The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Archive for January, 2008

Reloaded!

Posted by steigs on January 29, 2008

D says that DC United have been rebuilt and backs it up with a look at the turnover just since the beginning of ’06.

 The mass South American arrivals this week certainly give it that look.  That said, adding guys nicknamed “Doll” and “Dwarf” doesn’t do a whole lot to change the size of the team now, does it?  Got a squat player with flair to sell — give us a call, we’re your side!  And I think our female fans may find Gallardo is not exactly the pin-up that Christian has been.   (The joke is that “doll” Gallardo is closer to Chucky than Ken.  Decide for yourself.)

On a more serious note, this does look like a team built to compete in regional tourneys.  Former national teamers from South America aren’t likely to find playing Mexican teams especially different or intimidating.  In fact, it might be coming up against the rough-and-ready MLS style takes more adjustment for them than a Superliga or “CONCACAF Champions League” affair. 

D also sees this as a crucial year for the front office, making all these moves despite so much (regular) season success:

…this is a year that demands that we truly examine our coaching and front office. Players will win or lose games, but the front office and management will win or lose this season. They, more than any other parties, are responsible for the 2008 campaign. They had done right by us in the past, but the price of professional sports is inevitably “what have you done for me lately.” The departure of Boswell, of Gomez, of Perkins… these all signify that while I give the roster moves of the past great credit, they do not matter for this season. This season is about the choices we have seen being made. 

True that.  They built up some capital with Emilio and Fred and now they’re spending it by letting a former league MVP walk.  But I’m down with it so far.  For one thing, I remember the long drought after ’99, when the original great team fell apart and degenerated.  I’m willing to chance rebuilding on the fly.  The other is the tremendous frustration of the last few post-seasons.  All that build-up and so little play-off success.  (Insert double entendre, if you wish.)  As I posted before, I’m willing to chance a reloading effort since I can’t help but suspect that there was a problem somewhere in the team’s DNA. 

Here’s my concern.  We’ve got a bunch of new players and the team will probably take awhile to gel.  Yet we jump right into regional competition even before MLS gets going.  If we flop badly against a Mexican team in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, will people like D start questioning what we’re up to?  Good thing we’ve got this mysterious new Champions League to look forward to in the fall — by then Soehn better have figured out this new mix of players.  If we’re watching Gomez tear up the league for the Rapids while Gallardo nurses some injury and Boswell makes the all-star team while the new defenders are providing unnecessary Erpen-like drama, then things could get ugly come September.

That said.  This feels to me like an amplification of the team’s traditions.  We’ve always had a South America feel to the team, particularly our Bolivian connection.  We’re doubling down on that.  As the joke goes, Fulham may have more American players starting that DCU.  It’s almost like we’re turning into what Chivas USA originally promised to be.

Regular Bigsoccer poster JoeW sees this as a matter of DC United taking advantage of a comparative advantage we have over other MLS teams.   We’ve built up the relationships, the brand name, and the dollar goes further than in Europe.  That makes some sense.  In addition, I think he also may underestimate the appeal of the Washington area for an international player.  Sure, we’re not New York or Hollywood but we’ve got a vibrant immigrant community, particularly for Latin players, and plenty of other foreigners working here. 

Now if we could only get a beautiful new stadium to appeal to those players.  Sigh. 

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Where everyone knows your game

Posted by steigs on January 27, 2008

One of the many treats of Deadspin are the weekly updates from David Hirshey “the closer” and rather enthusiastic Arsenal fan.  His tales of the Kinsale Tavern in NYC on weekend mornings watching the EPL are always good for a laugh or two as well as a knowing nod.  Maybe they even give the mainstream Deadspin readers a taste for the beautiful game. 

You know, when he makes comments like these:

Kickoff for what the British papers were hyping as Grand Slam Sunday, because it involved The Big Four of ManU, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea and was at 8:30 — or to put it another way, three and a half hours before any alcohol could be served at the bar.  Imagine how frustrating it must have been to have a sweating beer tap a few tantalizing inches in front of you and realizing that if you reached over and yanked on it before NOON, you’d pull away a bloody stump. Yet all the deprivations of sleep and alcohol would have been worth it if the soccer on view hadn’t been so godawful.

