A Second Go For The Bruce

On Tuesday, Bruce Arena was installed as manager of the US Men’s National Team following the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann the previous day. Let’s be clear, these moves are not made without the US Soccer Federation first prioritizing qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup above EVERYTHING ELSE in the national team program and then seeing said goal being severely threatened by the team’s results in its first matches of the Hex (a 2-1 home loss to Mexico followed by a 4-0 drubbing in Costa Rica). For those of you who believe Arena will magically move the Yanks into a qualifying spot after the matches in March, news for you: not gonna happen. For those who see this change of course as a step backwards, news for you: it’s not nearly the disaster you are wishing it to be. For the soccer writers singing the praises of Jesse Marsch, Tab Ramos, and Oscar Pareja as Il Bruce’s successor, news for you: they lack the goods right now. Allow me to break this down logically for you.

The rest of the Hex will be a slough, but there is light at the end. The US sits on zero points after two matches, with 24 points available the rest of the way. A reasonable pathway for the US to qualify is to go 5-1-2 over the last eight matches, which is 17 points and would match their 2001 qualifying total, where they punched their ticket to the 2002 World Cup with a game to spare. Those 17 points are most likely gotten this way: win the remaining home matches (12 points); draw at Panama and Honduras (2 points); win at Trinidad and Tobago on the last day (3 points). Could they do better than that (for instance, a win at either Panama or Honduras or a draw at Mexico, which have been achieved in previous qualifying cycles)? Sure, but let’s not bank the life savings on it. Patience is vital, as this accumulation of points would put the US at four points after four matches, seven points after six, eleven points after eight, and requires winning the last two matches to reach 17.

This is a stop-gap, not a turning-back. Bringing in Arena to rescue the qualifying campaign is not an admission that the path USSF took five years ago to hire Klinsmann was bad or that the progress made under him will cease. Klinsmann was brought in at a time where the current system had reached its zenith with the tools at its disposal, and a fresh perspective was necessary in the evolution of the national team program. Much as Klinsmann’s tenure was a step on the evolutionary path, Arena’s will be as well. We will see a re-calibration of the program in the short term to insert things that have been lacking recently (such as spirit and collective will that teams without elite-level weapons rely upon to slug it out with more talented sides, along with mental acumen), all with an eye to get this team to Russia by whatever means necessary. Following the World Cup, that evolution can progress on a path best-suited for the times and be led by a manager who fits the direction the Fed wishes to go.

Different times call for different visions. National team programs evolve over time, and one point in the path requires different tools and skills than another one. Klinsmann’s vision as an outsider was necessary to “move the goalposts” of where the US existed in the soccer world (prior to him, king of CONCACAF was the pinnacle and the direction was geared to that end) and how we would go about moving closer to the top end of that world. I held after the 2014 World Cup that the US needed to take its next step in that path, and the person to lead it would need two specific qualifications: significant US National Team playing experience and professional managerial experience. Those three names mentioned in the opening (Marsch, Ramos, and Pareja) don’t meet that criteria in full (Marsch was not a critical piece of the USNT player pool, Pareja didn’t play for the US National Team, and Ramos hasn’t spent time leading a professional soccer team). Can they make up for that in some way? Sure, but in my opinion it would require being part of Arena’s team in this interim period with a succession plan in place to take over following Russia 2018. Barring that, we should consider others who meet both criteria and wouldn’t require such an internship. The names at the top of my list in that regard are Dominic Kinnear and Peter Vermes. Both have won multiple trophies in their coaching careers, both earned more than 50 caps for the US National Team in their playing careers, but I would place Kinnear ahead of Vermes based on the tactical flexibility he has exhibited during his tenure in Houston and San Jose, a trait that is key when dealing with an ever-changing player pool.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

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Opening Up the Grand Slams

When sports fans, athletes, and executives discuss how to grow niche sports, a lot of focus is placed on expanding the very top end of the game (greater sponsorship, salaries, and competitive opportunities) so that it is able to compete in the marketplace with major sports entities while little attention is paid to those below that level for whom growth would help create a more stable force and product.  Having faced this question while running Milwaukee United Soccer Club (aiming for the large group of players below the elite sliver and building a club that could help elevate them onto the bigger stage), I now turn that type of thought process to curling, specifically how to open the door for teams not currently considered “Grand Slam” squads to build their games (and resumes) in the pursuit of getting to that level.  I will take on two aspects of that question, one involving the Champions Cup and the other the Grand Slam of Curling circuit as a whole.

