Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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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BRAD FRIEDEL, USA’S BEST EVER?

Brad Friedel, one of the most decorated players in U.S. history, announced that he would retire at the end of Tottenham Hotspur’s English Premier League season.

The 44-year-old, who made his EPL debut 17 seasons ago with Liverpool and went on to play for Blackburn and Aston Villa, holds the league record for consecutive starts with 310 and made 450 overall.  He’s eighth all-time in career shutouts with 132, and he is only the second goalkeeper in league history to score a goal.

Friedel made 82 international appearances from 1992 through 2004.  He won the 1992 Hermann Trophy as a UCLA junior and two years later was the USA’s backup goalkeeper to Tony Meola, along with Juergen Sommer, at the 1994 World Cup.  He was the 1997 Goalkeeper of the Year, with the Columbus Crew, in his only season in Major League Soccer.  Friedel then left for England, where he made 450 starts–310 consecutively.  The Ohio native recorded 132 shutouts (eighth all-time in the EPL) and became only the second goalkeeper to score a Premier League goal, still only one of five to do so.

The 44-year-old Friedel, described by one writer as “follicularly fulsome” at the beginning of his career and bald as a soccer ball since, now brings his curious British/Midwestern accent to the tube as a full-time commentator for Fox Sports.  [May 14]

Comment:  For all the accolades that came Tim Howard’s way for his heroic performance in the USA’s overtime loss to Belgium in the second round of the 2014 World Cup, the greatest sustained  World Cup performance by a U.S. goalkeeper was Friedel’s at Korea/Japan 2002.

Friedel was the guy who, at France ’98, was known as the USA’s No. 1 1/2, losing to Yugoslavia, 1-0, after No. 1 Kasey Keller had lost to Germany, 2-0, and Iran, 2-1.  But four years later, he was the undisputed starter.

He saved penalty kicks against host South Korea and Poland in the first round, becoming the only ‘keeper to accomplish that feat since Jan Tomaszewski during Poland’s run to third place at the 1974 World Cup.  Friedel’s performance against Korea included three saves of shots from inside 10 yards–without those, the U.S. doesn’t survive with a 1-1 tie and doesn’t advance out of its group.  Then, Friedel doesn’t post his 2-0 shutout of Mexico in the second round.  And in the quarterfinals, maybe there’s a call on Torsten Fring’s goal line handball on the shot by Gregg Berhalter, maybe the U.S. takes the game beyond overtime to penalty kicks, and maybe Brad Friedel . . . .



SOCCER STORIES–THIS TIME IT’S ’30 FOR ’30’

ESPN Films has announced that in April it will premiere “30 for 30: Soccer Stories,” a series of documentaries as part of the lead-in to its coverage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in June.

“Soccer Stories” will “include a mix of stand-alone feature-length and 30-minutes-long documentary films from an award-winning group of filmmakers telling compelling narratives from around the international soccer landscape.  In addition, a collection of 10 vignettes about Brazil’s rich culture will be featured throughout ESPN’s FIFA World Cup programming,” according to ESPN Films, creators of the critically acclaimed “30 for 30” film series.  Among its works in that series was “The Two Escobars,” which explored the murder of 1994 World Cup goat Andres Escobar of Colombia and drug king Pablo Escobar’s involvement in soccer in that country.

Said Connor Schell, vice president of ESPN Films and Original Content, “With ESPN being the home of the 2014 World Cup, we know that sports fans will be looking forward to high-quality content focused on what is perhaps the world’s most revered sport.  We feel this is the perfect time to expand upon the success of our “30 for 30″ series by focusing this collection on some of the incredible stories of soccer’s legendary past.”  [January 11]

Comment:  “Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats” hereby grants ESPN permission to use the title “Soccer Stories” for its series of pre-Brasil ’14 documentaries.

