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Why “soccer NIT” tournament would be a bad idea

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U.S. Soccer and Soccer United Marketing (SUM) are reportedly investigating if they can stage a tournament in the USA next summer featuring prominent teams who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

So, in College Basketball terms, an “NIT” tournament ahead of the World Cup in Russia. This is not a joke.

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On the face of it, this seems like a splendid idea for many. Fans of the U.S. national team shared similar proposals on Twitter and Facebook as the list of big name nations failing to qualify for the World Cup increased over the past few days. I’m all for growing the sport in the USA and having as many high-profile games as often as possible in the U.S. is a good thing.

But not like this. No. No. No.

Having the U.S. at the centerpiece of an international laughing stock in the world of soccer just isn’t a good look. This should be the end of it. U.S. Soccer should be focusing on bigger problems, like making sure youth development continues to improve and having a clear plan for the future of the USMNT in place. Not this.

Having three or four money-spinning friendlies formulated in a loose tournament format to simply help ease the pain of World Cup failure is pointless.

It seems as though U.S. fans who have been robbed of seeing their team at the elite international tournament next summer are stomping their feet and want an alternative. Guys. There isn’t one. Let’s all move on.

In theory, stadiums across the USA will be full for multiple high-profile friendlies between Italy, Chile, Ghana and the USA . So, that’s good. Right? There have also been suggestions about capping the tournament so that all the players who feature are under the age 25 and that way you get to see the next generation of each nation as they rebuild their rosters following World Cup failure. So, why not?

Well, how about, why?

Other than making somebody, somewhere huge profits for full stadiums during these friendlies, I’m struggling with a viable answer. FIFA wouldn’t sanction any such tournament and it certainly wouldn’t be allowed to run into the start of the World Cup which runs from June 14 to July 15.

There is no official FIFA window for games scheduled in late May or early June. Only teams heading to the World Cup will look to play friendlies in late May and early June and the only reason the teams who didn’t qualify will be in demand is because the 32 teams who made the World Cup will not want to play against anybody they could be facing in Russia.

That means the U.S. will likely play two friendlies in June, just as they have in previous “sendoff series'” games before a World Cup. Of course, they will be going nowhere this summer but that should be it. Two friendlies, then Christian Pulisic should be allowed to spend the summer in California hanging out.

Let’s just all move on from the USA’s 2018 World Cup qualifying debacle and let’s not have the U.S. become the home, and the figurehead, to a tournament where it would be fitting to plaster a sad face emoji on the wooden spoon trophy given to the winning team.

But proponents would argue that in this “NIT” format, the U.S. could, in theory, host two games against two of Chile, Italy and Ghana with each team playing one another once. So, six games in total.

But why not go the whole hog and invite seven other nations — the Netherlands, Ivory Coast, Republic of Ireland and Wales aren’t up to much next summer now — to the USA and have an eight-team tournament with two groups of four and the top two teams from each group reach the semifinals before a final is played where the winner receives a golden wooden spoon.

Listen to how ridiculous that sounds. That is basically what is being proposed.

I have no doubt that given the growing level of fandom (see: the Copa America Centenario in 2016 and huge preseason friendlies each summer) in the USA and the fact that citizens of many other nations now call the U.S. home and barely get a chance to see their own nations play in person, that stadiums would be pretty full for most of these games.

In truth, that’s the main reason why organizers are contemplating hosting these friendly games in the U.S. Think about it.

I’m sure players like Alexis Sanchez, Marco Verratti, Virgil Van Dijk and Pulisic would love to be in the USA next summer after a monster domestic season… but on vacation and trying to get as far away as possible from reminders that they should have been at the World Cup instead.

The fact that the U.S. is even contemplating organizing and hosting this event is part of the bigger problem. For so many years U.S. Soccer has been a supreme business model with huge profits made. But that’s come at a cost, which is, obviously, not being in Russia next summer.

It’s time for U.S. Soccer to move on and focus on one thing: the U.S. national team and getting the best possible two friendlies in June. Nothing else. And then, after those friendlies are over, they should sit back and watch the 2018 World Cup so they can realize just how badly they mishandled the last four-year cycle after Brazil 2014.

Ranking the worst failures in World Cup qualifying

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So many high expectation nations missed the 2018 World Cup that a second-tier tournament is being bandied about, enough so that people are legitimately intrigued at the idea.

That begs the question: How did we get here? In some cases, sides missed the big dance due to wonky qualifying schedules. Others had tough draws and couldn’t rebound in a playoff. Another group just flat out flopped in red, white, and blue.

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Who’s failure was most heinous? Let us count the ways, er, teams.

7) Netherlands — This is a nation that, like England, has overachieved so many times that neutrals expect more from them that, perhaps, is rational. Their domestic league is not what it once was, but finishing behind Sweden is a tough pill to swallow for a side which has been on the proverbial podium the past two World Cups and four times in its history.

6) Ivory Coast — Africa’s qualifying is brutal, but Les Elephants lost two of three home qualifiers and managed two scoreless draws away from home. In fact, the team was blanked thrice despite a unit with Gervinho, Salomon Kalou, Jonathan Kodija, and Wilfried Zaha. Yes, the nation is on a downswing, but still were the favorites to advance past Morocco.

