We attended last night's MLS season opener for the San Jose Earthquakes. Last season the team was just awful, winning only four games all year. During the off-season, their primary move was to hire the respected Argentinian coach Matías Almeyda, who has worked on three occasions with teams fallen on bad times (River Plate, Banfield, and Chivas) and took part in a turnaround. He would seem to be the perfect new manager for the Quakes, so much so that it was surprising he even came here at all.
My nephew is the most knowledgeable person in our family when it comes to soccer. He's the right age, growing up as the sport was blossoming in the States ... as a little tyke, he attended the very first Major League Soccer game ... and, unlike most people, has managed to turn a passion into a full-time job, currently with Toronto in MLS. He often suggests to me that managers aren't nearly as important as we think, that it's the players that matter (I'm simplifying here). I decided this meant the 2019 Quakes might make an interesting study of that concept. They were a bad team, and while they mix-and-matched a few players, they didn't sign any big stars outside of Almeyda. If managers lack importance, the Quakes aren't likely to be revived.
Hard to say after one game if the revival is taking place. MLS rules (and the reluctance of the San Jose front office to spend lots of money) mean Almeyda probably hasn't been given the kind of money he could use to rebuild the roster, although that is mere supposition on my part. Last night, the Quakes' play looked more positive, and a goal in the 11th minute gave fans some hope, but eventually, San Jose lost, 2-1. Their defense was erratic, and while the offense had plenty of possession, they rarely seemed like they were on the verge of scoring.
Almeyda has said from the beginning that recovering from a four-win season takes time, and he found some positives in the defeat. But mostly, the game reminded us just how far the team has to go. And outside of the never-give-up spirit the team showed (not something we saw too often last year), I can only say of Almeyda's influence so far that the Earthquakes will probably win more than four games in 2019. Here are some highlights, including a look at Matías, who if nothing else is the best-looking coach in the league:
I'm gradually waking up the World Cup blog. I've posted a few things recently, including one from today that ranks the competing nations by "degree of civil liberties and political rights". Check it out to see the results:
This will be a longer explanation for yesterday’s link.
I used to post about the game Football Manager about once a year, trying to explain what it was and why so many people obsessed over it. Usually, I’d excerpt a complicated discussion about, say, motivational theory or Karl Popper and positivism. Back in 2010, I linked to an article by Brian Phillips, “The Unreal Genius of Football Manager, Greatest Video Game Ever”. And every year, about this time, I’d post something brief to explain why I wasn’t around much because the latest annual edition of Football Manager had been released.
I thought I’d done this forever, but I don’t think I’ve gotten around to it in recent years. I mean posting ... I still crank up the game (for instance, I played last year’s model, FM 2016, for 924 hours, which wasn’t even my record ... that was FM 2014, with 1236 hours played). FM 2017 beta came out yesterday, and I’ve already managed 11 hours. The game’s depth is endlessly complex, and I’ve been at it since the late-90s.
Each year adds new wrinkles to the game, and often, we’ll get preview videos that show some of the changes, like this year’s, dramatically titled “The Big Reveal”:
But there was a surprise for us when the beta was released yesterday. Miles Jacobson, the director of the series, wrote earlier this year, explaining FM to non-players:
We’ve been releasing games for 24 years, starting off as two brothers based in their bedroom in Shropshire through to where we are now, a 110 strong team based in the Old Street area of London. We make niche games, although the niche is pretty popular – we sell just shy of 2m games a year and were independent until roughly 10 years ago when we became part of SEGA. 30 of the 35 people who were with the studio when the takeover happened are still here now. We also have circa 100 contractors at any one time, some in the UK, and some in other parts of the world.
Jacobson joined the team early on, after brothers Paul and Oliver Collyer created the game. For their efforts, the Collyers were named Members of the Order of the British Empire ... later Jacobson became an officer of the order (or something like that ... I admit I don’t quite understand these things). Suffice to say that the Football Manager series has made a lot of money for those three, and a lot of money for England, and a lot of joy to the players. It’s “just a game”, but it regularly refutes that cliché ... take the title of a documentary from 2010, Football Manager: More Than Just a Game. Or Iain Macintosh’s 2012 book, Football Manager Stole My Life: 20 Years of Beautiful Obsession. Or look at the real teams that use the vast FM database for scouting purposes.
Well, the above quote from Jacobson was a prelude to a long piece about how Brexit might affect Football Manager. He wrote primarily about how it could change the way Sports Interactive ("SI", the company that produces the game) works, detailing some real-world possibilities.
Of course, Brexit passed ... and of course, it will take time for it to take effect, if it ever does. Meanwhile, FM 2017 is here, and we’re all busy trying out the new edition.
Except ... there was a little addition that didn’t make “The Big Reveal”. SI must have a pretty strong non-disclosure agreement for its testers, because this little addition was a complete surprise.
Brexit has been built into the latest version of Football Manager.
