Welcome to the Total Football Cafe

My new website www.nathannipper.com is now live.  There you will also find my new soccer blog Total Football Cafe.  My blog content is moving permanently to the new site so I hope you will migrate there along with me and continue reading and posting your comments!

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How to Get Out of Work to Watch the U.S. v. Germany Game Tomorrow

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There is only one universally recognized diagnosable illness that can garner one an excused absence from work without a doctor’s note. That illness is of course, footballitis. As you can see from this Adidas ad circa World Cup 2002, it is an illness that affects one mentally and physically which means you’re going to be utterly useless at your workplace if you have it.

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No worker with footballitis can be expected to adequately concentrate on any task with a match as big as U.S. v. Germany going on. If you think you might have footballitis, the responsible thing to do is stay home from work tomorrow and watch U.S./Germany. It’s vital for your health; after all, there is no cure for footballitis. You can only hope to manage the symptoms and the only way to do that is to not do anything important like your job and just watch the U.S. play Germany.

Contemplating those affected by footballitis...

Contemplating those affected by footballitis…

So there you go, it’s simple: call in sick with footballitis tomorrow. Your employer will surely understand, and if they don’t, do you really want to be working at a place insensitive to the hazards of footballitis anyway?

Feel free to share your methods for coping with footballitis below…

And if you need a way to help pass the time until kickoff tomorrow, check out my brand new non-fiction book Dallas ‘Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer, now available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle e-book versions.

Red, White, and Bruised: How Will the U.S. Adjust to Altidore’s Absence?

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It wasn’t often pretty, but Team USA ended their World Cup losing streak against Ghana on Monday evening, thanks to substitute center back John Brooks’ unlikely 86th minute winning header goal off Graham Zusi’s corner kick. The U.S. limps away from the Ghana street fight battered and bloodied (literally), but with the vital three points that pundits have insisted for months is a prerequisite if the U.S. has a chance of advancing from Group G.

The U.S.’ dramatic win is tempered only by the slew of injuries they suffered: defender Matt Besler didn’t play the second half as a precaution because of a hamstring issue, Clint Dempsey likely broke his nose, Alejandro Bedoya left with a limp late in the second half, and most notably, Jozy Altidore’s hamstring strain which may sideline him for the rest of the tournament. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s on-the-fly adjustments worked out against Ghana, but additional changes to the starting 11 may be necessary for the U.S.’ clash against Portugal on Sunday.

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John Brooks worked in a pinch (sliding in at halftime for Matt Besler), and his winning goal certainly can’t be overlooked, but Brooks had some shaky moments trying to withstand the Ghanaian barrage. If Besler isn’t fit to start the match against Portugal, Omar Gonzalez may be the more conservative pick to partner with Geoff Cameron in central defense. Gonzalez has been dealing with his own knee issues however, so if he isn’t completely ready, Brooks will get the nod, as the U.S. has no other center back alternatives.

Alejandro Bedoya has been surprisingly dynamic for the U.S. in the run up to this World Cup and he put in a hard-working shift against Ghana, but if he is unable to start against Portugal, the U.S. has several capable midfield wing options in Graham Zusi, Mix Diskerud, or Brad Davis. If Bedoya’s unavailable, Zusi seems most likely to start with his crossing ability and defensive backtracking know-how.

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As for Dempsey’s apparent broken nose, he won’t get much sympathy from Klinsmann, who told reporters in his post-match press conference that he knows from breaking his own nose “three or four times” that Dempsey will be fine in a few days. Still, the injury seemed distracting to Dempsey who wasn’t the same threat post-injury that he demonstrated with his amazing first-minute goal against Ghana. A U.S. lineup without team captain Dempsey seems unthinkable; indeed, it will take more than a broken nose to keep Dempsey off the pitch.

Perhaps the biggest lineup conundrum for the U.S. then is how to move forward without striker Jozy Altidore. Aron Johansson is an exciting young player, who filled in capably when Altidore left the game, but Dempsey and Johansson were not tuned to the same frequency, and the U.S. doesn’t have another bench option at striker with physical strength comparable to Altidore’s. Certainly, Altidore’s injury makes the Landon Donovan omission all the more glaring. Chris Wondolowski may be a bit of a wildcard selection, but his superb movement and uncanny knack for being in the right spaces at the right time might prove a surprise foil for Portugal’s back line. While he is a very different striker than Altidore, Wondolowski is a pesky go-getter with a track record of scoring when Klinsmann calls on him.

