Soccer Insider: A 2018 World Cup Knockout Round primer

For the Star Tribune this week, I wrote about the knockout round of the World Cup, and the expected favorites.

Unexpectedly, the paper also asked to print my picks. I leave them for posterity here:

Quarterfinalists: Uruguay, France, Brazil, Belgium, Spain, Croatia, Switzerland, England

Semifinalists: France, Brazil, Spain, England

Final: France 1, Spain 0

(I also wrote about 100 words why each team would win in the final; I’m sure whichever unlucky soul had to edit it laughed bitterly as he had to cut it down for the actual space alloted, which was about 20 words per team.)

Eric Wynalda's free kick got U.S. Soccer rolling

I remember being unsurprised, when the United States got out of its group at the 1994 World Cup. I knew very little about soccer, but I’d seen the Olympics, and I was pretty used to Americans winning at everything. Plus, it wasn’t like the rest of the tournament was filled with countries with huge soccer reputations. Bulgaria? Norway? The United States was in a group with Romania and Switzerland. Who even knew they had teams?

Since then, of course, I’ve learned a lot about the history of American soccer. How the team qualified for the 1990 World Cup, but only as an accident. About how the United States got hammered at that tournament. About how everyone expected them to get hammered again in 1994.

Into this stepped Eric Wynalda, who even then was brimming with confidence. His free kick goal against Switzerland, in the first game of the tournament, not only earned the United States a 1-1 draw - it was what launched everything that came after. That moment was the beginning of pro soccer in the USA.

It's time to kill VAR before it kills soccer

I am not the first person to turn against instant replay, in soccer or anywhere else. A year or so ago, I was all in favor of using replay to help blunt the effect of refereeing mistakes on the outcome of games.

I was very wrong! It turns out that in soccer, just like every other sport with refereeing, introducing a video referee just doubled the number of chances refs had to screw up - all while also taking a huge part of the entertainment away from the game. Soccer needs to act fast, soccer needs to act now. Kill VAR before it kills soccer.

Portland has the best stadium in MLS

I recently turned in a draft of a book about soccer stadiums around the world, which needed to include an American stadium. I chose Providence Park in Portland, not because it’s the nicest soccer stadium in the United States, or the most comfortable, but it’s absolutely the best to watch soccer. This week’s Soccer Insider relates to my trip to Portland, and the goosebumps I got there.

Could MLS, NWSL still fail?

I’ve been reading a lot about the NASL, WUSA, and WPS - the three failed major soccer leagues in America. Right now, MLS is doing well and the NWSL has been more successful than any of its predecessors. But could they still fail?

(This is in the Star Tribune, where “Is MLS going to make it” is far more of a legitimate question than elsewhere.)

1500 ESPN column: The Ibson Experience

I’m writing Minnesota United columns every two weeks for the website of 1500 ESPN, a sports talk radio station in town. The first looks at Loons midfielder Ibson, whose skills are evident - but who may not be a match for what United needs right now.

Zlatan Arrives in America

If you are a soccer fan, reading this, you already know all about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. You know he’s one of the greatest target forwards ever; you know that his trophy case is stuffed to bursting; you know that he may or may not be a crazy person.

However, the Soccer Insider column really isn’t for people who already know about Zlatan. It’s for people like my dad, who don’t watch all that much soccer (and frankly what Dad watches is mostly so he can talk to me about it, which is very nice of him.)

Last weekend, as Zlatan put his immediate stamp on MLS after arriving in midweek to play for the Galaxy, my Dad was furiously texting me about him. Forgive me, but if Zlatan’s big enough that Dad is interested, then it’s time to try to explain Zlatan to the rest of the Star Tribune readership.

Why can't there be more teams like the Portland Thorns?

I keep coming back to one statistic from this week’s Soccer Insider column about the Portland Thorns. Take the Thorns out of the mix, and the NWSL draws about 3,600 fans per game league-wide. Meanwhile, the Thorns draw an average of 17,400.

There are other teams that play in soccer meccas, there are other teams that are owned by MLS teams, there are other NWSL teams that don’t have to compete with Major League Baseball in the summertime, but Portland’s the only place where the NWSL is taken seriously. The league’s goal is to figure out why.

(Side note: I really, really hope that one of those places ends up being St. Paul.)

West Ham protests are a reminder, for MLS

Things got out of hand at West Ham last week, with fans verging on a riot against club ownership. That doesn’t happen in America, unless an owner tries to steal someone’s team. It’s a reminder for MLS: #SaveTheCrew.

College soccer is increasingly not developing professional players

College soccer is kind of a weird thing. They play an entirely different game in college, one that’s full of substitutions (nearly unlimited) and with frequent games (two in a weekend, three in a week, usually, in order to fit the entire season into the autumn).

Men’s college coaches are leading a push to make the season span across both fall and spring, in order to ease the schedule burden, but for the moment the NCAA and pro soccer are two very different things.

Soccer Insider tries to cover a little of this.