June 28, 2014

Is "a Steven Smith" the Worst Person in the World?

Not quite, but I did make Keith Olbermann's hourly show on ESPN last night...it has to do with a commentary of his the other night, decrying the advancement of the USMNT over Portugal to the elimination rounds of the World Cup based on the "outdated" system of goal differential.  After all, the US had lost to Germany in the final game, while Portugal won its final game, and the US had "choked" in the final minute in merely tying Portugal.  I responded with tweets suggesting that point differential takes into account all the games the teams played, that it's a tie-breaker used in other high-intensity sports like the NBA, NHL and NFL, and that it showed the US had played better in its three games than Portugal had in their three.

So lo and behold, I have ESPN on last night, and Olbermann's show starts, and immediately, my Twitter response to his commentary is "deconstructed."  And I'm unimpressed.  He still doesn't seem to get the notion of what "point differential" is, and why most sports use it as a tie-breaker.  In a low-energy, low-intensity sport like baseball, you can easily schedule an extra game at the end of the year if you have a tie, but in a tournament format, where you have players running 4-6 miles per game on average, you can't just pick up the next day and play an unscheduled game.  You need something else to use to break ties, and most sports, including soccer, use some combination of point differential and head-to-head play.

The second point is, so what if the US blew a late lead to Portugal.  Neither team won.  And that was a game the Portuguese needed to win much more than the US, due to their one-sided loss to the Germans in their opener.  That's why after the last second game-tying goal, the Portuguese celebration was rather muted, while the US response was not one of utter devastation.  The Americans could have gotten more out of the game, but they got what they needed.  Losing to Germany no more discredits their World Cup than Connecticut's blow-out loss in their conference tournament made them undeserving of winning the 2014 NCAA hoops tournament.

But Olbermann seems to want a less objective method of breaking ties, not one based on head-to-head performance or scoring in the totality of games, but on the more subjective "the US choked so they were the real losers" standard.  Not since Norman Mailer tried to argue that Floyd Patterson had "existentially" defeated Sonny Liston in their first title fight in 1962 has a blowhard tried to celebrate the defeat of his hero with such audacity.  Suffice it to say, it is not a standard that any other sport or competition uses.

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