Could there have been a more pathetic looking figure among the Kinsale mob than RZM? Even the shmuck at the end of the bar in a throwback Csonka jersey who tried to watch that other football game in London yesterday could at least delude himself that his 0-8 team once had a proud history. Poor RZM had nothing other than his pint of Guinness and the look of a man who had endured a double colonoscopy.

When I walked into Kinsale Tavern on Saturday morning at 8 a.m., the proprietor Pauline had the kind but concerned look of someone about to engage in an intervention. My initial thought was that she had caught wind of my insane plan for a 15-hour footy-watching drunkathlon and had decided it was a cry for help.

My version of the Kinsale is Summers, in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac from DC.  I’ve been going there for about a decade now.  It’s a sports bar, sure, but it’s really that rarer gem in the U.S. — a soccer bar.  A place where soccerheads like me can gather where everyone knows the game. 

So here’s a tribute to Summers I wrote when I was living overseas… Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Soccer bars | 1 Comment »

Awful, and not so awful, announcing

Posted by steigs on January 23, 2008

This one is for the good folks at Awful Announcing, doing their best to keep the airheads populating the airwaves on their toes…

 So Soccer America says that ESPN is changing its announcers for MLS games — we’re getting JP Dellacamera and John Harkes this coming season, not Dave O’Brien and Eric Wynalda (and sometimes Tommy Smyth).   There’s also talk that Bruce Arena could join the telecasts. 

The American soccer fan community has long had a hate-hate relationship with ESPN and its broadcasters.  We griped about the previous first teams.  (With some reason — Ty Keough, to name one, was just a clown.)  But Dave O’Brien at the 2006 World Cup was a new level of disaster.  Sure, he has a good broadcast voice, a familiar one to baseball fans brought in, it was said, to help non-soccer fans acclimate to the World Cup.  He made matters worse by continually spouting trivia, as if trying to prove that “I do too know soccer,” but got enough wrong to have that knowledge exposed as a recent cramming exercise.

 The real problem, though, was he had no feel for how to call a soccer game.  He kept going off on “up close and personal” style human interest stories in the middle of the game.  It was like he didn’t understand that action more than 20 yards from a goal could actually be important.  Argh! 

It was the most important set of games the US will play for four years and there’s this prattling clueless guy doing the play-by-play.  I think one reason fans were upset over the team’s performance in ’06 was that they were already in a state of irritation from the broadcasts.  Really.

The coverage was significantly worse that my regional cable network offers for DC United.  What’s a fan to do?  What a fair number of the hardcore fans did was flip over to the Spanish language coverage, even if they didn’t fully understand the language.  At least they weren’t being continually offended.  It was like ESPN had decided to tell the true believers that they didn’t matter at all.  It was the anti-W strategy — tick off your base.

The color guy, Marcelo Balboa, wasn’t as bad, just kind of inarticulate.  He wasn’t nearly good enough to help cover for O’Brien.  It was, to the serious fans, a disaster of the first order.

Come MLS ’07, we still usually got Dave O’Brien.  I give the guy credit for being a pro — he had learned some about the flow of the game.  There was less showing off of trivia, less meandering human interest tales.  (Perhaps the latter was because there weren’t any non-serious fans to appease, aside from those few games where Beckham was sitting on the bench.)  He was no longer a disaster, just mediocre.

Instead of Balboa we got…Eric Wynalda, who is much, much better.  Not afraid to call out bad play.  Not afraid to criticize a coach.  Arrogant, yes.  (He was a goal-scoring forward, after all, a breed with the self-confidence of fighter pilots.)  But he makes watching a game much more interesting.  He provokes.  Heck, he even did some non-soccer sports radio for ESPN last year.  An American soccer legend getting to comment on other sports?  We’re mainstream now!  Go Eric!

