The Idoicy of Soccer in America

image courtesy of http://www.forzatoronto.com/
Soccer (hereafter referred to as football) is much more of a global sport than hockey ever will be. At present count, 208 national associations are members of FIFA, as compared with 65 in the IIHF.

When FIFA organizes a tournament, such as the World Cup, the top level world-wide football leagues and associations will steer around it by creating breaks in their schedule. There is one exception among the so-called top leagues: Major League Soccer (MLS).

The MLS, like most other sports in the Excited States of America, sees their league as unto itself. The 2008 schedule was recently released and it takes in zero to no consideration of other world soccer tournaments. Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star wrote an article detailing how the Canadian and American national teams (among others) will face problems in securing players to World Cup qualifying and for the 2008 Olympic Games due to scheduling conflicts with the MLS.

We are talking about a small window of international matches. CONCACAF and FIFA stipulate international match days sometimes years in advance. World Cup qualifications (group2 stage) will occur on June14-15 and a return on June 21-22. The MLS has planned a slate of 6 matches, for each those two weekends.

I can see an argument from potential clubs from both sides of the coin. A weekend game in June is the best time to draw a paying public. At the same time, to lose a core of players to international duty - often the best players - does a team's competitiveness no favours.

Football has so much goodwill to build in North America and by double booking MLS matches on the same day as internationals, everyone loses. Surely the MLS must realise they are an element of a bigger equation (FIFA), not simply the sum of the parts (the 14 MLS teams).

Baseball’s championship is called the World Series. American Football and the NBA both without qualification hail their championship teams as so-called World Champions. I am not debating the dominance of the leagues, rather that it is smug and ignorant to call a team that plays in a closed league (no outside teams influence play) a World Champion. It would be ridiculous if the champion of Spain’s basketball league, for instance, were to claim world supremacy, so why can the NBA?

The MLS is hardly a dominant league, by global standards. True, it is the top level of competition in North America, but European leagues are clearly of higher quality. A story on Yahoo Sports attempts to rank the best leagues and gives special commendation to the MLS, Japan’s J-League, Australia’s A-League, Mexico’s Primera and Russia's top league. Obviously missing in the analysis is any reference to the tremendous competition in Argentina and Brasil.

Sweden's Allsvenska is similiar to the MLS in a variety of ways. Its season also plays through the summer and it too is hardly a big-name league (ranked 28th in Europe!). The Swedish league though takes into consideration international play in its scheduling - 2008 sees a break from May 12 - July 1 due to UEFA Euro 2008. Although the league does not boast a large number of big name international players, they do support their national football program by implementing this break in the schedule.

Let's face it, the MLS and the Allsvenska are minnows in a big pond. Sadly, the MLS' actions in scheduling make it look more like a clownfish.

Toronto FC is the only Canadian franchise and, as such, has to carry a quota of Canadian players. This can lead to problems when the Canadian national team will come calling. TFC management should clearly try and move the June 14 away game (vs. Colorado) and June 21 home game (vs. Kansas City) to weeknights to alleviate potential roster problems. Hopefully other teams might follow suit.

For competition in any sport, world and regional tournaments must be respected! Professional leagues would have no base of players whatsoever if it were not for the national programs, doing the hard ground-work to build sport in small communities around the world. We all deserve to see the fruits of their labour on the international stage.

Fun fact 1: Canada won the gold medal in football at the 1904 Olympic games in St. Louis.
Fun fact 2: The tournament in 1904 featured just 3 teams. 2 from the US and 1 from Canada. Hoorah for Galt FC (Canada's team)!

BANDY: the Women’s World Championship began yesterday in Borlänge (250km NW of Stockholm). There are 7 matches jammed into 4 days of competition. Canada is seen as a threat to crack the medals but, like the men, Sweden and Russia are almost guaranteed to play for gold and silver. Canada faced both Sweden and Russia on day 1. The match versus Sweden was a mere 10-1 loss. We fared much better against Russia, losing 3-1. Go Canada!


A Bit of Miscellaneous

Bandy: Canada lost 7-1 to the US and finished 2nd in group B. In an article prior to the match, coach Göran Svensson mention the disparity, not just of group A to group B, but even within Group B. Mongolia, Holland and Hungary should be their own Group C it would seem. That said, perhaps the disparity between A & B isn't that huge. The US lost only by two goals 6-4 to Belarus. Looks like we get a USA-Canada rematch next year when the World Championship will be in Sweden.
In other Bandy news: surprise surprise, Russia wins gold, Sweden silver and Finland bronze - like every year.

Oilers drafts: William Quist has 6points in 7 games since January 1 with Tingsryd. He is usually listed as a third line forward (Tingsryd rarely has a fourth line) and thus is often more of a role player. A quote from a January 20 game summary states: "The (game) play is really dynamic when the junior line comes in. Quist is in a great play mood and their first two shifts resulted in Skövde (opposition) penalties". Later, in the final summation, it goes on to comment "it is still the single greatest value to observe how Quist's play lifts the whole team".
True that he is still playing two divisions below the Elite Series, but perhaps this is one of those good character traits that might have sold him as a draft prospect.

Linus Omark has been on a bit of a tear recently. Linus' Luleå has been scrapping for points to get out of the Elite Series basement (sound familiar Oiler fans?). The last couple games he has been playing upwards of 18minutes and regularly registering 4- 5 shots per game. He has now 25 points (9G+16A) in 44 games, good for 44th overall in league scoring.

Former Oilers:
Mikko Luoma: The Finnish defenceman drafted 181st in 2002 played only 3 games for the Oilers in 2003-04. Too bad this big man never stuck in the organisation. He is having a career year on Sweden's best team, HV71 of Jönköping - 32 points in 44 games. His leadership is also evident; playing on average more than 22 minutes per game (tied for 5th highest in the league). He will play for Finland in this week's LG Hockey Games.

Dragan Umicevic: Trogdor The Burninator has put in 24pts (9G+6A) in 28 games for Södertälje since returning to Sweden from the Russian Superleague. The 2003 draft pick never played for the Oilers and the club cut ties with the right winger in June of 2007.

Kalle Olsson: Playing in the level below the Elite Series with Västerås, he has equalled his 2006-07 point totals (31) in 6 fewer games. Västerås is close to the top of the Hockey Allsvenska and if they can finish among the top 3, will have a chance for promotion to the Elite Series. Olsson was released from the Oilers organisation in 2007.

Fredrik Pettersson: The 2005 draft pick and former Calgary Hitman was released from the Oilers organisation and returned to Gothenburg and his native team, the Frölunda Indians (no pun intended). Still young (20yrs), Fredrik is getting 4th line minutes in Frölunda, on average 7:41 per game, but is a solid +4 (5th best on his club). His scoring has often been important goals, à la Fernando Pisani type.

The Swedish Elite Series is on a 10 day break during which Sweden will host the LG Hockey Games - an tournament featuring Sweden, Russia, Finland and the Czechs.

There are 11 games left in the Elite Series season and the standings remain extremely tight. The top 8 teams make the playoffs, while the bottom two face a relegation series against teams from the Allsvenska (Ed Belfour's Leksand among those). With only 4 points separating 2nd-6th place and 4 points among 8th to 11th, the month of February should make for some interesting hockey.