Notes and musings about pool’s best event...
The Mosconi Cup has evolved in many ways over the years. The inaugural event featured eight-player teams; six men and two women. (Who is the only player with a perfect lifetime record in Mosconi Cup play? Vivian Villarreal, who went 5-0 in 1994.)
Women players were eliminated from the format after just one year, and six-man teams were cut to five-man squads in 2006. Match length? The Cup started out as a race to 16, but as the television landscape became more crowded and time slots got trimmed, Matchroom shortened the race to 12 for the tournaments hosted in Europe, and 11 when the event was held in Las Vegas. The Mosconi Cup settled into its current format five-player teams, race to 11 in 2007.
One of the most interesting changes along the way has been how the teams are selected. In the early years, the teams were pretty much handpicked by Matchroom Sport. Picking Team USA was relatively easy. In 1994, any grouping of the top 30 American players would be considered the favorite against Team Europe. For starters, Europe still lagged far behind the U.S. in talent, with the only threatening players coming from Sweden and Germany. And, in an effort to cultivate a television and live audience, Matchroom leaned heavily on its snooker ties to add star quality to the event. The first three years featured snooker legends Steve Davis, Jimmy White, Ronnie O’Sullivan and “Hurricane” Alex Higgins. Davis, the prize horse in the Matchroom stable, played in the first 11 Mosconi Cups and was critical to the growth of the event in the U.K.
The first three years of the Cup also saw a Team USA squad made up of players NOT aligned with the Professional Billiard Tour. The PBT, under the leadership of Don Mackey, made what Matchroom perceived to be unreasonable demands. Matchroom, instead, opted for aging pros like Dallas West, Mike Massey and Lou Butera, among others. It wasn’t until 1997 that the PBT pros agreed to play in the Cup. Matchroom and the PBT collaborated on squad selection.
While it was difficult to argue with many of the U.S. and European squads cobbled together by Matchroom over the years, players on both continents have long grumbled about the event as an elitist brotherhood. To rectify the notion and add drama to the months leading up to the tournament, Matchroom has begun utilizing ranking tournaments to determine three of the five spots on each team. (The two wild card selections for Team USA are determined by the U.S. team captain, while Matchroom selects the final two players for Team Europe.) The move has created significant yearlong interest among both players and fans.
After handpicking Team USA in 2013, then allowing Team USA Captain, Mark Wilson, to select the entire squad in 2014, Matchroom announced nine ranking tournaments for the Americans in 2015 all staged in the U.S. Eight events have been played and only one player, Shane Van Boening, has earned enough points to clinch a spot on the team. Five players are within 14 points of one another in the fight for the other two spots.
Now, it’s no secret that Team USA has struggled in the past decade, winning just one Mosconi Cup title outright in the last nine years. And it’s nice to know that the squad will include the three players who have performed the best throughout the year. But also telling is that only one of the eight ranking tournaments completed (the U.S. Open 9-Ball Championships is the final points event) only one has been won by an American; Van Boening. The other seven titles have been captured by a German, a Scot and two Filipinos.
The Europeans, meanwhile, have two events remaining the U.S. Open and the World 9-Ball Championships. Again, the fact that the ranking events for Team USA included no overseas events (not even the world championships), speaks to the lack of international seasoning American players get, something that seems apparent when you see them struggle every year with the intensity of the Mosconi Cup.
So, who are the favorites to make Team USA, aside, of course, from Van Boening (who could go a year without cashing in an event and still be selected for the team)?
The polarizing Mike Dechaine has a hold on the second spot heading into the U.S. Open. Dechaine, who has played in two previous Mosconi Cups, was not even considered for a spot in 2014. Wilson cited Dechaine’s character and reputation in his decision. Still, he is America’s second best player.
Eight-time Team USA member Corey Deuel ranks third ahead of the U.S. Open. Chasing Deuel and Dechaine or young guns Skylar Woodward and 2014 Team USA rookie Justin Bergman. Veteran Scott Frost is close behind.
If I’m Mark Wilson, I’m delighted that Van Boening and Dechaine are likely to lock up two of the automatic berths. Not having to burn a wild card on a player you’ve wanted on the team all along is a bonus. I’d be surprised if Wilson doesn’t choose America’s all-time Mosconi Cup leader Johnny Archer with one of those picks.
All of which promises to make the U.S. Open even more eventful than usual.