"To be honest, without sounding too confident, it [the win] doesn't surprise me. We have a very good team. We hit the post twice. We missed two wide-open opportunities in front of the net. To be honest, it should have been 4-nil, and we were playing a man short."
-- Crystal Palace co-coach Jim Cherneski on his squad's upset win over the New York Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup Tuesday night.
Cherneski was being kind. Crystal Palace USA not only beat the New York Red Bulls, the team dominated their MLS opponent. By our humble accounting, the score could easily have been five to zero late in the second half. But before further treatment, a digression:
I had planned, for some time, that my daughter's first live sporting event would be D.C. United versus the LA Galaxy at RFK this last Sunday. We had 18 tickets for the match, greatly enjoyed last year's installment of the game, and believed that, once again, this game would be more pageantry than competition. Of course, plans frequently change, and a business trip out of the country scuttled these ones. Instead of watching D.C. United rip apart the star-studded Galaxy in yet another convincing home win, I was in Bangkok Sunday trying to figure out how to get to a local university to catch an 11 am match between Customs Department FC and the previous year's Thai Premier League champion, Chonburi FC. My efforts were pointless given a lack of familiarity with Thai language. The concierge at my hotel responded to my requests for help at organizing a trip to the stadium as if I was a lunatic. In broken english, the concierge stressed that I should limit myself to the Euro2008 final broadcast at 1:45 am Monday morning in my room and wondered why anyone would want to watch Thai clubs play soccer. This response coupled with better developed site-seeing plans for that morning were enough to dash my shallow dreams of attending the game and I missed Chonburi's one to nothing victory over the Customs Department.
The inability to get information (admittedly in English) sufficient to get myself to the appropriate place to watch the match was not expected. At first glance, Bangkok is, at least superficially, soccer mad. Walking down a street in Bangkok inevitably leads one past Thais rocking Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Real Madrid jerseys. On Sunday I was tastefully decked out in an FC Schalke 04 shirt (I was, after all, on a business trip) and stood on Silom Road late in the afternoon, mouth agape, while someone else in an FC Schalke 04 jersey passed me by on the street. The billboards on the Rama highways feature the stars of European soccer and Chang Beer's (Everton's kit sponsor) street ads feature three anonymous players engaged in soccer game movements. Throughout the city, boards were placed up in public areas offering a full and comprehensive recounting of the progress of Euro2008. Nevertheless, the citizenry does not appear to be all that fond of Thai soccer. Neither the Bangkok Post nor the Nation (again, two English language papers) breathed a word about the full slate of Thai Premier league games played over the weekend -- the first weekend of such fixtures after a long suspension of match games while the Thai national team burned out (horrifically -- in six matches, Thailand managed one draw and five losses) in the group stage trying to qualify for the World Cup. Simon Hill's very perceptive piece for FoxSoccer back in March helps to provide some perspective on the current state of Thai soccer and my brief experience in the country lends further credence to Mr. Hill's observations.
So, instead of being at RFK for the United-Galaxy game or at Kasem Bundit University for Customs Department-Chonburi, I settled for Spain-Germany on the television at 1:45 the next morning. Such is life.
With a return to the states scheduled for Tuesday morning, I became a bit obsessive about compensating for the missed opportunities for live soccer on Sunday. U.S. Open Cup matches in two different locales in Maryland offered some hope of satiating this ridiculous demand and, so, shortly after landing and catching a quick nap, we set out to Annapolis to see how Crystal Palace would manage against the better, meaner, more fit Red Bulls. The initial intention of the trip was largely as a lark -- two teams with more famous European versions (Red Bulls Salzburg and the hated Crystal Palace FC for the Coca Cola Championship) lining up on a high school field in Annapolis for a tournament even soccer fans in the United States ignore. We took our time in getting to Broadneck, an inevitable byproduct of bringing along a three week old infant, but were heartened to see that the home side had built up a one goal lead by the time we arrived.
Shortly after our arrival, Crystal Palace's captain Ibrahim Kante was shown a straight red (after having already received a yellow, thereby doing something one rarely witnesses by managing to effectively pick up three cards in the course of a game) and we waited for the inevitable let down as the Red Bulls' reserves took advantage of the overmatched 10 man squad from Crystal Palace. But that never happened. Ives running commentary provides probably the most in-depth coverage of the match, but the piece in no way reflects what actually happened (at least from our perspective) in the game. For example, Ives focuses principally on the Red Bulls' failings and appears to offer excuses ranging from the state of the stadium to the width of the pitch. What we saw was a Red Bulls squad get its ass handed to it by a faster, more committed side of pretty damn good players who were routinely and disastrously disrespected by what was, frankly, a less talented squad masquerading in the uniforms of an MLS team. Ives calls Matthew Mbuta a "decent" player. The "decent" wing player, however, ran roughshod over the Red Bulls' defensive player of the year through the entirety of the second half. Mbuta, who will apparently represent Cameroon in Beijing, was far and away the best player on the field. In the face of what was supposed to be a clearly superior team, Mbuta had no interest in backing down and added insult to injury with stepovers that beguiled and bedazzled Parke on numerous counterattacks. American University's Larry Mark was impressive on the other side of the midfield for Crystal Palace and towards the end of the game the Red Bulls had no answer for the marauding runs of Mark and Mbuta when New York's team predictably gave up possession on lazy passes or inept touches. We do, however, heartily agree with Mark's friends sitting behind us... you could have done better from nine yards out... but no one will hold it against you. CP Baltimore's keeper, Matt Nelson, who Ives' incorrectly refers to as Brian Rowland, had an almost unreal game where, with one notable exception, he kept himself in great position and showed amazing reaction time to the few chances that the Red Bulls created for themselves. A man down, the defensive work of Shintaro Harada (with hyperbolic, yet infectious enthusiasm) and former Addick (?) Paul Robson was more than competent -- both routinely frustrated the Red Bulls anemic attempts at attack and allowed Mbuta and Mark to flash out on looping, dangerous runs. Indeed, the whole of Crystal Palace's team looked to be fairly accomplished, fairly talented professional soccer players that perhaps have not had the fortune of the MLS stand-ins who blew a golden opportunity to prove their mettle.
The upshot was that our first Crystal Palace match could not have turned out better. At the end of the game, as we waited to leave, Nelson walked over to us to thank us for coming out and wave to our daughter and in so doing, I think, guaranteed that we'll be seeing them a few more times this year.
One more note: Ives waxes poetic about the performance of something called the Emperor's Supporters Club -- apparently a group of scores of Red Bulls "fans" that showed up in dribbles to cheer on a reasonable facsimile of their team -- and scornfully contrasts the praise for the ESC with condescension towards the supporters of Crystal Palace FC. The treatment is remarkable insofar as the ESC was pathetic. On one side of the field, a group perhaps sixty strong, sang inane ditties that would crack up Barra Brava or the Screaming Eagles, while on the other side, 1,500 enjoyed an absurdist romp on a high school pitch, while scores of children (equal to, by the by, the number of ESC members at the game) played their own soccer game in front of the metal stands. Crystal Palace USA supporters didn't sing and looked across the pitch at the ESC with slight amusement. The "You're Not Singing Over There" effort by the paltry number of Red Bull enthusiasts was more pitiable than remarkable. In short, the effort that the Red Bulls gave on the field was, by any objective assessment, fully equivalent to the effort expended by its supporters in the stands: the Red Bulls might be mistaken for an MLS team and the ESC might be mistaken for football supporters at first glance, but given time, both might have been better served by just staying home.