The USA face the real possibility of not qualifying for World Cup 2011 Germany as a consequence of losing 2-1 to Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying on November 5. In that event, there could be far-reaching repercussions in U.S. national prestige, in coverage of World Cup 2011 in the U.S. and elsewhere, in WPS and sponsorship, and in FIFA World Cup itself. Should the U.S. Women’s National Team prevail as the last nation to qualify, the U.S. women’s program is still challenged by lack of support for the WPS, which is struggling to enter its third season in 2011. Both the U.S. men’s and women’s programs are beleaguered by similar issues in development, philosophy, and economics that are becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.
Jeff Kassouf, owner and editor of The Equalizer and columnist for Sports Illustrated shared his thoughts with me.
LE: The USA’s loss to 14th FIFA-ranked Mexico on November 5 raises the real possibility that the USA might not make World Cup Germany 2011. What’s the fall-out of that situation?
Kassouf: If we’re talking about a World Cup without the United States, we’re talking about a whole different thing. Italy beat Switzerland to get to where they are and Switzerland is typically decent. Italy isn’t a team that should beat us, but Mexico isn’t either. The fact that it happened addresses some problems that have been building. Personally, I’ve seen some really troubling things from the U.S. ever since those July friendlies with Sweden and then the two friendlies with China in October. You couldn’t really gauge anything on the [CONCACAF] group play because the teams were terrible – Haiti, Guatemala, Costa Rica – and then you get to Mexico and get your wake-up call and it’s a terrible time for one. There’s another two games against Italy to get through now and if you drop either of those you might be out. And for the number one team in the world to be the potentially last team in the world to qualify for World Cup – because that second leg is two days before the draw – that’s bad. All the qualifying is over, that’s the last playoff. The second leg is the 27th of November and the draw is the 29th in Germany.
LE: There was a lot of surprise in the media that the USWNT lost to Mexico. They just assumed the women would win.
Kassouf: I think it was an assumption from everyone. It came from fans, media, and I think no matter what they tell us, the players had an assumption too, because there’s no reason they should be dropping that result. When you’re thinking that, that’s when it happens.
LE: What are the consequences if the USA doesn’t make the World Cup?
Kassouf: If the U.S. doesn’t make the World Cup this summer, from an American perspective, who’s going to cover it? The outlets have their contracts, but they’re not exactly jumping at it like the men’s World Cup and now if there’s not even a U.S. presence they don’t have a proximity angle. What’s the motive for someone on the fence to cover it – a newspaper, an online site, anything? If there’s no U.S. from any American standpoint, I don’t know why it would really be covered now. But I don’t believe that, I think it should be covered because it’s the World Cup.
LE: If the U.S doesn’t compete and the US coverage of the World Cup is limited, how will that affect the event itself? What’s the importance to the U.S. of the USA playing in the World Cup? How important is that to the rest of the world?
Kassouf: You’re talking about the number one team in the world, so from a playing perspective not having the “number one team in the world” – in the rankings at least – it’s unprecedented, I don’t know how you could really fathom that. Everyone knows that the marquee match-up in the world in USA-Germany. Up until a couple days ago everyone’s thinking the ultimate showdown is US-Germany and if you don’t have that match-up, you suddenly don’t have your marquee match-up, you don’t have your Brazil vs. Spain on the men’s side, something that really draws people, particularly those home fans.
The tickets are selling great, I don’t know if they’re home fans or what, but suddenly you don’t have that drama and that intrigue. Personally, I feel that if there wasn’t the USA, Germany would just take it all because I don’t know who would challenge them. For number three in the world, I think we’re going to see that Brazil is not that quality, but maybe they’ll prove us wrong. But this is not that good of a team – they don’t train together. If you look at how many times Brazil or any South American team trains, it’s not very often, so they don’t get time together – it’s not much of a match-up. With that said, I don’t think we’re going to see a World Cup without the U.S.
LE: If the U.S. doesn’t appear, how will the economics of the event in Germany be affected?
Kassouf: I don’t know. Tickets are already sold – really good, surprisingly good, the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands – and the sponsorships are already sold. Maybe a long term affect. Maybe a sponsor already committed is disappointed with the return and say, ‘We’re not back for another World Cup.’
LE: How is U.S. national prestige affected by a failure to qualify?
Kassouf: You certainly wouldn’t be looking at the number one team in the world anymore. People don’t realize it’s been 11 years now since the U.S. has won a World Cup. The Olympics don’t compare with the World Cup – it’s a secondary thing, although maybe a bad way to phrase it. The one thing you want to win is the World Cup.
LE: If the U.S. doesn’t make the World Cup, how will that affect women’ soccer in the United States? And let’s be real, the USMNT compete with the status of the USWNT. The dynamics will change.
