player in the 2009 Confederations Cup that stands as the most stunning U.S. men’s performance since 1950. The European breakthrough finally came, albeit on a short-term basis at Everton.

But for some people, it has never been enough. Over the years, he always had to defend his choice to play in MLS instead of Europe. If he disappeared in a game, it was a calamity or proof that he was just softer than everyone else.

Frankly, he’s more courageous than most. The U.S. soccer community still heaps immense pressure on every prodigy, perhaps because we’re not used to having them. It’s far healthier to fly under the radar and emerge in MLS, a la Clint Dempsey. But no one has faced the level of scrutiny Donovan has faced, something the women’s soccer community and journalists should remember before making ridiculous “double standard” arguments about Hope Solo.

As Donovan matured and that hairline crept backwards like a U.S. goalkeeper’s, he started to exude more California Zen. He talked about living in the moment and not trying to please everyone. It was a classic example of separating the substantial from the insubstantial in his own life.

And it’s something we all need to do in our lives. The “substantial” in this case is the enjoyment derived from watching soccer. The “insubstantial” is micromanaging someone else’s life to suit our needs. Soccer folks have done the latter on a smaller scale, too — a lot of fans took issue with Jordan Cila going to Duke instead of going pro. Donovan has dealt with it throughout his career.

Criticism of his play is one thing. He’s as harsh on himself as anyone — at least, anyone reasonable. He has had bad games, domestically and internationally. He has gone through bad spells. The psychoanalysis has gone over the top.

After all these years, Donovan still isn’t doing what people would expect or like. He would seem to have an opportunity to transfer to Everton — if they could afford him. Instead, he may follow in the footsteps of Jim Brown, Mia Hamm and other athletes who have left the stage when they clearly have more to offer.

Soccer America‘s Mike Woitalla hopes he doesn’t step away. So do I. So, surely, does Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. So does Jurgen Klinsmann, if he has started to appreciate that CONCACAF World Cup qualifying isn’t the cakewalk he was expecting.

But that decision is Donovan’s alone. If it frustrates you, or if you think you would surely act differently in his shoes, you might need to follow his example and reassess your own priorities.

Headline inspired by some old-school R.E.M., when they shot incomprehensible art-school videos and Michael Stipe had shaggy hair:

Building the Beckham brand, cont.

Maybe we can’t quite trust this denial of David Beckham’s interest in QPR or any other English Premier League team. “No” often isn’t the final word in transfer sagas.

But given Beckham’s rumored destinations — Australia, China, the Middle East — we might need to consider that Beckham’s latest and possibly last move of his playing career is less about an on-field challenge like keeping QPR in the Premier League and more about expanding his brand one more place before he retires.

Wherever he goes won’t be a permanent home. Beckham still has that MLS ownership option, and it’s tough to picture Posh Spice settling down in Shanghai. But a year or so in Asia could make him more viable for a few more global ads.

Or he could keep starring in adidas films like this offbeat video with Snoop:

Not sure what to make of that. Are they really putting a bunch of star athletes in a video with some not-so-subtle references to weed?

Is a major in sports really any worse than my music major?

Should athletes have the opportunity to major in sports?

Yes, argues a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which recently offered yours truly a special deal for “university professionals” in a reassuring demonstration that advertisers do not know everything about you.

And it’s a terrific argument. Add a psychology requirement, and players who don’t make the professional grade (which is still the vast majority of players, even at the top football and basketball schools) will be uber-qualified coaches. That’s not a bad thing.

A related argument: Are “one-and-dones” making a mockery of college basketball? Should they stay at least three years like baseball players who pass on the draft? Do athletes gain anything when their only academic goal is to pass enough classes in their first semester to stay eligible through March?

Also related: A new wave of concern of about athletes after their playing days are done, everything from the eye-opening ESPN film Broke to this piece from Michigan about former football players hoping to latch on somewhere.

Consider three goals of education (not necessarily prioritized):

1. Expand the mind.

2. Learn critical thinking and life skills.

3. Job preparation.

The first goal can be accomplished (somewhat) in a year. Maybe even in one class, if it’s a good one. Hopefully, it triggers a lifelong interest in learning.

The second goal is easy to stress in the first couple of years of school. Writing classes help. Basic economics would help.

The third goal is best reserved for the last couple of years of school, when students have done some exploration and can pick something. If they’re ready for major pro sports, then they can skip out.  As Yoda might say, no more training do they require. We can only hope the lessons of those first two years will keep them from sinking their fortunes into strip club “rain” and room-sized aquariums.

