Criticism, negativity may leave Seattle with few rewards for their hosting efforts

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SEATTLE – Last word on Monday had 36,000 tickets sold for tonight’s match. Some were saying 38,000. That’s out of 42,000 tickets available at CenturyLink. Or is it 45,000? Amid all the discussion, dissention, jabs and pointed fingers, real numbers have been difficult to nail down.

As much as Tuesday’s qualifier has become about the horrible pitch U.S. Soccer’s imposed on the venue, Seattle’s long-awaited World Cup Qualifier is serving as the platform for a great attendance debate. On one side is an advocate purporting a crowd that will rank among the largest in U.S. Soccer’s qualifying history. On the other is a prosecutor who’s reading a list of broken promises.

Those broken promises are figurative, of course. But it is fair to say the Seattle fan community talked a big game in the three years that led to this moment. Shortly after Sounders FC began setting Major League Soccer attendance records, we heard about the potential advantages of the U.S. playing at “the Clink.” They were endless, and in fairness, they weren’t only coming from Seattle. That would be a real home field advantage, the missive went, the implied assumption being massive crowds would come.

But on Tuesday, they won’t, a result with a myriad of factors contributing to what even some Sounders fans confess will be a disappointing turnout. The match is mid-week, a 6:30 kickoff (as opposed to a later, more manageable time). Season ticket holders weren’t given a chance to buy their seats, the prices are much higher than normal Sounders games, and casual fans who might have otherwise come may have chosen to attend the cheaper rivalry match on Saturday. All that, and there’s the perception U.S. Soccer was late giving Seattle a qualifier, creating a sense bitterness among a small but hardcore faction of the fanbase.

Make no mistake about three things, though:

  • First, except for the bitterness angle, none of these issues are unique to Seattle. Ticket prices for qualifiers are always higher, some season ticket holders don’t get preference, and U.S. national team matches often fall within the context of the local home schedules. These aren’t good explanations for failing to deliver on the implied crowd.
  • But if this does reflect a divide between the Sounders brand and being a fan of soccer at large, there’s nothing wrong with that. Sounder fans need not defend their preferences. Nobody is obligated to choose country over club, particularly when country took so long to show up. Soccer in the U.S. need not revolve around the national team any longer.
  • Finally, the crowd is still going to be huge. With a small, late surge in sales, it will be one of the top ten most-attended home games in U.S. qualifying history. Sure, Seattle could do better, but in an absolute sense, it’s still a huge number, potentially delivering the atmosphere U.S. Soccer sought.

The difficulty for Seattle soccer: They’re not being judged in absolute terms. They’re being judged against a standard of their own creation, and rightfully so. When the whole premise behind your qualifying bid is the ability to produce as-advertised crowds, you deserve to be judged against your talk. So if Seattle can’t produce near-42,000 for Tuesday’s match, it should be noted: They didn’t walk the walk.

It also deserves to be noted that the soccer community’s own standards may have been a bit unfair. Yes, people could have ultimately just bought tickets. They could have fought through all the mitigating circumstances and just showed up, just as people from all over the country did in travelling to Seattle. How do you really tell somebody flying in from New York that a $50-plus ticket kept you from going to a game in your hometown?

But that doesn’t mean real people didn’t have real life circumstances that kept them from the game. If you get off of work at 6:00 p.m., the 6:30 p.m. start time matters. If you bought season tickets for four and now have to fork over in excess of $200 to take your group to the game, that’s significant. Perhaps the Seattle community didn’t take these things into account when making their promises, but in the face of these on-the-ground factors, it’s understandable their promises couldn’t be kept.

It would mistake, however, to judge Seattle’s game as a failure based on the numbers. Make conclusions about the field conditions, if you want to. Or question the logic about flying cross-continent in a short window. That’s fine. But don’t see 36,000 and think that’s anything but a positive. The fact that Seattle could do better shouldn’t be used as a reason to dismiss the people who’ll  show up.

And that may be the most disappointing part of this debate. Many people across the U.S.’s broader soccer community have taken this opportunity to throw Seattle’s under-performance in fans’ faces, often exaggerating the actual significance of those 4,000 empty seats. ‘You didn’t deliver’ is a valid critique in light of the last three years’ dialog, but sentiments like ‘this is a disappointment,’ ‘what was the point,’ or ‘not as strong as you thought you were’ are distortions. The picture’s slightly more complicated than that. Slightly more interesting, too.

In reality, the issue isn’t really the attendance. The more compelling point is about the standards against which we’re judging Seattle’s soccer community. For any other market in the country, Tuesday’s number would be trumpeted as an amazing success. In Seattle, if fails to meet expectations. Is there any greater compliment you could give Seattle soccer than noting  their numbers put them in a class by themselves?

It’s too bad many ardent followers of U.S. soccer won’t see it that way. It’s backlash, possibly envy, or maybe it’s just a natural counter-balance to the slew of pieces that have guffawed Seattle’s crowds. But this discussion has become so distorted, you can’t help but wonder what Seattle’s getting out of this qualifier. A large group of fans are going to be able to see a qualifier – the first one in Seattle in 36 years – but the legacy of this game will be criticism, petty jabs, and possibly an unfair depiction of Seattle’s soccer scene.

All of this was unforeseeable when Sounders FC made their late 2012 U-turn on qualifiers. As of last fall, Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer felt bringing in grass to host any match was no longer with it. It cost too much for too little benefit. Yet after getting feedback from fans during last fall’s vote authorizing his new term, Hanauer changed course. If the fans wanted a friendly, he’d fight for it.

After this week, however, you wonder if he regrets not following his friend Merritt Paulson, sticking with the Portland Timbers by insisting any games at his venue be played on the field’s regular surface. At least then, Seattle probably wouldn’t under this tilted microscope.

With high ticket prices and an organizational cost of a couple of hundred thousand dollars to lay down the much-maligned sod, will all this negativity be worth it? Seattle seemed to be doing fine without U.S. Soccer.

Champions League, Europa League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League action has resumed and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it. Both Manchester clubs are the bookmakers favorites to seal their respective European glory.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments begin.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea lost Bayern 7-1 on aggregate as they crashed out of the Champions League. Man United and Wolves are both in the quarterfinals and favored to go far.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)
Wednesday, August 12: Atalanta 2-3 PSG
Thursday, August 13: RB Leipzig 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Friday, August 14: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Saturday, August 15: Manchester City 3-1 Lyon


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
Monday, August 10: Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Monday, August 10: Manchester United 3-1 Copenhagen
Tuesday, August 11: Wolves 1-2 Sevilla
Tuesday, August 11: Shakhtar Donetsk 1-2 Basel


Champions League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)

(+210) Atalanta v. PSG (+117). Tie: +275
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+135). Tie: +220
(+235) Barcelona v. Bayern Munich (+115). Tie: +255
(-305) Manchester City v. Lyon (+750). Tie: +450

Outright winner
Manchester City (+220)
Bayern Munich (+325)
Paris Saint-Germain (+500)
Atletico Madrid (+800)
Barcelona (+800)
Atalanta (+1000)
RB Leipzig (+1700)
Lyon (+3500)


Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+112) Inter Milan v. Bayer Leverkusen (+240). Tie: +250
(-385) Manchester United v. Copenhagen (+1000). Tie: +480
(+235) Wolves v. Sevilla (+120). Tie: +230
(-106) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Basel (+290). Tie: +255

Outright winner
Manchester United (+180)
Inter Milan (+325)
Sevilla (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+650)
Wolves (+700)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+1100)
Basel (+2500)
Copenhagen (+6000)

Barcelona reach 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal

Barcelona - Napoli
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Barcelona – Napoli saw Lionel Messi and Co., book the eighth and final place in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, by way of a 3-1 victory on the night (4-2 on aggregate) on Saturday.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

It was, as it so often tends to be, Messi who shone brightest and stole the spotlight en route to Barca’s 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal appearance.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Barca entered Saturday with the slimmest of advantages, knowing that a scoreless draw would see them through to the quarterfinals after grabbing a vital away goal in the first goal. Lyon knew that no matter what, they needed to score at least once or they would be out. That threat was reinforced, and strengthened, when Clement Lenglet headed the Blaugrana ahead in the 10th minute.

Messi slipped, Messi got back up, Messi slipped again, Messi got back up again, Messi rifled the ball inside the far post to score a(nother) fantastic solo goal and make it 2-0 (3-1) in the 23rd minute. It was only slightly more complicated than that for him (WATCH HERE). Messi put the ball in the back of the net again just a few minutes later, but the goal was taken off the board by way of a somewhat suspect handball decision upon video review.

