World Cup USA ‘94: U.S. vs. Switzerland Redux

In which I revisit the U.S.’ first-ever World Cup match played in America

FIFA_World_Cup_1994_Logo

The U.S. men’s national team will be at Cowboys Stadium today to battle Honduras in the Gold Cup semifinals for which I bought tickets months ago.  I’ve been holding my breath ever since making the speculative ticket purchase, hoping the U.S. would make the semis so I could see them play live and now I can finally breathe easy.  The U.S. national team doesn’t make it to Dallas very often.  We’re not in a geographic/demographic area that is considered much of a home field advantage against many of our CONCACAF opponents.  In fact, the U.S. men haven’t played in Dallas since 2007, a 0-0 draw against Guatemala at FC Dallas Stadium.  I did not attend that game, though I can’t recall why I didn’t.

So, I haven’t actually been to a U.S. men’s national team match since their 1994 World Cup opener against Switzerland in the Silverdome in Detroit.  In anticipation of seeing the U.S. play tomorrow, I thought it would be fun to dig up my original VHS recording of the ’94 U.S./Switzerland match, a match I haven’t watched in its entirety since I was actually sitting in the Silverdome stands over 19 years ago.  I thought correctly – boy was it ever fun to revisit…

My first impression upon starting the tape (besides the fact that the recording quality has held up remarkably well for VHS) is that TV soccer coverage has come an unbelievably long way in the past two decades.  ABC didn’t have any sort of pre-game show.  They didn’t show the teams walk out onto the field or bother with national anthems.  Just an aerial shot of the Silverdome, a brief shot of a few U.S. players filing past the camera, then a cut to Jim McKay in the studio.  “Will it [World Cup ‘94] be a turning point, or just a footnote in the history of American sport?” asked McKay.  He briefly explained the bigness of the World Cup tournament before mentioning the U.S. team.  “For the Americans, their first match today against Switzerland is critical to their chances to advance.  They’re underdogs – maybe not quite as much as the 1980 U.S. hockey team, but pretty close.”

Pontiac-Silverdome-Switzerland-World-Cup-USA-_2383572

Following the extremely brief McKay intro, it was commercial time.  Remember, they didn’t want to waste a nanosecond of potential ad time since they were trying out the newfangled approach (new to America at least) of airing the actual match without commercial interruption.  I ate up all the vintage commercials.  Since the same ads from the tournament’s largest sponsors (Canon, Coca-Cola, FujiFilm, Gillette, GMC, MasterCard, McDonald’s, etc.) ran constantly throughout the tournament, I practically memorized them back in ’94.  Seeing many of them again was a nostalgic rush.  One of my favorites was the Deion Sanders Powerade ad:

“What’s the next thing, Deion?” asks a narrator.

Deion (to the camera):  “Soccer anyone?”

Skillful soccer play breaks out around Deion, but he can’t get the ball, so he finally intercepts it with his hands and takes off running.  The referee blows his whistle and produces a yellow card.  Deion snatches the card, grabs the ref’s pen and autographs the yellow card, flashing his grin at the camera and quipping, “Must be a fan.”

Deion takes a Powerade break with the goalkeeper, presumably because he’s the only player on the field Prime Time could relate to since they both use their hands.  After the rehydration, Deion sprints back onto the field, looking ready to abide by the laws of the game this time.  A long ball floats his way and he heads it.  Deion looks at the camera a final time and says, “I should’ve brought my helmet.”

Inside the sold-out Silverdome it was 92 degrees.  ABC’s commentators were Seamus Malin and Roger Twibell.  There were no onscreen lineups.  No bench shots.  No pregame sound bites from the coaches.  Just straight to kickoff.  Roger thanked the roll of sponsors for bringing the match to us commercial-free, then he explained that the clock in the upper left corner of the screen would count up to 45.  Yes, seriously.

Seconds into the match, U.S. center back Marcelo Balboa cleared a ball with an authoritative “sliding tackle” as Roger put it.  The tackle was pretty sweet.  Balboa’s mullet-to-end-all-mullets was even sweeter.  I had definitely forgotten about the epic-ness of Balboa’s mullet.  Alexi Lalas’ shaggy red mop looms larger in my memory, but seeing this footage reminded me that Balboa’s Billy Ray Cyrus-esque mullet was a force to be reckoned with.

balboa032013

Along those lines, how ‘bout goalkeeper and team captain Tony Meola with his Steven Seagal, Out for Justice, slicked-back ponytail?  Meola was the man.  He totally kept the U.S. in the match with his saves.  Can we just make him honorary all-time U.S. keeper?

54517

Finally, Roger got around to announcing the starters, though there was still no onscreen graphic to indicate anything like a formation.  The starting eleven were:  Meola, Kooiman, Lalas, Balboa, Caligiuri, Sorber, Ramos, Harkes, Dooley, Wynalda, and Stewart.

Three minutes in, Ernie Stewart was called offside.  Seamus explained for us how being offside works.  A minute later, he explained the back-pass to the goalkeeper rule.  Thank goodness for Seamus!

Ah, young Wynalda!  What a dude.  So good to see him in his prime again – fast, and unafraid to dribble at defenders.

The U.S. made a lot of painfully sloppy passes throughout the match.  Lots of good sportsmanship from both teams though, with plenty of handshakes and helping each other up.  It’s hard to stay mad at those neutral Swiss.

(27th minute)  Roger:  “And Seamus, if you accumulate two yellow cards in the game, you’re out.”

Seamus:  “That’s right.”

What?!  I thought those were for autographs.

One of the many quirks of the broadcast was the number of in-game interviews they sprinkled in.  A player would be involved with a play and they’d insert a little window with that player’s talking head expounding on everything from speed (Stewart), to goal celebrations (Wynalda), to dealing with distractions (Lalas).  I suppose it was ABC’s attempt to help us get acquainted with players who were at that time complete unknowns.

In the 39th minute, Dooley riskily tackled Switzerland’s best player, Alain Sutter, from behind and just outside the box.  Georges Bregy’s ensuing free kick sailed past Meola into the upper right corner for a goal.  Meola’s positioning wasn’t ideal – he left way too much open net to his left.  He’s still the man though.

Five minutes later, Harkes made a sharp penetrating run toward the middle of the field, beating two players before he was brought down several yards outside the top of the box.  Good ol’ Wynalda stepped up to take the free kick.  ABC almost missed him taking it (something they struggled with throughout the broadcast, lingering on replays while something new developed on-field).  He didn’t take a long run up, just a couple quick steps, then lofted a long, pin-point shot to the upper left corner that tucked in just under the crossbar.  Sweetness.

ERIC-WYNLANDA-Switzerland-World-Cup-USA-1994_2383576

During halftime, another commercial I’d forgotten about:  the Tab Ramos Snickers ad.  Over indoor shots of Tab dribbling, juggling, sprinting, and sweating heavily he says, “It’s all about concentration.  If I get hungry, I don’t leave.  I grab a Snickers.”

Medium close-up of Tab biting into a scrumptious Snickers bar.  Then…

“I hate practice.  But I love to win.”

ABC used odd, Kenny G-like music during their commercial bumpers.  I suppose the awkward music choice provided an appropriate segue to the most awkward studio pairing ever:  Jim McKay and former U.S. men’s national team player Desmond Armstrong.  The halftime “show” involved a blink-and-you-miss-it “analysis” of the first half Swiss and U.S. goals, followed by a promo for an upcoming “World Cup Fever” segment about the Italian/Irish rivalry in New York City.

My favorite commercial of World Cup ’94 came next.  It was the Adidas ad featuring an electric guitar rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” over clips of soccer-playing around the country, ending with the simple onscreen words:  Soccer Isn’t Coming to AmericaIt’s Already Here.

That’s what I’m talking about.

Back from commercial break, Jim & Desmond showed more impossibly brief highlights of the two opening day matches, including Jurgen Klinsmann scoring Germany’s goal in their 1-0 win over Bolivia at Soldier Field in Chicago.  The other match was a 2-2 draw between Spain and South Korea.  That was back when no one was really scared of Spain.

The second half was a lot more boring than I remembered.  Roy Wegerle replaced Wynalda in the 59th minute.  Roger said Wynalda was suffering from hives due to a possible allergic reaction to something he ate the day before.  Or perhaps it was a reaction to a vision of the future Wynalda had in which he had to share a broadcast booth with Gus Johnson.  Just kidding, Gus.

An hour into the match, ABC finally showed a bench shot of the Swiss head coach, one Roy Hodgson.  Yes, that Roy Hodgson.  Roy looked like he was breaking out in hives too, which may have been from the intense Silverdome heat, or a reaction to his own future-vision of managing England’s national team.

In the 64th minute Dooley should’ve won the match for the U.S.  After receiving a great through-ball from Ramos, he had a one-on-one with the Swiss keeper (albeit from a difficult angle), but he shot the ball straight at the keeper.

In the 81st minute a spry Cobi Jones replaced Ernie Stewart, but there was little Jones could do at that point.  The heat and humidity seemed to have sapped everyone.  The players looked like they were running in sand.

1994_display_image

And that was pretty much it.  An unforgettable experience being there in-person; a relatively forgettable one watching on TV nineteen years later.  ABC didn’t linger with post-match thoughts or interviews, not with U.S. Open golf coverage to get to.  They high-tailed it over to the golf, seemingly relieved to escape the awkwardness

“Will it be a turning point, or just a footnote in the history of American sport?”

Fortunately for American soccer fans, it turned out to be the former.

You can never have too much denim.

You can never have too much denim.

The Things We Do for Love

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

580428_10151620185138941_1319444931_n

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!

fed24e8e942b41faaf1ebc89aa0f3825.ashx

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.

1370665246000-AP-Jamaica-US-WCup-Soccer-1306080024_4_3_rx404_c534x401

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

Landon Donovan

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).

2013-04-06-jurgen-klinsmann-4_3_rx404_c534x401

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…

BBVA_Compass_Stadium_East_Facade

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.

rise_and_shine_the_jay_demerit_story

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.

CCA @ Dynamo 1

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

Brek+Shea+New+York+Red+Bulls+v+FC+Dallas+OeqsKiu54m5l

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.

scfc-tdld-jan13-brek-640-1-1226-630944_478x359

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

fc-chelsea

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!

article-0-169665AA000005DC-321_468x286

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…

Di Matteo Fired

Chelsea continues their boneheaded ways with managers…

I woke up this morning contemplating Chelsea’s recent awfulness and what, if anything, original could be said about it.  That led me to thoughts about Roberto Di Matteo, that maybe I’d write a little something in his defense since I was slightly surprised to hear commentators emphasizing how under fire he is after Chelsea’s poor Premier League form and Champions League struggles.  These were my pre-morning coffee thoughts, but then I flip on the ol’ internet machine and the first thing I see are the Di Matteo’s-been-fired headlines.  What?  Seriously?  What?

I’m actually shocked by the news that Di Matteo’s been given the boot.  I shouldn’t be of course, given Chelsea’s managerial revolving door the past few years, but I’m still kind of shocked.

Chelsea’s current performance problems are player-related and not Di Matteo’s fault.  The timing of this firing is very poor.  Who are they going to get to replace him at this point in the season?  Is another “caretaker” really a better idea than just sticking with Di Matteo for the rest of the season?  I don’t think so.  Managers have to do the best they can with the players they’re given.  Di Matteo has done that.  It’s not his fault that Torres can’t score, or even hold onto the ball for more than 0.5 seconds (and Chelsea’s woes aren’t solely Torres’ fault either – I can’t remember the last time the defense had a shutout).

By firing Di Matteo, Chelsea are seriously impeding their long-term progress and unnecessarily complicating this season’s quest for success.  A team’s fortune can change pretty quickly – if Chelsea had given Di Matteo just one more week, Chelsea could potentially beat Premier League leader Manchester City this Sunday, and qualify for the Champions League knockout stage with a win next week.  It’s hard to imagine them canning Roberto in those circumstances.  Alas, we’ll never know.  At some point Chelsea is going to have to learn real patience with managers or the club will be in a perpetual state of rebuilding.

What do you think of Di Matteo’s firing?

Dear Didier

A Special Invitation from Chelsea* to Drogba…

Dear Didier,

How’s life in China?  How’s the food?  The weather?  How’s your Chinese coming along?  Hope all is well.

Here’s the deal, Didier, we miss you at Stamford Bridge.  We really need you to come back.  Like this week.  I know we parted ways on great terms, with you having just won the Champions League for us and all.  If you were going to leave the club, it was the perfect time to do so.  We were all very understanding, but let’s face it, our Champions League-winning high clouded our judgment.  Now that we’ve had time to ponder… we think we made a big mistake.