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It was an exciting win for the U.S., but one that definitely came at a price as the match took much more out of the team than is ideal from a World Cup opener. Fans saw a lot of scrappy character in this U.S. side against Ghana, but with the injury setbacks, we’ll really find out what they’re made of when they face a chastised Portuguese team this Sunday.

On a side note, don’t forget to check out my brand new book Dallas ‘Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer which is now available on Amazon.com and on Amazon Europe sites!

Dallas ‘Til I Cry: Learning to Love Major League Soccer

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Those of you who used to periodically read this blog may have noticed the lack of new posts for many months.  I did not intend to neglect Red, White and Blues as much as I have, however, the neglect was for a good reason.  My writing energies over the last year were poured into completing my first non-fiction book, a soccer title, called Dallas ‘Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer.

“Euro Snob” is sometimes used to describe American soccer fans that generally ignore Major League Soccer in favor of the elite professional leagues of Europe. As a big Chelsea FC supporter, I was admittedly one of these Euro Snobs for several years. In 2013 however, feeling obligated as an American soccer fan to pay attention to my domestic league, I decided to try to become a fan of MLS by following it closely for the first time. My conduit for this MLS experiment was becoming a Season Ticket Holder for my local club, FC Dallas.

Dallas ‘Til I Cry: Learning to Love Major League Soccer chronicles my experience as I try to become a full-fledged supporter of FC Dallas and MLS overall. Part soccer fan memoir, part MLS critique, the book explores American soccer fandom in all its joys, agonies, and quirks. It’s an American twist on the kind of soccer fan passion reflected in books like Fever Pitch, Bloody Confused!, and 32 Programmes. Whether already a fan of MLS, cynical about the league, or a curious fan who simply enjoys narratives of soccer cultures around the world, I hope you’ll find Dallas ‘Til I Cry to be a funny, heart-warming examination of the much-maligned, resilient, and emergent Major League Soccer.

The book is now available to purchase on Amazon.com and will be available soon as an e-book for Kindle.  I will also be relaunching this soccer blog at http://www.nathannipper.com in the coming weeks.  Thank you very much for reading this blog over the years.  I appreciate your support and hope you will check out my new book as well as continue to read the new blog when it launches at nathannipper.com.

The Things We Do for Love

How I almost missed the dramatic U.S. victory over Jamaica

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I received an email from Stampede Sports, the name of the indoor soccer facility where I’ve played on a team the past couple years. It was an invitation to come watch the US v. Jamaica World Cup qualifier in Stampede’s bar area, creatively dubbed “The Corral”.  The email made the event sound very exciting, including that it would be the first gathering of the Southlake chapter of the mighty American Outlaws (the US men’s national team supporters group).  I’m certainly not in the habit of watching my soccer matches in pubs or bars, primarily because I don’t drink.  But in this case I perked up since all of the US’ away qualifiers are only televised on the be In Sports channel, which I don’t get on my cable package.

So, right after I read the kids a goodnight story I threw on my US jersey from World Cup 2010 (the one with the beauty pageant sash) and headed for Stampede Sports in Southlake (about a 20 minute drive).

I arrived at “The Corral” at 8:30, just in time for kickoff, but there was no soccer on the single big screen TV hanging above the bar.  The few patrons seemed oblivious to any imminent World Cup qualifier.  There were no American Outlaws in sight.

I found a flight of stairs.  Aha!  I wasn’t aware that Stampede had an upper bar area.  The gathering must be upstairs.  I jogged up the stairs, afraid that I’d miss an early surprise goal by Clint Dempsey or more likely a squandered chance by Jozy Altidore.  Alas, no one was upstairs and the sole TV was turned off.

I jogged back downstairs.  The bartender changed the channel… to a Texas Rangers game.  I nearly broke into a cold sweat.  Did I dream up this qualifier?  It was June 7th, right?  I checked my watch to verify.

I suddenly remembered there were a couple party rooms at the far end of the arena.  Duh!  Why hadn’t I thought of those in the first place?  Surely the big watch party was there.  I jogged down to the rooms only to find them completely empty, lights turned off, doors locked.  This was not cool.