A brief explanation. Football Manager is a “management simulation”. Unlike video games you might be familiar with, like FIFA, in FM, you do not control the players during a game. You are the manager of a club. You sign new players, choose staff, run training, create tactics, manage games, try to win championships. And after one season, if you are lucky and don’t get fired, you get to do it for another season. And another, and another, etc. So the game starts in Fall 2016, but if you stay with the same game without starting a new one, it will eventually be 2020, or 2025, or 2030, or whatever.
Which is where Brexit will enter the gameplay. As one headline read, “Football Manager 2017 to simulate Brexit - fans of the game go crazy on Twitter”. Among the tweets quoted in the article: “Football Manager 2017 has put more research into the implications of Brexit on the UK in the game than the actual government have irl”, and “Brexit means harder FM. Wish I known that before voting.”
There you have it: the creators of a management simulation have built a Brexit simulator into the game. As Jacobson said, “As far as I know this is the first time a computer game has tried to predict the future of a country.”
Sometime after two years have passed in the game, the player will be informed about the implementation of Brexit in the FM world. (There are random factors involved, so each game will have its own implementation.) There are three scenarios:
Soft Brexit - free movement of workers remains.
Footballers are granted the same special exemptions that are currently given to ‘entertainers’. This means it is easier for them to obtain work permits than other people, and it will not have a huge impact on player movement from the EU.
Hard Brexit: similar rules to those which currently apply to non-EU players are adopted for all non-UK players.
Also, Scotland might decide to stay with the EU.
I suspect most of us just want to manage our favorite team to a championship. The idea of the real world interfering with that is startling. But Sports Interactive have been successful precisely because of how accurately their game reflects the real world of football. Ultimately, I don’t think they could have left Brexit out.
And it was fun to have an actual surprise in this day and age.
Today, I watched the U.S. women defeat New Zealand, 2-0, in their opening match of the 2016 Olympics. I watched because I like soccer, and because I root for the U.S. national teams.
While I am a sports fan, I don’t watch much of the Olympics. Nate Silver put it better than I could, when he said, “The Olympics is sports, packaged for non-sports fans, which is slightly offensive if you’re a sports fan.”
The key word is “packaged”. The sporting events themselves are fine, although I don’t have much interest in any of them besides soccer. But the packaging, which emphasizes human interest stories designed to bring in the casual fan, even the non-fan ... that’s what Nate calls “offensive”. Of course, it’s not offensive if you are one of those casual fans who enjoy the Olympics when they roll around precisely because of the human interest angle. But I won’t be paying attention.
This starts out being about sports, but it wanders, so here’s a spoiler warning for Penny Dreadful.
The Warriors lost their title to the Cavs. I didn’t like it while it was happening ... as I said at one point on Facebook, I didn’t want a good game, I wanted a Warrior victory, the bigger the better. And so it was a good game, even a great game, and LeBron James is the best player of his era, and his team accomplished something great. I am happy for the fans in Cleveland who have waited so long. Actually, I’m not happy, but one day I will be. It helps that 1) we got to celebrate just last year, and 2) the entire season up until these last games was such a joy.
Another thing that helps is being a fan of more than one sport. So while the Warriors lost, the Giants have won 8 in a row, and 27 of their last 35 (a record for the San Francisco team). They are for the moment comfortably in first place.
And the U.S. men’s national soccer team has made it to the semi-finals of the Copa América Centenario, where Argentina awaits them on Tuesday. That gives us 40+ hours to imagine what it might be like for the USA to beat Messi and company.
So it’s not bad being a Bay Area sports fan right now, even if the Warriors game hurts.
The NBA season is over, but it will return. And tonight, after the sadness of the basketball game, there was the Season Three finale of Penny Dreadful. Showtime claimed it was two hours long, but it was just two episodes shown back to back. While the first episode, and half of the second, featured interesting stories about the show’s many characters, along with the usual excellent acting, Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives was noticeable by her absence. And since we knew everything was headed for a showdown with Vanessa, Dracula, and our intrepid heroes, it felt like a bit of stalling ... come on, I kept thinking, get down to it. When Green finally showed up, we were reminded why Penny Dreadful has, above all, always been her series. There were all the great fictional characters thrown together: Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, and the Bride ... Dorian Gray ... Dr. Jekyll ... The Wolfman ... Dracula and Dr. Seward and Mina Harker and Van Helsing and Renfield ... I half expected Abbott and Costello to show up. But in all of this, Eva Green rose above the rest. She was the best thing about a very good show.
And yes, here come the spoilers, and yes, I was speaking in the past tense in that last sentence. For Vanessa Ives died to save the world from evil, rather like Buffy in “The Gift”. Buffy was resurrected, of course, and hey, Penny Dreadful features Dr. Frankenstein, so I suppose Vanessa could come back. But it was her death that finally ended Dracula’s reign of darkness, and it was explicitly Christian ... her last words were that she could see “our Lord”, whose battle she had fought her entire life.
