Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Day the World Cup Died?

Hyperbole is often unnecessary garnish to get people to turn their heads, I get that. Even with this situation, the hyperbole is probably not needed. But some situations call for a little extra garnish, and when the inevitable yet still head-scratching news that FIFA is expanding the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 in 2026, maybe the garnish became necessary.

The World Cup has constantly expanded, and despite what many will think, the tournament has only been at 32 teams since 1998. Only seven World Cups will be played with that amount of teams, even though 32 seems like the perfect number. But when the almighty dollar speaks, and politics scratches a certain itch, change is certainly inevitable. Many fans around the globe are wondering this: is the World Cup that we've all come to know and love now dead?

More teams, especially those that have never been able to reach the World Cup, have now a better chance than ever to reach the final tournament, even if their stay there will be pretty short. Largely, those teams are going to come from Africa and Asia, which is a political base that helped Gianni Infantino win election as FIFA President. It's not bad that new teams finally make the tournament, since from those two federations specifically, nine of the 10 qualifying teams were the same in 2010 and 2014. Smaller nations in the Caribbean too could finally return to the tournament since their path in CONCACAF has been blocked by the US, Mexico and Costa Rica in recent cycles.

What about the format? There will be 16 three team groups, and the top two in each will advance to a 32 team knockout stage. That means the amount of games each team can play doesn't change, although in theory, some of them now mean more and mean more earlier, even though the format is really wonky. And since far more than half of the teams that qualify for the tournament make the knockout stage, teams playing mediocre, heading for 0-0 soccer do get rewarded for that. FIFA's own research says the quality of play at the tournament will be diluted, and that's fairly obvious considering worse teams are now entering the fray. And with this process, qualifying for the tournament around the world becomes even more diluted than it is now, especially for teams like the US and Mexico, who barely play enough high stakes games to begin with.

Hopefully, the extra money FIFA is going to make off this expansion actually goes to expand and grow the game around the world, particularly the women's game. And when this money does get distributed to each of the many federations around the world, the average person can know where the cash is going instead of watching greedy executives use it for their own gain instead of the sport's gain. There are other issues too, such as asking even more of the nations who are hosting the tournament (sans the US, China, etc.) and the like, but what the average fan cares about is the quality of play, and the immediate knee-jerk thought is that expansion = dilution.

If FIFA can pull this off, and there's every reason to believe that they can't, then this will be a success. With every expansion of the World Cup (and the Euros), the same concerns come up, and eventually the watching world comes around and becomes settled with the new number. There's no reason to think that won't happen here if FIFA can allocate the extra 16 qualifying slots right and settle on the other details.

There are plenty of reasons to hate this new World Cup expansion, and they're all legitimate. But until we see it in action, and we have nine years of speculation and hand-wringing before we do, every argument is theoretical.

So the World Cup isn't dead as a spectacle... yet, at least. Trusting FIFA to get something right is hard to do, but with so much at stake beyond just money, the world has to hope that they do get this latest expansion right.

Monday, January 2, 2017

My 2016 NFL Season Predictions in Review (with Playoff Predictions)

With every sport I predict in full, I always like to look back on the predictions I made preseason to see how wrong (or right) I was. Normally it's far more wrong than right, but usually one or two decent predictions I make turn out to make me look good for a moment or two. With the 2016 NFL Predictions, I highly doubt I'm going to look that smart. But I have to eat crow publicly for my bad predictions, so that's what I'm going to do.

In the preseason, I said that the NFC East would be "mediocrity personified". Nope. The Giants still ended up making the playoffs, but Dallas surprised everyone courtesy Dak and Zeke. I said Washington would be 7-9, they were 8-7-1. I said Philadelphia would be 5-11, they finished 7-9. In the NFC North, Green Bay did end up winning the division with a slightly less flashy record than 12-4, and Minnesota didn't make the playoffs, though their record was only one game off from where I thought they'd be. Very few thought Carolina and Arizona would fall off the way they did, which is why most of everyone's predictions for those two teams looks really bad. Atlanta stepped up with a ton of great offense, and the Lions ability to pull close games out earlier in the season gave them enough to make the dance.

Over in the AFC, I nailed all of the division winners to a tee, which doesn't make me look all that smart because the AFC was pretty predictable. The Bengals fell off with their injuries and coaching changes, and in stepped the Miami Dolphins, who even without Ryan Tannehill, still found a way to win enough to get into the playoffs, and that's a great accomplishment for Adam Gase and company. The biggest teams I over-estimated were, not surprisingly, the Jaguars and Jets, and we did underrate the Titans to a degree. You read it here first: Tennessee will be the runaway AFC South favorites for years to come.

Before the season, I predicted that Super Bowl 51 would be the Packers and Steelers. While that can still happen, I don't expect it to. Buried in this post, here are my playoff predictions:


Wild Card Round: Houston over Oakland
                              Pittsburgh over Miami

Divisional Round: New England over Houston
                              Pittsburgh over Kansas City

AFC Championship Game: New England over Pittsburgh


Wild Card Round: Seahawks over Lions
                              Giants over Packers

Divisional Round: Falcons over Seahawks
                              Giants over Cowboys

NFC Championship Game: Giants over Falcons

Super Bowl 51: Patriots over Giants


Before we finish, let's take a look at some of my preseason award predictions and see how right or wrong they'll be. My preseason predictions are in italics.

MVP: There will be quite the debate for this award this year. Derek Carr, Ezekiel Elliot, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers are all candidates, and any one of them could win. I personally think it's Ryan's to lose, but I'm probably wrong. My preseason prediction of Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) is wrong, though.

OPOY: I said it would be Odell Beckham (NYG) before the season. He's obviously a candidate, but with Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, the Dallas Duo, David Johnson and others, he's probably not going to win, even though he could.

DPOY: Khalil Mack (OAK) could of course win this award, but he has competition from Von Miller, Eric Berry and others. Because of Oakland's season, he'll probably win it.

OROY: Either Zeke, who I thought would win it before the season, or Dak. Take your pick, neither are wrong, but it probably will be Zeke.

DROY: Jalen Ramsey (JAX) was the best player for the Jaguars on defense this season, and while it doesn't show up in the stats, he was a lockdown corner even as he was misused by the now departing coaching staff. Though that doesn't ensure he'll win the award, because Joey Bosa had better stats and played fewer games. He may even have competition from Yannick Ngakoue on his own team.

Coach: Bill Belichick could win it because his team despite controversy and injury ran through the NFL again with little trouble, but Jack Del Rio should win it because the Raiders were moribund and now aren't, which usually is the automatic qualifier for the award. I said it would be Del Rio before the season, and he can win this award, though he has competition.

Comeback: It won't be Kelvin Benjamin, who I thought would be amazing for a very good Panthers team. It could be Jordy Nelson, who was amazing off his blown out knee last season, or Le'Veon Bell, or a host of others. Upshot: it won't be my guy.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the 2016 NFL Regular Season (I didn't), and the playoffs to come.