Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


NO NEED FOR A FOURTH LION

Uruguay, behind two goals by Luis Suarez, defeated England, 2-1, in a Group “D” showdown in Sao Paulo that kept the South Americans’ hopes alive and all but sent the winless English home.

Suarez, who led the English Premier League with 31 goals to spark Liverpool’s strong run last season but was coming off knee surgery, scored in the 39th and 84th minutes.  The second came after an errant header by England midfielder Steven Gerrard–a Liverpool teammate–sent him in alone against goalkeeper Joe Hart.  In between, Wayne Rooney, scoreless in nine previous World Cup appearances, shrugged off two near misses to produce an equalizer in the 75th.  [June 19]

Comment:  American TV viewers saw not only the likely exit of England after just two matches but the temporary exit of impartiality on the part of ESPN commentators.

Englishman Ian Darke has established himself as the Voice of Soccer in the United States with his knowledge, authority, wit and professionalism, but on this day he was too much the England fan.

Darke and analyst Steve McManaman went from restrained and nervous cheerleaders for 84 minutes to sharp critics after Suarez’s second strike to, in the end, resigned fans.  What should have been, at most, recognition of yet another textbook example of a gritty Uruguayan team getting a necessary result dissolved into a eulogy for a not-so-good English team.

Two moments were telling.  In the 29th minute, Uruguay captain Diego Godin, sitting on a yellow card for a handball in the ninth, hauled down Daniel Sturridge and was not issued a second caution.  Darke was right in criticizing Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, but he wouldn’t let it go throughout the rest of the half.  And in the 61st minute he initially dismissed an apparent head injury to defender Alvaro Pereira as cynical Uruguayan time-wasting.  Only after replays showed that Pereira had been clobbered by the knee of England midfielder Raheem Sterling did Darke temper his earlier remarks.

Has Darke been impartial during his calls of U.S. matches?  Of course not.  His paychecks are signed by ESPN, and from the Landon Donovan game to what is now known as the John Brooks game, his calls have been enthralling.  But while there may be many fans of the English Premier League in this country, most soccer fans here are not, and most of those have no allegiance to England.

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THE USA’S INDISPENSABLE MAN

A highly motivated Ukraine turned a friendly into a mini-clinic as it defeated the World Cup-bound U.S. National Team, 2-0, in Larnaca, Cyprus.

Andriy Yarmolenko scored 12 minutes into the game and Marko Devic iced the victory with a 68th-minute goal.  On each strike, the Ukrainians took advantage of a shaky American defense anchored by center backs Anthony Brooks and Oguchi Onyewu.

The match, originally scheduled for Kharkiv, was moved 600 miles to Cyprus’ Papadopoulos Stadium days after the Russian military intervention in Crimea.  Only 1,573 spectators were on hand for the hastily relocated game, many of them Ukrainian expatriates who broke into chants of “No war in Ukraine!” after the final whistle.  [March 5]

Comment I:  Clint Dempsey did not score against Ukraine, nor did a slumping Jozy Altidore; Landon Donovan, preparing for the Los Angeles Galaxy’s MLS opener three days later, wasn’t even there, nor was playmaker Michael Bradley, who recently moved from AS Roma to Toronto FC.  Nevertheless, after the USA’s shutout loss, the most indispensable man of the night proved to be another no-show, right fullback Steve Cherundolo.

Coach Juergen Klinsmann’s back four figures to be Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron–or Brad Evans of the Seattle Sounders–plus the Galaxy’s Omar Gonzales and Matt Besler of Sporting Kansas City and the veteran DaMarcus Beasley of Puebla, who has revived his international career as a left back.  But despite Beasley’s 114 caps, the back line will sorely miss the experience and steadying influence of the 34-year-old Cherundolo, whose ongoing knee problems make his appearance at a third World Cup a long-shot.  Cherundolo has 87 caps to the combined 30 of Gonzalez and Besler, but he brings much more than just a wise old head.

Without the feisty, reliable, attack-minded Cherundolo, Klinsmann is without the player who’d most closely resemble the right back at his disposal if he was still coach of Germany–Philipp Lahm.  Cherundolo, of course, is not quite in Lahm’s league, figuratively speaking, although both play in the German Bundesliga.  While Cherundolo usually captains perennial also-ran Hannover 96, Lahm, a member of the 2006 and 2010 All-World Cup teams, captains both European champion Bayern Munich and the German National Team.  Nevertheless, Cherundolo is as important to his team as Lahm is to his.  At 5-foot-7, Lahm is known as “The Magic Dwarf.”  Without the 5-6 Cherundolo, Klinsmann will be missing his own magic dwarf.