Much has been made of late about how frequently television series use “surprise” deaths of important characters these days, but even in that context, Vanessa’s death snuck up on us, even as it seemed inevitable. More surprising were the words that appeared on the screen at the end of the episode, after we’d spent a few minutes trying to imagine Penny Dreadful without Eva Green. “The End”. Surprise, surprise. Showtime managed to keep that under wraps. I hadn’t even noticed that Penny Dreadful had yet to be extended for a fourth season. I just assumed it would happen, given that Showtime has a well-deserved reputation for letting their best shows run long past their sell-by date. But it turns out that Penny Dreadful is expensive, and it doesn’t get many viewers in the right demographics. I love Eva Green, but she’s 35 years old, and the other main characters included the likes of Timothy Dalton (in his 70s), and Patti LuPone and Wes Studi (both in their late-60s). It felt like Josh Hartnett was there to appeal to the younger crowd, but heck, he’s older than Eva Green. Add the fact that most of the characters came from turn-of-the-last-century literature, and I suppose it would be asking too much for young people to take a shine to it.
I mean, I went to Twitter to find fellow fans to mourn with, and everyone was talking about Game of Thrones. Truth is, I barely know anyone who watched Penny Dreadful.
So it’s gone, an A- series that flirted with an A. And the Warriors are gone, at least until next season, an A+ team that slipped to a B+ at just the wrong time. But there are still the Giants, and the U.S. national team. And Game of Thrones, and Outlander. And hey, Orange Is the New Black is back! Mourn for a day, but then see what joys await us.
It’s a story I’ve told before, but it is Throwback Thursday, after all.
My wife and I made our first trip to Europe in 1984. We stayed with Robin’s sister and her soon-to-be husband Peter in England ... I want to say they lived in Little Bookham, but I’m not sure. As I recall (I’m only going to say that once, but imagine I’ve said it before every sentence ... this was 32 years ago, after all), we quickly took off on a car trip. We were staying for three weeks, so time was tight. We drove down through France after taking the ferry (urp, barf), and crossed over into Andorra, which I probably didn’t know existed at the time. Then to Barcelona, where Peter had family ... he was a true European, English heritage but with time spent in Spain and France at least, conversant in several languages. While in Barcelona, we visited the Museu Fundacio Joan Miro, where Robin’s sister took the following photo, which recently turned up on Facebook:
I’m not sure what order we did things, but either going to or coming from France, we shopped in Andorra, which was duty-free. We also spent a night in the Pyrenees at a place Peter’s family owned ... there was a town named La Seu d’Urgell, perhaps it was there. On our way back through France, we spent one night in Meung, a small town on the Loire where I had the best birthday dinner of my life.
Back in England, Peter took me to Wimbledon. I always say I saw McEnroe and Connors at Wimbledon, which is technically true, although it was in different matches. Connors beat a fellow American, Lloyd Bourne, on Court One, after McEnroe had dispatched Australian Paul McNamee. I have long forgotten this, but McNamee actually took the third set in that match, making him the only player to do so against McEnroe in the entire tournament.
What brings all this to mind is a different sport. Euro 2016 is going on right now in France, and when we vacationed in 1984, the Euros were taking place, also in France. Wherever we went as we drove from England to Spain and back again, people were glued to their televisions. Spain made it to the finals, where they lost to France, 2-0. It was then that I discovered my first soccer hero, Michel Platini, who scored nine goals in the tournament (no one else scored more than three). What I knew about soccer in 1984 would barely fill an English teacup, but I have Platini to thank for getting me interested. (Here's a link to all of his goals: https://youtu.be/IU9S9oaa-AU
Platini was indeed one of the greatest soccer players of all time, and after his playing days, he went on to have a significant career in administration, spending eight years as President of UEFA. Sadly, not all stories end well ... he is currently banned for ethics corruption. Not to excuse him, but he was born at the wrong time ... it would seem that every soccer administrator today is steeped in corruption.
I retained a lot from that European trip. It was my first time in Spain (albeit we never got close to Andalucía ... that waited until 2000). When we went to Europe, I had just finished ten years in the factory. I guess it was a case of “How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?”, because within a couple of months, I had walked off the job, never to return.
Everything I write here, I cribbed from others. I have nothing new. But this blog serves as my memory, if nothing else, so ...
There are two ways to look at this match (of course I know there are more than two, but bear with me). When Julie Johnston committed a foul in the box for a German penalty, it was heartbreaking for a player who has been as good as anyone in the tournament. But the U.S. was actually lucky, because the referee awarded a penalty and a yellow card, when it should have been a red card. If the U.S. had to play the final half-an-hour short-handed, the result might well have been different. Then, when Alex Morgan drew a penalty at the other end of the field, the penalty call was missed ... she was outside the box. The two most crucial referee decisions of the match both went against the Germans.
On the other hand, there's this: the Germans missed their penalty, the Americans made theirs.
And, in the words of the immortal Norberto Longo, dos palabras: Torsten Frings.
Meanwhile, it was a match that "lived up to the hype". The U.S. did everything except score in the first half, in the second half the Germans were much more lively, and the last 30 minutes had everything.