Indeed, soccer is a treasure trove of compelling, ironic, tragic and humorous tales.  Some are even true, others apocryphal.  Many beg to be told.  The Hillsborough Stadium disaster is part of the ESPN series–one of its two feature-length films–and it’s part of “Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities. Lore and Amazing Feats” the book, as well.  So is a profile of the tragic life of Brazilian great Garrincha, entitled “Garrincha, Crippled Angel” in the ESPN series.  And “Barbosa–The Man Who Made All of Brazil Cry.”  And “The Opposition” (about the 1973 military coup that led to Chile’s national stadium being turned into a concentration camp/execution ground).  And “Mysteries of The Jules Rimet Trophy.”  And “Maradona ’86.”

The ESPN series is rounded out by “White, Blue and White,” a feature-length exploration of Osvaldo Ardiles’ and Ricardo Villa’s stardom in England with Tottenham Hotspur on the eve of the Falkland Islands War, and “Ceasefire Massacre,” about the terrorist murder of six men at a small pub outside Belfast who were watching Ireland play in the ’94 World Cup.  Neither made the “Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats” cut.

Perhaps ESPN’s “Soccer Stories” will prove to be an effective scene-setter for its World Cup coverage.  Not that a World Cup needs much in the way of an hors d’oeuvre, but soccer people in this country are a funny lot.  Many play but will not watch televised soccer on a regular basis or follow it through the press or Internet.  Some will watch only their kid or a favorite club.  Some are ex-patriates who’ll wake up and make like a fan only if the homeland is playing in a World Cup; some are Americans who, Olympic-like, pay attention only in World Cup years.   They’re all missing the soul of their sport, the incredible worldwide kaleidoscope that is soccer.

Look for ESPN’s “30 for 30: Soccer Stories.”  Soccer is alluring, exciting, exhilarating; by turns, it makes dreams come true and crushes hopes.  But you have to take the trouble to meet it halfway.  If you’re only playing, if you’re only coaching, if you’re only officiating, if you’re only watching, you’re missing out.



SO-CALLED ‘BECKHAM EXPERIMENT’ HAS BEEN WORTH IT

A pair of two-time Major League Soccer champions, the Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles Galaxy, will meet Sunday, November 20, before a sellout crowd at the Home Depot Center outside Los Angeles in the 2011 MLS Cup final.  Kickoff will be at 9 p.m. EST/6 p.m. PST (ESPN and Galavision).  [November 13]

Comment:  The game could mark David Beckham’s final appearance in the U.S., and that’s not a good thing.

The 36-year-old English icon’s five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Galaxy expires at the end of the year, and among Beckham’s reported suitors are Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham Hotspur and even Queens Park Rangers.

If he leaves, despite the Galaxy’s reported interest in re-signing him, what sort of grade does the so-called “Beckham Experiment”–the title of a rather premature book on his MLS adventure published a couple of years ago–deserve?

Call it a high “B”; not quite a low “A”.   That’s an “A-” for overall effect, dragged down by an “S” (satisfactory) for effort.

There were just as many highs as lows over the five-year period.  More than a quarter-million Galaxy/No. 23 jerseys were sold before Beckham was even introduced as a member of the Galaxy, a media event that attracted 700 journalists.  As advertised, there were memorable free kicks that produced goals, and that crowd of 66,000 that poured into Giants Stadium to see the man with the educated right foot make his Big Apple debut.  There also, however, were injuries, plus the controversial loans to AC Milan and training spells with Arsenal and Tottenham that caused many to question Beckham’s commitment to his American team.  The collapse of  the much-vaunted Beckham youth academy in L.A. didn’t help.  So mixed has been the Beckham legacy in MLS that he earned–or was saddled with–the 2011 MLS Comeback Player of the Year award for assisting on 15 goals in 26 games a year after a torn Achilles limited him to just seven league appearances in 2010.  Oh, and no MLS championships or U.S. National Open Cups or CONCACAF Champions League trophies.

Nevertheless, Beckham will forever be linked with a brief period in MLS history when things went from flat to positive, from indifference to optimism.  The year before Beckham’s arrival, the league had 12 teams, too many of them troubled.  The charter U.S. internationals and key foreign starts like Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry who had given the teams their initial identities back in 1996 had retired.  It wasn’t, to quote Rodney Marsh’s assessment of English soccer in the early ’70s, “A gray game played on gray days by gray men,” but it was close. 

