The week in myriad sports includes a reminder that the best U.S. athlete of the year might be a triathlete, along with a reminder to turn off auto-correct when writing beach volleyball stories.
BEST U.S. ATHLETE OF THE YEAR NOMINEE
Gwen Jorgensen is in her fifth year as a triathlete, and she has already won six World Series races, three in a row. If you don’t build up a massive lead after the bike phase, just wave as she goes by.
Meanwhile, Jorgensen’s teammate put a wry smile on less happy news:
I'm very disappointed to have to withdraw from #WTSChicago with a minor injury. If it weren't my foot, I'd be kicking myself right now.
The USA gets all wrapped up in the World Cup. Everyone asks if it’ll last and whether we’ve finally caught on.
But to see the progress, you have to look farther back than every four-year cycle.
In the pre-Internet days 20 years ago, I was always “The Soccer Guy.” If people had a soccer question, they asked me. By today’s standards, I wasn’t much of an expert. In those days, anyone who could name a few players was the go-to person.
Even in 1999, I was in relative isolation. Frankly, that gave me some opportunities — the Knight Ridder Tribune News Service and then USA TODAY let me write soccer columns because I filled a niche no one else was clamoring to fill. I wrote a column for KRT after the 1999 Women’s World Cup final suggesting that the USA was finally learning what it meant to be a soccer supporter — to fret nervously through a tight game and then exulting in relief and celebration. (Or not, which is painful.)
My timing was wrong. The USA has always had a subcurrent of people who want to be soccer supporters but didn’t have the tools of today’s satellite TV and social media. The mainstream took a bit longer to catch on.
But it did. And just take a look at all the things today we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago:
– Massive public gatherings to watch U.S. games, not just in metropolises like New York but everywhere.
– ESPN’s website brought to its knees by demand. (It’s OK — I didn’t need to watch Portugal-Ghana.)
– Sitting down at Starbucks to watch South Korea play on my phone, only to see the person next to me already has it up on his laptop.
– Going outside to deal with the dogs and hearing loud cheers alerting me to a U.S. goal — from next door. (Their cable is apparently a little faster than ours.)
– The USA leading the world in traveling to Brazil for the Cup.
– Topic A everywhere you go. Twenty-five, even 10 years ago, if you mentioned the World Cup to someone, you might have to explain what it is. No more.
The biggest question, the skeptics always say, is what happens in the years between big events. But notice how the skepticism has shifted.
MLS was once written off because, it was said, Americans couldn’t get into soccer. Now the skeptics say MLS can’t get any better because U.S. fans are spoiled by the Premier League, La Liga, Mexican soccer and the Champions League.
Quite a change, isn’t it?
Perhaps it’s a latent love of the game that was brought out by social media and the realization that others were out there. Perhaps it’s a generational change, with kids growing up with the game as part of the mainstream.
Doesn’t matter in the long run. I said in my 1999 column that the USA was learning to be a soccer nation. But I had no idea what that would mean for all of us over the next 15 years.
For those of us who always argued for this sport and fought for it, it’s a moment to savor. Enjoy.
And then make sure everyone’s watching the women next year.
I fell out of love with baseball in young adulthood. MLB commissioner Bud Selig radiated arrogance. I’d read enough about soccer and American exceptionalism to view the game as cultural imperialism, complete with its mythical origins that hid the game’s roots in foreign sports. My experience with high school baseball coaches and parents from my local newspaper days skewed negative.
Then there’s the D.C. situation, where Selig and company extorted more than $600 million off the Washington government to build Nationals Park. The city will be paying for that one for years to come, while D.C. United is left begging for a land swap just so they can build their own field before RFK Stadium finally turns to dust. (To this day, I refuse to set foot in Nationals Park. I might change my mind when D.C. United finally completes its own place.)
But one of my kids wanted to play Little League with a few of his friends this spring, and I went along with it. I even wound up helping out a bit, coaching at first base and keeping the lineup card on occasion.
And it was fun.
Little League and youth baseball as a whole do a lot of things right — some little, some big.