Schools shouldn’t give players tons of academic credit just for playing. Music majors only get fractional credits for orchestra or lessons on their instruments. Newspaper staffers that I know of don’t get academic credit for the 20, 30, 50 hours a week they spend in the office, even though that trains them for their first jobs in ways that no class can duplicate.

But studying sports topics doesn’t have to be a joke. Not if it’s done right. Not if it’s done as part of a general education that helps people who seek careers in sports, whether they make the big time or not.

Other reactions to this:

Sports Law Blog says the devil is in the details, which is true.

Deadspin: “Why can’t aspiring professional athletes just major in sports, the way that aspiring dancers major in dance and aspiring actors major in theater and aspiring dickheads major in journalism?”

I don’t think aspiring whatevers major in journalism. They all want to work at Deadspin, which probably doesn’t hire a lot of journalism majors.

But what do I know? I was a philosophy and music major.

Women’s soccer marketing: The kids are not alright

Soccer game? Uh, yeah — it’s over there.

Joanna Lohman, the women’s soccer player most likely to win The Apprentice if she could stomach being in the same room with Donald Trump, has posted a strong, well-supported argument to pitch the new women’s soccer league to people other than soccer moms.

Some of the ideas aren’t new. Plenty of teams, including the Washington Freedom, have had beer gardens. WPS made a big push on social media, not the typical soccer mom hangout. And a lot of the talk around the WPS launch was that the WUSA had erred by aiming for soccer moms instead of soccer dads, who were more than happy to see Abby Wambach for $15 instead of shelling out $50 to see the Washington Wizards.

And some of the ideas are out of anyone’s control. A team floating on a $1 million annual budget isn’t going to come up with the megamillions for a downtown stadium accessible by mass transit. High schools and some colleges with transit-friendly facilities aren’t going to let teams set up beer gardens at their schools. Also, “downtown” and “tailgating” are often mutually exclusive things.

But the theory is sound, based on the marketing theories Lohman cites and the experience of past women’s leagues, where the youth soccer teams have tended to show up for a game or two, scream, get autographs, and disappear.

That leaves two questions:

1. How big of an audience is out there? Former Sky Blue exec Gerry Marrone asks in the comments on Lohman’s piece, and it’s difficult to quantify. Women’s soccer certainly has a passionate group that chats nonstop on Twitter and comments on every blog post about the sport (my blog numbers jump when I write about women’s soccer, though that’s also a statement on how little-read my other posts are), but some people have noticed it’s a group with the same handful of people.

2. Can teams effectively straddle the line between youth/family marketing and young adult marketing? Anecdotally, I think it’s working at D.C. United. They have a play area for kids, the tailgate is fun for all ages, and the “quiet side” where the families sit is sometimes stronger than the “loud side” where the supporters groups bounce.

This is where my personal experiences diverge. Yes, I’ve seen the youth soccer teams spend the whole D.C. United Women’s game rolling down the hill behind one of the goals. (I was proud that the Vienna team actually sat and watched the game.) I’ve seen families treat women’s soccer as a one-time experience, waiting 45 minutes for Abby’s autograph and taking off, never to return.

And yet I’m seeing D.C. United (men’s) getting more and more interest within my club. I’m now getting texts from parents during games, asking me for insight on something that just happened. (Not that I always have any insight, but it’s sweet that they think I do.) I’ve seen kids’ focus slowly change from the concessions to the field. People are asking me about going in on season-ticket plans.

So D.C. United is converting my suburban soccer parents (moms AND dads) into soccer fans. Can’t the women do the same thing?

I have to admit, that’s anecdotal evidence. But it makes me wonder what’s possible.

The real trick, though, might be converting Alex Morgan’s million-plus Twitter followers into ticket- and merchandise-buying fans. Where do they fit on Lohman’s chart?

It’s a good conversation to have. And personally, I’m excited. The view from the beer garden is much better than the obstructed view from the pressbox at the Soccerplex.

MLS: Making Little Soccer players? Not yet

The Major League Soccer “State of the League” conference call was predictably professional yesterday. The reporters asked legit questions, something we still don’t quite get in MMA calls. Commissioner Don Garber spoke at length about everything, only occasionally needing correction or clarification from the sharp PR crew next to him.

And the answers were mostly logical:

– Expansion to the South is a great idea, but the prospective groups need stadiums.