Nonethless, that was just about that after Luis Suarez converted from the penalty spot early in first-half stoppage time. Messi won the penalty by sneaking around Kalidou Koulibaly and winning the ball in the blink of an eye, forcing the Senegalese center back to foul him on the edge of the box lest Messi walk in on goal for a virtual tap-in.

Lorenzo Insigne converted a penalty kick of his own a couple minutes later before the interval, but the threat level never peaked higher than a 2-out-of-10 for Barca.

Barca will face Bayern Munichin a sensationally mouth-watering, single-leg quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

3 things learned: Bayern Munich v. Chelsea

Bayern Munich - Chelsea
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Bayern Munich – Chelsea, leg no. 2, looked eerily similar to leg no. 1, played back in late February, with the lone exception being the lack of fans inside the Allianz Arena for Thursday’s dead rubber.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

The eight-time Bundesliga champions were simply too good — and too healthy, by comparison — for Frank Lampard and the Blues to put up a reasonable fight from 3-0 down after the first leg. It was an unceremonious end to Lampard’s first season in charge at Chelsea, but a foregone conclusion before they boarded the plane back in London.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

With their 4-1 victory on the night (7-1 on aggregate), Bayern will face Barcelona in a sensationally mouth-watering quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

Here’s a look at what we learned from the Allianz Arena, as the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed in Bayern Munich – Chelsea.


NO DRAMA NECESSARY, BAYERN TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS EARLY

Credit to Bayern for their ruthless efficiency and disinterest in letting the tie descend into drama and tension. Robert Lewandowski scored early (10th minute) and Ivan Perisic did the same in the 24th, bringing the aggregate score to 5-0 with 65 minutes left to play. With so many key players out injured, Chelsea had virtually zero chance of pulling off the impossible comeback prior to kickoff, and Hans-Dieter Flick’s side made sure to keep it that way from the opening whistle. Corentin Tolisso put the tie further out of reach late in the second half (76th), and Lewandowski duplicated his side’s three-goal advantage from the first leg not much later.


CHELSEA’S ISSUES STILL AT THE BACK

For all of the development of young players that Frank Lampard was able to realize this season — and for all of the big-money signings either already confirmed or heavily reported to be imminent this summer — Chelsea still have serious questions to answer with regard to their defense. The below highlight is but one small example in a season full of defensive blunders at missed assignments (you’ll find another one below in the next section). Cesar Azpilicueta remains solid, but he’ll turn 31 this month and probably only has another year or two left to function at the UCL level. Reece James and Fikayo Tomori still have some way to go in their development to be UCL-caliber players. The likes of Kurt Zouma, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen have all proven, time and again, they’re simply not at that level and probably never will be. All of that is to say, Chelsea need to execute a full-on rebuild of their defense this summer, or it might not matter how many goals they can score every game next season.


BAYERN’S END-OF-SEASON FORM IS TERRIFYING

Pop quiz: When was the last time Bayern simply didn’t win a game, let alone lost one? The answer: Feb. 9 (19 games ago). And their last defeat? Dec. 7 (28 games). They won all nine of their Bundesliga games following the season’s restart, plus another two in the DFB-Pokal and now the second leg against Chelsea in the UCL. Of course, things will suddenly become far more tricky when 1) the likes of Barcelona and Man City factor into the equation in the quarterfinals and the semifinals, and 2) each round is decided over a single leg rather than the traditional home-and-away format of the Champions League. And still, Bayern have the look of serious Champions League contenders, if not favorites, based on their scintillating form dating back to the start of the calendar year.

VIDEO: Messi shreds Napoli to score fantastic solo goal

Lionel Messi goal video
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Lionel Messi has done, once again, as Lionel Messi is known to do: he has scored another fantastic Lionel Messi goal (video below) in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Andrea Pirlo named Juventus manager | Sarri sacked ]

One, two, three, four, five defenders in his way? So what, says Messi.

One or two decent attempts to tackle the ball away — and perhaps even succeeding on at least one occasion? Again, so what?

He’ll have the ball back, continue on his merry way and tuck the ball just inside the far post, all while falling down, getting back up and falling down again. The goal put Barcelona 2-0 ahead on the night (3-1 on aggregate). Prior to this post being published, he scored again, but the goal was taken away for a perceived handball upon video review.

Surely we’ve discovered a superhuman soccer league we can send him to by now, just to level the playing field a bit more for the actual humans walking planet Earth.

Anyway, here’s the latest head-shaking, smirk-inducing Messi goal video you came to see.