The Humptys Champions Cup is an end-of-the-year event that brings together the winners of that year’s Grand Slam events and national/continental/world championships along with winners from selected events on the World Curling Tour (based on strength of field).  The straightforwardness of the pre-selected slots (e.g., win the Masters, get a berth; win the Scotties and you’re qualified) is something I applaud as objective and transparent. Where my underdog meter gets set off, however, is with the strength of field criteria for handing out the wild card entries. To me, it smacks of the “strength of schedule” component relative to the College Football Playoff (and its predecessors). From the outside, using this criteria seems to offer a “second bite at the apple” for the Slam teams (generally regarded as those in the top 15 of the World Curling Tour Order of Merit, as all Slam events use the OOM as its qualification method) to make it into the competition should they not pick up one of the automatic qualifier spots rather than fling the doors open for the non-Slam teams to “just win, baby” and break through the ceiling (of the 15 women’s teams that initially qualified for this year’s event, only three had not played a Slam event this season; the 15-team field also included 10 of the 12 teams from the Players’ Championship played just two weeks prior). James Runge laid out the breakdown of slots for the Champions Cup here, so read that for clarification. My suggestion is to move from “strength of field” to “strength of resume” for the wild card spots. A team that wins multiple spiels on the World Curling Tour should get in over a team that wins “the right” WCT event (another stat: four of the six initial wild card spots went to slam teams as their only WCT wins of the season and one team with multiple WCT wins would not have qualified were it not for three teams with automatic qualifier spots declining their invitations due to scheduling conflicts) and would allow those below the elite to play their way into the Champions Cup rather than cross their fingers and rely on the value of who they beat to gain them access.

Moving onto the Grand Slam circuit as a whole, it looks to me like a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Each of the four major events (Masters, National, Canadian Open, Players Championship) use some form of the WCT Order of Merit for qualification. The Order of Merit is a points system based in part on finishes at WCT events and in part on who one beats at those events. Teams that consistently play in the majors have a distinct advantage in accumulating points to keep getting into future events even if they don’t do particularly well in them and little access is granted for teams outside that top 15 to make it into those fields. The National had a more open field this past year due mainly to the slight overlap between it and the European championships (ruling out at least three teams that play the Slams on a regular basis). As the Grand Slam circuit expands after this Olympic cycle, I hope that they will consider moving away from the Order of Merit for inclusion in the newer events and instead allow teams to qualify their way into them through on-ice results from specific events (e.g., winning a WCT event in Ontario qualifies a team for the non-major Slam event held in that province). Outside of that, the best way to grow the sport for teams below that level is the creation of alternate-field events, a concept from the world of golf where tournaments were held on the same weekends as the Masters and British Open for players who didn’t qualify for them or who wished to stay stateside. A clever and ingenious entrepreneur could put together an event that either ignored the Slam teams or attempted to interest teams at the bottom end of that spectrum with opportunities for a greater pay day, access to the Champions Cup, or other carrots (I’ll get into this idea more in the future).

As a newcomer to the nuts-and-bolts of curling, my thoughts might be “out there” or I might have overlooked a few things. Point out where I’m wrong or misguided and let’s grow the sport.

The Next Chapter

Last week, I mentioned that I would come back with a discussion of my next chapter and what is happening (or what might happen) with it. After an eventful several days of action from the Grand Slam of Curling’s Players’ Championship (no, I wasn’t in Toronto for it), it is time that I lift the lid on what I’m thinking and doing. What follows is a list of steps forward I have made in this “season of change” on my new path of curling education, fandom, and mental work (not necessarily “accomplishments”, but one could classify them as such), along with a list of things I want to do in the 2016/2017 season (including the upcoming off-season that will start on May 2).

Accomplishments

  • First non-Scotties/Brier multi-platform follow of a tournament (Wall Grain Mixed Doubles Classic)
  • First streaming of Grand Slam of Curling event on Sportsnet (Elite X)
  • First purchase of curling streaming content (Players Championship/Champions Cup bundle)
  • First follow of US tournament (US Mixed Championship, where the Wisconsin rink finished third)
  • Registration with CurlingZone and participation in their online forums
  • Contribution to the Far From Home Kickstarter campaign
  • Finding and following curling fans/players/off-ice professionals on Twitter and Facebook
  • Development of a potential post-2017 model for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts
  • Rudimentary development of a future women’s tournament

2016/2017 Task List

  • Get the Grand Slam of Curling season pass
  • Make connections with and/or join a local curling club (most likely the Wauwatosa Curling Club)
  • Make visits to the Four Seasons Curling Club (home of US Curling’s Olympic-level program) and the St. Paul Curling Club (largest one in the US, and I believe I know people there from past soccer endeavors) on a trip to the Twin Cities in late September/early October
  • Attend an elite-level curling event/bonspiel (subject to available time off and funds)
  • Increase my curling education both in the on-ice realm (strategy, game play, team make-up) and the off-ice one (structure of clubs/events, workings of national/provincial governing organizations, opportunities to get involved)
  • Grow my current online community and hopefully connect with those who can assist me in my pursuits