1. Kids progress at their own pace. New to the game at age 7 or 8? You might be in “Rookie ball” or “Single-A,” mirroring pro baseball’s minor-league system. More advanced? Try out for “Double-A,” where kids take over pitching duties from the coaches and score is kept for the first time. Then “Triple-A” and eventually the “Majors,” where everyone winds up by age 12. (Local leagues have the authority to set the specifics.)
Compare this to soccer, where players are rigidly herded into teams by their birthdates. Advanced players can “play up” on occasion, but it’s rare that a newcomer is allowed to “play down.”
2. Cool uniforms. When the Little League Athletes play the Cardinals, the players all look like miniaturized major leaguers. We don’t seem to do this in soccer. I’ve seen a few organizations that have “Fire” and “Rapids” T-shirts, but they look nothing like the MLS team apparel.
(I think Eric Wynalda, a baseball fan as well as a soccer Hall of Famer, once made a similar point.)
3. Rec trumps travel. The Little League World Series isn’t a competition of travel teams. It’s a collection of All-Star teams from local Little Leagues. And no matter what you think of the wisdom of shining such a bright spotlight on 12-year-old kids, it’s clearly the biggest event in youth sports.
Our town has several scattered baseball fields, but there’s a “home park” with a couple of fields and some walls with plaques bearing the names not of travel teams that won State Cups, but of teams that won the local leagues.
Travel baseball exists. But you don’t hear much about it. I never heard a parent talking about it at our Little League games. It’s not a big topic in our elementary school. Our local message boards aren’t full of anonymous parents trashing each other’s baseball clubs like they do with the soccer clubs.
But soccer is different, you might argue. Well, yes, it is. For one thing, a “good” soccer player can be dragged down by teammates. Baseball players can come from tiny high schools — a good bat and a 95-mph fastball stand out no matter what kind of competition a player is facing. A good soccer player can only do so much if his or her team never gets the ball. So soccer players have more incentive to play with similarly skilled teammates and face solid competition to prove that their goals aren’t just flukes of playing against bad teams.
This is the age to teach soccer. A gifted soccer player needs to hone skills and test them against good defenders at ages 8-12. Most doctors and baseball experts agree a gifted baseball pitcher shouldn’t even learn how to throw a curveball until his teens.
Yet many aspects of youth baseball can translate. Soccer players can get additional training, as many baseball players do, without segregating themselves from their classmates and friends. MLS would surely benefit from having some brand identity in the youth ranks.
Specifics aside, the big lesson to take from Little League baseball is that it’s fun. It’s creating good associations with the sport.
Travel soccer, on the other hand, simply demands too much and gives too little. I talked recently with one parent of a talented athlete who lamented an upcoming two-hour drive to West Virginia for a one-hour game. In baseball, she never traveled more than 15 minutes for her son to play for two hours. They’re ditching travel soccer in the fall.
Here’s what Steve Rushin recently wrote for Sports Illustrated (I didn’t find it online: it’s p. 96 of the June 9 issue) about seeing his kids in Little League:
Little League is celebrating its 75th anniversary this month and is a powerful gateway drug to Major League Baseball fandom. And so my children, three of whom started playing Little League this spring, have become suddenly hooked on the big league game as well.
Rushin wasn’t excited because his kids might become travel baseball stars, college scholarship material or pro draft picks. He was excited because his kids had learned to love the game.
Is youth soccer “a powerful gateway drug” to soccer? Or is it creating negative associations of overbearing parents, flunked tryouts, and long, lonely car rides?
World chess champion Magnus Carlsen completed the triple crown, adding the rapid (15 minutes + 10 seconds per move) and blitz (3 minutes + 2 seconds per move) championships to his regulation title. This down-to-the-wire draw against top American Hikaru Nakamura helped. They drew on a three-move repetition while each player flung pieces around like they were in a cup-stacking contest.
Americans Tri Bourne (age 25) and John Hyden (41!) had never won an FIVB World Tour medal, and they had to advance through the qualification rounds in Berlin. They did so, then beat ANOTHER American team that had come through qualification — Ryan Doherty and Nick Lucena.
