Sunday, December 26, 2010

Welcome Back

One of the first posts I wrote for this now three year exercise in ego fulfillment lamented the departure of Chris Harris from the Chicago Bears in the season after their last Super Bowl run.

At the time, it seemed like Bears fans were destined to remember Harris as the guy who picked off Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl and was then jettisoned to Carolina in favor of the woeful Adam Archuleta.

Now, four seasons later, Chris Harris has come home. And, as Lance Briggs pointed out today, he never should have left.

If Harris was under-appreciated for playing well above expectations as a sixth-round draft pick from the University of Louisiana-Monroe in his first run with the Bears, he is even more underrated now. But in the last two weeks, Harris has effectively ended both Bears' wins with interceptions.

Harris's five picks this year are a career high for the safety (and, oh by the way, one more than Archuleta managed in a seven year career). Those five interceptions lead the Bears' team this season and are also the most from a Bears' safety since Mike Brown picked five in 2001. If Harris can add to that total next week against Aaron Rodgers and the Pack, he will have intercepted more passes in a single season than any Bear safety in twenty years, dating back to Mark Carrier's incredible rookie campaign when he picked off ten passes straight out of U.S.C. in 1990.

Harris was also credited with 11 tackles in this afternoon's surprisingly offensive affair. With 65 tackles on the season, Harris exceeded his Bears' career single season totals in 2005 (58) and 2009 (54).

That's an impressive homecoming for a guy who has generally been an afterthought in a defense that has (appropriately) hyped Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Peanut Tillman, Tommie Harris, and now Julius Peppers.

At the time that Chris Harris left, I faulted Lovie Smith for ridding the team of both Ron Rivera and a solid contributor in a stout defense. Whether that was accurate (or whether the call was made principally by Jerry Angelo), all that matters now is that Smith (and Angelo) welcomed Harris back to the fold and the Bears are better off for it.

I'm still not sold on the team -- they are as unsettling as the 11-5 Bears squad that got bounced from the playoffs at home by the Panthers in 2005 (while I sat in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore listening to the game and banging my head against the wall for getting too excited about their chances) -- but they are fun to cheer for. As good as Briggs, Urlacher, Peanut, and Pepper have been, Israel Idonjije is tied for the team lead with Peppers for sacks (8), Tim Jennings is sixth on the team in tackles (52), and the fifth member of Team Vanderbilt, D.J. Moore, has stepped up and played well in his second season in the Bears' secondary.

There are, along with Chris Harris, a number of players on the Bears' defensive side that are quietly distinguishing themselves with their play. But even acknowledging those important contributions, in a season where Briggs and Urlacher have cemented their places in the pantheon of all-time great Bears' linebackers, I think Harris has -- after an unfortunate detour -- begun to merit discussion (albeit premature) as one of the franchises' better safeties.

Harris may be gone again after the 2011 season, as the club's restructuring of the five-year contract extension he received from the Panthers back in 2008 was shortened to a four-year deal when the Bears traded Jamar Williams to get Harris back this off season (Williams has had a miserable season with the Panthers managing all of two tackles before being put on injured reserve). With Harris up for a new contract in 2012 and Major Wright being groomed to be a mainstay in the secondary, it would not be surprising to see the Bears let Harris walk again.

But 2012 is a long way away. Right now, Chris Harris is a Chicago Bear and is reminding us that in three seasons with the team, Chicago has gone to the playoffs all three times.

Friday, December 24, 2010


On Wednesday evening, I found myself practically skipping across town to the Verizon Center for the first of the Bulls' two visits to Washington D.C. this season. The thought "I get to see Derrick Rose" kept running through my head.

In over ten years of going to see the Bulls' play here, I cannot recall being as excited about seeing a player live. In fact, my expectations were so high that every time Rose beat someone off the dribble and cut to the room I gasped audibly -- even though the play was, in context, pedestrian. In retrospect, Rose did not do anything in Wednesday's game that terribly extraordinary (he didn't need to), but that fact does not detract from the experience of watching him and knowing that at any moment he is capable of a breathtaking play.

Because of the weird nature of sports in the nation's capital -- where tickets to events are bought extensively as chits for political influence -- I am usually able to get inexpensive tickets near the court for most Wizards games. Although it is nice to be close to the action, it lacks in atmosphere as few interested fans seem to have seats in these areas and most of the surrounding conversation is about work rather than the event that brought people to the stadium in the first place.

Until Wednesday, getting cheap regular season tickets to see the Bulls play the Wiz has not been difficult. No longer. In result, we sat a bit higher in the 100 sections and, for the first time in some while, found ourselves surrounded by honest-to-gosh genuine Wizards fans. Passionate fans that were immediately annoyed about our cheering for the Bulls in pre-game introductions.

I ended up enjoying being around knowledgeable fans who were extremely proud to be season ticket holders of a team that is hard to love. Because of their earnest interest in their team, our support for the Bulls was far more muted than it has been in previous visits. Sitting on my hands when Carlos Boozer took over the game seemed a bit like stifling our reactions to Scott Carson's penalty save when sitting amongst other tourists as Charlton visited Stamford Bridge.

My principal take away from the game is that my initial read of the team has been confirmed -- they are pretty good and probably the best constructed Bulls team in the post-Jordan/Pippen era. Most of the Bulls struggled on Wednesday, Luol Deng had a pretty poor game, Rose seemed tired, Bogans and Brewer made limited contributions, and Kyle Korver was off. Nevertheless, the Bulls won against a struggling team because of Boozer's ability to score in the post and Kurt Thomas's ability to manipulate some awful refereeing.

My secondary take away is that I would not want to Andray Blatche. I had also gone to see the Wizards on Monday night when the Bobcats visited -- tickets were unbelievably inexpensive and I was interested in seeing Tyrus Thomas again. The game was a disaster. Down just five at the end of a dire second quarter, the Bobcats got whupped in the third quarter as Charlotte largely gave up. And not just the players on the court (watching Stephen Jackson lose the ball on multiple ill-conceived isolation offensive drives was painful), but Larry Brown as well. Coach Brown made, I think, two subs during the whole of the third quarter as the Wizards' lead grew from five to thirty points and one of those substitutions was necessitated by Nazer Mohammed's ejection from the game.

Nevertheless, despite comfortably cruising to just their sixth win in 26 games (and breaking a seven game losing streak), the Wizards' faithful booed Kwame Brown mercilessly and, inexplicably, began riding Blatche and Lester Hudson for innocuous errors in the second half as well. I was surprised by the negativity of response, but even that did not prepare me for the fans' hostility to Blatche on Wednesday.

Everyone in our section expressed a disdain for Blatche in visceral terms in casual conversation and showed no restraint in also loudly voicing their opinions -- one grandmother two rows in front of us who had previously been beaming while showing off pictures of her grandkids shouted "You Suck!" at Blatche after he committed another turnover in the second half.

There is no dispute that Blatche had a bad game, but I could not understand the booing. The attacks from his own fans clearly unnerved Blatche. You could seem him put his head down and try and prove his worth -- only to make a mistake, elicit more boos, and hang his head further. And his poor play was not due to a lack of effort. Indeed, on the heels of a pathetic display of professionalism by the Bobcats on Monday night, Blatche's dogged efforts should have won grudging recognition.

But that is clearly not the fans' collective take. In what appears to be a widely-held sentiment, Blatche is the object of the fans' ire and, as such, the better question is why Flip Saunders continues to trot him out to get abused.

