Filed under: Leicester City, Uncategorized | Tags: Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Blackburn Rovers, Bournemouth, Brighton, Championship League, Chelsea, Claudio Ranieri, Derby County, English F.A. Cup, English First Division, English League Cup, English Premier League, Europa League, FC Barcelona, Filberts, Foxes, Germany, Hull, Kasey Keller, La Liga, Leicester City, Liverpool, Major League Soccer, Manchester City, Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Nigel Pearson, Norwich, Real Madrid, Sevilla, Sunderland, Tottenham Hotspur, UEFA Champions League, Villarreal
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.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Claudio Reyna, Clint Dempsey, Danny Murphy, Denis Stracqualusi, Deuce, English F.A. Cup, Everton, Fulham, Goodison Park, Hugo Perez, Landon Donovan, Landycakes, Marouane Fellaini, Rick Davis, Tab Ramos
Landon Donovan out-shined Clint Dempsey in an unusual showdown of American stars as Donovan’s Everton came back to defeat Dempsey’s Fulham, 2-1, in an English F.A. Cup fourth-round match at Goodison Park.
After Danny Murphy converted a penalty kick for Fulham in the 14th-minute following a handball in the box, Everton answered with headed goals by Denis Stracqualusi in the 27th and Marouane Fellaini in the 73rd–both set up by sharp crosses by Donovan from the right wing. [January 27]
Comment: The performances by U.S. teammates Donovan and Dempsey probably only intensified the raging online debate among some American fans as to who is the better player. Doesn’t matter.
It beats the bad old days, when the discussion began and ended with one player–a Rick Davis, followed years later by a Hugo Perez, then a Tab Ramos, then a Claudio Reyna. And with the possible exception of Reyna (Glasgow Rangers), none of them made a real dent overseas.
So enjoy the debate. And perhaps someday the argument will involve–dare it be said– three U.S. players.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Alexandre Song, Andy Lonergan, Arsenal, Emirates, English F.A. Cup, FC Barcelona, Gunners, Leeds United, New York Red Bulls, Thierry Henry
Thierry Henry celebrated his return to Arsenal by scoring the lone goal in the Gunners’ 1-0 victory over Leeds United in the fourth round of the English F.A. Cup.
The 34-year-old French star, on loan from the New York Red Bulls, entered the match in the 68th minute to a tremendous ovation. He delivered just 11 minutes later. Running onto a diagonal pass from Alexandre Song, Henry right-footed a shot from the left side of the box past Leeds goalkeeper Andy Lonergan that settled inside the far post. [January 9]
Henry’s appearance was his first for Arsenal since 2007, when he joined FC Barcelona. He’d departed after eight seasons as the Gunners’ all-time scoring leader with 227 goals.
Comment: Once in a while, a great player is handed a perfect script and follows it to the letter.
Comment II: Henry’s dream start at the Emirates wasn’t foreseen by at least one observer, who, nevertheless, may be proven right before the veteran striker’s two-month stay in London ends:
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina Railhawks, Commissioner Don Garber, CONCACAF Champions League, English F.A. Cup, Lamar Hunt U.S. National Open Cup, Major League Soccer, Montreal Impact, NBA, New York Cosmos, NHL, North American Soccer League, Portland Timbers, Premier League. Wembley, promotion/relegation, Puerto Rico Islanders, Sporting Kansas City, Supporters Shield, USL, Vancouver Whitecaps
Major League Soccer will kick off its 16th season–one shy of the old North American Soccer League’s 17–tonight with two new clubs, the scheduled mid-season opening of yet another soccer-specific stadium, and the introduction of an expanded playoff format.
The addition of the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps lifts league membership to a robust 18 clubs and creates a three-way rivalry in the Pacific Northwest among those two newcomers and the third-year Seattle Sounders. A 19th team, what had been the second-division Montreal Impact, will join MLS next season, and a 20th–possibly a reincarnation of the New York Cosmos–will follow in 2013.
In early summer, Sporting Kansas City (nee Wiz, Wizards) will leave its cozy but highly inadequate minor league baseball stadium for a sparkling new facility, and in the fall the biggest post-season field in league history will battle to lift the MLS Cup. The first-, second- and third-place finishers from the Western and Eastern conferences qualify, along with the next four teams with the highest point totals, regardless of conference. Those four wild card teams will be paired and play off for the right to join the top six in the quarterfinals. [March 15]
Comment: The 800-pound gorilla that has been seated on the floor at MLS headquarters, just to the right of the receptionist’s desk, since 1996 just gained another 200 pounds.
