Posts Tagged ‘Soccer’

A soccer showcase

May 27, 2011

It may be May 27 on the calendar, but for fans of the beautiful game, it’s like New Year’s Eve.

Barcelona and Manchester United will meet at London’s Wembley Stadium tomorrow afternoon (2:45 FOX) for the Champions League final – and it’s one of the more anticipated finals in recent memory.

Many of my friends who drop by here are now rolling their eyes.

“More soccer, Randy? Geez.”

Yes, more soccer. But first, a brief Champions League primer.

The Champions League is a competition of all of the club teams in Europe (or at least the ones that finished near the top of their respective domestic league the year before). It’s a long, winding process that began with 76 teams. Those 76 got whittled down to 32 teams for what is known as the group stage.

That’s eight groups of four that play home and away matches with the top two teams in each advancing.

Then starts the knockout phase that features home and away matches with winners being chosen based on aggregate.

That’s how we got here.

If you’re still here, let me give you a reason to tune in.

Aside from the World Cup, no event is as important as this one.

And the teams might just be better than the ones you’d see wearing a country’s colors.

Barcelona’s starting 11 is littered with stars from the Spanish national team, not to mention the best player in the world, Argentina’s Lionel Messi.

They play a style that can best be described as a slow dance, passing the ball quickly and rhythmically, putting defenders out of position and tiring them out.

And no one finishes like Messi.

It’s almost poetry, when full back Dani Alves or midfielder Sergio Busquets are spoiling the fun with silly dives and play acting.

Most observers say that this team is the best of its generation – and perhaps the best ever.

But Manchester United isn’t about to stand still for a coronation in its home country.

United, like Barca, is one of the biggest clubs in the world with a rich history.

Wayne Rooney is just a notch below Messi as one of the world’s finest forwards, but the Red Devils have a long list of stars in their lineup as well.

If my guess at their lineup tomorrow is correct, the Red Devils will have nine different national teams represented (England, Holland, Wales, Brazil, Mexico, Bulgaria, France, Serbia and South Korea).

The point is that, no matter who wins, it will make for quite the spectacle.

Flip over to FOX tomorrow and check it out.

Maybe then, you’ll see what I see.

It is, after all, the beautiful game.

To see my preview of the match, click here.

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A fight to the finish

May 23, 2011

I often tell my non-soccer loving friends, of which there are many, that relegation is the best-kept secret in the world to American sports fans.

There is nothing like it.

The final day of the NFL season always features 16 games – and most years almost all of them are a complete waste of time. Division winners have clinched, home field for the playoffs has been decided and a host of teams end up simply playing out the string.

That’s because, in American sports, there’s no penalty for finishing last. In fact, teams are rewarded for it with high draft picks.

In soccer (everywhere else in the world), a last-place effort gets you a one-way ticket out of the league.

There were 10 games in England yesterday on the final day of the Barclays Premier League season. And Manchester United had the championship already sewn up, even their game with Blackpool mattered.

Seven of the 10 games were important for league survival or places in European competition next season.

Wolverhampton fell behind 3-0 at the half, and looked to be going down to the Championship (the second division of English soccer), but two second-half goals kept Wolves in the Premier League.

And that’s worth about $90 million to the club, by the way.

Hugo Rodallega won’t be buying his own drinks in Wigan for a while, as his 79th minute goal kept his side in the BPL with a 1-0 win at Stoke.

There were also losers on Sunday.

Blackpool took a 2-1 lead against the champions, but fell apart late in a 4-2 loss.

Gone.

Birmingham couldn’t nick a draw against Tottenham, a sad end to a season that featured a Carling Cup trophy for the case.

Doesn’t matter. They’re gone, too.

Both clubs will join West Ham in the Championship next season, making way for Queens Park Rangers, Norwich and the winner of the playoff final between Swansea and Reading.

With relegation, there is a penalty for futility.

Just ask the folks in Blackpool and Birmingham.

Check out the highlights here

Waiving the flag

June 25, 2009

benny

Today is a good day.