The Wizards should have won the game on Wednesday night. In fact, I had resigned myself to such a result given how poorly most of the Bulls were playing, the ridiculous refereeing decisions (working to the detriment of both sides), and Boozer picking up his fifth foul with seven minutes of regulation left. But Saunders kept Blatche in and this seemed to work to keep the fans largely out of the game, while also effectively limiting the Wizards to four competent players on the court.

In the end, I left the stadium even more buoyant than when I came in. The Bulls' visits here are now an event. And I can think of no better measure for the success of the front office in building a competitive team than that.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It's Been Fun

The Azkals improbable run in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup ended today with a semifinal loss of 2-0 on aggregate to Indonesia.

As I followed match updates beginning at seven a.m. this morning on the Suzuki Cup's website and through Ricky Olivares (Bleacher's Brew) twitter feed, the fact that I was now on pins and needles about a football match in Asia involving the Philippines continued to amaze me. Whatever the Azkals achieved on the pitch was surpassed by the cultural and historical significance of getting Filipinos around the world interested in the national football team.

Although I've read a few critical opinions questioning whether a team filled with players from outside the Philippines' national borders merits widespread adulation, this appears to be a minority viewpoint. And for the few detractors who voice such a complaint, it is worth emphasizing that the two goals that knocked the Philippines out of the Suzuki Cup were scored by the erstwhile Uruguayan, Cristian Gonzales ("El Loco"), who was given an Indonesian passport on November 3rd. This observation is not intended to imply that Indonesia was somehow skirting rules -- although not Indonesian by blood, Gonzales has lived for a considerable time in the county and has built a life for himself on the islands indistinguishable from other Indonesians. But just as pinoys have swooned for the Azkals, El Loco and the Indons appear to have similarly captured the imaginations of a vast and dispersed population.

Following the Azkals has been an absolute blast, particularly because of the work of Olivares on Bleacher's Brew. Olivares tweeted the following after the game:

I just checked Brew's stats for Dec1-19: 35,308 hits, 47,166 page views, 15,051 unique visitors, and average time on site 7mins 36 secs

That's well-deserved. Both the written content and the video clips were fantastic. Before the game this morning, my wife and I watched the video shot of Indonesian reaction to the Filipino team and were amazed by the numbers of people that turned up to watch practice.

We are looking forward to following those from the team that return stateside to play this summer. This run has been a very welcome winter treat.

In return, from this lonely outpost, we send our fondest good wishes to all involved. Maligayang Pasko.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Love and Basketball

I accidentally clicked on a story when visiting the Daily Herald's web-site earlier this week and read two sentences before realizing that it was another affected rant by Barry Rozner, who, not surprisingly, was blowing hot air in an overwrought tone about the Cubs' need to get rid of Carlos Zambrano. Rozner's bogus angry fan schtick is more than compensated for by the tremendous work from Herald columnist Bruce Miles. But Miles is exceptional amongst Chicago sportswriters, as he avoids sanctimonious hectoring of the subjects of his reporting. The constant barrage of negative opinion and concocted controversy is a blight on Chicago sports and a fraud upon the great history of sportswriting that the city had developed prior to the arrival of hacks like Skip Bayless and Jay Mariotti.

For this reason, its nice to see Michael Wilbon writing for ESPN. Wilbon's recent essay on his admiration for this year's version of the Bulls struck a particular chord with me because the most remarkable quality of the squad is its inherent charisma as a unit. The Bulls are a very likable team -- even accepting that Noah is a lightning rod who is vilified by opposing squads.

I'm not particularly objective about the Bulls and have eventually, during the course of the season, fallen in love with each of the iterations of the team since 2004-2005. But it generally took a little time and it would always be an affection with caveats -- about the limitations of the team's coaching, about the inherent value of certain underperforming players (e.g., Ty Thomas and Tyson Chandler) and, most often, my persistent doubts about Captain Kirk.

But with this team, the love was immediate and has been unwavering. I'm tapping this out while watching the Clippers handle the Bulls in impressive fashion, but am still greatly enjoying the game. Everything about this team flows from Derrick Rose, who is the most charismatic player that the Bulls have had since Jerry Krause destroyed the team. Rose's rookie season clearly earned the respect and admiration of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, and James Johnson. After nearly every tremendous play that Rose has made this season, the film of the reaction of his teammates -- particularly the returning Bulls -- has been priceless. Similarly, the drawn breath and deep concern registered on the faces of Bulls' players whenever Rose goes down hard is also remarkable.

Carlos Boozer slots in well as a veteran free agent power and the Bulls' front office seems to have finally pulled together pieces that complement one another without tremendous friction. This may, again, be more due to Rose's presence on the team rather than management expertise; either way, the result is a squad that is gelling and is raising expectations in Chicago.

Maybe not just Chicago. We've been going to see the Bulls on their visits to DC since 1998 and, outside of the playoffs, I cannot recall a time when resale ticket prices for a Wizards-Bulls game are as high as they are for this Wednesday's fixture. (Chicago just fell short on an improbably comeback attempt against the Clippers, losing the game when Rose missed a free throw that would have tied the game at the end of regulation. No tears -- it may have been a loss, but that was a hell of a valiant run at the end -- the team could easily have packed it in, but they really do not like losing).

Just as I've had no problems falling for the Bulls of the last seven years, I've also been smitten with JTIII's Georgetown teams over that same period. This year is, of course, no different.

My daughter was gifted free tickets to today's game against Loyola as part of her membership in the Hoya's Kids Club (which is, by the way, awesome). Up until our little girl decided it was time to go with five minutes left and the Hoyas' focus slipping, we were treated to a beautiful demonstration of Georgetown's strengths and possibilities going into a tough non-conference test against Memphis.

The Hoyas started out the game a bit flat and the first four minutes made it seem like Loyola would give Georgetown all it could handle but... well, that was only 10% of the game and the balance was quickly swung by substitutions that brought in Henry Sims, Nate Lubick, and Markel Starks. Four minutes later, Georgetown was up nine and the rout was on.

The fans have raucously celebrated the addition of Moses Ayegba to the Georgetown rotation in the last two games, but as promising as Ayegba is, I am enjoying Henry Sims' development into a force in the post. Since his introduction as a freshman, we've taken particular notice of Sims whenever he was on the court. He always seemed frustrated by his limitations and his inability to keep up with the speed and skill of players bearing down on him. No more. In his fifteen minutes on the floor, Sims was an impressive force -- going five for five from the field, with two strong slams through defensive pressure, and five assists.

Jerrelle Benimon was also impressive -- although I can't claim to have previously paid that much attention to his game. Benimon is a guy I've taken for granted, but he made a distinct impact this afternoon, scoring the most points he's put up in a game (nine) so far in his short Georgetown career. Benimon appeared to be as comfortable on the perimeter as he was in the paint. And, along with freshmen Aaron Bowen, Benimon's progress gives the Hoyas a potentially potent pair of swing players going into Big East conference play.

But as much as I enjoyed watching Sims, Benimon, and Bowen play, they'll have, at best, a limited impact on the team's fortunes this season. The core of the team -- Chris Wright, Austin Freeman, Jason Clark, Markel Starks, Vee Sanford, Hollis Thompson, Julian Vaughn, and Nate Lubick -- is solid. One thing that we did not anticipate was Wright's development as a passer. In each of the three games we've gone to this season, Wright has made at least one pass that has roused the crowd out of their seats.

Regardless of how the next two tough away tests -- against Memphis and Notre Dame -- shake out, we're planning on spending New Year's Day at Verizon welcoming the Hoyas home.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ludwig to RFK

After D.C. United drafted Rodney Wallace, our ticket representative called to see about renewals. I had been frustrated by watching Tom Soehn's team muddle through games, but the timing of the call was perfect and I enthusiastically reupped for the season while babbling about how excited I was about watching Wallace in a United jersey.

Rodney Wallace is gone now. After watching him play for two years at Maryland and two years (the second cut short by injury) with D.C. United, I am not happy to see the back of Wallace, but am coming to grips with the promise of Dax McCarty.

Today's announcement that United signed Ethan White helps the coping process as well. For the majority of games that we caught at Ludwig this season, Ethan White was the best player on the field. White anchored the defense well and was a worthy heir to Omar Gonzalez in that respect. Gonzalez was blessed with three remarkably talented players on the backline with him (Delagarza, Costanzo, and Wallace). While Lee, Kemp, and Woodberry are quality players in their own right, White did not have the same margin for error afforded to Gonzalez.

With White in the mix, the question is: Does he play regularly for DCU? Going into the 2011 season, United can play a very young team -- with Hamid (20) in goal, White (19) taking one of the center back positions, Shanosky (19) playing holding mid, behind Najar (17) and Junior (19) -- but it seems unlikely that any of the youngsters beyond Najar and Hamid will see regular playing time.

On the other hand, the front office has been strangely critical of the club's center backs, asserting that the club needed more leadership from the backline. Julius James and Dejan Jakovic proved, throughout the season, that they were the best option as a pairing at the back. In the 30 game season, James and Jakovic only started together in 11 games. But in those 11 games, the two accounted for four of the club's six clean sheets and gave up almost a third of a goal less than D.C. United allowed in games where James and Jakovic did not start together -- 15 goals in their 11 games (1.36 average) versus 32 goals in the other 19 games (1.68 average).

Admittedly, giving up 41 goals over a 30 game season is not a huge improvement over giving up 47 goals. But it is an improvement. In a few games last season, Julius James was D.C. United's best player on the field and, even where he was not, James put out maximum effort everytime he donned a D.C. United shirt ... something that could not be said for some of his teammates.

I am therefore puzzled by what appear to be shots at Jakovic and James (is a lack of leadership at the back the reason why United scored a third less goals -- 21 -- than the second most incompetent offense in the MLS?). One possibility is that the team may look to move Jakovic and bring in a more "veteran" presence as a new center half. Like, I don't know, gifting Carey Talley and Juan Pena starting jobs based on their leadership attributes, because that seemed to have worked out well. If this were the (misguided) direction embarked upon, White would be more likely to see significant playing time as a stand in, either because DC United is, once again, not competitive, or as a replacement for the inevitably injured veteran.

If, however, film is reviewed and assessments revisited and Jakovic and James are given the opportunity to build on their play from last season, I think Ethan White's playing time will be limited, but still entail meaningful minutes. At the moment, White provides essential depth to a roster that is bereft of proven center halves after James and Jakovic.

But all of the foregoing are issues to be hashed out later. For now, Ethan White is a full-fledged professional member of D.C. United and that is, without question, a good thing.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Oh Yeah,,, That's Why

The good mood borne from a nice trip to Verizon to watch Georgetown dispatch Appalachian State evaporated quickly while reading recaps of CAFC's "banana peel" embarrassment against the Saddlers and watching the Bears get whupped -- deservedly so -- by a well-coached Pats team. So I am already writing this from an unhappy place.

The Philippines National Team (the Azkals) closed out the group stage portion of the AFF Suzuki Cup with a disappointing goalless draw against Myanmar, but still managed to make the semifinals. In qualifying, the Azkals have momentarily captured the attention of their countrymen -- something driven home for me by the fact that my cousins back in Mindanao have taken to rating which of the team members is most aesthetically pleasing. The Azkals are coached by a 33-year old Brit named Simon McMenemy and feature a remarkable aggregation of Filipinos from around the world.

But, inevitably, more attention means a spotlight on the things that leave most pinoy shaking their heads.

Two-legged semifinal against Indonesia with both legs to be played in Jakarta? All because the ex-president of the Philippine Football Association informed the ASEAN Football Federation that the Philippines lacked grounds meeting the AFF's requirements and that the team had no objection to an away-away format should the team reach the semifinals?

Wait, the ex-President? Yes, Jose Mari Martinez, who was removed from his post on November 27th (by affirmative vote of 26 of 33 provincial associations), for financial mismanagement -- including an alleged loss of 2.8 million pesos, or 20% of the PFF's operating budget.

Why would an ex-President have any bearing on what happens with the Azkals? As Joaquin Henson reports, FIFA has not recognized Martinez's removal because the vote to remove Martinez "was not properly endorsed in the agenda" of the meeting wherein the action was taken. As a result, Martinez gets to keep speaking for the Philippines, even when the organization he ostensibly represents has clearly articulated a desire to remove him. Simples.

So, that's embarrassing. And while it is not Australia getting one vote to host the World Cup, the loss of a home tie is a huge missed opportunity for the development of soccer in the Philippines.

But wait, there's more: Henson's report includes Martinez ludicrously declaring that the Azkals would be even better if they were under his command. Criticizing the hiring of McMenemy by Azkals' manager Dan Palami, Martinez is quoted as saying:
“That guy applied to Palami and he was taken in without consulting me,” said Martinez. “He came in to take over a team that [former gaffer Desmond] Bulpin formed. I’m now negotiating to recruit a Brazilian coach Rick Figuerido who has about 12 years of World Cup experience with Brazil, Mexico and Jamaica. I can form another national team that’s better than what we’ve got now with guys they dropped. Chad Gould and Roxy Dorlas will be on that team. But I’d rather not elaborate on all of that. Right now, I’d prefer the national team to just focus on the Suzuki Cup and let’s see how far they go.”


To his credit, by citing his preference to Chad Gould, Martinez has not descended to the idiocy of detracting from the Azkals' achievements by arguing that the team is illegitimate because it is not drawn exclusively from the islands.

Instead, Martinez is making the equally spurious, though far less provocative claim that under his unrecognized genius, the Philippines would be a much better team. Why? Because they would hire a Brazilian coach. Brazil > England. Again, simples.

While pinoy may revile the mayabang, Martinez's claims are not arrogance, they are the lunatic ravings of a delusional moron. The Azkals just made the semifinals of the AFF Suzuki Cup for the first time. Under a coach who is younger than me, a motley crew of footballers from all corners of the globe humbled Vietnam and Singapore and will now go toe to toe with Indonesia. And the former head of the PFF is suggesting that the gaffer be fired and his team reformed?


Mike Limpag suggests that the real reason why both games are in Jakarta is that the Federation may be short of the cash needed to host a home leg. If that is true, it makes all of this even more absurd.

In the end, this story may be all too familiar to Filipinos: a chance at greatness frittered away by the ego of a small man and want of a few coins.

Now I remember the answer to the question of why there aren't better stories coming out of the Philippines.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

New Frontiers

Before turning in last night, I caught the NCAA tournament semifinal between Michigan and Akron and, before that, the second half of the Bulls' huge win at home over the Lakers. Michigan played well and showed that their upset win over Maryland was not a fluke, but Akron is tremendous. I'd not seen them play before, but as much as I've been impressed by what Coach Cirovkski's done for the Terps in making them a strong, well-organized competitive unit, Caleb Porter's Zips are not just good, they are extremely entertaining. Akron's passing is crisp and precise, while their style is breathtaking and each of the players on the field appears to reflect an institutional emphasis on creativity and independence rather than organization and responsibility.

