Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


18-YEAR-OLD MLS BRINGS US THE NEW 40

Pedro Morales converted a penalty kick in the 19th minute and struck again on a 20-yard shot a minute later to lead the Vancouver Whitecaps to a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in a Major League Soccer match before a crowd of 21,000 at BC Place.

The meeting commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first game between the Whitecaps and Earthquakes, who opened the North American Soccer League season at Empire Stadium as expansion franchises on May 5, 1974.  Fans at BC Place were encouraged to dress ’70s retro, which many did with long-haired wigs, sunglasses, fake mustaches and bell-bottom pants.  [May 3]

Comment:  The match was played about a month after the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders battled to an entertaining 4-4 draw before yet another standing-room-only crowd of 20,814 at Portland’s Providence Park.  The Associated Press referred to that encounter as “one of the wilder match ups of a rivalry dating to the mid-1970s.”  NBC, which televised the game, called it “the 85th meeting of the two teams.”  MLS noted earlier that the Sounders, along with a third Cascadia rival, the Whitecaps, and the ‘Quakes would mark their 40th anniversary seasons this year, with the Timbers celebrating No. 39.

What a stretch of the imagination.

Those clubs have as much right to claim a 40th anniversary as a married couple who experiences divorce, death, ressurection, marriage to other partners, further divorces, identity changes, separation, multiple relocations, and, finally, rebirth, all since the days that Richard Nixon was in the White House.

True, the Sounders, Whitecaps and ‘Quakes were born in 1974 as NASL teams, followed by the Timbers in ’75.  However, Portland, which once boldly called itself “Soccer City USA,” folded after the 1982 season, and Seattle, Vancouver and San Jose (known as Golden Bay for its final two seasons) went down with the ship when the NASL itself died after the 1984 campaign.

A year later, with professional soccer in the U.S. resembling a moonscape, two new teams, FC Portland and FC Seattle, joined with a reconstituted San Jose Earthquakes and the soon-to-be-forgotten Victoria Riptides to play in a hopeful attempt to revive high-level soccer called the Western Alliance Challenge Series (San Jose finished first with a 4-2-1 record).  The WACS morphed into the Western Soccer Alliance, then the Western Soccer League, then, through a 1990 merger with the East Coast’s year-old American Soccer League, the American Professional Soccer League.  FC Portland, born as an all-amateur side made up primarily of University of Portland players like Kasey Keller, and their rival, since renamed FC Seattle Storm, folded after that year.

As for the San Jose Earthquakes, they were replaced by the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in 1989; after U.S. internationals like Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda and John Doyle led them the to APSL title in ’91, they dropped into the USISL by ’93 as the San Jose Hawks and then folded.  After three years of darkness, the San Jose Clash became a charter member of MLS.  It shed the regrettable Clash nickname in 1999 and went on to win two MLS championships as the ‘Quakes, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the poorly supported team from moving to Houston in 2006.  Two years later, an MLS expansion team, named the Earthquakes, was awarded to San Jose; this fourth version of the ‘Quakes will move into a new, soccer-specific stadium, in 2015.

Vancouver?  It returned to action in 1986 as a freelance team, then joined the new, short-lived Canadian Soccer League the following year.  After six seasons as a CSL power, the 86ers embarked on an 18-year odyssey that took them to the APSL, A-League and USL-1.  Along the way, the 86es nickname was changed to Whitecaps.

These 40-year anniversaries are all well and good, but they ignore the difficult days between NASL and MLS, when there was genuine doubt that pro outdoor soccer would ever be seen again.  Ask those in the crowd of 34,012 who watched the Sounders beat the Timbers at the Kingdome in 1979 if any of them were among the 1,500 or so who saw an amateur Portland team play a semi-pro Seattle team at the old Memorial Stadium eight or nine years later.  Would any of them have drawn any sort of parallel between the two games?  Could any of them have foreseen a day when an MLS Portland Timbers and MLS Seattle Sounders would meet at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field in front of 66,452 in 2012 or 67,385 last season?