– Competition rules aren’t changing much. (Alas for my Page playoff system. We’ll break through one day.)

– David Beckham was great for MLS, but the league is ready to move on without him. (I don’t get the fretting over Beckham’s departure. He seemed more like an afterthought this season than a huge attendance-driver. It’s hard to quantify that, though — the Galaxy’s road attendance was immense, but some of those games were special events, and some were “road” games against Chivas USA.)

– The stadium situation in D.C. seems much better than it did a year ago. I don’t recall hearing the word “Baltimore” on the call this time around.

A couple of things were clarified, including the Beckham Future. He has an option for team ownership at some point, but it can’t be in New York. That would seem to throw a lot of cold water on the Beckham-to-Cosmos rumor, at least in terms of Beckham being a player-owner there.

The pursuit of a second team in New York is clearly irritating a lot of MLS fans and journalists, but Garber stands by it.

So that gets us to one issue that came up in a couple of questions: Youth development.

MLS is spending a lot of money on academies now — Garber tossed out the figure of $20 million, though it’s not quite clear what that entails. Where MLS once had a handful of associated teams playing in top youth leagues, they now have teams playing a full year-round schedule in the Development Academy against all the clubs that build powerhouses up through U18 and then abruptly stop playing. (Quick aside: Does any other country have youth-only clubs that develop international-quality talent? Or is that only an American thing?)

But a lot of the academy alumni come up through the ranks, sit a couple of years on an MLS bench, and quietly disappear. Bill Hamid, Andy Najar and Juan Agudelo are exceptions.

What’s going wrong? How can it be fixed? Yesterday’s call brought up two possible solutions:

1. Require teams to play young players a certain percentage of the time. That started a nice Twitter debate:

I’m with Jeff. It’s one thing to limit the number of international players on a team, as MLS currently does. It’s another to make a coach think about minutes for young players when filling out a lineup. This isn’t U9, where coaches like me carefully track everyone’s time to make sure everyone’s playing enough.

And what’s the biggest complaint about MLS? (If you said “no promotion and relegation,” please put your hand down.) It’s quality of play. Wouldn’t the quality suffer even more if coaches are forced to trot out players who aren’t ready?

2. Some sort of unspecified deal with the lower divisions to give reserve teams more time on the field.

Ding ding ding ding.

It seems pretty obvious, really. The academy teams are playing roughly 30 games a season (though with their giant rosters, some players may get a bit less than that), and then the players that skip college to go to an MLS reserve team play … 10 games?

For once, what’s done in “the rest of the world” (a few parts of it, anyway) makes perfect sense for MLS. If there’s a compelling reason to keep MLS reserve teams out of the NASL or USL Pro, I’d like to hear it. And not from someone who’s just defending someone’s turf in the endlessly frustrating in-fighting that has held back the game for so long.

Getting a suitable stadium site in sprawling, traffic-choked Atlanta may not be easy. Getting 20-year-old MLS players more games is far easier.


Monday Myriad: Keep watching the skis

It was Thanksgiving weekend in the USA, which explains why most MMA circuits were quiet.

But internationally, it’s prime skiing, skating and sliding time. The top stories of the weekend:

Marco Sullivan (By Tom Kelly, U.S. Ski Team)

1. Lindsey Vonn had a decent weekend considering her recent hospitalization. But the U.S. Ski Team had a surprise elsewhere: At age 31, Marco Sullivan hadn’t finished in the top 10 in a World Cup race in nearly three years. Saturday in Alberta, he picked up his fourth World Cup podium. Alan Abrahamson has the story on how Sullivan kept his career alive in the offseason.

2. The U.S. women’s cross-country skiers had been a force in the sprints for a few years. But this weekend, they had a double breakthrough in Sweden. First, Kikkan Randall was on the podium in a non-sprint race for the first time, and Holly Brooks was a career-best fifth in a 10K freestyle. The results might have been even better if not for the rough course wiping out other U.S. skiers who were poised for top-10s. Then on Sunday, Randall, Brooks, Jessie Diggins and Liz Stephen combined for third in a mixed relay.

3. Our first Myriad Questions subject, Sarah Hendrickson, was second in the World Cup season opener and her first competition since knee surgery.

4. We’ve already covered figure skating, where the USA will send Ashley Wagner and Meryl Davis/Charlie White to the Grand Prix Finals, which will have a heavy Russian and Japanese presence.

5. And we’ve already covered chess, where we’ll have a new women’s world champion until Hou Yifan takes back the title next year.

