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U.S. Nike Cup left much to be desired; it requires immediate reorganization.By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C, (Friday, June 16, 2000) -- The recently completed United States men’s Nike U.S. Cup competition was a bit of a farce on several levels.
Yes, the U.S. team played well and won the event. Yes, the matches were on national television so -- at least theoretically -- a wider audience was exposed to the American national team.
Yes, there were decent sized crowds at a couple of the matches. But there were clearly fundamental problems with the event. Some of the problems this year were not of the U.S. Soccer Federation's making. In fact, U.S. Soccer was clearly the victim. But other problems were within its control, and these U.S. Soccer must address.
Obviously the biggest problem was the Mexican team fiasco. U.S. Soccer had entered into a three-year contract with the Mexican Soccer Federation calling for Mexico to provide its full national squad for this year and for two years to follow. The U.S. wants Mexico in the tournament because it is our primary competition within CONCACAF, and because of the sizable ticket-buying Mexican population in this country.
Three weeks before the tournament began, there was total upheaval in the Mexican Federation. New president Alberto de la Torre came in and decided to shake up the national team because of unhappiness at it recent showings -- Mexico's loss in the Gold Cup and their failure to qualify for the Summer Olympics.
He sacked Hugo Enrique Kiese, head of the national team commission, and announced he was considering the future of national team coach Manuel Lapuente. In firing Kiese, he attacked Kiese's signing of the three-year deal with U.S. Soccer, and the decision to play in the U.S. Cup.
Two major things had occurred since the contract was signed. CONCACAF moved up the start of World Cup qualifying from September to July under pressure from world governing body FIFA to better comply with its new international calendar. At the same time, the Mexican professional season had to be extended by several weeks because of weather and scheduling problems. These two factors meant that players from the four of the top Mexican teams would be unavailable for the U.S. Cup because they were still involved in the league playoffs, and that Mexico's World Cup camp would have to begin the day after the U.S. Cup so players who might be available would have no rest between their club season and World Cup.
De la Torre tried to get Mexico out of its contract. At first he asked U.S. Soccer to reschedule the competition to a more convenient time for Mexico, maybe late August. U.S. Soccer's reply was obvious. Then he reportedly said, OK, we just won't come, get someone to replace us. He was then reminded of a possible lawsuit, and what FIFA's response might be -- such as disqualifying Mexico from World Cup qualifying. As this was going on, de la Torre was pressured to back down on Kiese's firing and reinstated him.
Kiese was told to somehow deal with the U.S. Cup problem. He flew to Chicago and made a proposal. For Mexico's first match against Ireland in Chicago, it would field a team made up primarily of the Mexicans on club team Pumas of UNAM, the highest-ranking team in the Mexican League not still playing, and he would augment the Pumas line-up with a few other quality players. Then for the subsequent match against South Africa in Dallas, he would guarantee that the Los Angeles Galaxy's Luis Hernandez would play. Finally, for the final match against the U.S. at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., more quality players would be added, including regular national team starters.
"We reluctantly said yes," said Hank Steinbrecher, U.S. Soccer's secretary general. "But we reminded them pretty forcefully the potential consequences of their failure to live up to their agreement."
So the tournament's rules were changed. Any team could add players to its roster up until the Thursday before the Giants Stadium finale. Reportedly, U.S. Soccer officials met with the Mexicans in Dallas on the Thursday morning after Mexico defeated South Africa 4-2. Now the Mexicans' attitude had changed. They said they simply could not get any additional players willing to play, so they would not be adding to their roster.
Moreover, since at that point Mexico was tied for the tournament lead, the Mexican Federation thought its players were doing quite well. The Mexican Federation also said that Hernandez would be rejoining the Galaxy and would not be coming to New York. Talk to Major League Soccer about this if you have a problem, they said.
So the match was played in the New Jersey Meadowlands with the mostly Pumas lineup and the U.S. won handily 3-0. U.S. Soccer officials were privately livid, but could do little.
"They are clearly in breech of their contract with us," says Tom King, U.S. Soccer's chief operating officer. "We are evaluating what remedies are available to us."