The sky is a bit more blue, the air carries a hint of possibility and the birds are signing Better Than Ezra tunes.

Because today is the first day of a new era of American soccer.

If you’ve been reading my soccer blog, you know that the United States beat Spain, 2-0, yesterday at the Confederations Cup.

Now, my friends and readers cover the entire spectrum when it comes to the beautiful game.

I know people who read this space on a regular basis that refer to soccer as “a communist sport.” I know other people who, like me, are walking around channeling the Special One this morning:

“Shut up, Europe!”

No matter where you come down on the beautiful game, if you bleed red, white and blue, you’ve got to love what went down yesterday and, by extension, what’s happened to American soccer during the last  four days.

  • The impossible scenario that faced the U.S. on Sunday before its final group match with Egypt, a team that lost to mighty Brazil on a 93rd minute penalty and blanked Italy 1-0, was this: Beat the Pharaohs by at least three goals and hope for a matching result from Brazil over Italy. Somehow, someway it happened.
  • So, buoyed by the fact that they had escaped the group stages by overcoming long odds (9,000-to-1 was the English bookmakers’ line on the States advancing on Sunday morning), the Americans entered Wednesday’s game against the reigning European champions and current top-ranked team in the world, Spain, playing with the proverbial house money.
  • Still, playing free and easy wasn’t likely to be enough against a team that had gone 35 matches without a loss, including 15 straight victories. A team that features a laundry list of the world’s best players – Fernando Torres (Liverpool), David Villa (Valencia, for now), Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Carlos Puyol (Barcelona) and on and on. Let me put it this way. With the possible exceptions of Oguchi Onyewu and Landon Donovan, no American would see the field on that squad.
  • So, the odds were long again. But, despite being out-shot (11-4), having three times as many corner kicks (9-3) and absolutely dominating possession, the United States made the most of the chances it created by getting goals from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey in a stunning 2-0 win.

So what does it all mean?

Personally, I think a new day is dawning.

Our Gold Cup win over Brazil in 1998 was nice, but it came on our home soil in a game we really didn’t need to win. The victory over Portugal in the 2002 World Cup was great, but it happened in Asia (read: the middle of the night) and it didn’t really resonate with the public.

This one feels different.

The U.S. team had come under a great deal of scrutiny, and rightfully so, after some awful, low-effort performances against Italy and Brazil.

It’s as if a switch has been flipped, clueing the national team into something that some of its fans have been feeling for quite some time.

We want more.

It’s not enough to just show up in South Africa, get your three games of World Cup practice in and then go home and gear up for the Gold Cup.

We want heart. We want hustle. We want a burning desire to win every ball, get the uniform dirty and play hard for your country.

We got that yesterday.

And when something like that happens, it can transcend the boundaries of the normal sports fan.

Jim Rome, radio and TV host and known soccer hater, led his show yesterday by congratulating the U.S. team for its win. Even the biggest non-believers in soccer have to take their caps off to the red, white and blue today.

Soccer is not where I wish it was in this country. We are No. 14 in the latest FIFA World Rankings and if a team on either side of us on that list, Paraguay or the Czech Republic, did what we did yesterday, they’d still be dancing in the streets of Asuncion or Prague.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day and the roaring passion that burns for this game in Europe or South America can’t be fostered overnight.

But every fire that rages anywhere on this planet begins the same way.

With a spark.

Very much like the one that happened yesterday.

So, you don’t have to love soccer. But anytime a team sells out and shocks the world – for you, you’ve got to tip your cap.

And maybe someday, you’ll even stand up and cheer… 

They said it

“If you’re not ready to defend for your life against a team like Spain, then you’re in big trouble,” defender Jay Demerit said.

“It’s a big day for us and one of the biggest moments in our history,” defender Carlos Bocanegra said. “It’s hard to believe right now; it hasn’t really sunk in. There were a lot of acrobatic, sliding blocks. One guy would be sliding in to clear the shot away, and another guy would come in behind to clean it up. The defense was amazing, but it wasn’t just the defenders – the whole team worked the slam the door shut.”