Ten minutes of the match were already gone.  I jogged to the front desk and asked where the game was being shown.  The teenaged girl manning the desk barely looked up as she replied (as if it were no big deal), “Oh yeah, we’re not showing it.  We don’t have that channel.”

“We don’t have that channel”?  Don’t have that channel?  But what about the email invitation?  What about the American Outlaws?  Why was I the only one that seemed to care that there was a crucial World Cup qualifier in progress?  I could feel my pulse in my temples.  This was turning into one of those dreams I periodically have where I’m running all over trying to find something or someone and never succeed.

I jogged back to my car without a plan.  Where could I possibly watch this game?  If I were in Europe or South America I’d probably just have to drive a couple blocks and look for a crowd spilling out of a shop or café broadcasting the game.  But not in Southlake, Texas – the ultimate suburban oasis.  If I wanted a designer latte, fancy ice cream, to see a movie, or purchase an Apple product, I’d be in business.  But finding a place to watch US v. Jamaica here on short notice?  I might as well be in the Australian outback.

I thought about calling my friend Kristian, but I was pretty sure he didn’t get be In Sports either, plus he lived in Arlington which would be another 30 minute hike from Southlake.  I thought about my friend Jim (the former professional mascot) but it was getting late, he’s working on his doctoral thesis, and his wife is pregnant with their second child, so I didn’t really want to bother him.

I hopped in my car, started driving, and dialed up the only fake person I could think to turn to:  Siri.  I asked her for Buffalo Wild Wings locations in Bedford.  I hadn’t been to a BWW in probably a decade, but I remembered they have lots of TVs.  Surely one of them was tuned to US/Jamaica.  Siri zapped me a map in a flash.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the strip mall parking lot where I thought the Buffalo Wild Wings used to be.  It was gone.  Had Siri led me astray?  I checked her map again.  No.  I was wrong – the restaurant moved in the decade since I’d been there and was now on the other side of the freeway.  I checked the time, disheartened.  It was nearly halftime already.

As I drove to the Buffalo Wild Wings I refreshed the match score on my phone… the US had scored!  I whipped into the parking lot and could already see multiple TVs tuned to the game.  Yes!

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I asked to be seated outside on the patio because the night air was unusually pleasant for north Texas in June.  I got a table and a menu just as the players left the field for halftime.  As soon as I sat down, the only other groups using tables on the patio finished up and left and I was suddenly sitting outside, in the darkness, all alone, in my US jersey.

Though I’d already had dinner and wasn’t hungry, I felt obligated to order something.  But my wife Trevlyn had me on the caveman diet, so a soda was forbidden.  I gritted my teeth and ordered an unsweet tea.  I hoped Trevlyn would forgive me for the chips and salsa I also ordered (chips aren’t caveman diet approved either).

The waitress asked me if I’d like to have the sound turned on outside.  I certainly did.  Soon, I was kicked back with my own snack, two high-def TVs, with surround sound, and a cool breeze blowing.  Did it make up for missing the entire first half?  Probably not, but it wasn’t a bad consolation.

Still, it wasn’t quite the same without any fellow fans to cheer on the US with.  I called my brother Dan, who has started his extreme busy season as a summer camp director, in the off chance that he was actually getting to watch the game live.  He’d just started watching the recording so we couldn’t discuss the action or gripe about players in real time.  He said he couldn’t stay on the phone long because he didn’t want to read any spoilers in my tone, but we started talking about Star Trek Into Darkness and ended up on the phone ten more minutes anyway.

Into darkness is exactly where I and all other true US soccer fans plunged when a victory that seemed relatively in hand disappeared with a Jamaican equalizer in the 89th minute.  I blamed Graham Zusi.  The Sporting KC midfielder lazily mistimed his jump for a header against a Jamaican player who won the ball and might have raced past Zusi had Zusi not tripped him and earned a yellow card.  The match commentators commended Zusi for a “smart” foul, but I’m not convinced the play would’ve been much of a threat had he not fouled.  Jamaica lined up the resulting free kick within easy distance of the US box.  Sure enough, the ball floated in and Jamaica’s Jermaine Beckford easily waltzed through and headed the ball into the goal past a frozen Tim Howard.

All my effort scrambling around suburbia like an obsessed treasure hunter suddenly seemed madness.  Why did the US team constantly break my heart so?  Why can’t they finish out games when they have the lead?  Why did I have to be on this wretched caveman diet when I’m not even a caveman?

