Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


AMERICAN CAESAR

Giorgio Chinaglia, the fiery Italian who scored the goals that powered the New York Cosmos to four North American Soccer League titles during the league’s glory days, died at his Naples, FL, home of complications from a heart attack.  He was 69.

After leading Lazio to its first Serie A title and playing for Italy in the 1974 World Cup–where he infamously flipped off coach Ferruccio Valcareggi while being substituted during the opener against Haiti–Chinaglia was signed in 1976 by the Cosmos, who sought a sure-fire goalscorer to pair with Pele.

While the Cosmos got about $20 million’s worth of publicity from the $5 million signing of Pele the previous year, Chinaglia proved to be a bargain when it came to production on the field.  He scored 193 goals in 213 regular-season games before he retired after the league’s second-to-last season in 1983.  That was an NASL record, as were his 49 playoff goals.  Seven of those came in an outrageous 8-1 humiliation of the Tulsa Roughnecks in 1980 as he set post-season records for goals in a playoff game and goals in a single post-season, 19.  He also holds the records for most goals in a season, 34 in 30 games, in 1978, and total points, 79, set that same year, thanks to his 11 assists.

Elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2000, Chinaglia later found himself an exile in his adopted country after a group he was involved with was accused by Italian authorities of price-fixing in the attempted purchase of his former club, Lazio.   [April 1]

Comment:   There are soccer fans here who remember Chinaglia as the American Caesar.  With his outsized ego,  Chinaglia was made for New York, the swingin’ ’70s and the Cosmos, who could number among their followers Mick Jagger and Henry Kissinger.   He marked his arrival by saying of Pele, who showed up in 1976 late and out of shape, “He’s just another player I’ll have to carry until he gets fit.”  He also had the good sense to become close with Warner Communications supremo Steve Ross, the Cosmos’ part-owner and biggest fan.  More important, Chinaglia backed up his bluster by becoming the NASL’s greatest scoring machine.  A classic poacher,  some of his goals were pretty, some not so.  His final notable goal was typical:   In San Diego, he bundled the ball into the goal with his thigh during a goalmouth scramble to give New York a 1-0 victory over the (original) Seattle Sounders in a forgettable Soccer Bowl ’82.

What soccer fans of all ages here will remember is the Giorgio Chinaglia whom ABC teamed with former U.S. star Eric Wynalda as in-studio commentators during its coverage of the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan.  Many of those games aired in America during the wee hours, but the Giorgio-Waldo Show proved much more potent than black coffee in keeping viewers awake with their running game of thrust and parry.  Doing most of the thrusting was Wynalda, who played gleeful, smart-alecky high school student to the completely humorless but unflappable social studies teacher Chinaglia, and the result was classic TV.  The two parted ways as Chinaglia went on to host a satellite radio show while Wynalda, paired with Julie Foudy for the ’06 World Cup, became a bit more buttoned down in recent years as studio host for Fox Soccer Channel.  There hasn’t been an on-air duo like Waldo-Chinaglia, and we soccer viewers are the poorer for it.

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REAL MADRID vs. … REAL SALT LAKE?

Real Salt Lake scrambled to earn a 2-2 draw with host Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, setting up a climactic second-leg showdown April 27 at Sandy, Utah.  The winner advances to the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup in December in Japan.

Argentine midfielder Javier Morales scored the equalizer in the 89th minute to lift the overall record of MLS clubs in Mexico to 0-21-4.  Real Salt Lake heads into the deciding leg having gone unbeaten in 37 matches in all competitions at Rio Tinto Stadium.  However, it will be without playmaker and captain Kyle Beckermann, an occasional U.S. international who will serve a yellow-card suspension.  [April 20]

Comment:  Major League Soccer has an international reputation of being on a par with, say, the Belgian second division and, an aging David Beckham or Thierry Henry aside, that’s not likely to change any time soon.*  Rapid expansion in recent years hasn’t helped as the native talent pool has been repeatedly dilluted, but Real Salt Lake could deliver a minor blow to that perception when it meets Monterrey needing nothing more than a 1-1 draw to become only the third U.S. club in the competition’s 49-year history to finish first.

Geophysicists rule out the major continental shift necessary for MLS clubs to compete in the UEFA Champions League, so the only way MLS can lift its image is by winning the CONCACAF Champions League on a regular basis, beginning with Real Salt Lake next week.  Since the North/Central America/Caribbean region began playing a club championship in 1962, better-paid, better-organized, better-supported Mexican teams have won 26 times (Club America and Cruz Azul five apiece), and no other country is even close.  Costa Rica has nearly half as many winners, six, as Mexico has runners-up, 13.  After El Salvador’s three winners, the U.S. is tied with Guatemala, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, Haiti and Surinam.

What makes this showdown significant for MLS is not just a CONCACAF Champions League trophy at stake but a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup.  Back in 1998, when DC United defeated Toluca of Mexico to capture what was then called the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the first-ever FIFA Club World Cup was two years away.   In 2000, the Los Angeles Galaxy beat Olimpia of Honduras in the CONCACAF final and thought it had booked a place in the following year’s Club World Cup in Spain, only for that competition to be cancelled for a number of reasons, chief among them the collapse of FIFA’s marking arm, ISL.   (As some may recall, the Galaxy was grouped with Real Madrid and scheduled to play the reigning European champion in the first round at the Bernabeu.)

The FIFA Club World Cup, which officially replaced the Intercontinental Cup–the long-running meeting of European and South American club champs–in 2005, certainly is not the most gripping competition on the international soccer calendar.   To some Euro champs, it’s been an annoying obligation in the heart of the regular league season, one in which winning is expected.  To South American champs, it’s a chance to prove that the Copa Libertadores holder is the world’s best.  But for the rest–the continental champions of Africa, Asia, Oceania and, yes, CONCACAF–the Club World Cup presents a priceless opportunity to show their wares to an Eurocentric soccer world.

*According to the most recent rankings of national leagues by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, Major League Soccer comes in at No. 42.  Spain tops the list, followed by England, then Italy, Brazil, Germany, France and Argentina, as well as No. 11 Belgium, No. 12 Mexico, No. 18 Paraguay, No. 27 Japan and No. 32 Israel.  Immediately ahead of MLS are Croatia, Moldova, Serbia, Georgia and Tunisia.  Immediately after are Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, Poland and Sweden.   Five notches below America’s league is the Sudan.   Obviously, MLS Commissioner Don Garber continues to have some work ahead of him.



THIS LILLY DOESN’T WILT

The U.S. will kick off its bid to reach the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany tonight when it takes on Haiti at Estadio Quintana Roo in Cancun in the second game of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament.  The finalists of the eight-nation competition earn trips to Germany while the third-place finisher advances to a playoff against Europe’s fifth-place team.  [October 28]

Comment:  No. 1 in the latest FIFA World Rankings, the U.S. figures to breeze to a berth in Germany, although the steadily improving Canada and host Mexico might make things interesting.  The only real question is, when will Kristine Lilly appear, extending her world record in career caps to an astounding 350.

It would be easier to understand if the 39-year-old Lilly was a goalkeeper, or even a defender, relying on positioning and experience to compensate for diminishing foot speed.  But the 5-foot-4 Lilly is what’s she’s always been:  a midfield dynamo doing the heavy lifting, something appreciated by her teammates, some of whom are now a little more than half her age.

Lilly earned her first cap in 1987, four years before FIFA staged its first Women’s World Cup, a competition hosted by China that America would win.  Another world championship and two Olympic gold medals have followed.

It should be acknowledged that elite women’s soccer doesn’t revolve around powerful clubs and national leagues, so the emphasis is on international play (think Bora Milutinovic’s  U.S. National Men’s Team, which played 52 matches in the 18 months leading up to the 1994 World Cup).  Of all women’s national teams, the U.S. has a whopping 25 players, current or retired, who have played in 100 matches or more; Germany and China, at 15 and 13, respectively, are next.   Nevertheless, Lilly’s numbers are a testament to her extraordinary talent, drive and durability.

Among men, the leader is Mohamed Al Deayea of Saudi Arabia at 181, followed by Mexico’s Claudio Suarez (177) and Ahmed Hassan of Egypt (169).  Topping the U.S. list is Cobi Jones, whose 164 caps are less than half of Lilly’s.  The average number of caps on the current U.S. women’s squad is 73; without Lilly, it’s 58.  She’s the only player to appear in all five Women’s World Cups.  And, oh yes, on a team known over the years for the scoring exploits of Carin Gabarra, Michelle Akers, Tiffeny Milbrett, Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach, the little engine from Wilton, Connecticut, and the University of North Carolina has scored 130 times for the United States.



MORE REASON TO KILL THE PENALTY-KICK TIEBREAKER

Canada eked out a 1-0 victory over Mexico in Costa Rica to win the 2010 CONCACAF Women’s Under-17 Championship.  Both finalists earned berths in the FIFA Women’s U-17 World Cup, to be held later this year in Trinidad & Tobago.  The United States defeated the host Costa Ricans, 6-0, in the third-place match but became the first American women’s team at any level to fail to qualify for a world championship tournament.  [March 20]

Comment: For those who find penalty kicks to be the worst possible way to settle a match, this tournament serves as more fuel for your fire.  The U.S. entered its semifinal showdown with Canada having crushed Haiti, 9-0; Cayman Islands, 13-0; and Costa Rica, 10-0.  The Canadians defeated Jamaica, 4-1; Panama, 2-1; and Mexico, 1-0.  Although the Americans would end the competition with a goals for-against of 38-0, they couldn’t manage one against Canada and fell on PKs, 5-3, following a scoreless draw.  True, the U.S. tempted fate by allowing the game to go to a spot-kick duel, but in the end, the undefeated Americans (4-0-1), runners-up at the inaugural Women’s U-17 World Cup in 2008, stay home while Canada and 3-2-0 Mexico move on.

NO SOCCER TO BE SEEN THROUGH TINTED WINDOWS

Quote of the Week, supplied by basketball star Kobe Bryant, in an interview with Sports Illustrated:  ” . . . It’s been a long time since I played (soccer).  When I was in Italy, I used to play every single day.  Here in the States you don’t have a chance to play that much.  It’s not like you’re driving down the street and you see pickup soccer games.”  [March 15]

Comment: Bryant works in Los Angeles, the most diverse metropolis in the world, not to mention the second-largest Spanish-speaking city in the Northern Hemisphere.  He won’t spot any pickup soccer games in L.A. until windows are installed in his limousine.

ESPN/ABC GIVES ITS WORLD CUP TELECASTS AN EXCLUSIVELY BRITISH ACCENT

ESPN/ABC unveiled an all-British slate of play-by-play announcers to call its 2010 World Cup telecasts.  Joining the previously announced Martin Tyler are fellow Englishmen Ian Darke and Adrian Healy and Scotsman Derek Rae.  Former U.S. captain John Harkes and ex-Nigerian international Efan Ekoku are among the color commentators.  The network’s lead American announcer, JP Dellacamera, will be teamed with Irish analyst Tommy Smyth on ESPN Radio.  [March 5]

Comment: After three decades of remarkable progress, ESPN turns the soccer clock in this country back with a violent twist, returning us to the 1970s and ’80s, when there were, more or less, two kinds of people carrying the soccer banner in this country:  Americans and Brits.  A majority–or at least a plurality–of the coaches and front office executives in the NASL were British.  And that league, led by a Welsh commissioner, was criticized for loading its team rosters with players from the English second and third divisions.  The country’s most prominent soccer columnist and TV analyst was the same person, Englishman Paul Gardner.  On the grassroots level, as the joke went, when there was a rare paid coaching position open, an English or Scottish accent got you the job.

Fortunately, the Colonists have since learned to crawl, walk and run on a soccer pitch, er, field.  The nation once known for turning out acrobatic but naive goalkeepers and hard-nosed but inartful defenders but nothing more has for years produced strikers, playmakers, coaches, referees, journalists and, yes, broadcasters.  Along the way it’s hosted a hugely successful World Cup and will soon appear in its sixth straight World Cup, a claim no member of the U.K. can make.  Yet according to ESPN/ABC, apparently we need our friends from across the Pond to hold our hand once more.

Ratings that have grown with each World Cup since ESPN/ABC first got its feet wet with USA ’94 (without commercial interruption, thank you) have convinced  the network that it has a chunk of programming with tremendous potential that must be treated seriously.  To wit, 165 staffers–double the number that helped cover Germany ’06–will be on the job for South Africa ’10, and ESPN2 will go all-soccer in the 24 hours leading up to the June 11 opener.  But to go all-Brit in the broadcast booth suggests a gross overreaction to ESPN/ABC’s failed experiment of four years ago, when it again passed over American soccer play-by-play men and anointed Dan (The Baseball Man) O’Brien as its lead announcer.

Unlike O’Brien, this all-Brit quartet is knowledgeable, not to mention articulate, something casual soccer fans and the curious who tune in will find refreshing,  having lived on a steady diet of NFL and NBA announcers all these years.  But for those who will watch as many of the 64 matches as possible, ESPN/ABC’s bold move will wear thin by the end of the first round.  Back in ’94, when the droll, likeable Darke was the only non-American in any ESPN or ABC booth, he came off as a terrific change of pace.  This time, we’ll get a wall-to-wall month of mouth-watering cup ties, perfectly weighted balls, ungainly challenges, goalkeepers who spill the ball, defenders who are wrong-footed, tripped up attackers who go to ground, penalty-kick takers who make no mistake, marksmen in form who score a brace of goals and cover themselves in glory, shots denied by the foot of the post, talismanic captains, and teams that run out winners, not to mention words like “strip” (not uniform), “pace” (not speed), and “scoreline” (not score, fer cryin’ out loud).  There’s also “All to play for,” “There for the taking,” “Put paid to their account,” “Only just,” but that’s piling on.

Ironically, the commentary will be delivered in the typically understated British style.  (Think “Thoughtful ball,” or “A bit ambitious.”)  If there was any one complaint against American announcers in the past it was that they didn’t have the passion of their Spanish-language counterparts.  That  means a frantic, radio play-by-play style that, delivered in English, would have had those same American viewers reaching for the mute button after five minutes.

ESPN/ABC would have done better to give us a mix–at least handing the minimum three games involving the U.S. National Team to Dellacamera, the fellow who called all of the USA’s matches during the long qualifying campaign and, obviously, knows the team best.  How ESPN/ABC’s gambit pans out remains to be seen.  The first real test will come June 12, with the Group “C” opener between the U.S. and England in Rustenburg.  If the U.S. is somehow ahead at the final whistle, we’ll see if the mood eminating from the booth is “USA Wins!” or a sullen “England Loses.”