Unfortunately, it appears he also provokes off the field, such as his spat with Jim Rome, who is a jerk but also an ESPN broadcaster.  So they’ll shuffle Eric off to the Champions League ghetto, it appears.  Perhaps the ESPN international audience will appreciate his attitude.

So for ’08 it appears we’ll get JP and “Captain America”.  They were a good team at the ’06 World Cup, as the #2 set of broadcasters.  JP may be the best American soccer play-by-play guy.  It’s not surprising to me that he’s been a hockey broadcaster as well.  That’s a better sport for understanding the pace of play and knowing when to talk than O’Brien’s baseball experience.  He just tells you what’s happening, especially when it’s important, and who is doing it.  That’s all we want from a play-by-play guy.

Well, I also like some wit and intelligence but I, like a lot of American fans, may have been spoiled by the Brits we get on EPL telecasts.  I still recall the announcer who described one player having an off-day as “allegedly the right back,” for example.   But perhaps my standards were also set too high by a childhood listening to the legendary Vin Scully calling Dodgers games.

Harkes is much less of a provoker than Wynalda.  He’s an explainer, which is what the classic job of the color guy is.  Tell me why things are happening.  Why is my team having trouble generating offense?  Whose fault was it that a goal was scored on that set piece?  Which players are causing the other team problems?  Do you think that was a penalty?  Harkes can be good at this, although he sometimes struggles to articulate his explanations.  Wynalda is very articulate but can be too in love with getting a reaction.  We’ve all sat next to that guy at the bar, the one who enjoys being contrary.  Wynalda is a smart version of that — Harkes is just a guy who knows stuff but can’t always make his point.  Still, he’s a clear step up from Balboa.

Speaking of guys at the bar, my favorite “American” soccer color guy is Ray Hudson of Gol TV.  Ray is an enthusiast.  I’ve had a soft spot for him since he coached DC United, leaving a trail of legendary quotes in his wake.  He’s the guy at the bar who is so passionately engaged in the game he can’t help himself.  The Newcastle boy also has a special relationship with the English language.  Little wonder he’s inspired a fabulous blog, Hudsonia.  It helps that he and usual partner Phil Schoen (a decent play-by-play guy himself) have good chemistry.  I regularly laugh out loud when I watch a Hudson-called game.  Some Hudson gems:

Real Madrid are a whole different kettle of sharks.

He is like mercury. Not the planet, Kelly, the element. You cannot hold him, you cannot contain him. Quicksilver feet, again, by Messi. Mercurial, alright. And he is toxic for Espanyol’s defence. Look at this. Get out of your ‘Barca’-loungers and start applauding. That was brilliant. That is magnificent. Pure class delivered on a silver plate for Iniesta who was actually applauding as this ball comes to him. Look at this, Argentine class in a glass again. He’s up for FIFA World Player of the Year. If he doesn’t get it, I may start losing my faith in humanity.

Like a Jedi knight. No, better than that, a Templar knight. This is a flash of pure inspiration and let me tip my hat to the genesis of this goal, Ibarra. It’s Ibarra who plays it down the side, it gets pulled back for Lionel. Lionel only absolutely lights it up here. He lifts off it, flamethrowers it past poor Renny Vega, who does everything. It’s just as well Renny didn’t get a hand to that, because it would have taken it off his wrist …

Oh, there’s plenty more where those came from.  I like Harkes.  (I have to — my wife M. would kill me if I were critical of her favorite player of all-time.)  But I love Hudson.  If ESPN really wanted to turn people on to soccer, they’d give Ray some World Cup games in 2010.  Even Sports Illustrated likes the guy.  He may have a funky accent to our ears but enthusiasm will carry the day.  Just look at how American fans have loved John Madden over the years.

Posted in Television | 1 Comment »

When Life Imitates Dream Team, continued…

Posted by steigs on January 14, 2008

The ever-readable Sid Lowe of the Guardian brings us an update on Levante, Valencia’s second team:

If Valencia’s tubby tache-wearing owner Juan Bautista Soler is dumb, Levante owner Pedro Villarroel is dumber. Sackings, signings and shifty shenanigans, anything Soler can do, Villarroel can do better: from the nine coaches in seven years, to almost 30 signings in two seasons; from the huge debt to the disillusioned fans at a ground with the third-worst attendance record in primera; from allegations of secret pay-offs securing survival to the “charitable foundation” siphoning off cash; from the players sprinting for the door to the medical staff joining them; from the jumped-up threats to the desperate results, Villarroel has been the perfect president. For someone else’s team.

And:

 It got worse when star signing Shota Arveladze got injured using the club’s makeshift gym, comprising of a couple of weights slung across a pair of chairs, and never played again, spiralling headlong into depression. It got even worse when the club ignored the coach and signed seven players over 30; when Savio is so past it his manager describes him as a “dead man walking”…

Now we just need a good sex scandal and we’re in Harchester United territory….

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Pulling a reverse Blanco — baseless Donovan speculation

Posted by steigs on January 14, 2008

It’s the transfer window market and the papers, particularly the British ones, are alive with speculating, gossip, and wishful thinking.  The BBC even offers a daily round-up, as a public service. 

So I was surfing through the comments on Goff’s blog today and, among random claims about DC United signings and debates about players acquiring British accents, came across this beauty:

Steve

1)Any truth to Landon “Landy” Donovan heading to Club America (Mexico)? spoken rumors this morning on a spanish radio show…

Ah, that’s perfect — big name player, loosely sourced, makes little sense.  We all know Donovan is deeply attached to California.  He gets plenty of criticism for not wanting to play in European leagues, something many fans would develop his immense talent further — or at least toughen him up more.  What are the chances he’d pick up and head to Mexico City instead?  Sure, he speaks Spanish (good for him, by the way) but, jeez, the Mexican fans hate him.  (That said, if there’s anything to this, I’d expect to hear about it on the excellent Sideline Views blog first…)

Oh, but let’s pretend for a minute this was actually in the works.  It would actually have the potential to further bring together American and Mexican soccer cultures.  It would be…a reverse Blanco!  Bringing Blanco’s anti-hero act to the Chicago Fire has been a great success on the field and an even greater one off the field, bringing Mexican league fans to MLS games to see “Mr. White.”  If we sent Donovan down to Club America, the big money glamor team of the Mexican league, he’d be anti-hero for them.  If Landon played to his potential, I’m sure he’d do well down there too, which might nudge a bit more respect for American players from Mexico.  And more English-speaking American fans might go looking for Mexican league games on television….

 Imagine a CONCACAF Champions League final between a Club America with Donovan and a Chicago Fire with Blanco!

 Oh, well.  Never going to happen.  I expect Landon to stay in California, maybe moving back to the ‘Quakes if playing for the Los Angeles Beckhams gets to be too much for him.

 But here’s another thought.  I know an American player who’d be perfect for the Mexican league — Clint Dempsey.  He’s a good Texan boy, he understands our neighbors to the south.  He’s doing too well in Europe right now but maybe in four or five years, after a good run in the EPL, Club America will come calling for him.  And he’s got just the attitude to embrace the anti-hero role and play it to the hilt….

Posted in Mexico, US | Leave a Comment »

Slavia Do Toho!

Posted by steigs on January 11, 2008

Long-time bridesmaids Slavia Prague are having a year to remember.  Leading the Czech league at the break.  Getting a new stadium in March.  Made it to the group stage of the Champions League for the first time.  Maybe they were embarrassed 7-0 at Arsenal but they held the Gunners to a scoreless draw in Prague.  And they beat Steaua Bucharest to earn third place in the group — so they’ll face Tottenham in the UEFA Cup when the European Cups resume. 

I was lucky enough to catch a Slavia game in ’03 — one of the better (and cheaper) European soccer experiences I’ve had.  For more on Slavia, the wonderful city of Prague, and the meaning of the post’s title, read on after the jump…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Champions League, Czech | 1 Comment »

Enter the “Moneyball” Quakes…

Posted by steigs on January 6, 2008

So we’re starting to get a glimpse of what the new San Jose Earthquakes, and their Oakland As ownership, might bring to MLS.  Billy Beane, hero of Moneyball by Michael Lewis, has gotten the soccer bug and it appears the case is as bad as mine:

…On a recent trip to Europe, Quakes’ GM John Doyle visited several British clubs, and was impressed by the precision and volume of data that was collected and analyzed. Closer to home, every MLS team has contracted with a company called Match Analysis to receive statistical and video breakdowns of every game. According to the company’s president, Mark Brunkhart, the product has been used by some coaches and players to analyze their own week-to-week performance, as well as that of the opposition.