The expansion of playoff teams from eight to 10 allows MLS to claim that it continues to follow in the proud tradition of the NBA and NHL, where post-season berths are handed out like penny candy and fewer than half the teams go home early–or make that, on time. However, it only compounds the challenge for a league that desperately wants to make more of its regular-season matches relevant, meaningful … exciting even.
As always, MLS clubs will slog through what has grown to a regular-season campaign of some 250 games, and most–most–of them will then go into a bizarre sprint in which, too often, the very best team is knocked out before it can prove its mettle in the title game. Nothing is really proven, except who performed best under knockout circumstances. The team with the best regular-season record has nothing to show for its efforts but something called the “Supporters Shield” and a hearty handshake from Commissioner Don Garber.
Soccer traditionalists in this country have long pushed MLS to adopt the traditional European model in which 18 or 20 clubs fight it out over a 34- or 38-game, home-and-home schedule to determine who’s No. 1. The bottom two or three are relegated to the division below to be replaced by that division’s top finishers. Simple. There’s pressure at the top to win and at the bottom there’s the pressure not to slip quietly under the waves. And MLS’s response has been simple as well: “We’re a single-entity enterprise; it’s an exclusive club not open to newcomers from below.” And with the splintering and near-demise of the USL’s top division last year, that’s more true than ever.
But what’s to say that MLS can’t become its own first and second division? Once it reaches a bloated, unwieldy 20 clubs, it’s high time for the league to split into a 12-team top tier and eight-team second tier. Promotion/relegation would involve the bottom/top three teams in the two divisions, and the best of the best would scramble for first place and berths in the CONCACAF Champions League. If there absolutely must be a climactic match at the end of all this, have MLS “host” the Lamar Hunt/U.S. National Open Cup final; what with soccer’s lower regions in disarray for the foreseeable future, chances are very small that we’ll see the Atlanta Silverbacks or Carolina Railhawks or Puerto Rico Islanders crash that party. It will be what we normally see, year after year, in the English F.A. Cup final: two Premier League clubs in a death grip at Wembley.
Of course, this sort of arrangement is highly un-American, but MLS fans have proven time and again that they can handle anything un-American the league throws their way: a game clock that counts up, not down; matches that end in ties; two-legged playoff series. And as for the concern over what would happen if a club finished last in a proposed MLS2 for three or four seasons, playing in front of 2,000 fans, the league’s devotion to that magic word “parity” makes that highly improbable.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Brooklyn, Columbus Crew, DC United, Dexter Field, English F.A. Cup, Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Madison Kennel Club, Major League Soccer, New York Hakoah, Premier Development League, Qwest Field, RFK Stadium, Seattle Sounders, Sportsman Park, St. Louis, U.S. Amateur Soccer Association, U.S. National Challenge Cup
Tonight, the Seattle Sounders will play host to the Columbus Crew in the 97th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final before a sellout crowd of nearly 33,000 at Qwest Field. Seattle and Columbus outlasted a 40-team field that ranged from dreamers from the U.S. Amateur Soccer Association and fourth-division Premier Development League to eight entries from Major League Soccer. [October 5].
Comment: The match will mark another milestone in American soccer history regardless of whether the Sounders become the first club since the 1982-83 New York Pancyprian-Freedoms, a semipro side, to successfully defend the cup. The turnout at Qwest Field will break the previous attendance record for an open cup final, set in 1929 when 21,583 watched New York Hakoah blank the Madison Kennel Club of St. Louis, 3-0 at Brooklyn’s Dexter Field. (That year’s final was played on a home and home basis; 15,000 fans were on hand a week earlier at St. Louis’ Sportsman Park to see Hakoah take the first leg, 2-0.)
No surprise that it would be Sounder fans who would be the ones to break this mark, but this green-and-blue-clad throng suggests that the nation’s oldest knockout sports competition has some potential in the modern age after all. The attendance of 17,329 at RFK Stadium for last year’s final, when Seattle topped DC United, 2-1, was very good. Thirty-three thousand is great.
It is doubtful that the competition originally known as the U.S. National Challenge Cup will ever approach the fervor of the granddaddy of them all, the English F.A. Cup. But with better promotion and a more serious approach on the part of MLS clubs, who routinely schedule cup matches at secondary (read: bush league) venues and start second-tier players, perhaps there will be some extra luster to the cup by the time the 100th edition kicks off in 2013. For soccer fans treated to a less-than-meaningful MLS regular season, a truly high-profile, win-or-go-home competition would be most welcome.