Monday, July 27, 2009

This Match Brought to You by Chlamydia

I was at the Underhill a week too early to see Charlton's youngsters ripped apart by the Bees, but just in time to watch Andrei Arshavin, Tomas Rosicky, Manuel Almunia, Mikael Silvestre, and new signing Thomas Vermaelen feature at a packed stadium in a match sponsored by Chlamydia screening. Perhaps not the best way to improve tourism in Barnet (or the local dating scene).

No matter. The football was great. And the quality of Arsenal's youngsters is insane. Nacer Barazite, the 19-year old man Dutchman, scored the goal of the match to start the second half (mobbed by teammates in the photo below).

Another 19-year old, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, former captain of the U-18 squad and Adebayor clone, was another impressive reservist featured during the second half.

Arsenal's supporters were also treated, in the first half, to runouts by two extremely talented 17-year olds, Englishman Jack Wilshire and Ghanaian Emmanuel Frimpong (both pictured below).

But the real treat for me was getting to see Andrei Arshavin up close. Physically, Arshavin is unimpressive, just slightly taller than me, with the same build (but far more fit). But in the run of the play, his anticipation and movement is unparalleled. Arshavin sees angles and lanes before anyone else can and is able to get himself substantial space. Throughout the first half, Arshavin lined up Barnet's center halves and spliced them apart. And I don't think it made much of a difference that the opposition was Barnet; I'm looking forward to catching the occasional fixture this season to see what he can pull off with a bit more experience in the EPL under his belt.

And yet, despite the quality of Arsenal's squad, Barnet played valiantly and thoroughly deserved the 2-2 result. The packed stadium filled with Arsenal supporters, designed for supporters that weigh no more than 10 stones, rang out in appreciative applause for Barnet's efforts at the end of the friendly.

Loved the experience, loved the match, loved the stadium, loved the supporters, love football tourism.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

GLO Premier League Fun

The couple of weeks out of country afforded yet more opportunities to continue my football tourism in Ghana. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Actually, check that, perhaps the appropriate term is "fortunately" as both fixtures I had hoped to intend were marred by ugly incidents that remain an integral part of a beautiful game in that country.

I flew into Accra too late to catch Hearts of Oak's third to last fixture of the season. Frustration with the squad's performance since the Eleven Wise tie boiled over at a match that led to another draw against an inferior side (Bechem Chelsea), and fans rushed the field after the game reportedly assaulting an assistant referee and sending him to the hospital.

I was in Agona-Swedru on Sunday, when the penultimate fixtures would be played, but could not sneak out to Swedru Sports Stadium to watch the Gamba All Blacks host Eleven Wise. Not that it mattered, as no one got to watch the match that day after it was postponed following "acts of violence" from Gamba's supporters which prevented Eleven Wise's players from entering the stadium half an hour before kickoff. The match was eventually played midweek, by which time I had no interest in going back to Swedru, even if the chance to watch a Ghanaian league team owned by a Japanese politician and run by a Korean front office was unlikely to present itself again.

In the end, after all matches were played, Hearts of Oak retained the season title because Kotoko floundered after going top before the final two games of the season. The All-Blacks were not, despite some promise given by an eventual victory over Sekondi a few days delayed, able to stave off relegation. However, since league titles in Ghana are won (and places in the top league lost) as much in court as they are on the pitch, this may yet still change despite the last game having been played.

Instead of seeing anything live, my total experience with football in the country on this trip involved watching a terribly boring friendly between Liverpool and St. Gallen at a bar, a replay of the far more entertaining Nigerian FA Cup match between the Port Harcourt Sharks and Eyimba, a bunch of shows on Kenyan and Zambian professional league soccer, and short glances of an academy match played on a dirt field that did not want for talent:

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Carrolls

I returned home from abroad recently having missed the Cubs' annual visit to the Nation's capital. Chicago swept the four game series, I did other things, and this may be the first year in a decade that I'll have not seen a Cubs game live during the season.

I am not troubled by the deprivation -- I doubt my daughter would like the sport in the first instance and I am none too eager to chase her around any baseball stadium. So, instead, I'll focus on soccer.

Last night, when most soccer fanatics in the region headed to M&T to watch Onyewu's AC Milan take on Shevchenko's (?) Chelsea, we went to an early evening game at Richard Montgomery High School between Real Maryland and Charlotte Eagles. Because of the start time (6 pm), the fact that Real Maryland has a more interesting exhibition match with Guatemala's C.S.D. Municipal tonight, and the alternative entertainment available on a Friday night in July, there were probably less than two hundred in the stands. In any event, the few number of fans in attendance was probably better for the team overall as only those few were treated to a horrible performance which featured Ryan Cordeiro being questioned for his sportsmanship repeatedly by overly-sensitive Charlotte Eagles players and the referee continually picking fights with Fabien Lewis.