As I stewed and pouted into stoppage time, the US pushed the ball up field with semi-urgency.  They earned a corner kick.  Michael Bradley played it short to Zusi, who wisely returned it to Bradley.  Bradley turned sharply toward the end line trying to beat his Jamaican marker.  Bradley looked covered but he struck a pass anyway.  Brad Evans received Bradley’s pass with his back to goal, spun and ripped a desperate shot that zipped into the upper right corner past Jamaica’s Hulk of a keeper Donovan Ricketts.

I was dumbfounded.  This.  Never.  Happens.  To.  The.  US.

I suddenly wanted Brad Evans posters for my office.  I even contemplated not cheering against him next time Dallas plays Seattle.

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Sure, a draw wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but the away win provided the US with some welcome breathing room.

I paid my bill and walked to my car.  The restaurant seemed unusually empty for a Friday night.  What a match!  The whole spectrum of sports fan emotion, dejection to elation, in under five minutes.  America doesn’t know what it’s missing.

Klinsmann v. Donovan

Landon unwisely left out in the cold for upcoming U.S. games

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Last week, US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann released his roster for this month’s friendlies and the World Cup qualifiers in June.  The big brouhaha is his failure to include Landon Donovan on the list.

Though the team’s overhaul hasn’t materialized quite the way I hoped it would by now under Klinsmann’s guidance, I continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.  The team is a work in progress of course, but it is precisely because it’s a work in progress that it seems crazy to leave out Landon Donovan.  The team needs him during the course of figuring out the best starting eleven mix for the 2014 World Cup (and even after that’s figured out, it’s hard to imagine Donovan not being one of those starters).

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Is anyone on this latest roster – besides Clint Dempsey or perhaps Michael Bradley – currently a stronger overall player than Landon Donovan?  It’s hard to imagine Argentina leaving out Messi, or Portugal leaving out Ronaldo.  Yes, Donovan’s older than those superstars, but his leadership, stature, and quality are of parallel importance to the U.S.

I’m not sure the tension and controversy created by omitting Donovan is the kind of division you want to have when you’re about to enter the heart of World Cup qualifying.  What would’ve been the harm in putting Donovan on the roster?  It doesn’t mean you have to play him if you don’t think he’s up to par.  It seems there’s much more to lose by leaving him out.

If Donovan doesn’t make the roster later this summer for the Gold Cup, and the US makes it to the semifinals of that tournament (for which I have a ticket), I’m going to be an extremely disgruntled camper – along with a lot of other US soccer fans.

What do you think about Donovan getting left out?

Countdown to Derby Day

My trip to the heart of rival territory…

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The first week of March was exhausting.  My high school soccer team had a regional playoff game on Monday night, which we won, propelling us into the state final four in Houston the following weekend.  I spent the rest of the week leading up to our Thursday afternoon departure madly scrambling to arrange all the last-minute Houston trip details.

One of the main scheduling conundrums that needed solving was what to do with our 22-man team on Friday afternoon.  With our semifinal game scheduled for 9:00 Friday morning, we had quite the time to kill afterward.  I needed something fun and economical that wouldn’t completely sap their energy ahead of the state championship game on Saturday (assuming we won our semifinal of course).

I considered visiting the Johnson Space Center, but it is actually rather far from where we were staying in Houston.  After scuttling NASA, my natural inclination was something Houston Dynamo-related – despite the fact they are the sworn enemy of FC Dallas.  But what could we do?

I contacted the Dynamo’s Director of Soccer Operations, inquiring as politely as possible whether it would be possible for my team to attend a Dynamo training session if they had one Friday afternoon.  I suppose this would be akin to a Liverpool fan wanting to visit a Manchester United training session.  I did feel slightly traitor-ish since I’ve never arranged for my team to attend an FC Dallas training session, but these were unique circumstances, us making the final four in Houston and all.  At least that’s how I soothed my fan conscience.

Surprisingly, I actually heard back from the Soccer Operations guy that the Dynamo would be training Thursday and Friday morning at 10:00 AM and that we were welcome to attend either session.  My heart sank as my super cool (and cheap!) team outing would not be possible since we would be playing our semifinal Friday morning at 9:00.

