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THE LEICESTER LESSON

Leicester City, a 5,000-to-1 shot to win it all at the beginning of the 2015-16 English Premier League campaign, pulled off the near-impossible when its closest challenger, Tottenham Hotspur, came from ahead to tie host Chelsea, 2-2, allowing the Foxes to assume a seven-point lead with two matches remaining.

It was the first top-division championship in the 132-year history of Leicester, which had not finished higher than second in the then-English First Division since 1929.  A four-time loser in the English F.A. Cup final, its trophy case previously consisted of English League Cups won in 1964, 1997 and 2000.

The Foxes–or Filberts, take your pick–were on the verge of relegation this time last year, but the unfashionable club from the English Midlands won seven of its last nine matches under then-coach Nigel Pearson.  It was an omen that this band of unknowns, with ex-Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri hired to replace Pearson during the summer, had bigger things in store this season.  [May 2]

Comment I:  Leicester City, previously known on these shores only as the club for whom U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller once toiled in relative anonymity (1996-99), indeed took the EPL by surprise.  The Foxes were a true party crasher, finishing ahead of the usual suspects named Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.

So Leicester’s surprise climb to the top was amazing, fun, worth a headline or two even in the U.S. sports pages, and a refreshing break from the usual routine, which has seen previous EPL titles–since the Premier League was created in 1992–go to Manchester United 13 times, Chelsea four times, Arsenal three, Manchester City twice and Blackburn Rovers once.  And it sent a wave of hope rolling across the country, lapping up against fans of clubs as pitiful as Middlesbrough, Brighton, Hull, Derby County, Norwich, Sunderland, Bournemouth–for such a small country, the list is long.

But it serves as a lesson in America, where Major League Soccer, now at 20 teams, has designs on expanding soon to 28.  This isn’t about dilution of talent, it’s about dilution of interest.

The reason leagues like the EPL can hold their public’s interest with–usually–one of the same small cluster of clubs finishing first year after year is because of promotion/relegation.  No season is completely uninteresting for the fan of a mediocre-to-poor club as long as there’s the thrill of booing a perennial bully and the terror of dropping into the second division, or the generously named “Championship League.”

Without promotion/relegation, a bloated MLS runs the risk of being saddled with a dozen or more clubs that endure years–decades, even–in which they neither truly contend for a championship nor get punished for their mediocrity.  Death by boredom.

Will MLS ever adopt promotion/relegation?  No.  But perhaps it will reconsider its race to over-expansion, or at least try to publicly offer a justification for its “bigger is better” approach to running a soccer league.

Comment II:   The point was made in some quarters that outsider Leicester rolled to its 22-3-11 record and the league crown partly because it could keep its eyes on the prize while EPL royalty was wrung out by pesky midweek UEFA Champions League and Europa League commitments.

Or, in other words, the EPL’s top clubs sure are impressive, but they don’t win in Europe because winning the lucrative Premiership is Job One and they don’t have the luxury of playing in a league that’s dominated by one club (Germany, Bayern Munich) or two (Spain, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid).  Alas, they have to play one another on Saturdays, so the pursuit of Continental silverware is an afterthought left for midweek nights at faraway places.

That’s an excuse that England would do well to retire.

Deep pockets mean player depth, which means the means to get through league, domestic cup and European cup matches, and there are few clubs more wealthy than England’s big five.  If need be, they can just study Spain’s La Liga, where teams manage to find a way to win a variety of trophies or at least come within touching distance.  The UEFA Champions League final will feature, for the second time in three years, two clubs from one city, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, one year after FC Barcelona came out on top.  Atletico won Europa League crowns in 2010 and 2012, and Sevilla, a Europa League winner in 2006 and ’07, just won its third consecutive Europa title, beating Spanish rival Villarreal in the semifinal.  And all these clubs had the wherewithal to compete in La Liga, a league that’s supposedly FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and a bunch of nobodies.

 

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ARE WE NOT RUBES?

Manchester United, looking to recover quickly from its worst showing in the English Premier League era, rallied to defeat EPL rival Liverpool, 3-1, at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium to win the 2014 Guinness International Champions Cup.  A 14th-minute penalty kick goal by Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was cancelled out by strikes by United’s Wayne Rooney (55th minute), Juan Mata (57th) and Jesse Lingard (88th).

The tournament, held in 12 U.S. cities and Toronto as a warm-up to the European season, kicked off July 24 with eight European clubs, two of them defending champions of their respective national leagues, plus UEFA Champions League winner Real Madrid.  Manchester United (2-0-1) won its group over Inter Milan of Italy (1-0-2), AS Roma of Italy (1-2-0) and Spanish giant Real Madrid (0-2-1).  Liverpool topped a group that included Greek champion Olympiakos (1-1-1), English champion Manchester City (1-2-0) and Italy’s AC Milan (0-3-0).