Given the ups and downs–and glaring gaps–in these and every other major soccer-playing market in the U.S., creating milestones like this is a shameless example of revisionist history.  If not, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) should’ve just claimed the legacy of the New York Cosmos as their own and begun life in MLS in 1996 with five NASL titles to their name.  Better yet, the New England Revolution should’ve simply traced their roots to the Fall River Marksmen, founded in 1921.  That would’ve given the Revs an immediate 75-year history, plus seven American Soccer League championships and four U.S. National Open Cup crowns.  A stretch?  Fall River, which of course is part of New England, is only 36 miles from the Revolution’s home field, Gillette Stadium.

These MLS clubs are right to give a nod to their respective cities’ rich soccer histories.  But the Whitecaps, Earthquakes (with their new stadium on the horizon), and Timbers and Sounders (with their routine sellouts) should celebrate the here and now without trying to re-write history–especially without forcing themselves to drag memories of mutton chop sideburns, Watergate and disco into the equation.

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THE GAME’S FOGGY CRYSTAL BALL

Is the world ready for another Beckham?

According to the Associated Press, David Beckham’s teenage son might be the next person in his family to play in the English Premier League.  Brooklyn Beckham, at 13 the oldest of Beckham’s four children, is having a tryout with Chelsea and played in an under-14 game at the club’s Cobham training center.

Chelsea tried to keep Brooklyn’s trial a secret, the Daily Mail reported, but some of the club’s academy players couldn’t resist posing for photos with Dad, who watched from the sidelines.  Those shots, of course, were posted on Twitter.

The Beckham family has moved back to England following the elder Beckham’s departure from the Los Angeles Galaxy, his six-year stay in Major League Soccer culminating with a second consecutive league championship.  Among the 37-year-old’s suitors are rival clubs in the United Arab Emirates, Al Jazira and Al Nasr.  Brooklyn, who is scheduled to continue to play at Cobham in the coming weeks, was a member of the Galaxy’s youth team while he was in Los Angeles and still appears on that club’s Web site as a member of their U-14 team.  [January 22]

Comment:  From “Soccer Stories:  Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats,” at the end of an item that included the tale of Chris Kirkland, whose father put down a 100-pound bet that his boy, then 10, would play for England before his 30th birthday (Chris did, playing in goal for the English at age 25):

“One of the players on the field … was English superstar David Beckham, whose toddler son, Brooklyn, has been established as a 100-to-1 shot to one day play for the national team.  London bookmakers had started Brooklyn out at 1,000-to-1 not long after his birth, but they slashed the odds in August 2001 when Beckham was quoted as saying his son was a better soccer player than he was at the same age.”

Known as punters, the British betting sickos who have become fascinated with the news out of Chelsea should bear in mind that when it comes to soccer prodigies, happily, there are no sure things.  The day before Brooklyn’s trial, one of the surest of all sure things, Freddy Adu, the kid who signed a $1 million sponsorship deal with Nike and made his MLS debut at 14, was released by the Philadelphia Union.  He was–and is–23.

For those who don’t believe the crystal soccer ball can get cloudy:  http://espn.go.com/sportsbusiness/s/2003/1119/1665998.html



BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Abby Wambach, whose clutch goals got the U.S. into the final of last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany, was voted 2011 Female Athlete of the Year by selected members of The Associated Press.  Wambach received 65 of 214 votes cast; teammate Hope Solo was second with 38, while Connecticut basketball player Maya Moore was third with 35.  The AP’s male winner was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers.

Wambach’s finest moment came during the semifinals, when her dramatic headed goal late in overtime helped lift the U.S. to victory over longtime rival Brazil.  She is one of three finalists for the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year trophy, which will be presented January 9 at the FIFA Awards Gala in Zurich.  [December 20]

Comment:  Another step forward, domestically.

Wambach, at nearly six feet tall an imposing striker,  is the first soccer player of either gender to be singled out in the 80-year history of the AP award (the 1999 U.S. national team won the honor for capturing that year’s Women’s World Cup).   Too bad the AP was too focused on golf and tennis all the way into the new millenium and missed the exploits of Michelle Akers, the heroine of the USA’s 1991 world championship, and Mia Hamm, who probably had peaked when she was voted the 2001 and 2002 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, the first two years of that honor’s history.