Elsewhere, the USA had more good results in men’s bobsled, Julia Clukey returned to luge action with a promising result, cyclocross star Katie Compton shook off jet lag for another win, and other U.S. sliders had a rough run.

Sport-by-sport results (if no parentheses, the athlete is from the USA):

Alpine skiing: Men’s World Cup, Lake Louise, Alberta

Downhill: 1. Aksel Lund Svindal (Norway). 3. Marco Sullivan, 25. Ryan Cochran-Siegle, 39. Travis Ganong, 40. Steven Nyman, DNF. Andrew Weibrecht.

Super-G: 1. Svindal. 4. Ted Ligety, 19. Weibrecht, 20. Cochran-Siegle, 29. Thomas Biesemeyer, 39. Sullivan, 47. Ganong, 60. Jared Goldberg

Women’s World Cup, Aspen, Colo.

Giant slalom: 1. Tina Maze (Slovenia). 9. Mikaela Shiffrin, 15. Julia Mancuso, 21. Lindsey Vonn, DNQ. Abby Ghent, Megan McJames, DNF. Julia Ford.

Slalom: 1. Kathrin Zettel (Austria). 7. Shiffrin. DNQ. Mancuso, Resi Steigler, DNS. Ford, DNF. Paula Moltzan, Hailey Duke.

Wrestling: Arvo Haavisto Cup, Ilmajoki, Finland (Greco-Roman)

145.5 pounds: 1. Mykola Savcnenko (Ukraine). 2. Thrasher Porter, 10. Ben Sanchez

163: 3. Andy Bisek, 9. Geordan Speiller

264.5: 1. Robbie Smith

Henri Deglane Challenge, Nice, France

Women’s 158.5 freestyle: 1. Adeline Gray

Men’s 121 freestyle: 1. Omak Sjurjun (Russia). 3. Mark McKnight

Men’s 185 Greco-Roman: 1. Sergei Severin (Ukraine). 3. Shaun Scott

Cross-country skiing: World Cup, Gaellivare, Sweden

Women’s 10k free: 1. Marit Bjoergen (Norway). 3. Kikkan Randall, 5. Holly Brooks, 21. Liz Stephen, 32. Jessie Diggins, 53. Ida Sargent

Men’s 10k free: 1. Martin Johnsrud Sundby (Norway). 33. Kris Freeman, 38. Noah Hoffman, 59. Tad Elliott, 63. Simi Hamilton, 76. Sylvan Ellefson

Women’s 4×5 mixed relay: 1. Norway I, 2. Sweden I, 3. USA (Brooks, Randall, Stephen, Diggins)

Men’s 4×7.5 mixed relay: 1. Norway I, 2. Sweden I, 3. Russia I. 15. USA (Andy Newell, Hoffman, Elliott, Hamilton).

Ski jumping: World Cup, Lillehammer, Norway

Women: 1. Sara Takanashi (Japan), 2. Sarah Hendrickson. 8. Lindsey Van, 13. Jessica Jerome, 24. Abby Hughes, 40. Alissa Johnson, 44. Nina Lussi

Men, first competition: 1. Severin Freund (Germany). 48. Peter Frenette (USA).

Men, second competition: 1. Gregor Schlierenzauer (Austria). No U.S. competitors.

Mixed team: 1. Norway, 2. Japan, 3. Italy. 5. USA (Van, Anders Johnson, Hendrickson, Frenette)

Nordic combined: World Cup, Lillehammer, Norway

10k: 1. Magnus Moan (Norway). 24. Todd Lodwick, 30. Taylor Fletcher, 38. Bryan Fletcher, 43. Bill Demong

10k penalty race: 1. Moan. 22. B. Fletcher.

Luge: World Cup, Igls, Austria

Men: 1. Felix Loch (Germany). 16. Chris Mazdzer, 25. Taylor Morris

Women: 1. Anke Wischnewski (Germany). 6. Julia Clukey, 11. Erin Hamlin, 23. Kate Hansen

Doubles: 1. Tobias Wendt/Tobias Arlt (Germany). 10. Matthew Mortensen/Preston Griffall

Relay: 1. Germany. 5. USA (Clukey, Mazdzer, Mortensen/Griffall)

Bobsled: World Cup, Whistler, B.C.