“We knew we were going to have to defend for our lives,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “To pull off a shock win like this you have to defend like your life actually depends on it.”

The road to South Africa

September 11, 2008

I wrote the following this morning for 910rec.com…

We’re working on a soccer blog here at the Observer, and if it were finished, the following would go there.

Since it is not, I’m going to put it here. There are some soccer fans here, right?

Anyway, the U.S. men’s national team took another step toward qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with a 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago at Toyota Park in Chicago.

A quick side note: T&T will always hold a spot near and dear to my heart for providing me with one of the funnier moments I’ve ever had with my son. In the 2006 World Cup, the Soca Warriors were playing Sweden in a group game. Shaka Hislop was having the game of his life in goal, stopping missile after missile.

Meanwhile, my son was wandering by. Wanting to include him – and in an effort to get him to talk more – I said, “Ethan, say ‘Go Trinidad!’”

My son smiled and shot back, “Go Trin-i-mommy.”

What can I say? He’s a mama’s boy.

At any rate, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Brian Ching all found the back of the net for the red, white and blue and, with nine points in three games, we are virtual locks to reach the final six-team group of CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) qualifying.

That group will likely include Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and either T&T or Guatemala. The top three from that group will get automatic spots in the 32-team World Cup field while the fourth-place side will face the fifth-place team from South America for a place in the world’s most prestigious football, er, soccer tournament.

Bob Bradley, the coach of the men’s national team, is a polarizing figure. Some point to his solid overall record, Gold Cup success and ambitious scheduling and praise his work. Others gripe about his team choices and tactics while crying out for a foreign coach to shake things up.

Me? I come down somewhere in the middle. I love the fact that we played Argentina, England and Spain over the summer to prep for World Cup qualifying. I like it when we win the Gold Cup (CONCACAF’s championship tournament).

It doesn’t bother me when Bradley doesn’t call two of our best players, Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu, for these lower-lever games. Both are under 20 and both are trying to settle in and fight for places at new European clubs (Adu at Monaco and Altidore at Villareal). Getting those two first-team games in Europe is more important than having those guys run around in the dark in Cuba and Guatemala.

Seriously, can we send some stadium lights down there?

My issue with Bradley is more tactical. Last night’s 3-0 win was good. It’s also the kind of scoreline we should be getting on the road in this group. Michael Bradley, the coach’s son, is a gifted offensive player who scored 15 goals from his midfield spot in the Dutch league last season. For some reason, his dad seems set on playing him in a defensive midfield slot, just in front of the back four.

Landon Donovan is the most gifted soccer player in our history, but far too often Bradley sticks him on the right wing where he goes long stretches of game time without seeing the ball.

Ching, 30, and Eddie Lewis, 34, are not likely to make the World Cup roster in 2010. So why are they playing now? And why are they taking offensive positions that could be better occupied by guys like Kenny Cooper and maybe even Justin Mapp?

We are far too passive, especially on the road. Along with Mexico, we are the most talented team in this part of the world. We need to get forward and play like it. We are far too reliant on set pieces for goals, and winning matches 1-0 should be the fall-back option rather than the primary objective.

I’d love to see us duplicate our success from 2002 in Korea at the World Cup in 2010. I’m hoping the plan is to break Adu and Altidore in during the final group stage and break out a more daring, attacking system along the way.

Otherwise, we might have a breakdown like we did in 2006.

The future looks bright for U.S. soccer. Here’s hoping we take advanatage of the tools at our disposal.

Soccer for dummies

August 28, 2008

I hear it all the time.

“What? You like soccer? That’s a stupid sport.”

No, actually it isn’t.

It’s hard to pinpoint where my love for the game began. We didn’t play it at my high school in Marion, S.C., and I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it until I left college. Sure, I watched a few World Cups. But I treated that event kind of like I do the Olympics – love it while it’s here, then ignore for four years until its return.