Someday, a soccer player will win the AP Male Athlete of the Year award.  The honor isn’t exclusive to Americans, so that means that over eight decades Pele, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo were never recognized, while Wayne Gretzky, Ben Johnson, Ingemar Johansson and immortals like Gunder Haag and Herb Elliott were.



SIMULATION COMES HOME TO ROOST

The National Football League has warned its 32 teams of fines, suspensions and loss of draft choices if it determines that a player has faked an injury during a game, the Associated Press reported.

Though the practice is widespread, the league didn’t issue its edict until the New York Giants’ Deon Grant appeared to feign an injury late in a game against St. Louis two days earlier, thus slowing the Rams, who had gone to a no-huddle offense.

“Someone said, ‘Someone go down, someone go down,’ so someone just went down and grabbed a cramp,” said Rams quarterback Sam Bradford.  New York went on to win, 28-16.

The reaction among NFL players and coaches was, not surprisingly, a wink and a nod.

“It’s always been in the game,” said Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed.  “It’s all tactical stuff you need to use.  Whatever it takes ….  If you’re tired, you’re tired.  You get a break however you can.”

Said Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan when asked if he ever instructed his players to fake an injury, “I can’t say I have.  But I won’t say I haven’t.”  After flashing a coy smile, he added, “It happens all the time, and the warnings will come out, and it’s happened again.”  [September 21]

Comment:  That sound you hear is muffled laughter coming from all corners of the soccer-playing world.

If a contact sport played by billions cannot figure out how to adequately deal with what is known throughout soccer as simulation, how can a collision sport known as the NFL?

As Grant said in an adament denial, “When you see after I made that tackle and bang my knee on that play, you see me bending my knee as I am walking ….  (Teammate Justin) Tuck is walking behind me and saying, ‘D, don’t run off the field.  Just go down.’  As I am walking, they line up, and knowing that I can’t get back in my position because of the knee injury, I went down.”

How many times have we seen soccer players hit the deck as if shot, most of them jumping to their feet as soon as they got the foul call or had killed off an adequate number of seconds off the clock?  How many NFL types, from media members to the average fan, have mocked soccer players as a bunch of actresses in shorts?  Or make that skirts?

Best of luck to the NFL in stamping out its own problem with simulation.  But as long as MRIs cannot be performed on the field, on the spot, these two sports will actually have something in common.

For more on the problem as it exists in soccer–with no concrete solutions offered–go to http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/17/on-diving-soccers-integrity-is-at-stake/



AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM, PART XLV

“It’s official:  Sunday night’s telecast of Super Bowl XLV is the most-watched program in television history, in terms of viewership,” reports Milton Kent, sports media writer for The Associated Press.

“Fox, which aired Green Bay’s 31-25 win over Pittsburgh, breathlessly reported Monday that 111 million viewers tuned in to watch.  That tops the 106.5 million who tuned in to see the final episode of M*A*S*H in 1983.

“This marks the fourth straight year that a Super Bowl telecast has set a viewership record, marking the first time a major sporting event has hit record highs in four straight years.  More impressively, Super Bowl viewership from 2005 to Sunday night has increased by 25 million viewers.

“In ratings terms, the Super Bowl posted a 46.0 rating and 69 share, meaning 46 percent of the nation’s households were tuned in to the game, while 69 percent of all television sets that were on at the time were watching the contest.  That ties Sunday’s game for ninth on the list of highest-rated Super Bowls and 16th on the all-time list of most-watched shows, occupying those spaces with the same telecast, that of Super Bowl XXX aired by NBC in 1996 between the Steelers and Dallas.”  [February 7]

Comment:  “The most-watched program in television history . . . .”

We all know that the solar system revolves not around the sun nor the earth but the United States.  Nevertheless, Kent becomes the latest in a miles-long line of American media members who can’t bring themselves to qualify their remarks when it comes to the domestic versus the Universe at large.

