Ethan Sturm | Rules of the Game
The ultimate tournament
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 02:02
February is, without a doubt, the worst month in sports.
The NHL and NBA regular seasons are in full swing, but they mean next to nothing. The Chicago Blackhawks’ impressive early season streak will mean nothing when they lose to the No. 8 seed’s hot-handed goalie in the first round of the playoffs, and if professional basketball players don’t care about their games on a night-to-night basis, why should I?
March Madness is still a month off, and the Winter Olympics are still a year off. I was so bereft of ideas for my column thanks to this boredom-inducing month that I almost forgot to write one.
My savior finally came from across the Atlantic in the form of a little soccer tournament that holds all of the drama that leaves me craving March Madness year after year. I’m not talking about the Champions’ League, which pits the best of the best in Europe against one another, but the English FA Cup, a tournament built on Cinderella dreams.
The premise of the FA Cup is magical. Every single registered team in England and Wales in league system’s tiers can apply to enter, with almost all accepted. This year, it made for a tournament of 758 teams, from global superpower Manchester United to Jarrow Roofing Boldon Community Association F.C., a 10th- tier amateur squad that plays in a stadium with a capacity of 100.
The format is simple as well. Each round, a team gets paired up against a random side and is assigned to be either home or away. You play one game, and the winner moves on. If you draw, you play one more, this time at the other team’s home ground, and if there is again a tie, it moves on to overtime and then penalty kicks. There are no privileges for upper-tier teams in terms of pairings, United could face crosstown rivals Manchester City in the very first round they enter.
The tournament sets up incredible stories, like that of Luton Town this season. Once a glorious premier league side in the 1980s, a mix of poor results and financial illegalities have dropped the team all the way to the fifth tier of English soccer, an afterthought in the minds of fans.
But with a few timely wins, the Hatters were able to advance all the way to a Round-of- 32 matchup at the home of Premier League side Norwich City. An 80th minute goal from the underdogs propelled them to the Round- of-16, just a stone’s throw away from the quarterfinals. The run also earned the club nearly 100,000 Euros in prize money.
Could anything like this hold up in the American sports scene? Ignoring issues of scheduling and interest from the professional leagues, I fear that other sports wouldn’t lend themselves to such an event in the same way. There is such a difference in pitch, bat and running speed between professional baseball players and minor leaguers that you’d have to think they couldn’t keep up with the play of the higher-level game.
The same issue would seem to hold in basketball, where amateurs in the Olympics get obliterated by the teams full of professionals. Football would be interesting, especially if we could include Canadian Football League teams. I’d love to see how some of the weaker NFL teams would hold up.
Hockey, where teams run deeper and stars matter less, would be intriguing. A lower-level team with a good goalie could keep things close, and would just need to steal a goal or two to pull off the upset. Hockey also has a well-established system of lower leagues, making planning easier.
American soccer has its own tournament, the US Open Cup, but many top sides in Major League Soccer don’t take it seriously. Maybe something like the FA Cup isn’t meant to be in America. Which means that I will keep watching my illegal feeds of it in all of its glory.