BIGGEST RUGBY WIN
U.S. rugby men had lost seven straight to Canada before this thriller:
On the start list for this week’s USA Track and Field Championships: Just’N Thymes.
TV times (ET):
Friday 10 p.m.-midnight, NBCSN
Saturday 3-4 p.m., Universal Sports
Saturday 4-6 p.m., NBC
Sunday 3-4 p.m., Universal Sports
Sunday 4-6 p.m., NBC
BEST WAY TO COPE WITH BEING LEFT OFF WORLD CUP TEAM
Max Kruse quickly learned 2-7 Draw Lowball Poker and won $36,000 at the World Series of Poker.
BEST POKER EVENT
Rotating games, high buy-in, big money — the pros love the Poker Players Championship, event #46 of the World Series of Poker.
How do you stand out in track and field in a non-Olympic, non-World Championship year?
A world record is the best way to do it, and high jumpers are getting closer and closer. That’s the highlight of this week’s Daily Relay Monday Morning Run, which starts with the Diamond League event in New York, the first in which two men cleared 2.42 meters (that’s 3/4 inch shy of 8 feet). Ukraine’s Bohdan Bondarenko and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim each took their shots at a new record of 2.46 meters (that’s 3.4 inch over 8 feet) but fell shy.
The funny thing is that they might not even be the best high jumpers in the world at the moment. Russia’s Ivan Ukhov and Canada’s Derek Drouin missed the New York meet. They’ve jumped 2.40 and 2.41 this year. USA’s Erik Kynard has gone over 2.37. Ukhov also cleared 2.42 indoor, while fellow Russian Aleksey Dmitrik got over 2.40.
Meanwhile, we’re promised a few record attempts at the Golden Spike meet tomorrow in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Slight asterisk there, though — they’re in the rarely contested distances of 1,000 meters, 2,000 meters and 20,000 meters. (For the latter, the “one-hour run” mark is also at risk.)
Other best and worst of the week in myriad sports:
BEST DEFENSIVE START TO A WORLD CUP QUALIFYING CAMPAIGN
England’s women: Seven games, seven wins, 36 goals scored, 0 goals conceded. (OK, so Germany has scored 56. They conceded three. Slackers.)
MOST SURPRISING CYCLING WIN
Now you know why the big guns always chase down the breakaways — American Andrew Talansky won the Dauphine Libere when Alberto Contador and Chris Froome waited too long to catch him in the final stage.
FASTEST SKATER AMONG MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYERS
Question came up today on Twitter: We know Russia and Qatar were controversial choices. Who would be a good World Cup host?
I’d set out these criteria:
Stable, non-authoritarian government
Ability to build venues without creating a class of slave laborers
Demonstrated interest in the sport
Then a “nice to have” rather than a “must have”: Ability to get from venue to venue without getting in an airplane or spending a full day on trains.
Most of the past World Cup hosts have been up to the task. In 1950, Brazil helped the World Cup, which had only been contested three times before World War II, regain a foothold in international sports. Chile, in the pre-Allende and pre-Pinochet days, overcame a devastating earthquake to host in 1962. Mexico (1970, 1986) and the USA (1994) had heat issues but were otherwise pretty good, with the USA smashing attendance records.
The worst World Cup host of my lifetime was surely Argentina in 1978. The horrors of torture and slaughter, coinciding with a suspicious win for the host country, are chronicled in a recent Wright Thompson story for ESPN’s magazine. (Update: Here’s the link. Also, I fixed the year. My brain is mush.)
Most European hosts have been just fine, though my highlights from the 1990 World Cup in Italy showed a lot of empty seats.
The 2002 World Cup had two good hosts in Japan and South Korea who shouldn’t have had to share. The 2010 World Cup was a lot to ask from South Africa.
It’s only now that we’ve hit a rut. Brazil probably could have pulled off a decent World Cup but insisted on some oddities like building a stadium far up the Amazon in Manaus. Far too ambitious.
Russia is … well, it’s Russia. Not too interested in getting along with the rest of the world these days. They plan to build a bunch of new stadiums. The Sochi Olympics didn’t fill anyone with confidence.
Then there’s Qatar, the most ghastly hosting decision by a major sports organization. Exploited workers are dying. FIFA has suddenly realized it’s hot. The bid process was 50 shades of shady.
So what would be better?
Call it Western bias if you like, but most past hosts would be fine. England is surely overdue. The USA would be even better today than it was in 1994, though I’d prefer some geographic consolidation.
The better question would be where the World Cup can go next.
Australia had a solid bid for 2022. It’s the one place that offered a solo bid in the 2018-22 fiasco that hasn’t already hosted.
After that, back to England. Then maybe perennial bidder Morocco?
“So, you getting ready to go to Rio?” asked my dentist.
He loves soccer. We often have conversations like this:
“What about the defense? They have that guy Besler, or am I thinking of Beasley?”
“Arrrghwa rahhbwa baahna.”
“Right — Besler at center back. How is he?”
But no, I’m not getting ready to go to Brazil. Just I didn’t go to South Africa in 2010. Or Germany in 2006, though I was there five years later for the Women’s World Cup and loved it. I wasn’t in Japan or South Korea for 2002, instead going through an intensive sleep-deprivation experiment at home and in the USA TODAY office, nor France in 1998.
When the Cup was in the USA in 1994, I made it to one game — Belgium-Saudi Arabia, which means I was lucky enough to see the goal of the tournament.
Don’t mistake my lack of attendance as apathy. I’ve always followed the World Cup any way I could.
In 1982, I realized that the nearly four weeks I would spend at summer camp coincided with most of the World Cup. I was just old enough to be horrified.
I asked my dear mother if she would clip each day’s scores and standings, if applicable, from the daily paper and mail them to me. Bless her heart, she did it. And in a cabin in the Northeast Georgia foothills, I duly copied them into a bulky notebook in which I followed each group’s standings and traced through the knockout rounds. If anyone at my camp needed a break from being pummeled in the rowdy sports that apparently built character, they could come over and ask me how Argentina had progressed from the group stage through the quarterfinals. (Not that anyone did. Go to that camp today, and you might see a few Messi shirts. There were no Maradona shirts in those days.)
In my USA TODAY days, I went to several Olympics: 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010. No World Cups. It’s pretty simple: USA TODAY sends scores of people to the Olympics. To a World Cup, usually one or two. (I understand it’s more these days.) It wasn’t me in 2002 or 2006 because the “print” staff hadn’t yet realized that the “online” staff had built a presence and that people outside our offices generally saw me as our soccer writer. It wasn’t me in 2010 because I had left.
I would have loved to have gone in 2006. Then again, I had one young son and was about to have another. So the timing wasn’t ideal.
So maybe I missed my window of opportunity. But I don’t really have any regrets. And frankly, I’ve developed a view that may shock most of you:
I’d rather go to the Olympics than the World Cup.
No, really. I got a credential to the 2014 Winter Olympics and only gave it back when I ran the numbers and realized I didn’t have the time to make the trip to Sochi pay off. Brazil this summer? Never even considered it. Rio 2016? I’m a little nervous about the preparation, but I’ll probably try to go. Pyeongchang 2018? Logistics could be tricky, but all things being equal, I’d be happy to be there. Tokyo 2020? Oh, I’m there.
Part of it is simple logistics. It’s the travel. Reporters in Brazil will cover one game, get on a plane, cover another game, get on another plane, repeat. At the Olympics, I could cover two, three, eight events a day.
The Women’s World Cup in Germany was as close to that experience as you’ll get at a major soccer tournament. Thanks to the train passes organizers offered up for a semi-reasonable price (hey, espnW was paying, not me), I could go to nine games in seven cities in 11 days.
I’m hoping to go to the Women’s World Cup again in 2015, but I won’t be able to duplicate that experience in Canada’s far-flung venues. Won’t happen in Russia 2018, either. Sure, the travel will be easy in Qatar 2022, but I’d sooner cover an ice fishing contest in Antarctica than go to that disaster-in-waiting. (If it’s moved to, say, the USA, I’ll at least get tickets, if not credentials.)
But let’s say you could pool all the World Cup games in a cohesive area. Would I want to go? Honestly, unless it’s in England — probably not.