I would not have expected to see the same level of ingenuity and flourish in a Tom Thibodeau coached team. But that's what the Bulls offer their fans these days. Back to back games at the United Center and Derrick Rose has exploded his ceiling. He is, so people say, kind of good. The three-point jump shot he drilled with the shot clock expiring against the Lakers is not the most important shot he's nailed this season -- it would be tough to surpass the three pointer at the end of regulation that allowed the Bulls to pull out a win against Houston last week -- but the ease of the extreme elevation to get himself free to even attempt the shot coupled with the circumstances (closing out Kobe's juggernaut), make it the most memorable.

I grew up idolizing John Paxson. MJ, Scottie, and Horace Grant all had skills and physical gifts that I could not fathom and I could, at best, only identify with the unimposing guy on the wing who converted seemingly every open shot afforded to him. Paxson's run as a general manager has been, the conventional wisdom goes, rocky and he has been bailed out by turns of good fortune (like pulling a lottery spot that brought Rose home). We're only 22 games into a 62 game season and another first-round playoff exit may be the ultimate result of an otherwise promising year, but it is hard to fault the team that Pax has pulled together. It may be that Carlos Boozer's early season injury has worked, unintentionally, to improve the team as the returning nucleus of Rose, Noah, Deng, Taj Gibson, and James Johnson was given time to gel with a series of role players (Omer Asik, Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, and C.J. Watson) into a good NBA team.

My daughter is, unfortunately, unimpressed. Although she will use virtually any excuse to delay bedtime, watching the Bulls with Daddy has sent her to sleep each of the last two nights as her preferred alternative. She may enjoy soccer games, but basketball bores her. I spent most of Friday night at Comcast for Maryland's game against UMBC chasing her up and down the stairs as she eventually found a crevice in the wall to be far more interesting than anything occurring on the court (which does not bode well for tomorrow's Georgetown game at the Verizon Center).

On the way out of Comcast, we stopped by the women's gymnastics team's intrasquad scrimmage. After spazzing out throughout the basketball game, sequined outfits commanded every ounce of her attention. The team signed autographs and chatted with young gymnasts who had come out to see the squad and, I fear, I've entirely lost the battle for basketball -- if gymnastics is in the same building, it will be what she'll clamor for.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Being There

The first professional soccer games that I attended featured the Chicago Sting. As a boy, it was impossible not to notice that the atmosphere at Sting matches was muted in comparison to the city's enthusiasm for the Cubs, Sox, Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks.

After leaving the city, I didn't venture to another professional soccer game until dropping by RFK to take in a Washington Freedom match in the wake of the Women's World Cup in 1999. By 2001, my disdain for the sport had waned, but in that inaugural season, getting to the occasional Freedom game helped transform me into a fan (both of soccer and of women's sports generally). The energy at RFK during matches was incredible and unlike anything I'd previously experienced at a stadium. The cheering and noise from fans was non-stop and unremittingly positive.

Although I enjoyed going to the matches, I failed to become a season ticket holder or to regularly show up to games. I took the team and the league for granted and the WUSA folded after three seasons.

Now, with my daughter, I have come to appreciate the Freedom again as part of the WPS. But it may be too late.

Last Friday, the new majority owner of the Freedom, Dan Borislow, gave an interview to The Equalizer, indicating that he intended to rebrand the team and implied an ultimate plan to relocate the team in South Florida or, at a minimum, to split a home schedule between Montgomery County and somewhere around Miami-Palm Beach.

I have no complaints. Mr. Borislow may have unconventional ideas that do not seem to have a high likelihood of success, but he put his money on the line where no one else would. In this vein, The Equalizer's interview with Nancy NeSmith, the former owner of the defunct FC Gold Pride is instructive. While the general reaction to Mr. Borislow's thoughts has been derisive and dismissive, the vast majority of people offering opinions are not terribly interested in actually helping the team with anything beyond the benefit of their superior intellect.

DC-area soccer enthusiasts have, in the span of a few months, lost Crystal Palace Baltimore, seen Real Maryland drop from a professional team to the USL PDL, and received a last minute reprieve on the collapse of the Freedom following Mr. Borislow's intervention.

Yes, the Freedom may still be gone. And although they may leave the area sooner rather than later, I think that the belief that these developments are somehow worse than the complete collapse of the franchise is wrong.

If people in Washington want to see the Freedom or magicJack FC/SC remain in the area, the gauntlet has been thrown down -- unless fans show up and buy tickets, there is no reason for the club to remain here. The attendance for games last season was impressive (a 3,422 average for 11 games at the SoccerPlex), but with an overall capacity of around 6,000, the club obviously has room for improvement (as former GM Mark Washo acknowledged in October).

I had waffled before on committing to season tickets, but Mr. Borislow's willingness to openly discuss his plans following his significant investment in the team is the final push I needed. Hopefully, others will also be willing to meet the challenge.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kids Day at Comcast

Whenever I run across arguments justifying belligerent behavior and obscene language in the stands as being the badges of "true" fans, I am always curious as to what happened to the proponents' childhood. Did the man spewing inanity in front of me spring fully formed from the gut of a foul-mouthed middle-aged lout?

Being a fan, paying money to watch people do their jobs, living and dying vicariously through people based on the concession that they are better than you will ever be -- these are childish things. Sports, at least from the spectators' perspective, are how we get to act like children in a socially acceptable way along with thousands of closest friends.

Having a child helps to bring this all home. Sunday at Comcast was kid's day hosted by the University of Maryland Women's Basketball team. The athletics program has done a wonderful job of making events for the community and creating an atmosphere that is substantially different from that which pervades at other Maryland Athletics games.

My daughter had a great time. The organizers had made an area available for kids to make signs before going into the stadium. Our little one decided on a design and happily held it over her head at strange moments during the game. She danced when other kids danced. And, when she felt like it, nuzzled in with one of her relatives and watched the game asking questions with bizarre premises regarding what transpired before her.

After the game, juniors Kim Rodgers and Yemi Oyefuwa and freshmen Sequoia Austin, Alyssa Thomas, and Alicia DeVaughn signed autographs for kids with good humor. I bought a basketball for my daughter and, although it was almost the same size as her, she dragged it down in front of each of the players and thanked them with a grin.

She was probably even more pleased with the autograph she had gotten from Testudo earlier in the game, but for a two-year old who had not napped, we left the stadium with a pretty happy little girl.

Thanks to the Terps Athletics program for setting it up and we hope that it will be a regular feature of the team's season.


One unrelated note: great report on the Philippines' huge upset at the Suzuki Cup by Bleachers' Brew. Just a great story.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pinoy Pride

Other than her name, I have not passed on much of my Filipino heritage to my daughter. She is far more likely to ask for a tortilla or quesadilla than pancit or adobo. She knows more Arabic and Farsi than Tagalog or Visayan or Cebuano. Her knowledge of pinoy culture is limited to Maligayang Pasko as part of our rotation of holiday music and an awareness of who Manny Pacquiao is.

Watching Bleachers' Brew's video clips of the celebrations in Hanoi with her tonight after getting back from a nice afternoon spent at Comcast was a pleasant surprise.

Most of the Philippines' triumphs in football come from a time well outside of mortal memory. Until this last week.

A 1-1 draw with Singapore was huge. But a 2-0 win over the host nation? Well, that's just not football.

Chris Greatwich, lion of Morristown, New Jersey, scored his second goal of the competition -- the game winner -- as a robust defense frustrated a team that had put up a seven spot against Myanmar in the preceding match.

What the Philippines is achieving at the Suzuki Cup is nothing short of stunning. It may not be pretty, but then again, neither is losing seven to one.

I doubt my daughter will ever appreciate the significance of what she watched with me, but it is great to have the excuse to share something with her that features people that look like her relatives celebrate a victory in a sport in which she is familiar.

