Hello, my name’s Jon, and I’m a big sports fan. I feel I can open up to you, so I’ll expand a little on this topic. I like sports for many reasons, but for our purposes here today, let’s just focus on one. Suffice it to say that part of what I love about sports is the direct and definitive nature of the beast. Even if just for a fleeting moment, match, or season at a time, sports provide clear cut results that get printed in newspapers, immortalized in almanacs, and burned into the memory. I may not be able to prove to you that Metallica is a better band than U2 or the The Big Lebowski takes a crap on Garden State, but I can sure as hell tell you that the Chicago Bears beat the supposedly unstoppable Vickadelphia Eagles when the two squared off on Sunday. You can argue subjectively with me about the bands and movies, and you can even try to convince me that as the season plays out the Eagles will prove to be a better team than my beloved Bears, but you can’t argue who was the better on Sunday, I’ve got the only relevant numbers on hand, 31 and 26. One is bigger. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and not just because the team I support bested the competition. As a sports fans (sorry for the assumption if you’re not one), we’re all programmed by the win/lose vacuum within which this particular form of entertainment operates. After all, it’s not just team versus team right? Which squads got better and which players got paid in the latest transfer window/free agency? Did your favorite coach/manager outsmart his counterpart this weekend? Are Ovechkin’s numbers putting Corsby’s to shame yet?
So with all this direct win/lose programming in place, it’s understandable that the fan’s feathers take a good ruffling once in a while when the oh-so-direct nature of athletic competition takes a day off. Thankfully, years of following certain sports and leagues makes the fan familiar with more common glitches in the system (can you imagine what we’d do if faced with a wholly new and strange dilemma!?). Here are a few examples of the type of confusing conflicts I’m referencing:
– Your favorite NFL team is undefeated late in the season; do they try to stay that way or rest the stars and possibly take a loss in a meaningless game?
– Your favorite American sports franchise is abysmal (a-Bills-mal?); do they play their only advantage, give their worst quarterback/pitcher/forward a look, and snag a couple more losses on the way to the top pick in the draft?
– The trade NHL and NBA trade deadlines are approaching and your teams are mediocre; do you want them to win a few games and become buyers only to lose in the playoffs, or would it be more beneficial in the long term to trade a big name to a contender for young talent?
– A bitter conference rival of your alma mater is playing in a big January bowl game; how do you weigh your hatred versus conference pride and the fact that your school’s athletic program will get a chunk of that money if the bastards win.
See? Things tend to get murky when we’re forced to abandon the “Go Team” mentality that makes sports fandom what it is. And as any fan of English soccer will tell you, murky is the name of the game when it comes to the Carling Cup (or League Cup), definitively the less prestigious of the country’s two in-season cup tournaments.
The Carling Cup doesn’t enjoy the all inclusive flare and atmosphere that surround the FA Cup, which almost any soccer team in England can qualify for, rather, only teams within the four tiered Football League are invited to participate. In baseball terms, this represents the difference between all major and minor league teams being included in tournament (Carling Cup), and those teams being joined by various other pro, semi-pro, and beer league teams in one huge and badass tournament (FA Cup). Additionally, the FA Cup holds its later rounds while teams are pushing towards end-of-season glory on all fronts, and the Carling Cup is entering its later rounds right now… in late November. It’s no wonder Premier League managers save their best coach speak for the questions on the Carling Cup. I can just picture Harry Redknapp, Arsene Wenger, and Sir Alex sitting around sipping brandy in the offseason laying bets on which one could talk the biggest game about the importance of the competition the day before fielding the most inexperienced reserve side possible.
So the Prem’s more successful clubs generally treat the League Cup as a training exercise for their youth and for players looking to prove their fitness after recovering from an injury; the fans of these teams know it, and can root for brilliance from the young guns. Things are quite different for the perennial also-rans of the top flight. The tournament represents one of two opportunities each season for the clubs that live in the bottom half of the table to pick up some silverware. A couple years ago, while mired in mediocrity, Tottenham took down Chelsea in a Carling Cup final that went to extra time and was decided by an unexpected Jonathan Woodgate strike. Robbie Keane’s subsequent tears of joy told a story stark in contrast to the low level of importance that England’s elite teams seem to assign the competition.
Flash forward to today. West Ham United, my favorite club, is already deep into their virtually annual flirtation with relegation. They’ve been in last place since the first week of the season, so I’d say this year’s team is past flirting and might be somewhere near heavy petting. But they’re only four points from safety to the possibility to pull back (or pull out, if it gets that far) still exists. Meanwhile, West Ham will host England’s only undefeated team today in the Carling Cup quarterfinal. Manchester United come into Upton Park on the back of a 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn, they sit top of the EPL table, and will field more talent than their hosts even if the entire second team takes the field. But first year West Ham manager Avram Grant has a history of prioritizing tournaments even ahead of the league itself, so much so that he has reached both the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League finals in the past three seasons, but wasn’t able to keep Portsmouth in the Prem or win the league with a super talented Chelsea team.
As a fan, it’s hard to know what to expect. This situation is far from direct, and it gets murkier by the hour. As usual West Ham already have a laundry list of short and long term injuries. Additionally, one of the walking wounded is team leader Scott Parker. He’s the Hammers’ best player by a mile, and they cannot win without him. He shook off a chest infection this past weekend to help the club to its second league win, but the illness is hanging around, and conventional wisdom would say to not risk Scotty in a cup match against the likes of Man U. But what about the possibility of racking up a signature win? West Ham may not have any Premier League titles, but they were the last team to beat Arsenal at Highbury and the first to slay them at the Emirates. Wins like that have currency in East London, and becoming the only team to beat Manchester United this season while simultaneously knocking them (the Carling Cup holders) out of the competition in front of the home crowd would be something indeed. I’m not sure what will play out today, though I know what logic and the odds say. But as I told you earlier, I am a fan, and even if the situation itself isn’t direct, the match, by rule, must be. Come on you Irons.
Jon Levy is Co-founder and associate editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.