On paper, Charlotte won the match 3-0. Watched live, the match was a mess, with a disturbing level of internal disagreement between and amongst the players and a referee who put in a performance that may have been biased but was clearly incompetent. Although I have seen this particular arbitro before and have been untroubled by his past performances, last night was a travesty. Certainly the amount of yapping from unhappy Real Maryland players did not help, but for most of the game, Charlotte's defensive strategy against corner kicks was simply to go down in the box and wait for the whistle, while, for all other parts of the match, the Eagles' players buried hard shoulders into the chests of their Real Maryland opponents without repercussion. On two separate incidents during the match, I watched, incredulously, as the referee whistled Real Maryland players for fouls without having actually seen what took place because he was not in position. All of this, of course, is expressed to excuse the fact that I finally began screaming at the ref late in the second half with a thirteen-month old in my arms. I, you see, had no other choice (who screams at referees in third-division US soccer matches?).

Setting aside the pathetic performance on the field, we had gone to the match partially because I had the bright idea of attempting to acquire autographs on a soccer ball of the Real Maryland players for the season, so that we would have a memento of my daughter's first season following the team. This was an even worse idea than going to the game. The players were not happy with the result and probably were less than thrilled with the turnout, so despite formal announcements that the players would make themselves available for autographs, they simply stalked off the field. To add to my general embarrassment of standing at the fence with a ball, a sharpie, and a toddler, I tried to call out to Gary Brooks for an autograph -- he was the last player on the pitch and our daughter had seen him play numerous times with Crystal Palace last season -- and was pointedly ignored.

But the soccer ball does have one autograph: Jeff Carroll's. One of the first matches that our daughter went to featured Jeff's brother Pat when DC United beat the Chicago Fire in the US Open Cup at the Soccerplex in Boyd's. I've met Jeff and Pat at past DC United events. And, yet, this time, when he was kind enough to take the moment to come over and sign the ball, he responded to my apology for the imposition by thanking us (quite genuinely) for coming out to see the game and apologizing for the performance. All I could muster was a weak, "Well, you played well...," in reply, but the truth was that I remain embarrassed for both Jeff and Pat. They seem to be nice people, they've always seemed to be nice people. They also seem to be talented at the sport, and elder brother Brian has carved out a place in Columbus. I can't imagine that they are thrilled about playing at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville and, still, they still put out great efforts every time their number is called. I hope that I'll get a chance to see them both play at a more fitting level next season.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


I spent the weekend in Chicago and, yet, for the first time in over a decade, I had no interest in trying to catch a Cubs game -- even when it would have allowed for my first trip to the Cell. Most of the rationale for the lack of enthusiasm is that the Cubs are just not interesting to watch. And it doesn't help that, with notable exceptions, the typical contemporary Chicago sportswriter is a douchebag. Phil Rogers' latest inflammatory piece on waiving Zambrano is typical of the condition of the city's press: an otherwise uninteresting writer takes a cheap shot at a player who has been a central part of the team's return to respectability and this is news. Yawn.

While I eschewed a trip to the southside, I hustled through work to catch a ride up to UMBC to watch Crystal Palace Baltimore host Real Maryland. The game was disappointing -- nine yellow cards were issued, capped by a petulant Ryan Cordeiro nearly killing his team by getting tossed two steps before crossing the touch line after being subbed out. After starting the year thinking that Crystal Palace had a chance at dominating the USL2 and Real Maryland would once again be stuck at the bottom, the tables have turned. Although they were tied on the league table (with RM having two games in hand over CP) Real Maryland looks to be a decent side and Crystal Palace is searching for an identity -- its frightening to imagine where they might be if not for Shin Harada.

Nevertheless, the game was fun, if only for Val Teixeira's colorful berating of a linesman ("You're a f**king wanker") and the good humor with which the official shrugged off the insult. Even if the game wasn't pretty, the talent level at the lower divisions is certainly improving (if only glacially). And for proof, look no further then tonight's results in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup. Major League Soccer teams won two of six games, with Columbus, Chicago, Chivas, and New England all being booted out by lower division teams. USL1 squads won two (Charleston and Rochester) and lost one. Minnesota was the unlucky USL1 team -- currently 1-7-4 in second division league play -- falling to Kansas City on penalty kicks after battling to a 3-3 tie. USL2 teams (Wilmington and Harrisburg City) were undefeated and Harrisburg City will move on to play DC United at the Soccerplex next Tuesday night. The last time these two teams met in the Cup, in 2007, the Islanders knocked United out of the tournament in the third round.

Two more third round games have yet to be played and the final two MLS teams left in the third round face difficult odds. Houston travels to Austin and Seattle to Portland in what should be highly entertaining games.

Last year, when DC United won the Open Cup, only three lower level teams made the quarterfinals (Charleston, Seattle, and Crystal Palace Baltimore), in 2005 only two teams went through to this stage (Rochester and Minnesota), and in 2006, no lower level teams made the quarterfinals. In 2007, only three MLS teams made the quarterfinals, so this isn't totally unprecedented, but it is still pretty amazing. Since MLS teams began playing in the Open Cup in 1996, a lower division team has won the tournament only once (Rochester in 1999), but there would appear to be a decent chance that this year's final will, like last year, feature at least one second or third division side (if not two).