Separate from the generational tie, just for myself, the Philippines' historic win provided the impetus to become familiar with the phenomenal Bleachers' Brew. I may not learn anything about Chris Greatwich on the National Premier Soccer League's website or from the athletics department at his alma mater Hartwick College, but Bleachers' Brew's got a good interview with Greatwich from 2008 and was on hand to capture Chris's thoughts following the goal in extra time against Singapore.

On Wednesday, the Philippines will close out its group play matches with a game against Myanmar. If they can pull off a win, they are likely to finish top of the table. Vietnam will be desperate to stave off horrible embarrassment should it fail to advance out of group play and needs a win against Singapore. The way things are set up, the Philippines should advance as Group B winners and, should they do so, their opponent -- with the first leg set for December 15th -- will be either Thailand, Malaysia, or Laos. Of course, the way things were set up in Group B, Vietnam and Singapore were supposed to waltz into the semifinals.

But that is why they play the games.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Time and Chance

Everyone at Ludwig this afternoon was treated to a fantastic soccer game. From Herrick's equalizer on, I was perched on the edge of my seat.

It is little solace to observe that Maryland was the better side when Michigan is the team that advanced in the tournament and the Terps' season is over. But Maryland was the better side and outside of a ten to fifteen minute stretch after the restart, Maryland was the dominant team. An inability to convert scoring opportunities -- including several absolute sitters -- doomed Maryland's title hopes.

It happens.

There are two reasons I walked out of the stadium happy.

Michigan changed the entire complexion of the game at the restart with Greg Young on the bench with an apparent injury and Billy Cortes filling in at right back. The Terps' backline got very shaky and Michigan quickly equalized. Enter London Woodberry. Although he certainly wasn't crisp and Michigan scored two more with him in the game, Woodberry is Maryland's best option at right back and it was great to see him back on the field, particularly with the game on the line. Cirovski showed confidence in Woodberry in an essential game against a dangerous opponent and hopefully that means that he'll be back in the fold for next season.

Separately, we've probably seen the majority of Jason Herrick's collegiate games and, yet, despite the long history, I did not anticipate how good of a player he would become. With Townsend, Mullins, Stertzer, and Cortes having off games, Herrick was Maryland's most dangerous attacking player and offensive creator. His turns were fantastic, as were his passes -- including a beautifully weighted ball to a wide-open Townsend that Casey whiffed on. He had an amazing game in terms of holding the ball up and, at one point, showed off jaw-dropping juggling skills while getting pressured by a Wolverine center back (as an aside, I walked into Ludwig expecting to be wowed by Michigan's attacking players but walked out most impressed by Kofi Opare a big, physical underclassmen who anchored the back line).

Herrick may not get as much attention as Ethan White, Zac MacMath, or Casey Townsend, but he was the best player on the field today in an intense game. Herrick does not hide; he's strong and he welcomes physical challenges from the opposition. His physical attributes, however, unfairly distract from his technical prowess. Herrick is an MLS-ready center forward and whatever team decides to spend a draft pick on him should be in for a pleasant surprise at just how good a player they've lucked into.

Rest In Peace

The first time I can remember being affected by the death of an athlete -- in terms of having a strong emotional response to the news -- was when Fred Washington Jr. was killed in an automobile accident in his rookie season for the Bears in 1990. I had a football card of Washington in his TCU uniform that I hung up on my wall as a reminder that no one was immune to our mortality; that even the most gifted and successful among us are struck down in the prime of their lives without rhyme or reason.

Nearly a decade later, I was staggered by Walter Payton's passing, a player who had achieved iconic status in my eyes (and those of nearly everyone else in Chicago) through his works on and off the field in the Second City. As a child, I revered my Payton Kangaroos in the same way that kids a bit younger than me would eventually cherish their Air Jordans. I watched everything I could about Payton and fell in love with how he carried himself and conducted his affairs. If even the most supremely talented of us could manage to best all comers with good humor and humility, there was hope for all mankind.

The news that Ron Santo had passed away earlier today also rattled me. I am too young to have ever seen Santo play. Most of my knowledge of what made Santo a legend as a Cubs player comes from books and his baseball cards. Nevertheless, Santo is inseparable from the Cubs franchise for me.

I recently finished reading Harry Pearson's "The Far Corner," and the author's recounting of how his grandfather imbued him with a lifelong passion for Middlesborough was wholly unfamiliar to me. I became a Cubs fan by virtue of traveling from the western suburbs to Wrigley Field occasionally and watching WGN broadcasts of the team religiously. No other relatives were fans of the team and, as such, no person close to me introduced me to the rich (tragic) history of the club.

Santo filled that void, as he did for many others in Cub nation. Santo's stories about his playing days fascinated me. I bought books documenting his era and, subsequently, those of the players that preceded him just to get a more fulsome understanding of where his passion came from. One of the principal reasons we headed to Mesa was the fantasy I had harbored of being able to listen to Santo spin tales about the past at a local restaurant -- something that I had heard about from other Cubs fans who reveled in recalling their time spent as Santo's rapt audience. I settled for just meeting the man and holding myself together long enough to earnestly thank him for how much of himself he poured into his radio broadcasts.

When I broke the news to my wife over dinner, she immediately expressed her sorrow. She has generally tolerated my fascination with sports but going to games has failed to generate any abiding interest for her. Still, she reminded me tonight that she regularly listened to Cubs daytime broadcasts at work through the internet. She never really cared about whether the Cubs won or lost and could barely remember what had happened in any game she listened to on any given day, but she loved listening to Ron Santo and Pat Hughes. They could have been giving commentary on bass fishing or NASCAR for all she cared, she simply adored Santo.

The Cubs always travel well and over the last fifteen years I have been able to count myself amongst the number largely because of Santo. At every game we went to, regardless of the city or the circumstance, we would have to find the WGN radio booth and catch a glimpse of Pat and Ron. At almost every game, initiated because we were decked out in Cubs gear, someone would strike up a conversation about how they became fans of the North Siders and inevitably Harry Caray and Ron Santo would be central figures in the origin story.

In addition to all these things, Santo's work for WGN addressed a nagging concern that I think haunts all sports fans: that the players don't care about their teams as much as the fans do. This was never a question with Santo; he cared more about the Cubs than any fan, regardless of their ties with the team. Santo lived and died with the team in such a spectacular way that it made caring about the team seem to be not in the least bit absurd.

I never had any great affinity for Harry Caray. I thought, probably unfairly, that Harry's schtick was more about him than the team and I was not terribly interested in what he was selling. Ron Santo was all-Cub. His time in the booth never seemed like it was about Ron Santo. To me, it always seemed like what it would be like if fans were allowed to call games, except, in this case, the fan had formerly been one of the team's most storied players.

Whenever Santo's career is discussed, what he did not achieve figures into the narrative as much as his triumphs. That Santo played for a hopelessly tortured franchise that did not win a World Series during his long association with the club (and well before that association began) and that Santo was consistently and cruelly denied his rightful place in Cooperstown are seminal parts of what people know about him. But that is an unfortunate irritant. What Santo achieved is far, far more interesting and relevant.

Ron Santo is one of the greatest Cubs to have ever been part of the franchise. Improbably, his work with the team after retiring from playing ball will have as much long-lasting significance (if not more) as what he did on the field.

Thank you Ron. Our sincerest condolences to those you have left behind.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Going Dark

On the heels of Real Maryland's self-relegation from the third tier of U.S. soccer, Crystal Palace Baltimore has announced that it is no more:

Club looking to secure stadium for 2012 and beyond

December 3, 2010

Baltimore, MD - Crystal Palace Baltimore announced today that they will not be fielding a team in the North American Soccer League (NASL) during the 2011 season in order to restructure with an intended re-launch for the 2012 NASL season. The re-launch will include a complete re-branding of the club to coincide with opening a soccer facility in downtown Baltimore.