5) Bosnia and Herzegovina — Perched atop the group for a decent period of qualifying, a loaded BNH side drew Greece home and away, lost in Cyprus, and lost at home to Belgium in a cycle which could’ve seen them make a deep run powered by Edin Dzeko, Sead Kolasinac, Asmir Begovic, and Miralem Pjanic.

4) Italy — The highest-ranked ELO team to miss the tournament, Italy had the misfortune of being drawn with Spain (and vice versa). Second-place there was no shame, but being unable to finish over two legs against Sweden may be understandable — Blågult only allowed nine goals in qualifying — but Gian Piero Ventura’s keeping Lorenzo Insigne out of the starting lineup will be questioned for a long, long time.

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3) Chile — CONMEBOL qualifying is as difficult as any confederation, and probably the toughest. Still, La Roja was shutout in six of its nine away qualifiers, including losses to eighth place Ecuador and ninth place Bolivia. For a side with Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal to be blanked that many times? Brutal.

2) Ghana – At least the Ivory Coast finished second in its group! Ghana drew all three of its home matches, managing its only win at the Republic of Congo. That means Apparently the Black Stars couldn’t imagine a World Cup without the USMNT.

*1b) United States — With respect to the improving nature of CONCACAF, the confederation’s relative weakness and wildly forgiving Hex means the Bruce Arena’s men did as poorly as any decent nation in the world. To not even make a playoff is embarrassing, and the first leg of Honduras versus Australia lets you know all that’s needed about the quality of the lesser friends of CONCACAF.

*1a) Australia — The asterisks is important because the Socceroos dominated Honduras in the first leg only to not find a goal, and can still advance to the World Cup with a win at 4 a.m. ET in Sydney. But losing to Honduras after finishing behind Saudi Arabia on the weakness of handing Thailand one of its only two points of qualifying? Wooooof.

US Soccer looking into tourney for non-World Cup teams

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The U.S. Soccer Federation is looking into the possibility of an event next year involving nations that did not qualify for the World Cup.

The idea of an exhibition tournament has been floated for soccer teams such as the United States, Italy, Chile and Ghana that won’t be playing in Russia.

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The USSF confirmed it was exploring the idea after a report Tuesday by Fox. The United States was eliminated from World Cup contention when it lost 2-1 at Trinidad and Tobago last month.

The tournament idea, first suggested on social media, gained traction Monday when Italy was eliminated by Sweden, which advanced with a 1-0 aggregate playoff win. The Italians will miss soccer’s premier event for the first time in six decades.

It is not clear whether FIFA would allow exhibition games during the World Cup, which runs from June 14 to July 15.

Arjen Robben retires from international football

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The Netherlands couldn’t post the 7-goal win needed to overtake Sweden for a spot in the UEFA World Cup qualifying playoffs, and that unsurprising failure has signaled the end for Arjen Robben in a Dutch shirt.

Robben scored twice as Netherlands beat Sweden on Tuesday, but the Swedes still claimed second place behind France in Group A.

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And, shy on goal difference of another World Cup appearance, the dribbling wizard is calling it a day.

The 33-year-old Bayern Munich man retired from international duty Tuesday, finishing his time in an orange shirt with 37 goals and 30 assists in 96 caps.

Those two goals pulled Robben into a tie with Dennis Bergkamp for fourth on the all-time Dutch list. The three ahead of him are Robin Van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and Patrick Kluivert.

UEFA World Cup qualifying: France, Portugal clinch

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France and Portugal claimed the final two automatic berths in the 2018 World Cup on Tuesday, while three teams know they’ll need a playoff to go to Russia.

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Netherlands 2-0 Sweden

The Dutch needed to win and erase a big goal difference on Sweden, and only managed the latter through a pair of Arjen Robben goals. The first was a chipped penalty that nearly failed to find the net.

France 2-1 Belarus

Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud helped Les Bleus build a 2-0 lead, and the French held on for a spot in Russia against visiting Belarus.

Portugal 2-0 Switzerland

It took an own goal to break this one open, as Johan Djourou of Antalyaspor had the ill fortune of putting the Swiss behind the 8-ball before Andre Silva scored a second despite a mistouch at the back post.

The loss was the only one of Switzerland’s qualifying campaign, as Portugal advanced on superior goal differential. The Swiss beat Portugal 2-0 in Sweden.

Greece 4-0 Gibraltar

This was supposed to be much easier for Greece, which needed a win to earn a playoff spot and was expected to dominate the minnows. Bologna’s Vasilis Torosidis scored the lone goal of the first half, and it took until after the hour mark for Kostas Mitroglou to salt away the result with 61st and 63rd minute goals.

Estonia 1-2 Bosnia and Herzegovina

Werder Bremen’s Izet Hajrovic scored twice for the visitors, whose form dipped precipitously over the final five matches to miss the World Cup.

Elsewhere

Luxembourg 1-1 Bulgaria
Hungary 1-0 Faroe Islands
Latvia 4-0 Andorra
Belgium 3-0 Cyprus