There is no timetable on when any of these will come to pass, but the above is a path for me to follow over the next year or so. I know this seems like a HUGE departure from my long-time work in women’s soccer, but it’s not THAT much of a jump if you think about it. I go down this road knowing that I don’t know everything about the sport or how it should be played/constructed. I also know that there probably isn’t the kind of insular institutional structure afraid of outsiders (or outsider-type thinking) like I experienced with the local soccer community here in Milwaukee. Fellow sojourners, hit me up on Twitter or CurlingZone (same username as the blog) if you want to connect.

A Fix For the Scotties

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The proposed changes for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts are replicable for the Tim Hortons Brier and should be considered as also a blueprint for that tournament, though no specific mentions of the Brier are made in this entry.

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts is the Canadian women’s curling championship and for many years had twelve entries in the field (one from each of the country’s ten provinces, one which represented Yukon and the Northwest Territories, and the previous year’s champion as Team Canada). In 2014, Curling Canada decided to give individual entries to the three territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut) and Northern Ontario (which already had a specific entry to the Brier on the men’s side), bringing the total number of participants to fifteen teams. Rather than create a new model for the tournament at that time, Curling Canada chose to implement a “pre-qualifier” involving the lowest-performing team from the previous Scotties (Northwest Territories) and the new entries of Nunavut, Northern Ontario, and Yukon for a single spot in the main draw, which Northern Ontario would earn. At the conclusion of that year’s event, British Columbia (as a result of finishing at the bottom of the table) was “relegated” to play in the following year’s pre-qualifier against the three teams which didn’t advance to the main draw. Relegation has been panned far and wide for its unfairness and how it treats those teams in the pre-qualifier as second-class citizens at the Scotties. In the 2015 off-season, Curling Canada stated that this form of the pre-qualifier would go away at the end of the current Olympic qualifying cycle (meaning after the 2017 tournament) but did not release a new model for the Scotties going forward.  As a fan and a sports administrator, I decided to take a look at what COULD be a new format for the event based on what I felt were non-negotiables that led to the current one, those being:

  • It would have to fit within the main draw’s current time frame of Saturday through the following Sunday (nine days)
  • There would be no more than 12 teams in “main” draw
  • It would be played on 4 sheets of ice
  • The tournament would be a single round-robin
  • There would be no more than 3 draws per day

In short, the post-2017 Scotties would have to fit within the model of the pre-2015 Scotties, but do it with three more teams and without the current pre-qualifier.  Where this led me is to the following solution.

Instead of trying to tweak the 15-teams-into-12-spots model, I decided to deconstruct the Scotties format using the constraints which Curling Canada seems to have within it (the non-negotiables) as a starting point. By removing the caveat that every province/territory must have an opportunity to compete for the national championship every year, I came up with a two-tournament structure that would fit within the current time frame, would provide maximum competitive opportunities for all teams at the event, and would maintain the uniqueness of the Scotties’ everyone-plays-everyone format. Thus, here is my proposal:

  • 10-team “main” draw
    * Team Canada
    * Next 6 finishers from previous Scotties/Brier
    * Host province for that year
    * Winner of previous year’s “B” tourney
    * Relegation playoff winner
  • 6-team “B” tourney
    * Remaining provinces
    * “Wild card” from last-chance spiel of selected provincial finalists (Year 1)
  • Promotion/Relegation
    * Lowest-ranked “eligible” finisher in main draw (TC, next year’s host not eligible) goes to “B” next year
    * “B” winner goes to main draw next year
    * “B” finalist plays second-bottom from main for main draw spot next year (if main draw participant is eligible)
  • Tourneys
    * Main draw is single round-robin with Page playoffs (1-2, 3-4), Semifinal, and Final
    * “B” tourney is double round-robin with Semifinal and Final (Top finisher in standings goes directly to final), to be held at nearby curling club with morning draws/playoffs at main arena
  • Last-Chance bonspiel
    * 4-to-6 rinks from provincial finalists based on regular season and provincial tourney performance (more weight on latter)
    * Wild card entry to “B” tourney in year 1, fills the slot in main or “B” draw in following years (slot can be promoted/relegated based on team performance)
    * Single round-robin with Final (4 or 5 teams), Semi/Final (6 teams)

All draws for the main tournament would be played in the afternoon and evening time slots with the exception of the Thursday ones, which would be morning and afternoon in order to accommodate the “B” final that evening.  The Page playoffs would be on Friday afternoon and evening, the relegation playoff on Saturday afternoon, the semifinal on Saturday evening, and the final on Sunday evening.  The “B” tournament would have round-robin draws Saturday through Tuesday, with the semifinal on Wednesday morning and final on Thursday evening at the main arena.