The Dynamo training session bust led me to wonder if the club offered tours of their practically brand new BBVA Compass Stadium (it opened in 2012).  I called the number and talked to account executive Ken who was very enthusiastic about the prospects of arranging a tour for my team.  He got our request approved, called me back and just like that we were set for a 3:00 PM stadium tour on Friday.

I was excited.  Not only am I endeavoring to be a more faithful MLS supporter, but I also want to spur impressionable young men to support it as well, thus doing my part to influence future generations of American soccer fans.  Selfishly, I really wanted to find out if BBVA Compass Stadium is as cool as it looks on TV.

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On the nearly five hour drive from our school in suburban Dallas to Houston, I tried to inspire the team with a screening of Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story which I had recently purchased expressly for this trip.  While documentaries may not be everyone’s cup of tea (much less teenagers’) I thought this soccer-centric story would surely have widespread appeal.  The film may be sluggish in parts, but who wouldn’t be roused, perhaps even get a lump in the throat, when Demerit scores the winning goal that gained Watford promotion to the Premier League in 2006?  Well, apparently I am the only one so affected.  Every time I glanced around at my players on the bus during the film, no one was remotely paying attention.  Each was absorbed in his own digital devices and oversized headphones.  My inspirational/motivational attempt became the running joke of our state trip as I was the only one interested in watching Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story (and I had already seen it).

Friday morning we dispatched Houston St. Thomas Episcopal 4-0 in our semifinal, advancing to Saturday’s state championship game against Houston Cypress Christian.  Immediately following our game, the team shuttled over to another venue to watch our varsity girls’ team win their semifinal 1-0.  From there, both teams traveled to a deli that was supposed to accommodate our huge troupe for lunch.  After finally directing our charter bus driver (who mystifyingly did not have a GPS) to this very difficult-to-locate deli, we immediately discovered the deli had not been forthcoming on the phone about their ability to serve and seat our huge group (which included over forty players, plus coaches and several parents).  This deli was in fact a lunch counter inside a high-rise office building.  We had to find another restaurant capable of serving us in a timely manner, as it would have taken approximately 36 hours for everyone to eat had we stayed at the deli.  The deli owner was furious and gave my assistant coach an earful, but we really had no choice but to head elsewhere.

By then I was severely stressed as I could see no way we would make it to the stadium on time for our tour.  Strategizing at the alternative restaurant where we finally landed, I decided to call account executive Ken and see if there was any way to move our tour time to 4:00.  Ken could not have been more laid back and accommodating.  This in spite of the fact that the Dynamo brass had given Ken and the rest of the club’s staff the day off because of all the midnight oil they’d been burning in the weeks leading up to the MLS season opener.  Ken told me to give him a call when we were on our way to the stadium, that he would be passing the time playing FIFA ’13 at a buddy’s apartment directly across the street from the stadium.  Now I felt extra pressure – this guy was basically giving up his afternoon off to make this tour happen for us.

Houston traffic was the next hurdle on our BBVA Compass Stadium quest.  We inched along for an hour on Southwest Freeway 59.  I’m pretty sure Los Angeles has the only traffic I’ve experienced worse than Houston’s.  I had to call account executive Ken again to explain our lateness.  He still seemed cucumber-cool, assuring me he had no problem playing FIFA while he waited.  Ken’s FIFA fun wasn’t quite enough to assuage my stress over our lateness though.

Finally, at 4:45 PM we pulled alongside the stadium.  The team universally proclaimed the structure’s coolness.  I wholeheartedly concurred.  My first thought was disdain at how much the exterior aesthetics of the Dynamo’s stadium trumped FC Dallas’.  From the outside BBVA Compass Stadium looks like it was constructed by and for NASA, all silver and sleek and airy.  From the outside, FC Dallas Stadium looks like part of a nice strip mall.

Ken met us outside the stadium, checked us in with security, and led us straight into the lower level inner ring tunnel.  He explained straight away that we unfortunately wouldn’t be able to visit the Dynamo locker room, that not even he had ever been that far inside the inner sanctum.  That roused my suspicions that ridiculously successful Dynamo Head Coach Dominic Kinnear has a vault of secrets in there.

