mls, season 20

Twenty years ago, MLS began its history with the inaugural match at Spartan Stadium in San Jose. The home team won on a late goal by Eric Wynalda. We were there.

The Earthquakes’ season is about to begin. In two weeks, they will play their first official match at their new stadium. There have been highs and lows during San Jose’s years in MLS. There were the two MLS championships in 2001 and 2003. There were the dark days when the team moved to Houston. There was their return to MLS in 2006, with an expansion team.

Highs ... and lows. I might not have paid much attention to MLS when the Quakes were gone, but I started following the team as soon as they returned.

You know, in 1971, I moved to Indiana for a year. That fall, the Giants made the playoffs, losing to Pittsburgh in the NL Championship Series. My friends in Indiana thought I should have rooted for Pittsburgh, because I lived in the Midwest. I paid them no attention. The Giants were my team.

If I moved back to the Midwest now, I’d still root for the Earthquakes.

On the other hand, I know how it feels to break up with a loved one. Robin broke up with me in 1969, and even though we married in 1973 and are coming up on our 42nd anniversary, I still get bitter thinking about when she left me. But, as she says, you have to get over it.


throw-in thursday

Twenty-one years ago today, Germany played the USA in soccer at Stanford. We were there.

For the U.S.:

Brad Friedel, Desmond Armstrong, Alexi Lalas, Mike Lapper, Cobi Jones, Mike Sorber, Thomas Dooley, Joe-Max Moore (71 Dominic Kinnear), Jeff Agoos (60 Brian Bliss), Earnie Stewart, Hugo Pérez (46 Chad Deering).

For Germany:

Bodo Illgner, Lother Matthäus, Guido Buchwald, Jürgen Kohler (46 Matthias Sammer), Stefan Effenberg, Thomas Häßler (75 Thomas Strunz), Dieter Eilts, Andreas Brehme (46 Christian Ziege), Andreas Möller, Stefan Kuntz, Jürgen Klinsmann (63 Andreas Thom).


maybe it's just that my brain is broken

Today I watched a soccer match between AC Milan and Inter Milan. Matches between these two are called the “Derby della Madonnina” (here in the U.S. it’s just the Milan Derby). This rivalry dates back to 1908. The two teams are historically very good. What makes this rivalry especially noteworthy is that both clubs play their home matches in the same stadium, the San Siro.

AC Milan’s home jerseys look like this:

Inter Milan’s home jerseys look like this:

I’m not sure why Inter, the “away” team in this match, wore their home jerseys, although I guess they were playing at their home, the San Siro. Whatever, the players looked like those jerseys for the match, with Milan in red and Inter in blue.

As I often do, while the match went on, I had the WhoScored website up in my browser. They offer real-time stat updates. The screen for Milan-Inter looked like this:

whoscored

I hope you can see the problem. On WhoScored for this match, Milan was in blue and Inter was in red, although those colors were switched for the actual players’ jerseys as I watched my TV. What was worse, in the first half, Inter was going from left-to-right on my screen, Milan from right-to-left. I hope you can see how this was a problem, as well.

My brain couldn’t handle all of this. Even though I’ve seen these teams play many times, I kept getting confused about which team was which as I watched.

I’m sure the brain scientists can explain why this was so frustrating. Or maybe it’s just that my brain is broken.


where has he been, lately?

“What are you thinking about?”, she asks.

At this point I lie. I wasn’t thinking about Martin Amis or Gérard Depardieu or the Labour Party at all. But then, obsessives have no choice; they have to lie on occasions like this. If we told the truth every time, then we would be unable to maintain relationships with anyone from the real world. We would be left to rot with our Arsenal programmes or our collection of original blue-label Stax records or our King Charles spaniels, and our two-minute daydreams would become longer and longer and longer until we lost our jobs and stopped bathing and shaving and eating, and we would lie on the floor in our own filth rewinding the video again and again in an attempt to memorise by heart the whole of the commentary, including David Pleat’s expert analysis, for the night of 26th of May 1989. (You think I had to look the date up? Ha!) The truth is this: for alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron. …

None of this is thought, in the proper sense of the word. There is no analysis, or self-awareness, or mental rigour going on at all, because obsessives are denied any kind of perspective on their own passion.

-- Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch


usa-portugal

I think the U.S. players believe that they will win. They will play to their abilities. They won’t be overawed. It is rare that a soccer match can be controlled by one player … team play is crucial. And Portugal will not be at 100%, due to injuries and suspensions.

And yet … Iran earned a well-deserved upset draw with Argentina, except Leo Messi pull a bit of magic out of his boots. If there is one other player who can “do a Messi” in that way, it’s Cristiano Ronaldo. If Ronaldo is fit, the U.S. is in trouble. They can have a good tactical plan to deal with him … he can have what passes for a bad game by his standards … but if he’s fit, I think Portugal will win.

But that’s a big if.

It’s fun to be an American fan at times like this, thanks in part to those casual fans who only turn up every four years. Those fans diss soccer on a regular basis. They also understand that the USA is not among the elite. But come the World Cup, and everyone becomes a fan. Because they don’t pay attention for the most part, they don’t really know what “not among the elite” means. Like the players, they are fearless, and actually believe the U.S. will win, at least as each match approaches … I don’t know if even the most loony fair-weather fan thinks the U.S. can win it all. They know Ronaldo is tops, but they think Clint Dempsey is only slightly inferior. When the U.S. wins at the World Cup, people go bonkers. And in the buildup, they think of beating Portugal in 2002, about Landon Donovan against Algeria, about Rapinoe-to-Wambach against Brazil. They don’t think of those World Cups where the U.S. craps out.

Thus, it makes sense that American fans have adopted “I believe that we will win” as their battle cry.

Of course, when the U.S. is eliminated (and that could be sooner rather than later … it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they lose to both Portugal and Germany), those casual fans will forget about soccer again until 2018.

My prediction: if Ronaldo is hampered, the U.S. wins, 1-0. If Ronaldo is fine, the U.S. loses, 2-1.


world cup 2014 so far

(Here's an example of what you can find on my World Cup blog.)

So, how are we doing so far?

A week-and-a-half ago, I posted my lame-but-clear “template for a good soccer match”. Once again, the rules:

  1. The margin of victory is one goal, or the match is a draw
  2. At least one of the teams must score multiple goals

I’m searching for matches that were competitive (rule #1), and attack-minded (rule #2).

The 7th match was the first to meet the criteria: England 1-2 Italy. There were 30 total shots (13 on goal), some inspired individual play (Pirlo, Balotelli), and if England never quite seemed like they had an equalizer in them, it wasn’t for lack of trying. On the same day, the Ivory Coast defeated Japan 2-1, in a match that was more lopsided than the score suggests.

Sunday the 15th had two more: Switzerland 2-1 Ecuador, and Argentina 2-1 Bosnia-Herzegovina. The first was headed to a 1-1 draw until the thrilling extra-time winner by substitute Hans Seferovic, a case where the ending made the match seem a bit better than it was. Argentina-Bosnia was also saved by a goal, Lionel Messi’s sublime effort to put Argentina up 2-0 midway through the second half. Bosnia got a late goal to “fulfill” the template, and Messi’s wondergoal made the match memorable, but again, this one was not as competitive as the final score indicates.

Monday the 16th had one, which delighted U.S. fans: Ghana 1-2 United States. I can’t judge the entertainment value, since I had a rooting interest, but Ghana’s put so much pressure on the U.S. after Dempsey’s instant goal that there was a level of tension throughout the match, with everyone wondering if/when Ghana would break through. Which they did, with less than ten minutes to go. Which set up a classic finish four minutes later, when John Anthony Brooks headed home the game-winner.

Tuesday the 17th, Belgium 2-1 Algeria. Not a great match most of the way … Algeria only got off three shots, and their goal came from a penalty kick. Belgium dominated without actually being interesting, until Marc Wilmots made three substitutions in the early parts of the second half. Two of those substitutes scored goals, and Belgium got the win they deserved. But it was odd … Belgium clearly outplayed the Algerians, yet until the last 20 minutes, didn’t seem very potent.

Wednesday the 18th, and the real winner of the Template of the Cup thus far: Australia 2-3 Netherlands. The heavy underdogs Australia stayed with the Dutch for most of the match, even taking a brief 2-1 lead early in the second half. There were 43 total fouls (remarkably, only two by Nigel de Jong), it was a tough match, lots of give and take, and the best team won. But it was a five-goal extravaganza.

Thursday the 19th had two: Colombia 2-1 Ivory Coast, and Uruguay 2-1 England. All three goals in the first match came in a nine-minute period midway through the second half. Uruguay-England was one of the best matches so far, with a lot of the excitement being contextual … it wasn’t just entertaining, it featured Luis Suárez in his first match of the Cup, scoring twice in an emotional performance against the English.

Finally, on the 20th, there was Honduras 1-2 Ecuador. The stat sheet shows some interesting individual performances. Carlos Costly scored the Honduras goal, and also led all Hondurans in committing five fouls. Enner Valencia scored both Ecuador goals, was fouled five times, and returned the favor three times. (Fouls are usually part of the discussion in a match that includes Honduras.)

That’s ten matches already that fit the template. But other matches, while not fitting the straightjacket I’ve chosen, were “good”, usually by featuring one team in a delightful blow out of their opponent. The Netherlands scored five against defending champions Spain, Germany plowed past Portugal 4-0, France got five against the Swiss.

And, as if to demonstrate the silliness of my template, arguably the best match so far was the scoreless draw between Brazil and Mexico.

Against all of the above, Iran-Nigeria and Japan-Greece were more typical 0-0 matches, i.e. boring, and other matches were merely OK. It’s worth noting, though, that “merely OK” would have been quite good in the 2010 World Cup.

So far, this has been an excellent World Cup. Partly because teams are scoring goals, and I like goals. But there are also fine individual exploits, and again, Brazil 0-0 Mexico was a terrific match to watch.

And I didn’t even mention this:


catching up: books

Not sure why I don’t write more about books here. Perhaps it’s that my training is to treat books as something worthy of long-form writing, I don’t know. Whatever, a friend posted a photo of his summer reading, using the usual method of stacking the books in a pile. I realized that I can’t do that kind of picture anymore, because the vast majority of books I read are e-books.

The main book I’m reading right now is A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng. Enke was a top German goalkeeper who suffered from depression and committed suicide at the age of 32. It benefits from Reng having known Enke … it’s startling at times when a conversation appears between the two, you’ve been reading along like any other biography and you forget the author was there at times. The pressures of being a goalkeeper are made evident, but what is hitting home for me is the manifestations of Enke’s depression, which are scarily real to me.

Keeping in the pre-World Cup soccer genre, I just finished George Vecsey’s Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer. While Vecsey is known primarily for his sports writing, he also co-wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter with Loretta Lynn. Eight World Cups is an ideal book for Americans new to the sport (there are fewer of them every year) who would like some history in advance of Brazil 2014. While Vecsey has been at this awhile, he was once, like many Americans, an outsider to the world of soccer, which makes his story relatable. He tells stories of the great individuals of the era, gives a full picture of each Cup, and if he spends less time on the “Dark Side” than the title suggests, the Beauty comes through loud and clear.

Rounding out some of the recent sports books I’ve read, there’s The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption by John Rosengren. What Rosengren does well is establish a context for that event, by leading us through the life of a Latino and an African-American in baseball of the 1950s and 1960s. Also, Craig Wright’s Pages from Baseball’s Past, a compilation of pieces from his website of the same name. Wright is a pioneer in sabermetrics who knows how to tell a good story (the first chapter tells us about Babe Ruth’s “mascot”, and fans will look forward to pieces like “The Walk-Off Triple Steal”. Finally, Jonah Keri makes sure you know what his book is about with his subtitle: Up, Up and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos.

I wrote recently about John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman. And a few months ago, I had a few words about Latinos at the Golden Gate by my friend Tomás Summers Sandoval … yes, it’s true, I actually read a book that wasn’t about sports or entertainment. There was The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style by Nelson George. An old favorite, pilot Patrick Smith, offers Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections. I first discovered Smith when he wrote a regular column for Salon … I admit I was delighted to exchange a few emails with him about our shared love for Hüsker Dü. Bill Brown’s Words and Guitar: A History of Lou Reed’s Music was unmemorable, while Winning Fantasy Baseball: Secret Strategies of a Nine-Time National Champion by Larry Schechter was very useful for me back in February when I bought it. The Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball by Benjamin Baumer and Andrew Zimbalist must have been good … I don’t have any bad memories … but to be honest, I barely remember the book at all, even as a fan of Zimbalist’s work.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jennifer Garlen’s second book on movies, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching. When I read her, I often wish I’d written what I am reading.

I just got the latest edition of David Thomson’s mammoth The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, previous editions of which are always stored on my phone for quick revisits. On tap: Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living, an examination of the philosophy of Albert Camus.