2-man: 1. Steven Holcomb/Steven Langton. 9. Nick Cunningham/Chris Fogt. 10. Cory Butner/Johnny Quinn

4-man: 1. Alexander Zubkov (Russia). 4. Holcomb, 11. Cunningham, DQ. Butner

Women: 1. Kallie Humphries/Chelsea Valois (Canada). 9. Jazmine Fenlator/Katie Eberling, 10. Elana Meyers/Lolo Jones, 11. Jamie Greubel/Emily Azevedo

Skeleton: World Cup, Whistler, B.C.

Men: 1. Frank Rommel (Germany). 15. Matt Antoine, 19. John Daly, 24. Kyle Tress

Women: 1. Marion Thees (Germany). 6. Noelle Pikus-Pace, 7. Katie Uhlaender

Biathlon: World Cup season opener, Oestersund, Sweden

Mixed relay: 1. Russia, 2. Norway, 3. Czech Republic. 17. USA (Sara Studebaker, Susan Dunklee, Jay Hakkinen, Lowell Bailey)

Speedskating: World Cup, Kolomna, Russia (only a couple of events)

Men’s 1,500: 1. Verweij Koen (Netherlands). 3. Brian Hansen, 10. Shani Davis

Women’s 1,500: 1. Marrit Leenstra (Netherlands). 13th, Division B. Maria Lamb.

Women’s 3,000: 1. Claudia Pechstein (Germany). 4th, Division B. Jilleanne Rookard.

Men’s 5,000: 1. Sven Kramer (Netherlands). 8th, Division B. Emery Lehman.

Women’s mass start: 1. Bo-Reum Kim (South Korea). 19th. Maria Lamb.

Men’s mass start: 1. Jorrit Bergsma (Netherlands). DQ. Patrick Meek.

(Headline source: The sixth quote of this Simpsons episode.)

Japan figures out paths to Grand Prix Final

Yuzuru Hanyu packs a lot of jumps into a short program. The Japanese teen’s leaping prowess gave him a world record 95.07 points in the short program at Skate America. Then he beat that this weekend in his home country with 95.32.

He won the NHK Trophy and qualified for the Grand Prix Final in Sochi, the 2014 Olympic site. But he won’t have an easy time getting back there in 15 months. FOUR of the six qualifiers for the men’s Final are from Japan.

Canada’s back-to-back world champion Patrick Chan is officially first, tying at 28 points (one first place, one second) with Hanyu and Takahiko Kozuka. Then it’s Tatsuki Machida at 26 points, tied with Daisuke Takahashi. Spain’s Javier Fernandez has the last spot with 24 points.

Japanese men won four of the six Grand Prix events. That’s one each for Hanyu, Kozuka and Machida, then one for Takahito Mura. But Mura had a bad run at Skate Canada, finishing eighth, so he’s only the third alternate. Fernandez and Chan have the other wins.

The U.S. skaters aren’t totally out of it. Jeremy Abbott (second in France, fifth at Skate America) is the first alternate. Ross Miner beat Fernandez to reach the podium at the NHK Trophy, which I still keep typing as “NHL Trophy.”

Check the men’s standings, and we’ll move to the others. Yes, the USA will be represented at the Final. Not as much as Japan. Or Russia.


Ashley Wagner won in the USA and France. Japan’s Mao Asada won in China and Japan. They’re 1-2 headed into the Final. Then it’s Finland’s Kiira Korpi and another Japanese skater, Akiko Suzuki. Then two Russians, Julia Lipnitskaia and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva.

Two more Americans, Christina Gao and Mirai Nagasu, are the first two alternates, ahead of yet another Japanese skater and another American, Agnes Zawadski. Add Gracie Gold in 12th, and the USA has five skaters in the top 12 along with three Russians, three Japanese skaters and Korpi. Shall we start a team event? (Women’s standings)

Ice dance

If you read the season preview, you won’t be surprised to see that the USA’s Meryl Davis/Charlie White and Canada’s Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir won their events. France’s Nathalie Pechalat/Fabian Bourzat, third in last year’s Worlds, won the other two.

Then three other pairs each took second in their events. That’s your Grand Prix Final field. The top two alternates each placed third in their two events, but the USA’s Shibutani siblings (Maia and Alex) messed everything up by finishing third and fourth in their events.

Check the standings — this event is nothing if not predictable.


Almost as predictable as ice dance. Russia’s Tatiana Voloshozhar/Maxim Trankov won both of their events.

Russia’s Vera Bazarova/Yuri Larionov and China’s Pang Qing/Tong Jian won the events without Voloshozhar/Trankov and finished second in the events with the top pair.