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Our first tour stop was the players’ tunnel leading to the pitch.  Ken led us down the ramp to the edge of the pitch right behind one of the goals.  We were allowed to step to the edge of the grass, but no further.  The Dynamo are apparently extra finicky about their pitch.  Ken said he’s only been on the pitch once, during last year’s staff Christmas party when they played an inter-office staff match.  From field level the empty stadium is awesome – a truly soccer specific venue.  I’ve never been in a stadium so large that feels so intimate.  Though it seats 22,000, the seats on the top row feel remarkably close to the pitch.

That's me enjoying the view from field level.

That’s me enjoying the view from field level.

Ken proudly moved us through various sections of the stadium – the south party deck available for corporate rentals, the premium season ticket holder sections featuring leather seats with hand-stitched Houston Dynamo monograms, and finally the President’s Club interior lounge overlooking midfield.  Stunning.

The lateness of our arrival unfortunately meant limiting our tour to half an hour.  Ken would have let us stay longer, but we had a dinner reservation to get to and considering the traffic, we wanted to eat before midnight.  As Ken led us back out of the stadium, we passed the Dynamo team shop, which surprisingly wasn’t much larger than FC Dallas’ shoe box-sized shop.  One of our team captains asked Ken, “Everyone gets a free jersey, right?”  Ken assured him that not even he gets a free jersey as a Dynamo employee.  I guess you have to pay for that awesome space-aged stadium somehow.

As I forked over the cash for our tour (the admission included a match ticket, but since none of us reside in Houston we opted to donate our tickets to a local charity) and thanked Ken for his helpfulness, he informed me he would be at FC Dallas with the rest of the Dynamo front office staff for the big FC Dallas v. Dynamo Derby match on Sunday, March 17.  I said I’d look for him there.  We shook hands, our eyes narrowing as our grip tightened and the rivalry vibes took over… in my mind at least.  He hasn’t been to FC Dallas Stadium before and I felt like apologizing for our home ground relative to the Dynamo’s awesome environs, but caught myself.  What would I apologize for?  So what if the Dynamo have a sweet stadium?  That doesn’t make me like their team any better.  I hope Ken has as pleasant an experience at our stadium as we had at theirs – right up until game time at least.  Then I hope it’s a sad, sad day for Dynamo fans.

On Saturday, after a fierce 0-0 first half, we finally breached the goal and never looked back, defeating Houston Cypress Christian 4-0 for our school’s first-ever varsity boys soccer state championship.  It must have been that inspiring Dynamo stadium tour – either that or Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story.

I'm the exhausted-looking coach on the far left.

(I’m the exhausted-looking coach on the far left.)

Shea it ain’t so, Brek!

Brek Shea will be missed in Dallas

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Brek Shea has been the face of FC Dallas the past two seasons, but now he plays for Stoke City.  I’m glad for Shea.  It’s always good to see American players get a shot in the perceived top league in the world.  But since I just bought an FC Dallas season ticket a few weeks ago, this is not welcome news.

I first saw Shea play in person in 2010, the season he made his first professional start and really came into his own for FC Dallas.  He almost immediately caught my eye as a special player.  It wasn’t just the flashy shock of ultra blonde hair.  He hustled his tail off and wasn’t afraid to run with the ball at opponents.  He had height, strength, speed, and all-important feistiness.  He could scoot around the edges and get passes across the box or get shots off when other players would have lost possession.  He spent that 2010 season under the radar and I shared FC Dallas fans’ pride of recognizing potential that the wider world hadn’t fully noticed yet.  I even called my younger brother and soccer confidant Dan to tell him about this Brek Shea and how he could be on the national team someday.

Shea and FC Dallas made it to their first and only MLS Cup Final in 2010 where they lost to Colorado.  By the start of 2011, the cat was out of the bag with Shea and opponents started marking him tightly.  It was a tougher season for him (and FC Dallas), yet he was still a standout and a finalist for the league’s MVP.  Buzz began building about him.  In the offseason, he got to train for a few weeks at Arsenal.  FC Dallas wisely signed him on through 2015.  By the start of last season, the media spotlight on Shea was blinding.  Even in Dallas he was becoming a household name (okay, still mostly just among us soccer nerds).  US National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann jumped on board the Brek train too, granting Shea several consecutive caps.

