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It Seems To Me . . .

Champions Cup was run for money without little regard for a fair result.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, October 15, 1999) -- I didn't want the recent CONCACAF Champions Cup to recede too far into the distant past without offering a few comments. I think the event provided a few valuable lessons both on the field, and off.

Over the last several weeks I have received a number of e-mails asking why in the world was this tournament held in Las Vegas. The answer seems to be both simple and complicated.

First, let me digress here a moment. Yes, I am very well aware that CONCACAF wants to be know, from now on, as "The Football Confederation." The new name is "easier to understand and to pronounce" says general secretary Chuck Blazer. But officially the name of the organization remains the "Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football."

In Las Vegas, Sepp Blatter, president of world governing body FIFA, was asked what he thought of the new name given there are many football confederations around the world. He smiled and said "it is still CONCACAF to me." So if it's still CONCACAF to Sepp, then for the time being at least, it's still CONCACAF to me.

Back to the question of why Vegas. Blazer gave three reasons for the decision to play in Las Vegas: it was a neutral site, a nice stadium was available at an attractive price; and CONCACAF could do some pioneering work -- helping build soccer in a new market, one with a significant Hispanic population. "It's a fresh market," he told reporters. "It has a lot of promise."

Well that's the official answer. The unofficial answer is "crap tables and showgirls."

If you were a CONCACAF board member, and you had the option of spending a week in one of two growing but unexplored soccer areas -- and you were given the choice of Vegas or say San Jose, Costa Rica (and no offense meant to Costa Ricans) where would you chose. Moreover, Vegas is willing to throw money behind events like championship fights that might draw well-heeled gamblers to their doors.

CONCACAF sold a vision of the rich and powerful backers of the Mexican teams flying in for a fun filled week of soccer and casinos. So Vegas put up the money to back the tournament. The junkets didn't happen this year, but backers are still hoping it will next year. The tournament will be back in Vegas for the next two years, but likely in early December and not in the heat of September.

So that is why the eight teams found themselves playing in 40,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium, the home of University of Nevada Las Vegas football, before crowds for some matches numbering in the dozens, on a field totally unsuitable for professional soccer? We were told the field was about 110 yards long and was 70 yards wide. It had to have those dimensions because under Rule 1 of The Laws of the Game, that is the minimum acceptable dimensions for international matches. The length of the field, given the American Football markings, appeared about 107 yards long. Several of us paced off the width. It was a lot closer to 62 yards wide than 70.

To make matters worse, the field was newly installed, had been rolled and re-rolled and then was cut to putting-green length. It was like playing on Astroturf. Add the obstruction of the UNLV logos -- looking like it was done by a kid with crayons -- along with the blackened football yard markings, and it made for an embarrassing picture for anyone watching live or on television (which was available internationally).

The smaller field favored the two Mexican teams, Necaxa and Toluca, both of whom are very physical and not terribly fast. Surprisingly, the narrow dimensions helped what turned out to be the Cinderella of the tournament, Costa Rica's Alajuela, which ended up the runnerup after ousting the Chicago Fire.

Clearly the smaller field was a disadvantage for both the Fire and D.C. United. The narrow width forced play into the center of the field and made attacking down the wings difficult, if not impossible. It also made throw-ins to the center of the box commonplace, and made for easy corner kicks.

All this did not make CONCACAF officials unhappy. One of the major off-field lessons on Las Vegas is that a majority of CONCACAF officials are Latin and they were very upset when upstart D.C. United won the tournament last year.

It's all about money. Television revenues from Mexico are much greater than from the U.S. CONCACAF shares those revenues. This is also going to true of the upcoming FIFA World Club Championship. So there were many relieved smiles when Necaxa eliminated D.C. United.

There were valuable on-field lessons to be learned in Vegas. As DC United coach Thomas Rongen said after the Necaxa loss, "We have to learn that at this level you always pay for your mistakes. You might get away with things in MLS, but here you won't. We need a lot more matches like this these to gain the experience we need. Teams like Necaxa play like this week in and week out. In MLS we don't."

Blatter was at the United-Necaxa match. Afterwards he was full of praise for the loser. "I know Necaxa and have seen them play," he said. "But I did not know this Washington team. They played very well. I was very pleasantly surprised. They might not be Manchester United or Bayern (Munich), but they can play at a high level. What they need is more international experience and a goalkeeper with a little more luck. Most of all they must play internationally on a regular basis in order to improve."

In the Major League Soccer media conference call the week following the tournament, MLS executive vice president Ivan Gazidis said: "Obviously we are disappointed in the results of the CONCACAF tournament last week in Las Vegas. I think it is a sign of the progression that we have made as a league that we are so incredibly disappointed. We expect to win these tournaments these days and it's heartbreaking when we don't."

I'm sorry, but these are crocodile tears. The biggest lesson, I think, from the Champions Cup is that if MLS is going to compete on an international level it has to stop weakening its best teams every year in the name of parity.

Don't get me wrong. I understand why some level of parity is critical to the league's survival. And the tight race in the Western Division shows that MLS has achieved some level of parity this year. My problem is the way they are going about it. You can achieve parity two ways. You can make your weaker teams stronger through a reverse order draft and the free agency movement of players, while requiring your stronger teams to play a more difficult schedule (the National Football League formula). Or you can weaken your better teams, improve your worst teams, and hope that everyone sort of meets in the mediocre middle. I would argue that is what MLS has done with its aggressive salary cap and no free movement of players.

The simple fact is this year's edition of DC United is not as good as last years which won immense bragging rights for MLS by winning both the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the InterAmerican Cup. Yes, Diego Sonora has been a fine addition. Yes, Ben Olsen has matured as a player. But if Rongen had John Harkes, Tony Sanneh, Mario Gori, and Scott Garlick available, all lost to salary cap considerations, United might well have repeated as champions.

The lesson from Las Vegas is that MLS teams can compete with the best in the hemisphere. But if they are to win, they have to be strengthened, not weakened, each and every year.

Robert Wagman’s "It Seems To Me . . ." column appears weekly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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