January: The Future's So Bright...
Anyone who attended or watched Mosconi Cup XXII would have to agree, 2013 seems like a lonnnng time ago!
You'll recall the "Mirage at the Mirage!" It was supposed to be a celebration of the Cup's 20th anniversary. Promoter Matchroom Sport handpicked the teams, reuniting America's top Mosconi Cup players and pitting them against a vaunted European squad that had already won three consecutive titles. It was supposed to be epic.
Instead, Team USA all but didn't show up. Team Europe laughed its way to a three-day, 11-2 romp that, in truth, wasn't even that close.
It was an embarrassment for the players, for the fans, for Matchroom, for television viewers and for the Cup itself.
Worse, it threatened the future of pool's most exciting, successful and most widely viewed event.
Two years later, Team USA still hasn't broken Team Europe's recent stranglehold on the Cup (Europe won its sixth straight Cup, 11-7), but the event itself appears to be stronger and more popular than ever.
Team USA got leadership, it got younger and it developed a massive following.
Yes, the losing team is driving the Cup's resurgence.
What a breath of fresh air Mosconi Cup XXII was. Las Vegas' Tropicana Hotel & Casino provided a festival grounds for pool. More than 1,000 fans packed the Mosconi Cup arena for each of the four five-match sessions. And for the first time I can remember, the U.S. fan base drown out the annoyingly likeable, entertaining and boisterous European fans. Heck, they even served up cheers and chants other than "USA, USA, USA!"
And this increase in interest and enthusiasm for Team USA and the Mosconi Cup didn't happen by accident. I credit Team USA leadership - in particular, captain Mark Wilson - with helping to develop a groundswell of support for the event and the U.S. players. In previous years, the Mosconi Cup was just something that suddenly appeared in December. Five players would jump on a plane to Vegas or Europe, and several hundred people would tag along for kicks.
Since Matchroom appointed Wilson (who, incidentally, sank the final 9-ball in the very first Mosconi Cup in 1994), the former pro has made Team USA a 12-month program. Much of that 12-month effort has been in building the Team USA brand and the Mosconi Cup through social media and road show events. Wilson also used the time to analyze and talk to team hopefuls. Last year Wilson was visited at his Lindenwood University billiard facility near St. Louis by numerous players - young guns and veterans alike. Each wanted to better understand the blueprint he's developed for turning around the fortunes of American-born players on today's international pool scene. This isn't just about the Mosconi Cup, Wilson has pointed out. This is about making American players dominant again. The U.S. has fallen far behind the Europeans and Asians in recent years. The Mosconi Cup simply offers a good platform to develop and improve American talent.
Several years ago, I was among the most vocal in forecasting doom for U.S. pool hopes. I didn't see the young talent that was coming up, assuming they were just bar table players scuffling from one small town U.S. tournament to another. They would never make it on the big stage, I thought.
Boy was I wrong.
Watching Justin Bergman, Skyler Woodward and Mike Dechaine in Las Vegas gave me a whole new perspective on the future of Team USA. All three are under 30, with Woodward just 22. And there are others - Landon Shuffet, Oscar Dominguez, Jeremy Sossei. If Wilson can continue in his effort to bring structured training to U.S. players - like the formal training young European and Asian players receive - it won't be long before the American players are battling for titles on a regular basis all around the world. And the Mosconi Cup will become a battle royale.
The leadership extends beyond Wilson. Pool fans saw a different Shane Van Boening in Las Vegas. Still only 32, the normally reticent Van Boening was vocal and passionate throughout the event, spending time in the practice room racking balls and setting up shots for his younger teammates. In the arena, he was constantly supporting and encouraging his teammates. He has taken on the mantle of being America's leader, and he wears it well.
That's not to say there is no place for the old guard. But the extensive list of points qualification tournaments being devised by Matchroom means the Johnny Archers and Rodney Morris's of the world will have to prove through performance that they still belong. They're still good enough to earn spots on Team USA.
I've said before that a strong, formal, industry-supported Team USA pool program is critical, not just for the Mosconi Cup, but also for developing young players and bringing American pool players back to the finalists podium.
It would, of course, require leadership and commitment - and money. I believe the residual benefits of developing a strong U.S. player base would be well worth the effort.
The foundation appears to be in place.