Attendance for the 13 games totaled 642,134, for an average of 49,395.  Topping the list was the throng of 109,318 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., to see Manchester United defeat Real Madrid, 3-1.  That crowd was the largest in U.S. soccer history, eclipsing the 101,799 on hand for the 1984 Olympic gold-medal match at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.   A more modest 51,014 were on hand for the Manchester United-Liverpool finale.  [August 4]

Comment I:  Proof positive that World Cup fever not only hit America full-force early this summer but that it lingers.  Throw in the 84,362 who witnessed Manchester United’s 7-0 demolition of the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, a Bayern Munich-Chivas Guadalajara friendly at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and a dozen other exhibitions involving Major League Soccer teams and foreign opposition ranging from Spanish champion Atletico Madrid to EPL tail-ender Aston Villa, and about a million fans in the U.S. paid top dollar to say they saw in person some of the finest players from some of Europe’s most storied clubs.

Comment II:  Are we not rubes?

Sure, there are plenty of expatriates here who’ve just got to see the old hometown club.  And then there are the so-called Eurosnobs, young Americans who’ll get up at dawn from August to May to watch their adopted club–usually from the English Premier League–on a television at the local pub, er, sports bar, but wouldn’t cross the street to watch an MLS game for free.

But to the folks in Europe, a million people over here just shelled out big bucks to watch some clubs with fresh hardware and others living on their good name.  The spectators wore their replica jerseys and cheered and chanted as their favorite players went through the motions during cameo appearances while plenty of the playing time was taken up by fine fellows fighting to win a place on the roster, if not into the starting 11.  Wholesale substitutions disrupted the flow of the games, players weren’t exactly keen on the extensive travel, and coaches considered these moneymaking adventures an intrusion on serious pre-season preparations.  In the end, fans here saw moments of brilliance, mis-timed tackles, remarkable goals, and shots that actually resulted in throw-ins.  And at the final whistle of each match, a result that meant absolutely nothing.

There are many benchmarks that will indicate that the U.S. is developing into a soccer nation.  Like criticism of the U.S. National Team for its shortcomings in a World Cup instead of praising its goalkeeper for repeatedly bailing it out.  Or the prompt emergence of a genuine successor to the soon-to-retire Landon Donovan.  Or, in this case, attendance at meaningless midsummer friendlies involving European clubs in numbers that aren’t an embarrassment to MLS.



SPAIN’S PAIN

The Netherlands dismantled defending world champion Spain, 5-1, in its Group “B” opener in Salvador to avenge its loss to the Spaniards in the 2010 World Cup final.

Strikers Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben each scored twice and defender Stefan de Vrij once to wipe out an early Spanish lead created by Xabi Alonso’s penalty kick.

The shocking margin of defeat was the worst for Spain in a World Cup since its last appearance in Brazil, in 1950, when it was humbled by the hosts, 6-1, in a final pool match.  It also marked the first time a reigning world champ has dropped the first game of its title defense since France was upended by Senegal, 1-0, at Korea/Japan ’02.  That team infamously crashed out in the first round without winning a game or scoring a goal.  [June 13]

Comment I:  Amidst the Dutch jubilation, was there a sadder sight than Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas’ expression moments after his careless giveaway gifted Van Persie’s second goal?  And this, nearly three weeks after his blunder against Atletico Madrid nearly cost his club, Real Madrid, the UEFA Champions League final.

Spain may yet recover from this dreadful collapse and still make an impact on this World Cup, but at the moment, the face of its team is, fittingly, its captain, the one-time boy wonder who made his Real debut at 17.  He’s now 33.  Not a senior citizen as goalkeepers go, but like most of the team, not prime time.

Comment II:  Despite the grave concern by U.S. fans over their team being drawn into the so-called “Group of Death” and having to travel a total of some 9,000 miles for its first three games, there is a bit of consolation that’s been overlooked.

That was on display during the Netherlands-Spain match in the form of the spectators.  Fans of the Oranje were loud, of course, but much louder were the thousands and thousands of Brazilians, who were more than happy to see a team they considered a larger threat to their beloved Selecao go down in flames.

Count on Brazilians, who will out-number supporters of the participating teams at the USA’s games against Portugal and Germany by a wide margin, to be solidly behind the Americans, who they would much rather see Brazil face later in the tournament than the No. 4-ranked Portuguese or No. 2-ranked Germans.

Doubt it?  Go back to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, where the U.S. shocked mighty England, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte.  America was represented by a team of semi-pros while the English, inventors of the game, were playing in their first World Cup after blithely skipping the first three.  The U.S. closed out the final minutes of the match to the roars of the crowd of 10,000, most of them Brazilians, and after the final whistle, newspapers were set ablaze in the stands in celebration while a crowd of happy locals carried the goal-scorer, Joe Gaetjens, off the field on their shoulders.



THE UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE’S SAME GAME

Atletico Madrid, behind goals by Adrian Lopez, Diego Costa and Arda Turan, recovered from a scoreless draw at home in the first leg to pound Chelsea, 3-1, at Stamford Bridge to win its UEFA Champions League semifinal series, setting up an all-Spanish final May 24 in Lisbon.

The victory comes a day after Real Madrid humbled defending champ Bayern Munich, 4-0, on a pair of goals each by Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo and won its home-and-home set by a 5-0 aggregate.

