Every sport has an off-season. Football and basketball fans hate summer while baseball fans hate winter. The off-season is a terrible doldrum where, for most clubs, the albatross of last seasons failures are hung around fans’ necks for months. If only we hadn’t lost that game to inferior opposition, if only we hadn’t had so many injuries, and if only the refs would have called/denied that obvious/fake penalty. The league winners didn’t deserve it because of regular season crappiness/boringness of style/luck of victory. Fans have to scrape for any bit of news they can get their hands on, usually transfer rumors, 95% of which are fake.
Soccer’s “off-season” is in the summer. European clubs release their players to their beach holidays. MLS is different than most soccer seasons in that it goes from spring to fall, while most of the rest of the world plays fall to spring. Other sports attempt to work around the lack of activity problem with drafts and other frankly boring events. Soccer’s solution is to just have more soccer. Summer is when international tournaments happen.
This summer has three pretty exciting tournaments. The Women’s World Cup in Canada (6/6-7/5) and the Copa America in Chile (6/11-7/4) are running at the same time and then immediately after that is the Gold Cup in the US (7/7-7/26).
First up is the 2015 Women’s World Cup. If you were disappointed that the USMNT didn’t win in Brazil well then you should be aware that there’s another world cup, with another American team which actually are favorites to win. I remember watching the heartbreaking final 4 years ago. We were winning in extra time only to have ridiculous defending. Buehler doesn’t follow her marker on a corner (who just happens to be the top scorer at the tournament. Come on, man!) and Hope Solo doesn’t save a shot that was shoulder height and right at her. Then we hit three terrible penalties and lost. (BTW, do you remember the ridiculous storyline that winning the world cup would somehow be a big deal for a nation dealing with the Fukushima disaster 4 months earlier? I’m sure the displaced people’s lives were totally fixed by it. Banal and conceited journalism.)
Well, this year we have the opportunity to right all of that. There should be plenty of home support as the tournament is just next door, hosted by our friendly (not so friendly in soccer) neighbor to the north. According to Rapinoe, “Canada doesn’t like us very much. USMNT has Mexico. We have Canada.” We’re the top ranked team and we just won the Algarve Cup. Germany and Brazil are the other two favorites for this tournament. Based on how the groups are lined up, if the favorites top their groups, Brazil has a straight shot to the final. The US, France, & Germany would all be on the same side of the bracket. Let’s hope we get to add a third star to the US Soccer crest.
Although there’s no American element to it, the Copa America is by far the best tournament of the three. The 10 South American nations (including two invitees to balance the groups, this year it’s Mexico & Jamaica), battle it out in a mini World Cup. We’re talking about some of the best players in world football: di Maria, Messi, Aguero (Argentina), Cuadrado, Falcao (Colombia), Thiago Silva, Willian, Neymar (Brazil) Godin, Cavani, Suarez (Uruguay) Vidal, Alexis Sanchez (Chile). You would have to assume Brazil and Argentina are the favorites (although Argentina haven’t won it since 1993), with Uruguay, Colombia, and the hosts, Chile, close behind. Together these are the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 8th, and 10th best national teams in the world, according to ELO rankings, which are way more accurate than FIFA rankings (nerd link, useful for Nate Silver fans).
In general, the football to be had in this tournament is brilliant. This tournament in 2011 saw the absolute worst penalty shootout ever (up until Bayern and Dortmund in the German Cup two weeks ago). Four Brazilians stepped up to the spot and they all missed their penalties… against Paraguay… it was amazing (satisfy your Brazil hatred here). Uruguay ended up winning the tournament, largely due to the individual brilliance of Luis Suarez.
At the moment it appears that Chile has the easiest route to the Final but nothing is certain in cup football. This tournament is going to be on beIN sports or if you like your commentary in Spanish (and I definitely do), Univision.
The tournament with the biggest hype will be the Gold Cup. This is the Mini-World Cup of North & Central America. Mexico has won this tournament 6 times and we’ve won it 5 times. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we don’t much care for them and the feeling is mutual. We have a good chance of winning, having ended up first or second in the last 5 tournaments, winning 3.
Both teams did well enough in last years World Cup in Brazil, getting knocked out at the round of 16. The biggest takeaway for both was the performance of their keepers, America’s Tim Howard and Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa. Both have taken some time off from football lately with Timmy taking a voluntary leave from the national team until this September and Memo signing a contract with Malaga which saw him ride the bench, never even appearing in the league. It’s possible neither will be there.
The highest FIFA ranked team in CONCACAF is Costa Rica (yeah, they’re higher than Mexico and the US), mainly due to their display in last year’s world cup and the following Copa Centroamericana. As the “weakest” team in the Group of Death in Brazil (Costa Rica, England, Italy, & Uruguay), they ended up topping the group and making it to the quarter-finals (further than Mexico and the US). They also beat Guatemala in the final to win the 2014 Copa Centroamericana to qualify for the Gold Cup. They are a good team but should be a distant third behind the two powerhouses.
The USMNT is in a bit of an experimental state right now. While most of them were just friendlies, their last 13 matches have had 3 wins, 4 draws, and 6 losses (Mexico by comparison is 8W-2D-3L). While we beat Mexico a couple of weeks ago (was it a Dos A Cero?), we haven’t found our identity since getting knocked out by Belgium in Brazil. It’s hard to tell now if Mexico playing in the Copa America will make them sharper when facing us or tired from already playing in a tournament. Preferably we want them to get knocked out immediately & be disheartened or go far & play 120 every game.
The way the groups are set up, the United States and Mexico should meet in the final, although US and Costa Rica would have to meet before then.
The winner of this tournament will play the winner of the 2013 Gold Cup (That’s us!) for a spot in the 2017 Confederations cup. The Confed Cup is a World Cup warmup where all the continent tournament winners play against each other with the host of the next year’s World Cup (Russia) and the winner of the last World Cup (Germany). American soccer fans will remember the 2009 Confed Cup as the tournament where the USMNT beat the Spanish National Team, who were by far the best team in the world at the time (and arguably ever. No other team has won 3 major tournaments in a row). In the final we were up 2-nil on Brazil. Those were the days.
Enjoy your off-season.