Russia’s Yuko Kavaguti/Alexander Smirmov won without the top three and finished second to Pang/Tong.

Canada’s Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford finished second in each event — once to Kavaguti/Smirnov, once to Germany’s Aliona Savchenko/Robin Szolkowy.

The Germans only competed in one event, leaving space in the top six for one more pair. Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers/Dylan Moscovitch finished fourth in China, then placed second when only one of the top five pairs competed in Japan.

That squeezed out the USA’s Caydee Denney/John Coughlin, who finished third in each event.

Check the standings if you want to see all that in chart form.


So the 24 entries in the Grand Prix Final are set, pending injuries and illness. Country-by-country:

  • Russia: 2 women, 3 pairs, 2 dance duos
  • Japan: 4 men, 2 women
  • Canada: 1 man, 2 pairs, 1 dance duo
  • USA: 1 woman, 1 dance duo
  • China: 1 pair
  • France: 1 dance duo
  • Italy: 1 dance duo
  • Finland: 1 woman
  • Spain: 1 man

(Yes, the headline pun is awful.)

Strange ways to determine world champions, #145: Chess

Chess championships are usually determined in long one-on-one matches, sometimes involving Cold War posturing or at least a few accusations of espionage.

In men’s chess, in the confusion over the Garry Kasparov split and the flirtation with the International Olympic Committee, FIDE (the international overlords/organizing body) settled on March Madness-style tournaments as the way to determine a world champion. The first, in 1999, gave us new FIDE world champion Alexander Khalifman — a fine champion if you overlook the fact that Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and Vishy Anand skipped the tournament, or the fact that Khalifman wasn’t rated in the top 40 at the time. (He did make the top 15 and even the top 12 a couple of years later.)

Anand won the big FIDE prize in 2000, the same year Kasparov finally lost an independently organized world championship match to Vladimir Kramnik. The Kasparov-Kramnik group had trouble organizing the next match, and Kasparov himself refused to play in the candidates matches to determine Kramnik’s next challenger. Over the next four years, all sorts of unification series were suggested, usually involving some permutation of Kramnik (the lineal champion, more or less), Kasparov (still the world’s top-rated player until 2006), the winner of a major candidates tournament, and whoever held the FIDE tournament title at the time.

Ruslan Ponomariov, the 2002 FIDE winner, was also ranked #1 — among juniors. (He was at least a top-10 player through much of his reign.) The 2004 FIDE tournament was a farce, with only two of the top 10 players in the world participating and world #44 Rustam Kasimdzhanov taking the title. The real action in 2004 was in the independent group, where Peter Leko took Kramnik to the wire before the champion won Game 14 to level the match 7-7 and retain his title.

By 2005, the situation was improving. FIDE held an eight-player (not eight-man — Judit Polgar participated) round-robin tournament, with third-rated Veselin Topalov winning. Kramnik and Kasparov declined to participate, but Kramnik faced Topalov in an actual unification match in 2006 and kept the title despite a controversy over the toilets.

FIDE held another eight-player double round-robin tournament in 2007. Anand, long a top-three player and No. 1 in the wake of Kasparov’s retirement, won the title. From then on, FIDE’s champion has been the undisputed champion, and Anand has defended the title in three matches (2008, 2010, 2012).

So that’s men’s chess. What about women’s?

For decades, the women’s title was decided by traditional matches. The exceptions were either unfortunate (a round-robin after the 1944 air-raid death of longtime champion Vera Menchik) or curious (FIDE’s insistence on a three-player tournament with the champion, the past champion and the top contender in 1956).

Until 2000, when they decided that this “tournament” thing was such a great idea that they’d try it on the women’s side as well. China’s Xie Jun had held the title much of the previous decade except from 1996 to 1999, when Hungarian-American Susan Polgar held the title and was stripped when she couldn’t agree to terms with FIDE about returning to action from childbirth. Xie managed to defend her title in the 2000 tournament, a remarkable feat, but passed on the 2001 tournament.

The 2001 winner was the fourth seed, Zhu Chen. The runner-up was a remarkable 17-year-old prodigy named Alexandra Kosteniuk, who kept up her overachieving ways in European and other tournaments. The absurd comparisons to Anna Kournikova (they’re Russian, they get attention for their looks, they hang out in Florida) were smashed to bits when she won the world title in 2008.