The creation of the so-called Beckham Rule–the introduction of the designated player exception that allowed teams to reach beyond their salary cap and sign marquee foreign players like Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Denilson (sorry, FC Dallas), Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and, most recently, Robbie Keane–changed all that.  Beckham’s arrival and how it lured other big names to MLS added the necessary flesh and blood to the brick and mortar as MLS grew by six clubs and added an impressive list of soccer-specific stadiums.

Most Americans aren’t aware that MLS (17,872) has surpassed the NBA (17,323) and NHL (17,132) in average attendance; that the expansion team fee has ballooned from $10 million, pre-Beckham, to $40 million; that the league’s most recent TV rights deal, with outsider NBC, hit $30 million for three years.  What they do know is that they can name one soccer player–David Beckham–where before they didn’t know Tab Ramos from Jamie Moreno from Mike Petke.  Back when the league was just trying to gain any sort of traction, back when the Galaxy was 11th out of 13 teams in 2007 (9-14-7) and 13th out of 14 the following year (8-13-9), people were talking and writing about Becks, or at least the photogenic Becks and wife Posh.

And that’s why Beckham will be missed if he chooses to close out his playing career elsewhere.  If and when he goes, don’t count on the general American public and the typical U.S. sports columnist or commentator to magically shift their attention to Dwayne De Rosario or David Ferreira or even Henry.   In that sense, Beckham has proved to be irreplaceable.



THE APPLE vs. THE ORANGE

Defending champ FC Barcelona got a first-half goal from reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi and beat Shakhtar Donetsk, 1-0, to complete its dismantling of the Ukrainian side by a 6-1 aggregate in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, one day after Real Madrid defeated Tottenham Hotspur, 1-0, and took its two-legged set by an overall 5-0.  The bitter Spanish rivals will meet in the semifinals on April 27 and May 3 while Manchester United will take on German upstart Schalke 04 on April 26 and May 4.  The two survivors meet in the final May 28 at London’s Wembley Stadium.  [April 13]

Comment:  This showdown of bitter Spanish rivals is being billed in some quarters as a showdown between the man currently regarded as the world’s greatest player, Messi, and the man he supposedly supplanted, Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

It should be fascinating–over an 18-day span, the two sides will meet not only in the Champions League but once each in La Liga and Spain’s Copa del Rey.  But as for proving who’s best, that’s a reach.  The styles and roles of the stumpy, electrifying 23-year-old Argentine and the flamboyant, mercurial 26-year-old Portuguese are too different to allow for comparison.  And they will have little to do with one another on the field:  this isn’t the 1970 World Cup, when West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer and England’s Bobby Charlton marked one another and ultimately cancelled each other out.  The only certainty is that if both players play up to their capabilities, the debate will rage on.



THE ASSIST OF THE YEAR

Tottenham Hotspur defeated Inter Milan, 3-1, at White Hart Lane to join the defending Euro champs  in first place in Group “A” in the UEFA Champions League.  Both sides are 2-1-1 with two rounds remaining.  [November 2]

Comment:  Gareth Bale, a 21-year-old, capped a two-legged assault on the Italian power that can only be described as devastating. 

The lanky left winger, who last month at the San Siro scored a hat trick to turn a four-goal Inter rout into a more palatable 4-3 Spurs defeat, played a part in all three Tottenham goals at home on a night when he turned Brazilian star Maicon, arguably the world’s best right back, inside out.   Repeatedly. 

The most embarrassing moment came in the closing moments as Spurs nursed a one-goal lead.  Younes Kaboul plucked the ball from Inter’s Coutinho on the edge of the Tottenham box, delivered to Bale on the left, then watched the Welsh international, with three Inter defenders ahead of him, go on a 50-yard tear, passing to himself beyond the impotent Maicon (a “schoolboy move” as one British newspaper described it) before crossing perfectly for Roman Pavlyuchenko for a tap-in.

Bale is being touted as the greatest Welsh player since Ryan Giggs.  At the moment, Bale’s effort tops anything seen this year, including the highlights of last summer’s World Cup.