The World Cup is not the Olympics. The World Cup doesn’t have the diversity, the color, the sense of wonder of the Olympics. It’s not the same.
And with a few exceptions, the World Cup features the same players you’ve been watching all year. You don’t get many chances to see Michael Phelps in meaningful competition. Messi and Rooney are on our TVs every week, sometimes twice, for about nine months.
Here’s the sad part: World Cup hosting rights are considered so valuable that the exchanges of goods, services and cold hard cash that surround them are one big beautiful tragedy. The 2022 Olympics? At this point, the IOC is practically begging cities to bid, lest they face an unappealing choice between Almaty (Kazakhstan) and Beijing.
Part of the problem is the “white elephant” label. Athens, Torino and Beijing had some venues that had sketchy post-Games plans. Then there’s Russia — Sochi was such a money pit that it has scared off the normally rational European public. No Winter Olympics should cost that much — you put up bleachers at your ski resorts, maybe build a ski jump hill or sliding track, and off you go. If you already have the ski jump hill and sliding track, you should be in great shape.
But there’s hope. I’ve been to London’s Olympic Park — a nice tourist attraction, training facility and host for various events. Salt Lake City unquestionably did it right — the Olympic Park and the Olympic Oval are humming with athletes in training and regular folks taking advantage of the many activities on offer.
And now, Brazil is doing it wrong for the World Cup. They’ve built a stadium in the middle of nowhere in the most literal sense.
So I’m not sure the World Cup can claim superiority over the Olympics on the “white elephant” syndrome. Not if the Olympics are planned well by a non-authoritarian government.
Sure, the Olympics could be scaled back, particularly the Summer Games. Maybe it’s time to split the Summer Games into a couple of smaller events (future blog post). But they’re still a wonderful event. Being immersed in the Olympic atmosphere is an experience I’ll always treasure.
The World Cup, on the other hand, is losing some of its allure to me. There’s so much soccer all year. I love the weekly Saturday wakeup with the NBC Premier League crew, my trips to the SoccerPlex to see the NWSL, and the steady summer diet of MLS. I’m finding less in common with the people going to Brazil and more in common with the hard-core Spirit fans, the masses in Seattle, and the English supporters banding together with their neighborhood club.
Then there’s FIFA, the organization so ugly that it’s hard to stomach any summary of their deeds that isn’t mitigated by John Oliver’s wit.
Of course I’m still going to watch the World Cup. I’m looking forward to hearing Ian Darke, whom I had the privilege of meeting in Germany, add life to the action. And after seeing Next Goal Wins, I have a new appreciation for the countries that strive just to get a small piece of the competition.
But when it comes to planning international trips over the next decade, I have a few things that will be higher priority than handing any of my money to FIFA.
Heading into the weekend, I cast some doubt on the hype for the modern pentathlon World Cup final, which included the peculiar boast that it was expected to draw a U.S. audience of 25 million on NBC Universal. I couldn’t even find actual broadcast info after checking several sources.
Then I suggested the following:
The more I watch, the more I think modern pentathlon needs to swap the riding phase for something else. Any nominees?
Is 3v3 basketball the next beach volleyball? Given the comparative histories of the sports, probably not. But the U.S. women continue to dominate, taking World Championship gold. The men lost in the round of 16 but got a bronze medal in the dunk contest.
BEST AQUATIC EVENT THIS WEEK
The USA Women have arrived in Kunshan, China and start play in the FINA World League Super Final tomorrow. Go USA! pic.twitter.com/v41hLqWmcN
Scotland beat the USA in rugby, four injuries to nil.
– Ollie Williams’ Frontier Sports: More on Team Chris Froome vs. Team Bradley Wiggins, Rio promising clean water for sailing, first steps toward women’s Nordic combined, a triathlon misprint, Rulon Gardner forgetting he’s nearly my age.
– Daily Relay’s Monday Morning Run: The Tori Bowie phenomenon, some youngsters ready to challenge Mary Cain, decathlon champion Ashton Eaton blasting through the 400 hurdles.
– Team USA Sports Scene: More World Cup medals — in shooting this time.