Then the 2012 MLS season got under way and Shea fizzled on field.  A turf toe injury sidelined him for several weeks.  I actually observed him up close as he was nearing recovery from that injury when he participated in a demonstration drill run by FC Dallas Head Coach Schellas Hyndman at Hyndman’s annual clinic for local coaches.  I was impressed and surprised that Shea turned up for the demo – something he certainly wasn’t obligated to do on such a hot May afternoon.  The demo was a mix of academy players and FC Dallas reserve players, but Shea played as hard as if he were trying to earn a starting spot.  Afterwards he affably hung around to chat with coaches and pose for photos.  He certainly didn’t appear too overwhelmed by stardom that day.

Shea continued struggling with injuries throughout 2012, but even when he was in the lineup he couldn’t recover his near-MVP form from 2011.  Fans grumbled impatiently.  Brek and Hyndman got into a spat on NBC when Hyndman benched him late during a contentious match at San Jose.  Shea the wonder boy suddenly seemed mentally and physically drained.

Now it looks like the business side of soccer has reared its necessary and sometimes ugly head with Dallas apparently eager to cash in on Stoke City’s interest in the 22-year-old Shea.  Shea was a rare rising star for Dallas, a real potential franchise player.  I had a feeling it would just be a matter of time before a bigger club snatched him up – Dallas is too small a club to retain stars for very long.  The only real surprise is why now?  Shea had such a dismal 2012 MLS season that I was confident he would be in Dallas at least through 2013.  I was really looking forward to this being a comeback season for Brek.

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I should have been suspicious when Zach Loyd began featuring a bit more than Shea in FC Dallas’ promotional efforts toward the end of last season.  Considering that and the rift between Hyndman and Shea, the writing has likely been on the wall for several months.  I wish Dallas would splash the Stoke cash they get for Shea on a replacement star, someone for season ticket holders like myself to get jazzed about.  But I won’t hold my breath.

It’s a catch-22 for American soccer fans when deals like this come along.  On one hand, you want to see U.S. players get opportunities in the world’s top league – it’s great for their development, enhances our national team, and improves American soccer’s reputation.  On the other hand it highlights where MLS falls in the pecking order of the world’s soccer leagues.  It seems difficult enough (particularly in a market like Dallas) to get fans to support MLS teams that actually have an American star or two, much less when those stars get shipped to more prestigious European leagues.

I wish Shea all the best at Stoke City.  This FC Dallas fan will definitely miss him.

Your thoughts on Shea’s transfer to Stoke City?

Happy Blue Year

The January transfer window is open and Chelsea changes are afoot

Rah, rah, sis boom Ba!

Rah, rah, sis boom Ba!

Chelsea’s post-Club World Cup recovery was going great with a League Cup victory against Leeds, followed by three successive EPL wins over Aston Villa, Norwich, and Everton.  Plenty for fans to be enthused about over the Christmas holiday.  All that came to a frustratingly screeching halt Wednesday with the 1-0 home loss to QPR – who just happen to be the worst team in the league.  Simply unbelievable.  The slim hope of catching up to Manchester United by season’s end has all but vanished now.  It will be a dogfight just to qualify for the Champions League.

The QPR loss confirms that Chelsea is not an elite team right now.  There are currently only two elite teams in the EPL and they’re both located in Manchester.  The Manchesters repeatedly demonstrate their knack for winning games they should win, as well as clawing their way back into games when they’re not performing at their best.  They always seem to find additional goals, even when they’re letting goals in themselves.  Chelsea has not shown the same ability this season.

A team’s fortunes don’t rest entirely on one player of course, but Man U does have the remarkably reliable Robin Van Persie at striker, and Man City has the similarly prolific Edin Dzeko.  Chelsea has Fernando Torres.  Yeah.  I know Torres has scored much more this season, but would anyone really put him in the same league as Van Persie and Dzeko right now?  Well, Chelsea may be about to get a lift in that department…

Today Chelsea made it official that Demba Ba is joining the club from Newcastle.  Now that the remote possibility of Didier Drogba joining the team on loan from China seems to have vanished, the arrival of Senegalese striker Ba is great news for Chelsea fans.  If his Newcastle stint is any indication, he will be a physical handful in the box for opponents – something Chelsea has desperately missed since Drogba’s departure.  For all the deft, speedy skill of Hazard, Mata, and Oscar, they are small guys who frequently get muscled off the ball, so having Ba’s strength and nose for goal will be a welcome addition to the offensive mix.