Does this solve all the problems with Canadian curling? Not in the least. Is it better than the current tweak-heavy format? In my opinion, it is. Will the politics of the game in Canada allow for it? I don’t know, as certain provinces and territories might be unhappy with the notion of having to earn the right to play for the Scotties title through previous performance. What response would the tournament’s television and sponsorship partners have to such a change? I would hope they would see the positives in more competitive play and more equitable opportunities for all participants while maintaining the current tournament broadcast window. Am I off my rocker? Let me know.

The Roaring Game

The last three-and-a-half weeks have seen me engrossed in (some might say obsessed with) the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and the Tim Hortons Brier.  Those are the women’s and men’s national curling championships in Canada. Yes, I am a curling fan, having come to the sport by happenstance on spring break in Toronto in 2000. Thanks to the Wild West of the Internet (before geo-blocking came to truly exist), I was able to watch matches straight from the CBC and TSN websites after my curiosity had been piqued on that trip.  I’d watch matches on TV from the 2006 Winter Olympics after getting home from working overnight (live sports action at 5 in the morning, bring it on!). During this “season of change” in my life, I have come to invest more mentally in following the World Curling Tour (yes, there is such a thing) and thinking about issues in the game and solutions to them (you know me, the problem solver).  So why curling, and what might this sport and its culture be able to afford an on-the-sidelines sports administrator who is looking for what the next chapter in the journey might bring?

With apologies to my new curling compadre Tony (whose excellent explanation of his fandom for the sport can be found here),  curling is a thinking person’s sport, where the strategy of the game is just as if not more important than the physical movement of playing. The ability to forecast or plan three or four moves ahead (like one does in chess or checkers) based on what you see in front of you fascinates me, in the vernacular of “if I do *this*, then he’s going do *that*, leaving me [a specific action] to blank the end/get X points/force him to take one point/steal X points” (the four potential scoring outcomes of an end). Following matches via live scoring (i.e., no video) from places near and far on the world map can be almost as exciting as seeing the action itself, because if you understand the basics of match and shot scoring, you’re capable of playing out mentally how a game is going, and that is how I came to delve deeper into the sport (thanks to CurlingZone for a well-done scoreboard page).

Beyond the strategy and game play, what hooks me as a sports fan is that the athletes are, well, human, with normal jobs and off-ice pursuits and personalities. I have yet to attend a top-level curling tournament, but based on the pictures and stories I’ve read and heard from others at this year’s Scotties and Brier, the fan/athlete interaction is higher than you’d find in any major league sport in the US (one example of that athlete normalcy is this video from the Karuizawa tournament this past December). I root for certain teams and players more than others (some of who are fairly successful in the curling world, others less-so), and it’s not all skips…in fact, four of my favorites across men’s and women’s curling are seconds and a fifth is a former second who won Brier, world, and Olympic titles at that position before moving to third with his current team. The family-like team concept (each team has four players) make it a bit of a hybrid between the individual battles of tennis or golf and most team sports one would envision (baseball, basketball, soccer, etc.) and is another thing that attracts me to the sport.

As I look to emerge from this season of change that has followed my shelving of Milwaukee United Soccer Club, I have come to define what I want my next chapter to have. I still believe that women’s sport is the place where my passion and skills can do the greatest good. I want to be able to use those skills, that passion, and my abilities and creativity to bring greater access to playing and competitive pursuit of sport for women. I want to be able to “be on the inside” of sport, where the interaction between the athletes and management/administration is more organic and less of the “I play, you manage, we don’t talk” that I dealt with in my previous posts. I want to be part of a structure that will give me freedom to tackle BIG things in sport using what I bring to the table without having to be in charge of everything or build that structure from the ground level. Could my fandom for curling and my skills/abilities/experience mesh somehow? Would there even BE an opportunity in the game for me to pursue? That’s the question, and that’s what I need to find out.

Quick post-script: I am playing around with a couple of mental projects related to the game (a complete restructure of the Scotties and Brier that would replace the pre-qualifier and main draw after 2017; a 32 or 64-team women’s bonspiel that would involve pool play and full-participation flights). The first one is sketched out on paper and is in outline/notes form (complete with spreadsheet of draws), the second I will start working on today. If you’re interested in the Scotties/Brier reconstruct, drop me an email or DM me on Twitter.

Quick Hits

Every day in the sports world, story lines of good, bad, and ugly make their way into the news stream.  The following are just a couple from yesterday, with links and questions.  I will try to expound on them and give my opinions as the day goes on.