The final, at Benfica’s massive Estadio de Luz, will mark the first time that teams from the same city have met for Europe’s biggest club prize.  Since the European Champions’ Cup became the UEFA Champions League in 1992, four finals have pitted clubs from the same country:  2000, Real Madrid 3, Valencia 0, at the Stade de France outside Paris; 2003, AC Milan 0, Juventus 0 (Milan on PKs), at Old Trafford in Manchester; 2008, Manchester United 1, Chelsea 1 (United on PKs) at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium; and 2013, Bayern Munich 2, Borussia Dortmund 1, at Wembley Stadium in London.

Real Madrid, a finalist for the 13th time, will be seeking an unprecedented 11th European champions title.  Atletico, which last appeared in a final 40 years ago–losing to Bayern Munich–will be playing in its second final.  [April 30]

Comment:  Like Spanish soccer?  You’d better.

(Full disclosure:  This writer likes Spanish soccer.)

This derby showdown–to be played more than 300 miles from Madrid–will be the fifth this season for the two teams, and the sixth since Atletico defeated Real in last May’s Copa del Rey final, ending a 14-year, 25-match winless streak against its rival.  In La Liga, Atletico, the current frontrunner, won at Real, 1-0, in September and tied at home, 1-1, last month; Real swept their Copa matches in February by an overall 5-0.

It raises the question, what will this grand finale prove?

Sometimes, these things work.  Last year’s UEFA Champions League final was an entertaining advertisement for German soccer.  But for those who want to see a real contrast in styles, a meeting of sides that don’t know one another too well, it often does not.

There’s no going back to the days when the European Champions’ Cup was true to its name and involved only defending league champions.  This year’s competition was open to a whopping 76 clubs, including a handful from the more powerful nations who dazzled the soccer world the previous season by finishing fourth in their league.  Of course, this is about money–lots of it.  Clubs that qualified for the group stage automatically pocketed $11.9 million; maximum points in the group would bring in another $8.3 million.  The payout for an appearance in the knockout rounds began at $4.8 million.  As for the final, one of the Madrids will walk home with an additional $14.5 million.  And the public doesn’t seem put off by a same-country final:  Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund last year attracted a global television audience of 360 million–better than three Super Bowls.

But from a sporting perspective, the UEFA has both turned its prime club championship into the impossible dream for dozens of its member associations and reduced its secondary competition–once known as the UEFA Cup and now known as the Europa League–into an afterthought for all but the most ardent fans.

As for the “champion” credentials of this year’s two finalists, Real Madrid qualified for the 2013-14 Champions League by finishing second to FC Barcelona a year ago, a whopping 15 points off the pace; Atletico was third, a dot in the rear-view mirror at 24 points back.

 



RAY HUDSON: YOU WANT IT, YOU GOT IT

Aguera Ander Herrera scored on a low shot in the final minute to give host Athletic Bilbao a dramatic 2-2 draw with FC Barcelona and prevent Barca from clinching its 22nd  Spanish league championship with five games remaining.

That same day, second-place Real Madrid won, 2-1, at crosstown rival Atletico Madrid to draw to within 11 points.

Bilbao was nursing a 1-0 lead in the 67th minute when Lionel Messi, who missed Barca’s last three La Liga matches with a hamstring strain and was ineffective four days earlier in his team’s shocking 4-0 loss at Bayern Munich in the opening leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinals, scored a breathtaking equalizer.  The Argentine striker turned three Athletic defenders inside out at the top of the penalty area in the process.  Alexis Sanchez then put Barcelona ahead three minutes later.  (April 27)

Comment:  Breathtaking, particularly for beIN Sport color commentator and former MLS coach Ray Hudson:

http://deadspin.com/messi-back-to-scoring-ridiculous-goals-bringing-ray-hu-483785010

No, that was not a man being torn apart by a thousand rabid squirrels.

Hudson, whose outbursts have produced some verbal gems (in this case, the Bilbao defense, truly, had to have felt “emasculated”), has his loyal fans and his bitter critics going back nine years to his days with GolTV.

But this nuclear explosion has to have TV viewers here examining exactly what they want from an announcer.

For those who compare American soccer announcers with their Spanish-language counterparts, the Americans are sorely lacking in passion.  And how can they not be?  Some Spanish-language announcers work themselves into a lather, screaming into the microphone, while the two teams are simply standing on either side of the halfway line, waiting for the referee to whistle for the opening kickoff.  Try that approach calling an NFL, MLB or NBA game on TV here and viewers will storm the network’s corporate offices.

On the other hand, there’s the thoughtful, understated,  library-quiet Martin Tyler, the Brit who probably converted few American viewers to soccer with his sleepy work during ESPN and ABC telecasts of the marquee games of the 2010 World Cup.

The right approach, as in everything in life, lies somewhere in between.  At present, for those who relished Hudson’s verbal meltdown, leaving him with nowhere to go if he has to call something even more amazing/dramatic: God help you.  In the meantime, beIN Sport should issue Hudson’s partner, solid–and Job-like–play-by-play man Phil Schoen, combat pay.  Or a Purple Heart.  Schoen, at this point, surely must be hearing impaired.