But somewhere along the line, I got hooked. I think the Barclays Premier League is the primary reason. My passion for the game has since grown to Serie A, La Liga and, of course, international competitions. But it all started in the Prem.

And it can for you as well.

So here it is, a simple set of reasons to give the beautiful game a try…

1. The history – While the current version of the top flight level of English football dates back only to 1992, there has been a top level in place since 1888. Preston North End won the first of its two titles in 1889, and that club still exists today, playing in the Championship. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.

2. The rivalries – Think of the Prem as a league with haves and have-nots. Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea make up “The Big Four.” They are the richest, most powerful, most successful clubs in England. And they all hate each other.

There are five clubs in London playing in the Prem. They are Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham, Tottenham and Fulham. They don’t like each other either.

Manchester City plays in Manchester with Man U, Everton shares Liverpool with the Reds and Newcastle and Sunderland are about 10 miles apart. And, you guessed it, none of them care for each other. The point is that, every week for 10 months, chances are a game is being played that is either very important in the standings or very important as a rivalry. Usually, it’s both.

The passion runs deep. Man City chants “Munich” at games against City in reference to the Munich Air Disaster, a plane crash in 1958 that killed eight Man U players and 15 others.

3. The athletes – A subject of much debate in England is the fact that only 35 percent of the players in the Prem are, in fact, English. While that might not bode well for the fortunes of the English national team, it makes for some entertaining soccer. 

Some of the world’s best players – Cristiano Ronadlo (Man U), Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Fernando Torres (Liverpool) and Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal) – play in the Prem. That’s just a handful, which is why you end up with club teams with better lineups than most national sides. If you dropped the U.S. national team in England and put them in the Prem, they’d be lucky to crack the top 10.

4. Working for a living – The players are paid huge sums of money to kick a ball around, but they end up earning it. The average soccer field is 20 yards longer and usually about 30 yards wider than a football field. Players run for 90 minutes, stopping only for a 15-minute halftime break. You don’t have to worry about commercials, either, unless NBC is showing a match…

Unlike your average NBA or baseball game, there’s no dogging it, either. Every game is life and death. Why?

Glad you asked…

5. The relegation system – If you want to stay in the Premier League, cashing huge checks from TV distribution deals and such, you have to win. Because, if you don’t, you’re gone.

Every year, the bottom three teams fall out of the Prem and into the Championship – the next level down on the English Football Pyramid. This method is used pretty much everywhere in the world. Except, of course, for MLS here in the states…

With three teams going down, you get three more that come up. So, it’s possible for teams like Hull City to rise all the way up through the system and play in the Prem. This is the first time in their 104-year history that the Tigers have kicked a ball in anger in England’s top league.

To me, this is soccer’s greatest appeal. Can you imagine where the Knicks would be if this scenario played out in the NBA? It makes players care all the way through a 38-game schedule – not including the various cup competitions.

The games are on Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta Sports every weekend. Give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Dropping the ball

August 14, 2008

I’ve been slack with the posting this week.

Call it a trip down memory lane, where I’d post like three things a month and Bryan Hanks would e-mail me and bitterly complain about it.

Who knew his judgement would lead him to the pinnacle of his profession.

In Kinston, anyway.

But I digress. I’m sorry I’ve been slack. I’m staying up way too late at night watching 10-year-old Chinese gymnasts wipe the floor with us.

I’m hoping the boatload of track and field medals we’re going to win will help the United States overtake China in the medal count. The idea of being outdone by Communists really irks me.

Speaking of things that really irk me, Michael Orozco can drop off the face of the earth for all I care.

His elbow to a Nigerian player got him sent off in the fourth freaking minute in a do-or-die tie in the Olympics Wednesday.

We lost 2-1.

Hey, Mikey. I don’t care if he called your mom a slut. I don’t care if he called you a slut. Even if he accused you of being French, you don’t whack him with an elbow three feet from a referee.

Idiot.

It’s yet another reason that fans of the beautiful game (that’s soccer for my unwashed friends) in this country end up ignoring the MLS and whining about our national team.