The most-watched program in television history is, of course, the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Holland.  The second most-watched program in television history was the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France.  And so on.  Even the moon landing in 1969 (roughly 500 million) doesn’t come close.

The question is, how many people actually saw the Spaniards overcome the cynical antics of the Dutch to win a far-from-classic final in Johannesburg last summer?   A common guesstimate is two billion; FIFA puts the number at 700 million.

FIFA has every reason to inflate the figures.  After all, its sponsors–Budweiser, McDonald’s, MTN, Satyam–and marketing partners like adidas and Coca-Cola paid dearly for billions of eyeballs, not millions.  But maybe FIFA is wrong.

It has often been said that soccer is big abroad because the yokels have no choice when it comes to sports.  They have soccer and, um, track and field and, um, chess.  We, on the other hand, have three big sports to choose from (none of them soccer), plus another dozen or so sports (one of them soccer),  plus hamburgers, Disneyland and “American Idol.”   However, if one-third of a distracted America can rally around one of its three favorite sports once a year, then the rest of the world, sorely lacking in pleasant distractions, can surely muster up a third of itself to watch its favorite sport.  In a world of six billion-plus, that would be about two billion.



A NEW BID, AND A WHOLE NEW AMERICA (PART II)

Fox Soccer Channel, already running a daily countdown graphic in the upper corner of your television screen, plans extensive coverage of the Thursday, December 2, FIFA Executive Committee vote on the host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. 

“Fox Soccer Report Special, D-Day Minus One” will air Wednesday, December 1, at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.  “D-Day Minus One” will be reprised Friday, December 2, at 9 a.m., followed at 9:30 a.m. by live coverage of the announcements from Zurich.  (Note:  all times Eastern Standard.)  [November 28]

Comment:  Has America changed in the nearly 22 years since the U.S. was awarded its first World Cup?  There certainly was no soccer-specialty cable channel around in 1988 to cover the announcement that the United States had beaten out Morocco and Brazil.  (For the record, it was 10 votes to seven and two, respectively.)  There was no Internet, as we know it, so there was no www.fifa.com.   There was the nascent CNN, rare in American homes.  So it’s a personal anecdote that perhaps best encapsules the times:

The Executive Committe balloting to choose the host of the 15th World Cup had been moved by FIFA from June 30 to July 4, seen by many as a clear signal that the votes had lined up in the USA’s favor.  Nevertheless, advance coverage in the American mainstream media was almost non-existent.  This was just a World Cup, after all, not an Olympic Games.   On the Fourth of July, the winner was announced by FIFA Senior Vice President Harry Cavan at 1:21 p.m. local time in the Regulus Room of Zurich’s Movenpick Hotel.  So for one bleary eyed West Coast fan–nine time zones away in the pre-dawn darkness, anticipating a 1 o’clock, Swiss time, announcement–there was an additional wait of almost 25 minutes for the local all-news radio station to air its next twice-hourly sports report. 

At 4:45 a.m. (PDT), baseball scores and tennis results–nothing more.  Where to turn?   There was the temptation to call the Associated Press in New York, but perhaps there was a delay in the vote; surely the radio would bring the news in its next sportscast.  However, at 5:15 a.m., once again it was baseball and tennis, plus a bit of golf, so an anxious call was placed to the radio station’s newsroom.

Caller:  “Was the U.S. awarded the rights to host the 1994 World Cup?  Y’know, in soccer.”

KNX:  “Don’t know.  I’ll check sports.”  (A muffled, “Hey, did the U.S. get the ’94 soccer World Cup?”)  [Long pause]  “Yeah.”

Caller:  “The U.S. did get it?”  

KNX:  “Yeah.”

Caller:  “When did it come in?”

KNX:  (Muffled, again.)  [Pause]  “He says about an hour ago.”

Caller:  “Thank you.”

For the record, KNX reported the fact that the U.S. would host the biggest single-sport event in the world during its 5:45 a.m. sportscast to a listenership busy sleeping in on a national holiday.

[See the first A New Bid, A Whole New America; November 17; below.]