The only things tempering my enthusiasm over Ba are his past knee-injury struggles and the fact that he’s 27-years-old.  I’m not saying 27 is old, I just wish Chelsea would find an elite under-the-radar striker at the beginning of his career rather than splashing mid-season cash for perhaps final-third-of-their-career guys.  I thought they had done that with young Lukaku last season, but they let him languish on the bench before loaning him to West Brom for this season.  Still, getting Ba was much more economical than the rumored move for Atletico Madrid’s Falcao.  Overall, I’m quite glad Ba is a Blue.  Having lived in Senegal for five years as a youngster, I always root for Senegalese players.  Hopefully Ba will accelerate his scoring prowess for Chelsea over the next few seasons.

On the flip side of the January transfer window fun, new arrivals usually mean departures as well.  Daniel Sturridge moved to Liverpool this week.  I like Sturridge and think he has a lot of potential that was never fully explored at Chelsea.  He deserved a lot more playing time this season in place of the bland Torres.  I wish him the best at LFC.

Seriously, who would let this guy go?

Seriously, who would let this guy go?

The other big name in Blues news this week is one of my favorite Chelsea players (isn’t he everyone’s?):  Frank Lampard.  It seems unthinkable that Chelsea would even consider letting this legend go and yet that seems to be what’s happening.  Lampard’s contract is up at the end of this season and Chelsea doesn’t seem eager to re-sign him.  I don’t understand this.  Lampard is beloved by fans, a leader on the field, and still produces goals at the highest level.  Just look at Scholes and Giggs at Man U – guys older than Lampard who still contribute.  Lamps has a few more seasons in him and Chelsea should allow him to end his career as a Blue.  He has certainly earned it.

What do you think of Chelsea’s transfer window action so far?

Christmastime at Chelsea

It’s been quite a month for the Blues

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My how much can change at the ol’ Chelsea Football Club in such a short amount of time!  You go a month without blogging about the Blues and look what happens.  Benitez becomes the new coach…  Fans repeatedly boo Benitez…  Chelsea gets bounced from the Champs League…  Chelsea gets bounced from the Club World Cup… Torres struggles at striker…  wait, that last one’s no different from any other of the nearly 24 months since Fernando became a Chelsean.  Anyways, very eventful weeks since I last updated this blog.

"See, you must pass it directly to his feet.  Even then, it's iffy..."

“See, you must pass it directly to his feet. Even then, it’s iffy…”

My soccer-coaching season is in full swing and life has been hectic, so that’s my excuse for the silence on all the upheaval at CFC – that, and the fact that I’m still disappointed by the Di Matteo canning.  The coaching carousel at Chelsea has become so absurd that you really just have to throw up your “whatever!” hands.  I guess if you buy a pro soccer club with your bazillions, you can do whatever you want with your club, even firing beloved managers.

Getting rid of Di Matteo was dumb, and Chelsea fans’ negative reaction to Benitez’s arrival has been humorous, but in the spirit of Christmas, it’s probably time to get o’er it, stop badgering Benitez, and get back to cheering on the Blue boys.  After all, they’ve got Europa League to play for, and Capital One Cup!  Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but it’s just because I’m so disappointed that Chelsea’s out of the Champs League.  I haven’t even checked this week’s draw for the knockout round because it’s just not the same without the Blues.  The day Chelsea got eliminated (thanks to Shakhtar’s sudden, complete soccer ineptitude – at home no less!), a package actually arrived at my house containing Kings of Europe, the Chelsea Champs League-winning commemorative hardcover book I’d ordered for my birthday.  I was left thumbing through the pages with the hollow knowledge that Chelsea are the first Champs League champs in history not to make the knockout round the following season.  The book is terrific by the way and would make a great last-minute Christmas gift for that special Chelsea fan in your life.  But it’s kind of a sad gift now, what with all the full-color pics of Di Matteo and Drogba celebrating with the big-eared trophy.  Sniff, sniff.  There are even some shots of Michael Essien.  I miss those guys.  In today’s soccer world, it sure doesn’t take long to seriously alter a team’s identity!

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On the plus side, Chelsea is still a good team.  The new guys are doing well:  Hazard, Oscar, Moses.  Lamps is back from injury.  And who knows, maybe the lack of Champs League travel and distraction will help Chelsea claw their way back into Premier League title contention.  Here’s hoping anyway.

Merry Christmas to all and thanks for reading this year!

Thoughts on Chelsea’s busy month?  Feel free to share below…

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