Kassouf: I honestly don’t think we’re going to come to that point, but if we do and they don’t make the World Cup, the people who care now are going to be outraged, completely shocked, the world will be shocked, anyone who pays attention to the women’s team will be completely taken aback. The average soccer fan will be shocked, but then there’s plenty of them that would say it’s just another reason not to care about women’s soccer because there’s no U.S. presence.
LE: On twitter you said something to the affect that this recent press wasn’t good, despite the assumption there’s no such thing as bad press. Why?
Kassouf: It’s good you have people caring about the USWNT, about WPS, but again it’s the same people that signed up for ‘LA folded, St. Louis folded.‘ They’re not exactly covering the League regularly, so how much does it help? It’s not so good to have a major outlet mention WPS when it’s just reinforcing the stereotype of women’s soccer. But I don’t think it helps that places and people get attacked for covering negative news about WPS. I write about WPS for Sports Illustrated and Grant Wahl writes there and he tweeted at me last Sunday that two teams might go under and I searched to see the response. Fans criticized that he only covers WPS when there’s negative news, but fans don’t help by lashing out at journalists covering negative news. It doesn’t encourage more coverage.
LE: How do the combined factors of a World Cup year and two teams [FC Gold Pride and Washington Freedom] likely dropping out of the eight-team League affect WPS? Say we have six teams, including one expansion team that needs players. From FC Gold Pride and DC, we have three of the top players in the world – Marta, Christine Sinclair and Abby Wambach, as well as other U.S. and foreign national team players. How does this play out? There are political implications here because all national team players need to play to prepare for World Cup.
Kassouf: They’d be counted as free agents and as we saw with LA and St. Louis, it’s a constant weeding out. If the pool of teams is going to get smaller and the roster spots get smaller, then what we’re going to see is your decent player at a developmental level – 15th, 16th, 17th on the bench – they’re probably going to get bumped and the higher quality players coming in and bumping somebody else down. There’s not a lot of set contracts right now and the rosters are almost all full. The free agent list is massive. A lot of these teams have a lot of players that just became free agents and if these teams go under and their players become free agents it just adds to that pool. The less desirable free agents in WPS will probably have to look overseas and the better players are going to be on signed contracts. But for the better players, if someone overseas can offer more money and they’re not seeing something they like out of WPS I wouldn’t be surprised to see some people we expect to play in the U.S. go overseas.
Marta is a case where her salary is obviously a lot different than the rest of the players. If Marta becomes a free agent and there’s six teams left and they’re looking at financial troubles, who’s going to step up and say ‘I’ll pay Marta’ ? Gold Pride did that and they didn’t see a return on it in the first year and you can’t judge everything in the first year, but it wasn’t like Beckham coming in and everything changes. It was minimal compared to the huge salary they had to pay her.
LE: Isn’t she only getting around $400,000 and isn’t she one of the best players in the United States right now?
Kassouf: Yeah, and I understand compared to the men’s game that’s not a lot, but that’s a decent chunk of change in the WPS budget.
LE: Do you think she might go to Brazil where she can train with her national team?
Kassouf: No, they don’t pay anything there for women. They just recently have something that qualifies as a league for women there. She came from Sweden, that might appeal to her. Germany is a top-notch league if someone there is willing to pay her. If she does become a free agent, I think the League will work their butts off to make sure that she stays, but that requires one of the owners to want to do that. She might have to take a pay cut if she stays.
LE: Say the U.S. beats Italy and goes to the World Cup, how will that event affect WPS? National team players will be called-up, some countries more aggressive than others, taking stars out in the spring when fans should be getting to know them.
Kassouf: They’re going to take breaks, a two-week break in the group stage and then half of the national teams return. I’ve heard a lot of people are looking to write contracts in a situational way, based on the number of games or minutes that you play. I don’t think of it as exploitation, but the players might. It’s just smart. If you’re going to pay a big-time player a lot of money and she’s going to miss games then it makes sense.
LE: WPS is clearly struggling with survival. Do you see any cooperation from MLS?
Kassouf: There’s a lot of attitude that MLS would rather not even see WPS around, it’s pathetic. WPS dropped SUM from their marketing. From what I was told SUM felt that WPS wasn’t going to make it anyway, so they wanted to get as much money out of them as they could in the contract. It doesn’t make sense. If you’re the USSF you’re trying to build soccer in this country whether it’s male or female and if you’re counteracting each other, it doesn’t make sense. What did MLS do for WPS? I don’t know that they have to do anything, but don’t promote yourselves as working together.
LE: You’re a central defender. What do you enjoy most about that?
Kassouf: Just really shutting teams down, which we didn’t do enough of at all this year. Just shutting people down and denying any kind of goal-scoring opportunity.
Read also: Mexico earn ticket to World Cup 2011 with 2-1 upset of USA
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USWNT defeat Costa Rica 3-0, now must beat Italy to qualify for World Cup
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