Qualifying format for CONCACAF region needs work
As much as both the United States and Canada were celebrating their successful qualification to the Women's World Cup in China next year after winning their CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup semifinal matchups last week, it was hard to find a fan of the new format.
"I think the best way to do it is like they do it for the men's World Cup, like they do it in Europe for the women's teams," U.S. coach Greg Ryan said.
In that scenario, teams in a region play home and away matches for points, with the top two teams in points qualifying for the World Cup.
Instead, the U.S. and Canada were given byes into the semifinal round of the Gold Cup. The winners of those two games would automatically receive a World Cup spot, while the losers would play for third place, then face Japan in a home-and-away playoff for one final berth.
"If you want to get fair results, play home and away, because if you have six or eight teams in your group, your best teams are always going to come out on top," Ryan said. "If not, there's something really strange that's happened. I believe that that's the best system."
Mexico's coach, Leo Cuellar, agreed.
"There should be a hexagonal of the top teams to qualify," Cuellar said.
"We're forgetting about the rest of the region. It was sad to see the girls of Panama and Trinidad and Tobago cry, because they gave it all they had. What you have to understand, taking into account the potency of the U.S. and Canada, who are very advanced, is that it gives an opportunity to the rest of the region to play these games against such a top level. Sure, you run the risk of high scores, but even those end up being a teacher and a motivator. It worries me that the region has such a low percentage of growth in the FIFA rankings. We need to find all the avenues to progress."
Ryan also didn't agree with the lack of a seeding system. Most playoffs in America award the top seed by matching the team to the lowest seed.
"If you're going to do it, do it so that the No. 1 team isn't playing with what could be, arguably, the No. 2 team. Mexico knocked Canada out for the Olympics."
The major factor in the decision to set up qualifying this way was economical.
"I partly agree with [Cuellar], but I don't think they're going to pay for [a home-and-away format]," U.S. striker Abby Wambach said.
"Our federation right now isn't too keen on spending a lot of money on us," Mexican defender Monica Gonzales said.
One example of this is that in the 18 times the full national teams of the U.S. and Mexico have met, they have never played in Mexico. Cuellar didn't think the money matters were an issue for his country alone.
"Economically, women's soccer still does not produce," he said. "All you have to do is look at the attendance [in Los Angeles]. The high ticket prices might be part of the problem. For that price, you can go see the Lakers, or the Kings. There's got to be some type of deal to attract the fans."
Expensive or not, the format was a risky gamble for women's soccer and CONCACAF, as one bad call could have turned the match and left one of the top teams in the world outside of the tournament entirely.
"It is tough," U.S. forward Lindsay Tarpley said. "We've been training 221 days together for qualification. It comes down to one game, which is extremely difficult."
"It's a strange game," Ryan said. "You see teams dominate games and lose in soccer much more than in other sports."
In an attempt to influence referees in such a crucial match, teams can turn to negative tactics. This was on display during the semifinal between Jamaica and Canada.
"The ball was only in play a third of the game," Canadian coach Evan Pellerud said. "The rest was just obstruction and cheating and lying down and crying. It's so frustrating to play these games. It has nothing to do with soccer. I call it anti-soccer."
Even without resorting to such extremes, the format took a toll on the quality of play as the U.S. and Mexico played a guarded, tentative match.
"I think the pressure affected our team," Ryan said. "I'm sure it affected Mexico. It's one game, and you're in the World Cup. It gives you something to be nervous about."
Home and away format would not necessarily be easy for the top teams, of course.
"We do play amazing in our country, especially because of the altitude. When you're not used to it, it really hits you hard," Gonzalez said.
"[The U.S. team] might be playing in Azteca Stadium in front of thousands of people in the stands, and it may be a great experience," Cuellar said.
Tarpley has been to Mexico before for youth tournaments. She welcomed the test for the national team.
"They had great fan support, their stadiums were nice and it was a really good experience. We're definitely up for the challenge. They're a great team. Every time we face them, they keep getting better and better."
Such potential gets stifled or even goes uncredited in such an all-or-nothing setup like the current qualification tournament. That could kill any momentum the sport might gain at a crucial time.
If women's soccer is going to succeed, a competitive playing field must be established that allows the countries involved a decent shake, or they may wonder why they should even bother. Of course, the economics involved must be worked out, but if women's soccer is presented so cheaply that interest in the product wanes, the move to be fiscally prudent backfires.
"They worked very hard for four years to play only one game; I don't think it's fair," Cuellar said of his players. "It doesn't give many chances. They don't have a real opportunity."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.