Did you see our draw today against a very beatable Liverpool?  Their striker Suarez saved the day for them again – a lot like you used to for Chelsea.  We need a big time lethal striker again.  That’s where you come in.  We’ve got some great new guys this season we think you’ll really dig – guys like Hazard and Oscar.  They’ve been creating great ball movement with Mata, but the problem is they need a real strongman in the box to feed the ball to.  No one wreaks havoc in the box like you do.  We really miss your ability to hold the ball and invent crazy-angled shots out of nothing.  In case you’re wondering about Torres, well, we’re not exactly sure what to do about that yet.  But it probably involves selling him for as much cash as possible come January.  Look, Fernando’s a great guy and we wish him well, but he’s no Drogba.

Now we know you left Chelsea primarily because Shanghai-whatchamacallit offered you a bazillion dollars.  Very understandable.  We didn’t think we could match their bazillions.  But this week we found out we actually made a profit for the first time in something like a decade (thanks to the Champions League riches you helped us get), so, since we’re not used to operating in the black anyway, we thought we’d just give you all that excess profit if you come back.

By the way, in case it’s not all about money, you saw where Chelsea fans recently voted you one of the greatest Blues players in club history, right?  That’s pretty sweet.  The fans would welcome you back in a heartbeat.  Just sayin’.  We know you have a soft spot for Chelsea in that lion heart of yours, so we want to remind you that John Terry got knocked out of the Liverpool match today with a potentially season-ending injury, Lampard is still out with a calf thing, and we loaned Michael Essien to Real Madrid for reasons we’re still not entirely sure about (okay, we brought that last one on ourselves, but we’re just pointing out the dearth of Blues vets currently on hand).

Just in case you feel a little weird about the idea of coming back to Chelsea so soon after leaving, it’s not unprecedented.  Paul Scholes returned to Man U after retiring for a while last season.  Thierry Henry even went back to Arsenal on loan earlier this year.  It’s obviously not our first choice, but we’d settle for you returning to Chelsea on loan whenever the Chinese league’s over (sorry, we’re not sure when their season ends – until you went there we didn’t even know China had a pro league).  Whatever it takes, Didier, that’s what we’re saying.

Admit it, you miss the Premier League.  The high-pressure matches.  The packed, historic stadiums.  Cup finals.  Champions League nights around Europe.  Eccentric gazillionaire Russian owners.  Causing Sir Alex heartburn.  Democracy.

We don’t want to pressure you too much, but we have slipped from first to third in the table within a couple weeks, so we kind of need an answer ASAP.  Only you can help prevent one of the Manchesters winning the league again.  Chelsea’s fate is in your hands.  Okay, that may be overstating it a bit, but come on man you’re playing in China for goodness sakes!  No one watches Chinese soccer!

Come home, Didier, come home.  You know you want to.  We can have a jet there in a matter of hours.

Love,

Chelsea Football Club

 

P.S.  Say hello to Anelka for us.

 

*Unfortunately this letter does not represent an actual invitation from Chelsea Football Club to Didier Drogba.

Chelsea is Clicking

Chelsea topples Tottenham 4–2

So far this season I’ve enjoyed Chelsea’s undefeated run and top place in the table with fingers crossed behind my back.  Things have gone very well of course, but there have been a few shaky moments and based on the past two roller coaster seasons, I’ve kind of been waiting for the other shoe to drop for Chelsea, you know, like a multi-match losing streak and a late-season fight for the last Champions League spot.

After yesterday’s defeat of Tottenham at White Hart Lane however, I’m starting to believe.  I don’t want to jump to any conclusions – it is still very early in the season, and if nothing else Chelsea still has four Manchester (United and City) showdowns to contend with (those four matches alone could determine the title).  But Chelsea hasn’t looked this poised and confident since the last time they won the Premier League in 2009/2010.  They’re constantly a scoring threat and the defense, while still occasionally leaky is playing quite cohesively.  Cole and Ivanovic are even supplying regular attacking options down the wings.

Chelsea showed positive mental toughness in not only recovering from the second half Tottenham onslaught that put the Spurs up 2–1, but recovering with authority by scoring three second half goals.  I still miss Drogba in attack – he would add strength, aerial threat, and finishing power to a physically small offense.  To my surprise though, the Blues are getting the job done without him (and in spite of a still so-so Torres).

The new recruits, particularly Hazard and Oscar, are already clicking with the team.  I didn’t expect results this good so early in the season.  These new guys are still gelling with the team, so imagine where they could be in a few months as long as everyone stays healthy!

Chelsea is fun to watch again…

Any thoughts on the Blues’ win at Tottenham?  Feel free to share below!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 193 other followers