But the potential is there for additional uses as well. And in terms of player evaluation, the data, which records every touch a player makes in a game, reveals some interesting numbers. Although typical stats like a player’s possession percentage are tracked, there is also one called shot creation, which records how many times a player was involved in an attack that led to a shot. (The runaway leader? David Beckham with over 11 shots created per 90 minutes. Among full-time players, the highest mark belonged to D.C. United’s Christian Gomez at around 7.4 shots created per 90 minutes.)

So it’s a matter of using cold hard stats to pick up on things that conventional soccer wisdom misses.  It certainly appears to have some benefits in baseball, a numbers-heavy sport with a century of conventional wisdom.  One can certainly think of good players that don’t fit the stereotypes — smaller center backs like Italy’s Cannevaro and Michael Parkhurst of the Revs.  (If memory serves, Parkhurst read the game so skillfully that he managed to play good defense without drawing a red card until the play-offs.)  Former DC United goalie Nick Rimando is short, a cardinal sin among keepers, but manages to get by with athletic ability. 

 Then there’s the case of veteran Italian forward Filippo Inzaghi.  He’s profiled in the latest FourFourTwo, which includes this bit:

“I remember the first time Pippo got called up for Italy,” a former international once confided to FFT’s man in Italy, James Richardson.  “In training we all stood stunned because his technique was the worst we’d seen, but despite it all he just scores and scores.”

Ladies and gentlemen, your all-time European club competition goal scoring leader!  Perhaps this helps explain it:

Which brings us back to that comment from Johan Cruyff: “Look, the thing about Inzaghi is he can’t actually play football at all.  He’s just always in the right position.”

So, basically, Billy Beane and his compatriots are looking for numbers that will help them find Inzaghis.  Good luck to ’em — we Americans need all the help we can get. 

Posted in US | Leave a Comment »

Keeping up with Adu – the Benfica life

Posted by steigs on January 2, 2008

For those of you who missed it, the Washington Post caught up with local boy Freddy Adu in a story published on Christmas Day.  And here I thought it was only the fringe elements on Bigsoccer that considered the kid to be the savior…

Freddy, it appears, is off to a decent start with Benfica, the traditional (if not current) leader in the Portuguese league.  He’s often the supersub off the bench, regularly scoring a goal or getting an assist in the late stages of a game, and able to learn from Rui Costa, the legendary (if aging) Portuguese attacking mid, a number 10 of the most classic type.

Fitrell wrote that after Adu’s third game-winning goal for the club the papers were filled with headlines like “The American Hero” and “Freddy Saves Us Again.” The next day Fitrell had 40 e-mails congratulating him on Adu’s success, “as if I had anything to do with it,” Fitrell wrote. Fitrell’s favorite post-game message came from a Communist Party member of parliament there, which read simply: “I love America.”

I was glad to see the story was by Jason La Canfora, who ordinarily handles the Redskins beat but who developed a friendship of some sort with the Adus during the early stages of Freddy-mania.  While I love the work of Steve Goff, it’s nice that a young reporter with a liking for soccer — displayed during World Cup blogging and in asides during his Redskins work — gets to indulge himself.  The more mainstream writers who know and enjoy the sport, the better for us in the long run.

This seems a good opportunity to retell the tale of my visit to Lisbon and trip to see Benfica play, which also involves cherry brandy, a bit of poetry, and a reminder of the glory days of Benfica.  It’s a little dated, being from 1999, and Portugal (if not Benfica) have had some international success since then.  But I think it’s still of interest.  Curious?  Read on after the jump!

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Posted in Portugal | 2 Comments »