Reportedly, these remedies include not paying Mexico for their participation this year and declaring the contract void as to the next two appearances. "I would think it a safe bet you will not see Mexico invited back for some time," King said
Reportedly U.S. Soccer is also considering not giving Mexican league teams permission to play matches on U.S. soil, something foreign teams must have even before paying exhibition matches.
While the Mexican situation was not U.S. Soccer's fault beyond how dependent they have grown on Mexican teams to hype attendance, other problems clearly were.
The opening match at Washington’s RFK Stadium drew less 16,000 on a perfect Saturday afternoon. Why such a low attendance in a venue that traditionally has supported the U.S. men's team? Maybe the answer is ticket prices set at $50 or $35 each for a decent seat, a lackluster opponent in South Africa which also did not bring its best 11, having the match was on national television live, and, from all indications, little publicity.
"I'm not sure what the problem here are," said King looking at the sections of empty seats. Asked if U.S. Soccer was not pricing itself out-of-the-market, King replied "We'll have to evaluate that. We drew 46,000 plus here for Argentina with exactly the same ticket prices. Maybe the soccer audience here in Washington is sophisticated enough to recognize that (South Africa) is not Argentina."
As for the seeming lack of marketing of the match, King said, "We've done what we usually do here. That's actually a D.C. United responsibility."
In recent years, what U.S. Soccer has done is allow local promoters, usually MLS clubs, to stage national-team matches. This is done, they say, because the local promoters know the local scene. Obviously, that makes sense.
But it also gives U.S. Soccer a level of deniability when things go wrong. "Hey, don't blame us, blame them," is too often U.S. Soccer's response.
Another example of this comes from the women's side. In Portland, supposedly a hotbed of the women's game in this country, the U.S. Women's Cup drew minuscule crowds at very high ticket prices in matches against lackluster opponents. Why? "Ask the local organizers," was the answer. "They set the prices. They handled publicity."
Now U.S. Soccer has announced that on its way to Australia for the Olympics, the women will stop off in San Jose and play an absolutely meaningless match against Brazil, also on its way down under. The women, by then, will have played about 40 matches together, so they don't need work to familiarize themselves with each other.
I would venture a guess that both coaches will want to make sure no one gets hurt. Announced ticket prices: $75, $50, $35.
Good thing there is a large supply of dot com zillionaires in the area.
In this year's men's U.S. Cup, a controversy arose when a Mexican officiating crew let stand a blatantly offside U.S. goal against Ireland. Had Ireland won the match, it would have moved ahead of Mexico in the tournament standings, and in fact, would have ended up winning the Cup. The Irish press corps wrote of dark conspiracies and unfairness. It turns out that this is a problem U.S. Soccer brought on itself, but with good intentions.
"One purpose of this tournament is to help improve the quality of officiating in this country by our own referees," King explained. "This was a chance for an American refereeing crew to get in two high-level international matches. So we made a deal with the Mexicans. U.S. officiating crews would work the two non-US Mexican matches and a Mexican crew would work the two non-Mexican U.S. matches. This was cleared with both the Irish and the South Africans well ahead of the tournament and they voiced no objections."
As to the conspiracy, Steinbrecher laughed. "I wish we were that sophisticated," he said.
U.S. Soccer says the purpose of holding this tournament is to give the U.S. squad the opportunity to meet three top level opponents, give U.S. fans a chance to see world-class soccer up close and personal, and hopefully to make a few -- or maybe more than a few -- dollars. If that is to continue, then the entire time, place and way the tournament is held has to be reevaluated.
Last year the tournament was held in Florida in late winter. This year, it was moved to a point opposite Euro 2000 in the hopes of attracting two top level European clubs which did not qualify. It worked as far as Ireland was concerned, but Scotland said no, as did Russia. Moreover, several major countries had indicated an interest if they did not make it to Euro 2000. But then they qualified on the final preliminary match day.
"We're going to move the tournament next year into the European winter break period late in January and hold it either in California or Florida," King said. "We are already talking with a number of countries including Colombia and we intend on having a strong field."
So the next question it must face is how is U.S. Soccer going to guarantee that when a team shows up, it brings
something close to its full national side. Obviously as was seen with Mexico, and to a slightly lesser degree with
Ireland and South Africa, contracts don't seem to work.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com..