Comment II:  The Ukraine-U.S. match and several other friendlies–many of them World Cup tune-ups for one or both sides–were played March 5, which marked the 100-day countdown to the kickoff of Brasil ’14.  What ESPN2 viewers of that game and the Italy-Spain game that followed were not subjected to was what they would’ve seen four years ago at the same point ahead of South Africa ’10:  promos touting ABC/ESPN/ESPN2’s upcoming World Cup coverage featuring the play-by-play talents of Martin Tyler.

Ian Darke, whose call of Donovan’s last-gasp goal for the U.S. against Algeria four years ago is now part of American soccer lore, has replaced Tyler as the lead commentator for ABC/ESPN’s coverage in Brazil.  Darke will be the play-by-play man for the June 12 Brazil-Croatia tournament opener, all U.S. matches, the final July 13, and other games.

British viewers in this country might miss Tyler, who we are given to believe is to soccer across the Pond what Al Michaels is to major sports here.  But American viewers will find Darke a significant upgrade–if they haven’t already over the last four years with his TV calls here of MLS, U.S. National Team and English Premier League games.  Tyler has proven to be urbane, witty, knowledegable, and–unlike Darke–understated to a fault.  Unfortunately, the end result is play-by-play that is very easy to tune out if the game Tyler is calling isn’t exactly, well, scintillating.  Tyler describing “a thoughtful, probing ball down the left flank,” is not unlike a visit to the doctor’s office, where Dr. Tyler, the proctologist, is carrying on a pleasant, soothing, benign conversation with his patient while the patient isn’t really concentrating on this pleasant, soothing, benign chat.

“So, how are we today?  Any complaints?”

“Well, actually, I ….”

“Yes, of course.   Now, shall we try to breath normally?  This portion will take but a minute ….”

Comment III:  At the Ukraine match, the U.S. sported Nike’s newest stab at designing a national team jersey.  Gone were the welcomed horizontal red-and-white striped shirts that all but shouted “USA,” replaced by something straight out of the bleach bucket:  a white shirt with single red pinstripes on the sleeves and collar, plus the U.S. Soccer logo, not the classic, old-fashioned stars-and-stripes shield the players sported during the 2013 USSF centennial season.

http://www.ussoccer.com/news/mens-national-team/2014/03/140303-new-kit.aspx

The collar is quite alright–a soccer jersey without a collar looks more like a glorified T-shirt.  But Nike’s end result is a boring jersey more suited for playing golf or tennis or lounging about.  And maybe that’s what the marketing geniuses at Nike had in mind all along when it comes to replica jersey sales.



DON GARBER AS SOCCER’S ICARUS

Major League Soccer will expand to 24 teams by 2020.

League Commissioner Don Garber made that announcement during a TV interview at halftime of his league’s all-star game in Kansas City.  It comes on the heels of the addition of New York City FC for the 2015 season, which was believed to cap the number of MLS teams at 20.  The goal of two dozen teams opens the door for hopefuls such as Orlando, Detroit, Atlanta, Sacramento, Oklahoma City and Minneapolis, whose representatives have been trying to woo MLS in recent months.

“As MLS enters a period of accelerated growth, the addition of new teams will allow us to expand our geographic coverage, grow our fan base and help us achieve our vision of being among the best leagues in the world by 2022,” said Garber.  [July 31]

Comment:  Sheer folly.

Without promotion/relegation–and there will never be promotion/relegation involving MLS–even the idea of 20 teams, let alone 24, is ridiculous.

Twenty-four teams would make MLS the world’s biggest top-flight soccer circuit.  Impressive distinction.  But there are reasons why leagues with pro/rel in soccer-mad countries–the Italian Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga 1, the Brasileiro Serie A, etc.–limit membership to 18 or 20 clubs.

Never mind the questionable potential or track records of the possible MLS markets being discussed.  Just go with the numbers.  Twenty-four teams? That means that if each team magically takes turns winning an MLS Cup, the fans in an exemplary market like Portland, where the Timbers are on a 45-game home sellout streak, will have to wait more than a generation between league championships.  Throw in a mini-dynasty by a team from a glamorous market like (gulp)  Oklahoma City or Sacramento and the wait is even longer.  Meanwhile, without promotion/relegation, troubled teams like Chivas USA and Toronto FC, with 10 or more opponents ahead of them in the conference standings, can continue to stink up the bottom of the league into perpetuity while their dwindling, hopeless fan bases look on.

So how does Garber adequately cover two enormous countries while keeping fans of losing teams engaged?  He can’t continue to expand the playoffs–he already throws around playoff berths like penny candy.  He should leave things, then, at an already bloated 20.  And if he must restore MLS’s presence in the Deep South, he should convince the league’s biggest problem child, Chivas USA, to arrange a move to Atlanta or even Orlando (even though Florida has proven to be the black hole of pro soccer over the past three decades).  Moving a team may be seen as a sign of weakness, but it’s the magic formula used for ages by Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA and NHL whenever there’s a need to leverage a new stadium or favorable ownership change–or simply scare former fans into showing up again.

It is hoped that Garber and the MLS Board of Governors come to the realization that their league doesn’t have to be anywhere close to the NFL (32 teams), Major League Baseball (30), the NBA (30) or the NHL (30) in membership to be considered major league.  Heck, the NHL was considered major league back in the mid-1960s when it had six teams; it earned that distinction by presenting a major league product.  But if Garber is hell-bent on expanding to two dozen teams, he should have one last look at the U.S. soccer history books.  The last soccer league here to grow to 24 was another without promotion/relegation, the North American Soccer League, in 1978.  Within two years, three weak sisters went belly up, and the panic was on.  Within six years, there were seven left.



AN ADVERTISEMENT FOR THE GERMAN GAME ON AMERICAN TV

Bayern Munich defeated Borussia Dortmund, 2-1, at London’s Wembley Stadium on a last-minute goal by Dutch star Arjen Robben to win the first all-German UEFA Champions League final in history.

Munich, losers of five of its previous six finals but a five-time Euro champion overall, is on track to pull off a rare treble.  Already runaway winners of the Bundesliga, the new European champs will be decided favorites when they face VfB Stuttgart in the German Cup final on June 1 in Berlin.

After surviving considerable early pressure from Dortmund to produce some promising chances, Munich opened the scoring after an hour on a goal by striker Mario Mandzukic, set up by a Robben pass across the goalie box.  Dortmund, which went into the match 1-2-2 against Bayern in all competitions this season, got level on Ilkay Guendogan’s penalty kick eight minutes later after defender Dante’s reckless challenge on Marco Reus.  Dante, cautioned earlier, was lucky not to have been sent off by Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli.

Munich nearly ended it with a heart-stopping shot by Thomas Mueller that Dortmund defender Neven Subotic hooked out of the goalmouth.  But Robben, whose penalty-kick attempt in overtime of last year’s Euro final  against Chelsea was saved by Petr Cech, willed the ball past Borussia goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller from eight yards to cap a move begun by Franck Ribery.  [May 25]

Comment:  An intriguing, entertaining, end-to-end match that featured plenty of chances, spectacular goalkeeping by Weidenfeller and Germany’s No. 1, Manuel Neuer, and, given the familiarity between the opponents, little gamesmanship and just 18 fouls.

A wonderful showcase for European soccer, but more than that a valuable showcase for German soccer.  And certainly a reminder to Americans that there’s more to the game overseas than a steady diet of English Premier League telecasts and highlight clips of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.  Typically solid and stolid, the Bundesliga is short on glamor names (unless they’re home grown), short on the scandals that regularly plague countries like Italy, short on disorganization (Dortmund’s near-bankruptcy eight years ago aside) and long on attendance (a world-best average turnout that regularly tops 40,000 a game).  And despite the never-ending specter of 22-time Bundesliga winner Bayern Munich, Germany has had six different champs over the past 20 years, more than England and Spain and just as many as Italy.

Have German clubs supplanted Spain as the darling of international soccer?  Bayern Munich, after all, demolished the world’s most skillful side, FC Barcelona, by an astounding 7-0 aggregate in the UEFA Champions League semifinals, while Dortmund, harkening back to its 1997 Euro championship, outlasted Real Madrid, 4-3.  Perhaps not.  German power, speed and that one telling pass isn’t likely to top Xavi to Iniesta to Messi and a gentle tap-in.  But the Bundesliga deserves to be part of the discussion.



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



BLATTER BLATHER

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber was struggling to remain diplomatic in the wake of recent comments by FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who criticized MLS for its lack of progress.

Blatter told Al Jazeera television, in an interview broadcast December 28, that “there is no very strong professional league” in the U.S.  “They just have the MLS.  But they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.”

He added that MLS was “still struggling” to lift soccer to the level of gridiron football, baseball and basketball in America.  “We had the World Cup in 1994,” Blatter said.  “But we are now in 2012–it’s been 18 years.  It should’ve been done now.”

Countered Garber in an interview with the New York Times:  “We still have a lot of work to do–we understand and accept that.  But arguably there’s probably not another sports league in the world that has achieved as much as we have in the last 20 years.  [January 2]

Comment:  Blatter’s latest blatherings triggered a firestorm of criticism among American fans of MLS and Americans who simply believe the man should have been unseated when his first term as FIFA chief ended in 2002.  What was disappointing was how a man who, as FIFA general secretary, held America’s hand as it prepared for and pulled off World Cup USA ’94, could still have such a dismal understanding of this country.

Mainstream America really doesn’t know what to make of soccer.  An estimated 18 million of their countrymen and countrywomen and countrykids play the sport.  Its women’s national team is usually No. 1 in the world while its men’s national team, usually ranked around No. 30, is capable of beating Spain in the FIFA Confederations Cup and Italy in Genoa, then losing to Jamaica in Kingston. And its official national league, whose average attendance of 18,807 last season topped the NBA and NHL for the second year in a row, making it third behind the NFL and Major League Baseball in average gate, remains a television bust, stuck at 0.1 and 0.2 in the ratings.

What Blatter and mainstream America need to understand is that MLS is no measuring stick of soccer here.  America loves the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA a whole lot more than MLS, not because they’ve had a 74-, 152- and 47-year head start, respectively, on MLS, but because the NFL, MLB and NBA are the best at their craft in the world.  The NFL, MLB and the NBA play their game like they invented it because, well, they have.  Even the National Hockey League can make the same claim, if, for the sake of this argument, we co-opt our Canadian friends.  As for MLS, everyone in America knows that it’s not the best soccer league in the world, even those who know nothing about the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, the Italian Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga or the Brazilian and Argentine championships.  And it’s hard to imagine a time when an MLS, which has gone from crawl to hobble to jog in those 18 years, will have the means and talent to challenge those leagues.

MLS will continue to be a symbol, a happy, regular rallying point, for soccer here, but it will never be the heart–or reliable barometer–of our sport.  While the NFL can boast of astronomical television ratings and Major League Baseball can point to its tremendous total attendance figures, soccer in the U.S. quietly moves forward with a balance that should be the envy of the so-called “big four” pro team sports:  a professional league that continues to grow and improve, a competitive men’s national team, a world-class women’s national team, and those millions and millions or participants of all ages and both genders.  All underscored by a patience that Blatter doesn’t seem to possess.



ONE MAN’S FLOP IS ANOTHER MAN’S DIVE

A FIFA vice president has labeled diving in soccer “a cancer” and demanded that players found guilty of simulation be punished retroactively.

Jim Boyce made his comments in response to an incident three days earlier involving Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, a player with a reputation for diving, in an English Premier League match with Stoke City.

“I watched the latest Suarez incident two or three times, and to me it is nothing less than a form of cheating,” Boyce said.  “It is becoming a little bit of a cancer within the game, and I believe if it is clear to everyone that it is simulation then that person is trying to cheat and they should be severely punished for that.

“It can be dealt with retrospectively by disciplinary committees, and it is done so in some associations, and I believe that is the correct thing to do,” added Boyce, a Northern Irishman and Britain’s representative to the world soccer governing body.  [October 9]

Comment:  Boyce is only the latest in a long, long line of critics who have slammed the play-acting that has become routine down on the field, but his labeling the problem “a cancer” was the strongest, most incisive, most welcomed comment from a person in power  possible.

This blog long ago (scroll down, there’s only 10o posts) urged soccer authorities to appoint panels to view videos and take appropriate action against divers after the fact.   With so much at stake, it’s awfully tempting for divers to go for the Oscar, but for the same reason, it’s long past time for the guardians of the game–such as they are–to act.  Divers should hear a little voice–make that a booming voice–every time they are challenged anywhere on the field and feel the need to hit the turf unnecessarily rather than try to continue what just might be a successful run with the ball.

It’s a global problem, of course, but in a way it’s an American problem in particular.

American sports fans hate play-acting, and just six days before Boyce’s comments, the National Basketball Association announced that it would crack down on what it calls “floppers” under a new policy that would assess the first flop with a warning, a second with a $5,000 fine, the third, $10,000, the fourth, $15,000, and the fifth, $30,000–this in an NBA world in which players earn an average salary approaching $6 million.

Basketball players, of course, don’t flop as often as soccer players dive.  It’s easier to “go to ground,” as the British put it, when the ground is nice, soft green turf, not varnished wood.  And it’s easier to get caught when the referee is 10 feet away, not 20 yards.  Besides, why flop early in the second quarter when another 150 points are bound to be scored?  So while the average American sports fan knows basketball as the sport in which simulation occurs, he/she knows soccer as the sport in which simulation–with its clumsy fall, followed by a dramatic roll and obligatory cry of agony–is a constant aggravation.

Major League Soccer could take a significant step in improving soccer’s image among the non-believers in its midst if it would institute an aggressive program to eliminate diving.  Appoint a panel, give it Inquisition-like powers to hand out retroactive yellow cards and fines, then deliver the video each week.  It might serve as an example to world soccer, and it just might improve soccer’s image among the sport’s critics here who have long held the impression that–based on the incessant diving they see–it takes as much courage to play badminton or golf as it is to play the wimpy sport of soccer.