The 2004 tournament was lacking the last two champions — Xie and Zhu — along with Judit Polgar, who prefers the men’s (open) tournament. But the winner was the solid Antoaneta Stefanova, ranked 10th at the time but higher than that in most rankings in the years before and after the tournament. No. 6 Xu Yuhua won in 2006, then No. 10 Kosteniuk in 2008. In 2010, Kosteniuk passed the title to another prodigy, Hou Yifan, the top-ranked junior and third-ranked woman in the world.

Then finally, the women’s title reverted to matches. Humpy Koneru, the only non-Judit Polgar player ranked ahead of Hou, won the Grand Prix for the right to challenge for the title in 2011. Hou won three games out of eight; Koneru won none. Title defended.

But …

FIDE has decided to alternate championship approaches. Matches in odd years. In even years, we’re back to tournaments.

And this year, the upsets that have often shook up the men’s tournaments struck the women’s tournament. Hou and Koneru, still the top-rated players behind Judit Polgar, were knocked out in the second round. Your finalists are the former champion Stefanova, now ranked 19th, and No. 38 Anna Ushenina.

The good news for Hou — she has already won the Grand Prix, giving her the right to challenge for the world title next year. So to recap: The world champion won a challengers tournament so she could challenge for the world championship after losing it in a crapshoot tournament. Got that?

Meanwhile, in Mexico, top-ranked woman Judit Polgar has advanced to the final of a tournament and will face Magnus Carlsen … the top-ranked man in the world. Carlsen, who will turn 22 this week, dropped out of the qualifiers for the 2012 world championship match. But he’ll be in the mix the next time around. For now.

It’s better than boxing. The top players in the world play each other regularly. But the world championship needs to be special. The world champion shouldn’t lose his or her title in a two-game tournament “match.”


Women’s soccer league: Now for something completely different

“Third time’s a charm?” doesn’t really fit the new women’s soccer league announced today. The League with No Name is too drastically different from the overly ambitious WUSA and its scaled-down successor, WPS.

This league revs up the cost containment of WPS, particularly the latter years. But it’s also a unique venture of three national federations, eight ownership groups and, apparently, Unnamed Sponsor Who Is Making The MLS-Affiliated Teams Use Non-MLS Names. (See Stumptown Footy’s deduction and D.C. United Women’s colorful statement.)

So don’t accuse this new league of trying the same thing and expecting different results. Whether it works or not, it’s a unique approach.

A few statements and news bits from around the new league:

– Portland: This piece hails the Timbers involvement and other MLS ties with the new league, though it curiously omits D.C. United. (Granted, D.C. United’s involvement seems significantly smaller than the Timbers’ commitment, but they’re not totally out of the game.)

Timbers owner Merritt Paulson has a statement with a link for season-ticket sales.

– Seattle: The Sounders Women sound gracious after being passed up for the new league in favor of the other Seattle group, whose leader Bill Predmore spoke with The Seattle Times‘ Joshua Mayers.

And Tina Ellertson (who has obtained her coaching “A” license) is excited.

– Kansas City: Welcome to FC Kansas City, which has made its appearance known through the Missouri Comets (MISL) site. If you thought the Sporting KC ownership group skewed young, meet Brian Budzinski.

– Western New York: No statement yet on the Flash site, though they mentioned the announcement on Twitter.

– Chicago: A little more activity on Twitter; no full statement on the Red Stars site.

– Boston: Breakers managing partner Mike Stoller was on the conference call, and the site has a statement with stadium and ticket info.

– D.C.: See above. The team will remain at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

– New Jersey: Hello? Sky Blue?

Outside the league, there’s a bit of bitterness in Los Angeles.

There’s a more conciliatory tone from the USL. W-League senior director Amanda Duffy passed along the following statement:

USL and the W-League are supportive of U.S. Soccer and the new women’s professional league announced earlier today, consistent with how we’ve supported the previous women’s professional leagues of WUSA and WPS.

We’re pleased with the foundation we’ve established through the W-League in the United States and Canada as leaders in women’s soccer and continue to be focused on the quality growth of the league and its teams. Collectively we made substantial strides in 2012 and with several exciting discussions we’ve been having over the past 6-12 months we are pleased with our overall positive direction as we enter our 19th season of operation. We look forward to sharing more over the next 15-30 days.

Not enough? Read U.S. Soccer’s quote sheet.

New women’s soccer league: Questions and evolving answers

Posting this before the 1 p.m. ET conference call about the new league. Will update throughout. (Beforehand, I’m putting “likely” if I think it’ll be answered; “unlikely” if I think it won’t be, etc.)

Post-conference update: Answers in bold.

The basics from the call:

Eight teams: Boston, New Jersey, Western New York, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle, Portland

U.S. Soccer will run front office and fund up to 24 players. Canada will fund up 16. Mexico will fund up to 12.



Q: What’s the name of the new league?

Predicted likelihood of answer (PLOA): Likely

(Actual – Jack Bell question): No answer yet. 

Q: Does the new league have sponsors? A TV deal?

PLOA: Somewhat likely for sponsors; less likely for TV.

(Actual – my question): Handshake agreement on sponsor; preliminary talks with TV partner.

Q: A team in Kansas City, one that isn’t affiliated with the energetic and effective Sporting KC ownership, and not one in L.A.? What, you guys all have frequent-flier miles on Southwest? Any response to Charlie Naimo’s statement on L.A. being excluded?

PLOA: Sunil will probably decline to answer that.

(Actual: Michael Lewis question SPECIFICALLY on L.A.): “Doubt it” was pretty much right. Gulati joked that he feels like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell having to answer why there’s no team in L.A.

(Actual: Scott French question on L.A.): There was interest from L.A. but they’re not in first group.

Q: Terry Foley tweeted that his group had everything lined up but wasn’t picked. Any response?PLOA: Likely a polite, non-committal one.

(Actual: Michael Lewis question NOT SPECIFICALLY on Foley or L.A.): They had independent financial reviews and other criteria.

Q: Why no Canadian team?

(Actual: Neil Davidson question): Having a full national teams would skew the competition. Canadian cities could be involved down the road but not yet. (Answer from CSA president)

Q: How committed is U.S. Soccer to this league?PLOA: It’ll be answered; not quite sure how.

(Actual: Bell and Jeff Carlisle questions): Funding the players and front office.

Q: How many U.S. national team players will be under contract with the federation and the league?

PLOA: Should get a ballpark answer at least.

(Actual: opening statements): Up to 24.

Q: Will other players be fully professional?

(Actual: Carlisle question): Some may have other jobs or grad school. Mike Stoller, the Boston Breakers partner representing the eight ownership groups, said they will have a professional environment.

Q: Is this a multiyear commitment?

(Actual: Jeff DiVeronica question): We’re not asking people to put three years of operating expenses in escrow or anything, but it’s a multiyear commitment.

Q: What made Portland interesting?

(Actual: Oregonian question): Timbers fan base, investors led by Paulson family.

Q: Uhhh … Seattle Sounders?

PLOA: Very diplomatic answer.

 (Actual: Oregonian question): There will be a team from Seattle. (Didn’t specify which ownership group, but Sounders have said they’ll be in W-League, so …)

Q: At one point, it appeared that the USL would be heavily involved in the operations. Why did that change?

PLOA: Unlikely.

(Actual: Jeff Kassouf question): Some former USL teams involved. Sunil thanks USL staff.

Q: How much collaboration with MLS?

(Actual: Jonathan Tannenwald question): Soccer United Marketing, Soccer United Marketing, Don Garber, Soccer United Marketing, Dan Flynn, Soccer United Marketing.

Q: Salary cap?

(Actual: Kyle McCarthy question): “Certainly some guidelines.” Mentioned loose caps (or exceptions) from MLS and NBA.



Q: Hope Solo?

A: Next question.

Q: Hi, I haven’t read anything about women’s soccer in the last eight years. I was just wondering if Mia Hamm would be involved.

A: Mia is a wonderful ambassador for the game, etc., etc., what are you doing on this call?

Q: Mexico is involved. So will we have a team in Cancun?

A: No. Just players, no teams.

Q: Please?

A: No.

Q: Is Dan Borislow involved?

A: No. (I exchanged email with him. He’s skeptical of the league’s chance for success.)



Dan Borislow says he owns the Freedom name, and it would be an issue if other people started to use it.

Peter Wilt, who helped launch the Chicago Red Stars and put forth a proposed new business plan in December, had this to say: “More reasonable budgets mitigate the risk and provide a sensible baseline to build on. Federations subsidizing national team player compensation is a creative way to help keep expenses down and quality of play up. Across the board cost reductions will need to be implemented (relative to WPS costs) to reach the new budget targets however. While this new business model doesn’t assure breaking even, it does lessen the chances of losing significant sums and makes the business proposition more attractive, which should attract more investors in the future.”