We just don’t know how to play the game.

I just hope we can start figuring it out by the next World Cup (South Africa, maybe, in 2010).

An old tradition

August 6, 2008

It’s hard defending soccer in the U.S.

It’s even tougher to carry the banner for the world’s most popular sport in the Southeast, where football and baseball reign supreme.

And it’s mornings like this one that make the job even more difficult.

Now, I don’t get as wound up about the women’s national team as I do their male counterparts, but when we send a team to the Olympics, my heart still goes with them.

Coming out on the wrong end of a 2-0 tally against Norway in this morning’s opener made it skip a beat or two.

I know Abby Wambach, our best scorer, broke her leg a few weeks ago. That’s unfortunate.

But it’s no excuse for us to not only lose, but fail to score in a match in which we dominated the possession.

We can’t score on the big international stage – men or women.

My friend, Englishman and fellow soccer fan Greg Phillips, said, “well, that’s a fundamental problem, isn’t it?”

Well, yeah. It is.

The women were shut out, 4-0, against Brazil in the 2007 World Cup before rebounding to whip Norway, 4-1.

What a difference a year makes.

We do have a fundamental issue here with soccer in America. Our best athletes aren’t playing it on the international level.

Every good team has a handful of players that can take the ball past a defender and create something in a 1-on-1 situation. Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, England, France and Italy all have players who can put pressure on a defense.

We have tall people who can score on set pieces.

We need more flair, more creativity and more athleticsm.

And we need it now.

Thursday thoughts

May 22, 2008

Really enjoyed the Champions League final, even if it was 9 p.m. before I could finally get in front of a TV to watch it.

One complaint, though. ESPN put AC Milan winger Clarence Seedorf in the booth for the first half, and he was awful. He’s a nice guy who knows his stuff but it’s clear that English isn’t exactly his first language.

Picked up my first college football magazine today, Athlon Sports’ ACC Preview.

Here, let me save you $7:

Atlantic
1. Clemson
2. Wake Forest
3. Florida State
4. Maryland
5. Boston College
6. N.C. State
Coastal
1. Virginia Tech
2. North Carolina
3. Miami
4. Georgia Tech
5. Virginia
6. Duke
ACC Championship: Clemson over Virginia Tech

Now, I believe that Phil Steele’s College Football magazine is far and away the top choice for the serious college football fan. But Athlon is a strong second, and that’s from a guy who used to swear by Street and Smith’s.

Athlon has Florida picked at No. 1 nationally, followed by Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC and Georgia.

Me, I hate to make football predictions in May, but I see the ACC a little differently. I like:

Atlantic
1. Clemson (if the OL develops, watch out)
2. Florida State (year two with a modern offense)
3. Wake Forest (don’t ask me how, but Grobe gets it done)
4. N.C. State (much better in the second half of 2007)
5. Maryland (has the Fridge iced over in College Park?)
6. Boston College (So long, Matty Ice)
Coastal
1. Virginia Tech (loaded, as usual)
2. Miami (Randy Shannon’s rebuilding project rolls on)
T3. North Carolina (Getting better under Davis)
T3. Virginia (Maybe not as good on defense, but should be vastly improved on offense)
T5. Georgia Tech (Year one with the flexbone might not be pretty)
T5. Duke (Will be bad, but better than you think)

I’d like to believe that Clemson could beat Virginia Tech in an ACC title game, but I’d have a hard time predicting it to happen. Frank Beamer OWNS Clemson. His last loss to the Tigers was back in 1989.

I don’t think Florida will win the national championship. I think folks will be a little better at slowing down Tim Tebow this time around. They’ll be good, though.

Here’s my top 5:
1. Georgia (Could this be the year? Wow, the SEC is super strong)
2. Ohio State (Man, the Big 10 is weak)
3. Florida (Will finally slip up against the Dawgs in Jacksonville)
4. West Virginia (Life after Rodriguez will be just fine)
5. Missouri (A year older and wiser for a dynamic offense)

Disagree? Debate, discuss, dish…