In addition, the club announced that it is ending its four year relationship with Crystal Palace FC of England’s Championship Division. Crystal Palace Baltimore was the first trans-Atlantic partnership of its kind in North America but the relationship between the clubs could not survive the financial struggles that resulted in Crystal Palace FC entering administration in England.

The club is currently working with the City of Baltimore to secure a venue for 2012 and beyond. “We want to be downtown and believe doing so will allow us to better connect to our fans and the City” said Pete Medd, part-owner and President of Crystal Palace Baltimore. “We would like to thank our loyal fans who have stuck with us despite not having a place to call home and we are committed to giving them what they deserve and what all of our future fans in Baltimore deserve; a venue that honors their loyalty and commitment to the club.”

The club looks forward to involving local soccer fans in the process of choosing a new identity and nickname. One thing that has been determined is the Club’s future colors: red, yellow, and black, the proud and historic colors of the City of Baltimore and the state of Maryland.

I have enjoyed watching the franchise in its brief existence, but the absurdity of last season -- when ownership chose to vault to the second division without a viable field to play on and without established local support -- made the collapse of the club somewhat easier to take as it seemed inevitable.

I held out some small measure of hope that new investment might still see the team play on in 2011, but this was never a realistic possibility.

In the span of three years, the D.C. metro area has gone from having three traditional professional men's soccer teams to one, with the one remaining in some trouble.

The loss of Real Maryland and CP Baltimore led me, for the first time, to look into Baltimore's indoor soccer team today, the Blast (of the five-team MISL) with an eye towards possibly attending a game this winter. (Having looked at the Blast's website, the fact that former Terp captain Rich Costanzo is now playing with the Blast pretty much guarantees that we will head up to 1st Mariner Arena at some point in the next couple of months).

The loss of CP Baltimore is unfortunate, but I am left with lots of pleasant memories of watching the club over the last three seasons. I hope that the stated goal of getting a squad back on the field in 2012 is achieved.

Nevertheless, regardless of whether a team comes back, I am grateful to Mr. Medd, and everyone else associated with the franchise, for the games that were played -- following the club has substantially augmented my love for the sport and my interest in soccer generally.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Strong Foundations

I was on my way to the Newseum this morning to join the watch party when a friend e-mailed noting that early reports had the 2022 World Cup being awarded to Qatar. I thought about it for a moment, realized it was probably true, and headed to the office.

I am disappointed by the fact that the World Cup won't be staged here anytime in the near future, but doubt that it will have any lasting negative impact on the continued development of the game in this country. The result is certainly not good news for D.C. United, which will now lose a useful argument in favor of securing public investment to maintain a top flight team in the city.

But, in terms of the state of the game in the United States, there are all kinds of reason for optimism. And one, which few may care about, was on display earlier today in Vietnam.

When the Philippines qualified for the Suzuki Cup, I entertained thoughts of heading to Hanoi to support the land of my forefathers, but a quick check of our bank account indicated that no unknown benefactor had boosted our financial assets such that showing up at work was no longer necessary. Accordingly, I am reduced to having to follow the team's exploits on the internets.

Growing up pinoy introduced me to a careless disdain for soccer. Filipinos, as a general matter, did not seem to care for the sport and, in consequence, it is not terribly surprising that the country's national team has largely been a door mat in regional competitions.

However, of late, the quality of the Philippines national team has progressed significantly. Still, the team's one-one draw against Singapore in the first game of their group matches is stunning. Singapore was expected to obliterate the Philippines, just as the home country was expected to have a walk over against Myanmar in the other group B match.

But Singapore dropped two points thanks to the late equalizer off the foot of Chris Greatwich. That's right. Chris Greatwich. Of the legendary Morris County Colonials (of Morristown, New Jersey).

In other words, one of the most important goals in Philippine soccer history was scored by someone playing in the fourth tier of the American soccer pyramid (in the National Premier Soccer League).

As the American soccer pyramid develops further -- and perhaps we will see some period of stability with the USL focused on the third tier and NASL on the second tier -- it should increasingly offer opportunities from players throughout the world and American players will, in turn, benefit from higher quality opposition in the domestic game.

Chris has (along with his two younger brothers) also benefited from participating in the college game in the United States. Chris, like his brother Simon (currently a sophomore) played college ball at Hartwick College near the former National Soccer Hall of Fame and the third Greatwich boy, Phil, finished off his college career this season up the road for the Towson Tigers.

Separate and apart from the foregoing, reading about the Greatwich boys has me a bit embarrassed that I had no idea that there was a fourth division club team in Howard County, the Thunder Soccer Club. If the Red Devils rejoin the NPSL next year, then I will have even more opportunities to drag my family around to soccer contests. Hoorah.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Imparted Wisdom

Real Maryland FC may have self-relegated from the ranks of the senior professional game in the U.S., but the heritage of the club will live on in the Aland Islands. Joe Funicello appears to have put ink to paper today and will join Mason Trafford and honorary Real Marylander Josh Wicks at IFK Mariehamn for the full 2011 campaign.

There are all kinds of objective reasons to root for Funicello's success in the Veikkausliiga. At 23, Funicello has played in the first division of Finnish football, the second division of Icelandic football, the third division of American football, and in the seventh and eighth divisions of English football. Joe's shown a willingness to chase his football dreams wherever opportunity presents itself and an extended shot with Mariehamn is a nice payoff for his efforts thus far.

I have dumber reasons for caring. I love that Joe's personal soccer website also doubles as the internet presence of the Funicello family's restaurant in Westport. More importantly, on a personal basis, Joe was one of the first athletes that my daughter got an autograph from. As a one year old, she held out a soccer ball for Joe to sign after a game at Richard Montgomery and he was kind enough to indulge the farce of a middle-aged man asking for an autograph through a baby.

I am not much of an autograph hound, although I've not missed any opportunity to collect signatures from D.C. United's squad at the club's "Meet the Team Day" and have gone a wee bit crazy at our two trips to Mesa for spring training. But among the sports memorabilia I have collected, the soccer ball with Joe's signature (which also includes an autograph my daughter got later in the year from Josh Wicks at Ludwig Field), is particularly special.

My daughter's early pleasant interactions with players -- Joe and Josh included -- have, I am convinced, played a seminal role in how much she seems to enjoy going to games. She's always excited to head to a soccer stadium and moments like watching Taylor Kemp's game winner on Sunday are massively enhanced by having her in my arms grinning and cheering.

I don't know how much longer her interest in watching soccer will last, but I'll cherish it for as long as she does.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The difference a year makes...

I had best come to grips with Kurt Morsink's tenure with D.C. United. The moment that the club chose to protect Morsink over Barry Rice, I should have put two and two together and recognized that Ben Olsen would become the full time coach.

United may have a particular way of doing things, but this iteration of the club is likely to eschew sublime displays of skill for blue collar work ethic more reflective of an Npower Championship side.

Last season, when Curt Onalfo's hiring was announced with some fanfare, my fellow season ticket holders and I attended the coach's welcome reception at Black Finn's. There was, amongst supporters, ardent enthusiasm fully on display and we chatted briefly with Jaime Moreno and, separately, Coach Onalfo to express our optimism for the start of a new season.

Tonight, I flew solo to the hastily organized reception for Mr. Olsen at the same bar. I was joined by a sparse crowd of no more than three dozen United supporters. Coach Olsen spoke for no more than three minutes and was received by polite applause. Kevin Payne left shortly after the coach's brief address and I followed shortly thereafter.

Nothing about tonight or what transpired earlier in the day will quell the negativity surrounding the team at present. United remains very much a club in decline. Despite having exceptional young talent in the guise of Andy Najar, attendance will undoubtedly fall again this year with season tickets dropping off as well. With no imminent prospect of a stadium, the long term prospects for Washington's MLS franchise are not good. But whatever role the front office has played in bringing about the current state of play, they are not shrinking violets. If a supporter wanted to have a go at Payne, he was there tonight. He might not have been there long, but he was there.

For my part, I am happy to see Olsen get the job and cautiously optimistic that United will be, if nothing else, competitive next season in a wide open league. They are unlikely to be entertaining, but the pieces of the team are largely in place (sans, perhaps, some additional attacking players).

As expected...

When Maryland knocked out Penn State to make the final eight of the NCAA tournament, the Terps, as the number 2 seed in the tournament, joined six of the other top eight seeded teams in the quarterfinals. Perhaps fortunately for Maryland, the only top eight team not to advance was South Carolina. The Gamecocks were upset by the Wolverines at home and Maryland will face the number 10 seed rather than the number 7.

Our daughter attended this afternoon's game in a newly acquired pink University of Michigan sweater -- a gift from her uncle's recent trip to the Big House -- but it wasn't warm enough to keep her interested in the game. Penn State presented a formidable opponent for Maryland and those at Ludwig were treated to an entertaining match-up that featured five of the thirteen underclassmen targeted for Generation Adidas offers as recently identified in a report by Steve Goff.

Nevertheless, despite a very well played game, my two-year old declared that she was ready to come home ten minutes into the second half -- a half that Maryland dominated. It is a reflection of my failings as a father that we didn't actually begin the slow exodus from the stadium until fifteen minutes was left in regulation. I took another thirteen to get to the entrance and was rewarded by the parting sight of a well hit ball from Taylor Kemp into the upper corner of Penn State's goal.

I celebrated like an idiot, thrilled that my expert dawdling had won enough time to see the deciding moment of the game. Our final exit from Ludwig was followed by that of D.C. United's new full time head coach, Ben Olsen. I can only hope that we'll have a chance to celebrate D.C. United's exploits next season as stupidly and as joyously (my daughter kept telling me that the whole thing was "funny daddy, it was sooooo funny daddy").

As to Maryland, Taylor Kemp's winner was fully deserved. The Terrapins did a wonderful job of stretching the Nittany Lions with balls played to the fullbacks (Kemp and Greg Young) and crossed back in to the box. Kemp and Young could focus on attacking because Ethan White and Alex Lee locked down the middle of the field and, when required to, Zac MacMath saved the team -- MacMath's save of Drew Cost's screamer early in the first half looked amazing from our vantage point. On the other side of the ball, I was impressed by Alex's brother Justin, who, in part, forced Maryland to play the ball to the wings, and by the pressure mounted by Penn State's junior forward Corey Hertzog and freshman Jordan Tyler.

Kemp's goal also erased frustration that had been building from a failure to capitalize on Maryland's second half dominance. Jason Herrick's anger at not being fed the ball in an open position by Casey Townsend after Townsend had done great work to get himself free summed up a series of wasted opportunities that made the game much closer than it should have been.

No matter. Maryland is through and we will next see them live in the fall of 2011. The team that comes back should be very different from the one we saw today. In addition to the departures of seniors Greg Young, Will Swaim, Doug Rodkey, Jason Herrick, and Billy Cortes (four of whom were in the starting XI), the Generation Adidas targeting of four underclassmen (Matt Kassel, Zac MacMath, Ethan White, and Casey Townsend -- all in the starting XI) will likely lead to additional departures forcing a major overhaul (I would be surprised if London Woodberry is back next season as well).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Divided and Falling

The last time we saw Rodney Wallace, he was sitting by himself in the stands at Ludwig watching some of his former classmates finish out a fantastic regular season.

We will be back out at Ludwig this afternoon -- one week after seeing the Terps convincingly dispatch UPenn in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- and it will be interesting to see if Wallace will make it out as well.

The trip out to College Park should be a little more difficult for Rodney as he'll be out in the Rose City for the Timbers' inaugural season in the MLS. He will not be wanting for familiar faces as he'll be joining fellow Terrapin Jeremy Hall and another local product and DC United defender, Jordan Graye.

I need to maintain a bit of discipline about my thoughts on United. The club continues to do a tremendous job with regard to its supporters. There was simply no question that we would renew -- and expand -- our season tickets for the next season. No matter how dire the product is on the field, we've generally greatly enjoyed our trips to RFK and are looking forward to another year.

But the team itself is likely to be, once again, awful. Protecting Kurt Morsink after losing Jordan Graye was the final straw. I, admittedly, have little to offer by way of meaningful analysis of the relative attributes of players and strategies. But what I lack in competence, I have made up for in resilience by way of witnessing nearly every horrid minute of United's seasons over the last two years.

Jordan Graye had a solid rookie campaign marred by two gaffes that he was unlucky to have turned into goals for the other side. Graye's crosses and distribution were better than anything offered by United's other wide players. That is not to say that Graye's deliveries were exceptional, but rather underscores the absurdity of having signed Danny Allsopp to play up front with little ability to feed him the ball in the box.

Kurt Morsink, in contrast, underperformed and with a few notable exceptions was a negative influence on the field. Morsink made a mockery of on-field leadership by consistently hectoring others and failing to live up to his own exhortations. A fair review of tape from this past season would expose numerous examples of piss poor play from Morsink.

I am inclined, Rod Dyachenko excluded, to support United players regardless of perceived deficiencies, but Morsink lost me early on in the year and his failure to follow through on plays -- to give his best effort with limited talent -- infuriated me in the stands. Morsink was an emblem of the team's shortcomings rather than a ray of hope for a resurgent 2011 campaign.

And, more importantly, Morsink sits in a position -- center midfield -- that is already competently patrolled by Clyde Simms and Stephen King.

Morsink is a good player. He has built a career as a professional soccer player and he earns his salary. He would probably be an important contributor to another MLS side -- unlike Rod Dyachenko, who did not have the skill to play in the MLS but was asked to do more than he could by Coach Soehn -- and so my annoyance is not really a personal sleight at Kurt. Instead, it is exasperation at what United's front office has seen and how they've assessed the last couple of years.

Perhaps McCarty will be a useful addition. I don't know. Dax had a couple of games this last year where he imposed himself on the pitch in a way that Rodney Wallace has not yet been able to do. But both Graye and Wallace were promising, good young players and United, frankly, pissed Graye away. Ascribing value to Morsink, after not doing the same for Graye -- on top of benching Graye for much of the remainder of a meaningless season but playing Morsink -- does not bode well for a meaningful turnaround in 2011.

I've had several days to reflect on the loss of Graye and Wallace. Rather than come to grips with the new reality, I've just become increasingly disenchanted with United's management. At least I will get to see Jordan and Rodney (and Jeremy Hall) play for a competitive side when the Timbers visit RFK. Nevertheless, for some reason, that prospect doesn't salve the wound.

Best of luck to Graye and Wallace (and Hall) in Portland. We'll miss you.

This Week in the Veikkausliiga

The last time we saw Josh Wicks, he was sitting with a friend in the stands at Richard Montgomery High School this past summer watching Mason Trafford and Real Maryland play in a USL2 league fixture.

Two reasons that will not happen again: a week and a half ago, Real Maryland announced that it was self-relegating to the fourth division and will play in the USL Premier Development League in 2011 and, on Wednesday, IFK Mariehamn's addition of Josh Wicks was formally announced to a roster that already included Mr. Trafford.

My initial thoughts about Real Maryland's move to the PDL have evolved from disappointment that we will no longer be able to see third or second division soccer locally, to gratitude that Real Maryland will continue in some form and that we'll have the chance to see local PDL squads by just hopping on the metro up to Rockville.

I know more about IFK Mariehamn than I do about any PDL team, yet the DC metropolitan area is blessed by a relative abundance of PDL sides. Real Maryland will join another local new entrant, the Fredericksburg Hotspur (an hour and a half's drive away), in the mid-Atlantic Division. And both clubs will compete against a well-established side in the Northern Virginia Royals (an hour's drive away in Manassas).

It will take a little more work to get out to see Josh Wicks play. Wicks' signing was announced at the same time as IFK Mariehamn reported that the club had successfully negotiated a two-year extension of Mason Trafford's contract. Negotiations with another former Real Maryland player, Joe Funicello, are reported to be ongoing.

We're thrilled that Wicks has secured a spot at Mariehamn. He remains one of our favorites to have ever donned a DC United shirt. Wicks plays with passion and, when away from the field, showed as much enthusiasm for the game as a fan as he does as a player. He has been unfairly slated for a red card in a US Open Cup Final that he should, admittedly, not have put himself in a position to earn. But, like Louis Crayton before him, there was never any question that Wicks enjoyed playing for United and he never shied away from United's supporters.

The Aland Islands are set to welcome a heck of a player.

And, in the meantime, if anyone knows how we can kit the family out in IFK Mariehamn gear, please drop us a line.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Onwards and Upwards

Great results for my passive following of sports this weekend. Charlton's ridiculous 5 to 1 drubbing of Posh at London Road; the Bulls 103-96 win over the Wizards and Captain Kirk before the annual circus trip; Manny Pacquiao's -- hero to pinoy around the world -- utter dominance over Antonio Margarito; and the Bears' third win over a division rival this afternoon were each welcome developments.

In terms of live sports, I spent the weekend watching women's college sports. Saturday at Comcast and Sunday at Ludwig and two different results.

On Saturday, the Maryland women opened their basketball season with a walkover against Monmouth. This version of the Terps remains young. There are no seniors in the team, only four juniors (Lynetta Kizer; Anjale Barrett; Kim Rodgers; and Yemi Oyewufa), and the season will hinge on the quick development of several freshmen, particularly Alyssa Thomas, Natasha Cloud, and Laurin Mincy.

While last year's squad presented a perimeter threat to their opponents, this year's version should get most of their points in and around the paint. Maryland had a significant post advantage over Monmouth. Kizer and Thomas headline a strong front line that also features freshman Alice DeVaughn and sophomore Tianna Hawkins. The two that I am most excited about seeing develop this season are Diandra Tchatchouang and Essence Townsend. Both seem to possess incredible physical skills that they have not fully harnessed. Townsend missed all six of her shots and hung her head a bit after a miss, but continued to work hard on defense and made her presence felt around the boards.

Maryland missed an awful lot of shots near the rim and failed to convert a number of breakaways they created with steals off of Monmouth players. If they can execute better on Tuesday, they will have a chance to upset a surprisingly strong Hoyas team at McDonough.

While the Maryland basketball team faces a tough early test against Georgetown away two days from now, the Maryland soccer team had its season ended by Georgetown at home this afternoon. The Hoyas women's soccer team imposed a physical style of play on the Terps at Ludwig today. Led by a charismatic Ingrid Wells, the Hoyas pressed the Terps' defense and forced Maryland's midfield to sit far back away from Jasmyne Spencer and Sade Ayinde.

And yet, even isolated, Ayinde's brilliant turn inside off of a well-fed ball left her with enough space to hammer home the equalizer. As good as Georgetown was -- and they fully deserved to win in regulation -- Maryland likely would be in the final 16 of the tournament if they got anything from the right side of the team during the game. Lots of sloppy giveaways and poor touches allowed Georgetown's defense to play compactly within the box and focus on Spencer leaving the wings largely ignored.

Losing on penalty kicks is a tough way to end a season, but the team has to be proud about the incredible strides they have made in a short amount of time. Walking out of Ludwig back to the car, I marveled at the number of people who turned out for the game -- which took place at the same time as the home opener for Maryland's men's basketball team. A lot of the people there were Georgetown partisans (and their student supporters were great throughout the game), but there were a whole heck of a lot of families at the stadium that were cheering for the Terps. We saw girls walking around with t-shirts that had been signed by members of the Maryland team and a lot of young soccer players taking in what they might aspire to down the road.

That's a pretty good year.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Midas Touch

The NASL announced today that the league's application to the U.S. Soccer Federation for sanction as a second division of professional soccer has been finalized. Eight teams are part of the application and one of those eight is not from the Baltimore area.

Inside Minnesota Soccer is, of course, on top of the story. There seems to be quite a bit of animus towards some of the owners involved with the NASL -- particularly Joey Saputo who has only managed to get a nice soccer-specific stadium built and get the Montreal Impact into the MLS.

I don't quite get the criticism. For many of the teams, the clubs only exist because of an irrational economic risk by investing significantly in something that few see as having any financial upside. I am sure that Pete Medd could have done some things better and anyone who is owed funds by the club certainly has a right to think poorly of the business, but the fact remains that without Medd's willingness to throw himself into the club, we don't have the opportunity to watch a second-division team play in the Washington - Baltimore metro area.

Having the team in the area gave me, personally, a chance to introduce my daughter (and wife and other family members) to a sport in a relaxed atmosphere. We've had enough great experiences watching CP Baltimore games -- seeing the team beat the Red Bulls in the US Open Cup at a high school field in Annapolis; taking my newborn along with the rest of the family to a wonderful afternoon out in north Baltimore for a match against the Bermuda Hogges; and, most recently, having my daughter shine in her recently procured pink Montreal Impact jersey when Saputo's team crushed our side -- that I have got nothing to complain about. I am also fully aware that we only got to see CP Baltimore play because Medd made it possible.

Some of the criticism seems to also lack perspective. Yes, this was a World Cup year, but many football clubs throughout the world are struggling to survive because the economics of the sport are screwed up and because the world economy is not exactly firing on all cylinders.

Dundee Football Club's future is in peril following a 25-point penalty for going into administration for the second time in the last seven years.

Just a year and a half ago, we were at Dalymount Park watching the Bohs. When we returned home from Ireland, we sponsored one of Joseph Ndo's shirts and were thrilled to see him net a vital away goal in Austria against Red Bull Salzburg in Champions League qualifying. Now? The club is in desperate straits, carrying 5 million euros in debt with little hope of a sufficient stream of revenue to service that debt. The club is now asking supporters to come up with €300,000 in donations to "get through the licensing process" to return to the Premier Division. Regardless of what happens, the club's talent is going to be gutted and they will struggle to remain in the top flight in 2011 and 2012.

Bohemian FC is a 120-year old club that is at risk of being felled by an embarrassing Champions League qualifying loss against Welsh-side The New Saints earlier this year. That's football. The fact that lower division soccer has not taken off yet in the U.S. is dwarfed by the fact that famous first division Irish sides (the Bohs news comes on the heels of Cork City's liquidation) are maintained by the thinnest of margins.

Bohs supporters are undoubtedly angry, but they will play a seminal role in the survival of the team, just as Cork City's supporters assisted in making the Cork City FORAS Co-Op's first year in the second division a relative success with a sixth place finish and just as, in England, supporters (with the considerable help of a local tycoon) of a fourth division side kept Accrington Stanley viable last season.

In contrast, supporters will have little to do with the return of "FC Baltimore" or AC St. