happy birthday geoff!
happy birthday paul!

mr. prediction (spoilers)

(This is long and kinda boring, but for those of you who skip all the soccer posts, jump to the bottom and watch the video … it's worth it, I promise, and I fixed the link, too!)

Times have changed for soccer fans in the U.S., as I've noted more than once here. From the times when the only televised soccer was a weekly match highlight from Germany on PBS, to the times when the only televised soccer was on Univision and Telemundo, we've made it to the present, where two channels are dedicated to soccer 24/7 (Fox Soccer Channel and GOL TV), the behemoth that is ESPN pays increasing attention to the sport, and the national league, MLS, is regularly featured. There is so much soccer on television in the States these days that you can't keep up with it all.

And so, as the seasons began last fall, I decided to pick a team from each of the leagues we get to watch, thinking maybe if I just focused on one club per competition, it would all become manageable. But that didn't work … among other things, there are too many other matches, cup matches, internationals, and you have to watch those, too. And so some of my chosen clubs fell to the side. Mostly, that meant the South American leagues … the best players tend to end up in Europe, the Brazilian leagues are messily goofy organizations, which leaves Argentina … good stuff, but I found myself skipping them.

In the end, the leagues I regularly watched were in England, Spain, Italy, Germany, Mexico, and to a lesser extent given our team was stolen away, the USA. The teams I chose to follow were not exactly longshots … my "predictions" weren't much to brag about. In England, I chose Liverpool, because they weren't Man U or Chelsea or Arsenal … in Spain, I chose Sevilla because they were the best of the Andalucian clubs … in Italy, Inter Milan because the other good clubs had gotten in too much trouble recently … in Germany, Werder Bremen for who knows what reason … in Mexico, Chivas, which is the club I'd followed forever anyway … and in MLS, I admit that once I decided to watch a match or two, I kept my eye on Houston, where all of the old Quakes still played on. And, because they shouldn't be forgotten, I've rooted for them since 1994 and have one of their flags in my front window, in the English League Two, there was mighty mighty Wrexham.

How did "my" clubs do? Liverpool finished third in the Premiership, got blown out of the League Cup by Arsenal in the quarterfinals, also lost to Arsenal in an early round of the FA Cup, and, just a few minutes ago, lost in the Champions League final to AC Milan. A pretty fine season, but no silverware. (Meanwhile, just across the border from Liverpool into Wales, Wrexham fought mightily at the bottom of the standings, saving themselves from the embarrassment of relegation on the last day of the season.)

Spain's season is still not finished. With only a few matches to go, Sevilla is in third place, two points from the lead. They retained their UEFA Cup championship, that being the second-best club competition in Europe. A month from now, they will play in the championship match of the Copa del Rey, the top cup competition in the country.

Inter Milan have coasted to a championship in Italy, thanks in part to the absence of powerhouses like Juventus due to legal issues. They deserved their title, though, winning by more than 20 points (depending on the last week's matches). They made the final of the Coppa Italia, where they were blown away by Roma. They couldn't get past Valencia in the Champions League … their matches were mostly notable for a post-match brawl.

Werder Bremen finished third in the Bundesliga. They couldn't get out of the group stage in the Champions League, finishing behind Chelsea and Barcelona. Moved to the UEFA Cup, they lost to Espanyol in the semis.

Chivas of Guadalajara won the Mexican League for the first time in quite awhile, leading to a famous steak dinner at Juan's Place. Last week, they lost to arch-rival America in the current playoffs, so they are title holders no longer.

And Houston won MLS, with a team comprised almost entirely of San Jose Earthquakes.

Seven clubs. Three league titles, with a fourth still a possibility. One cup title, with another still a possibility. Not a bad "prediction" record, although as I say, I picked good teams, not longshots.

The best part about the above, besides having someone to root for, which for me always improves the spectator sports experience, was that seeing several matches of the same club meant I became familiar with their players. Certain of those players stood out over the season … not necessarily the best players, but the ones who I most liked to watch. To choose one from each club:

Liverpool: how about Peter Crouch? Guy is 6'7" and built like a stick … not really my type of player … but for all his gangly awkwardness, he has actual skillz. Not saying he's the second coming of Platini, but I was always surprised that he could do more with the ball than just head it.

Wrexham: well, I didn't get to see them, of course … as much soccer as we get, fourth-division English soccer hasn't made it to our TVs yet. So I'll pick Lee McEvilly, for being second on the club in goals scored, but also because he's got a great last name.

Sevilla: Kanoute. Kinda hard to go against the guy who has scored 20 goals in La Liga.

Inter: Hernán Crespo. I never got tired of watching him.

Bremen: Miroslav Klose. Because he scores hella goals.

Chivas: Oswaldo Sánchez. He left the club after they won the title, and he's not very popular with U.S. fans, but he was the face of Chivas soccer for a long time.

Houston: It's pretty tempting to say "who gives a shit," but these guys were my favorite players only a couple of years ago. Here's to Brian Mullan, who I enjoyed watching in the Spartan Stadium days. His is the kind of play that is more enjoyable in person than on the TV, so I've missed the best of him since he left.

And I should at least mention Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United, some people's choice for the best in the world now, and especially Lionel Messi of Barcelona, who won't even turn 20 until next month but who regularly makes the highlight reels with great goals. Here was his best of the year … no, not just his best of the year, THE best of the year … no, not the best of the year, the best of the last 20 years … no, not the best of the last 20 years, the best ever … nah, we can't go that far. But how often does a goal get mentioned in the same breath as Maradona's famous Greatest Goal Ever without embarrassing itself? You'll understand why he's now known in some quarters as "Messidona." Here you go … not only doesn't it matter if you don't understand the language of the announcer (I don't), it might even make the video even better: