There's been a flurry of news reports this week about some International matches that are being scheduled that have an impact on Orlando City and MLS. There are several different international governing bodies involved and several different reasons the national teams are calling up these players, and many of the events are organized under the guidance of different sanctioning bodies. But the umbrella organization that mandates the rules of all competitions and sets the timetables in which these international matches may be played is the world governing body of soccer: FIFA.
What is FIFA?
FIFA (The Federacion Internationale de Football Association) is an organization based in Zurich, Switzerland, that brings together over 200 associations across the globe and sets as its primary goal, "the constant improvement of football," or the game that we call soccer in the U.S. after the 19th century Oxford abbreviation of "Association Football [link to earlier blog post]."
Normally, the most visible manifestations of FIFA are through popular video games such as "FIFA 2015" and by a tournament you might have heard about that happens every four years known as the World Cup. But they are always in the background, and they codify and clarify the set of rules for playing soccer that are used by those 209 global associations I alluded to above. MLS is one of the member associations that follows FIFA rules. So are the English Premier League, the European Champions League, the African Cup of Nations organization, the UEFA League in Europe, and CONCACAF in the Americas. So if the game of soccer were a business and you were trying to figure out where to send a letter to complain or compliment them on a product, service, or employee, FIFA would be the box that is at the top of the org chart. Everything and everyone else ultimately eventually reports up to or receives direction down from them.
Now of course this is a vast over-simplification, and that's why I've added the link to the FIFA web site above. If you want to read up on all the nitty-gritty about them, that's the place to go do it--or of course Wikipedia.
FIFA is the organization that has set the window for the upcoming international matches that will occur between March 23 and March 31 and will impact players throughout MLS, including at least one and possibly more members of our Orlando City squad.
March International Window
So what kind of matches are being played in the March International Window? There are two types of matches that can be played, according to the official FIFA International Match Calendar (see page 2 for 2015 dates). The calendar heading says that teams can play 2 "Official" or "Friendly" matches during that period. Now as a novice fan of soccer, I'm not 100% sure of the difference between a "Friendly" and an "Official" match, because I've not been able to find research to verify it. However, I'll give you my best guess and more knowledgeable fans can throw a yellow card on me for misconduct if I lead anyone astray with my musings.
As far as I can tell an "Official" match would be something that counts toward global rankings or tournament qualification, such as a World Cup qualifying match. On the other hand, a "Friendly" match is one that's more or less like an exhibition game that doesn't count for any points, standings, or rankings, but just gives one national side an opportunity to play against other national sides that they may not otherwise normally encounter.
On the MLS list of International Call-ups, it does list the matches for March that could impact players from MLS squads. For instance, the US National Team will be playing two matches during the period, one at Denmark and one at Switzerland. As of the drafting of this blog entry there have been no official call ups for these matches yet, but with his recent good showing in some pre-season International Friendly matches, it's quite possible that Orlando City's Brek Shea could be called up to play in these matches, and it means we would be without him for any matches during that period (notably the road game at Montreal on March 28).
Looking further down the list, it has already been confirmed that one member of the Orlando City First Team is being called up for an International match, and that is Kevin Molino, who will play a home match for Trinidad & Tobago against Panama on March 27. As with Shea, it's very likely that Kevin Molino will miss the March 28 match with Montreal, both because it would mean playing two days in a row, and also because he would have to fly from the Caribbean to Canada overnight to make it to the Orlando City match. The FIFA calendar referenced above gives instructions for how long before and how late after the International matches players can be called from and must be released back to their club teams, so it's possible that even if Molino felt up to playing back-to-back days, he may be obliged to remain with his National Team beyond March 28 and will not be able to be in Canada at all.
There are quite a few other national teams that will be in action during the March window: the national teams from Canada, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Panama, Honduras, French Guiana, Jamaica, Venezuela, and Cuba will all play at least one match, as will the Under 23 teams of the US, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Denmark, and the Under 20 teams of the US and England. Based on the way these matches are listed, I must take a guess that all of them are international "friendlies" except for the two matches between Honduras and French Guiana. These are listed as Gold Cup qualifying matches. So I'm going to speculate (and I'll post a correction if I find out later than I'm incorrect) that all the other matches are simple FIFA international friendlies and don't fall under the umbrella of any additional organizing association.
What's the Gold Cup?
The Gold Cup is a competition organized by CONCACAF (The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football). It is a tournament that helps to determine the best team among the national sides that make up the Gold Cup competition: Canada, Cosat Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, (winner of Honduras and French Guiana), Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad & Tobago, and the United States. The Gold Cup tournament is a smaller version of the World Cup (only involving the twelve qualifying sides), and will be played entirely in the USA this summer, with venues ranging from Dallas to Philadelphia.
Astute readers will realize that this has several implications for your Orlando City SC Lions already. The first is that as we get into the middle of summer, we are going to probably lose Kevin Molino for a few weeks as he goes to play for his national team in the Gold Cup tournament. It also means that if the US National Team and the Trinidad & Tobago team ever face off during the tournament, we will be put in the uncomfortable position of having to root against the same guy we passionately scream our heads off to support when he's clad in Orlando City purple. This is all quite perplexing and a little unnerving.
Still, I suppose in the grand scheme of things, you have to say this is a nice problem to have as a fan of Orlando City. After all, if there are players on our roster that are considered the best players produced by their country, then we can root for them whenever they don their national kit to represent their homeland (as long as they don't play a match against the USA, because I'm pretty sure the NSA would consider it an act of treason to root against the US National Team).
CONCACAF Champions League
There is at least one other major tournament that CONCACAF organizes, and that is the Scotiabank Champions League. This is a competition or tournament that features club teams from across the member nations that make up CONCACAF. This week, MLS fans may have noticed that there were two matches played in this competition. On Tuesday night, March 17, Costa Rican side CS Herediano hosted Mexican side CA America in the first leg of a two-match semi-final. Herediano won the match 3 - nil, and on April 8 the two sides will play again in Mexico City on CA America's home pitch. The team with the highest aggregate tally of goals will advance to the finals to play the winner of the other two-legged semifinal. The first match of that competition is currently at halftime (as I write) with the Montreal Impact of the MLS leading Costa Rican side LD Alajulense 2 - nil. The second leg of this semi-final will be played in Costa Rica on LD Alajulense's home pitch on April 7, and the winner on aggregate goals will go to the finals against the winner of CS Herediano and CA America.
Now I don't know how clubs are selected to be in the tournament, but I do know that the competition started back in October of 2014 with 24 club teams divided into eight groups of three teams each. I presume there must be some sort of club-level qualifying matches to accumulate points or aggregate goals, or perhaps there's an arbitrary ranking system that is used to select the teams. It's going to take me a while to figure all this stuff out. The only thing I know for sure is that at least for this edition of the tournament, Orlando City SC is not involved, and that is likely because we would not qualify at the time the competition began as a club that existed outside of MLS, the highest national club level in the country. Hopefully by the time this competition rolls around again I will have figured this system out so that I can bring you a better understanding of how this all works. Right now someone could tell me it's all smoke and mirrors and I would have no way of proving otherwise.
For today that's about all I can squeeze into one post. If I learn more about these matches or if I discover that some of the non Gold Cup qualifying matches are part of some other organized competition outside of a simple International Friendly, I will throw a correction up on the blog.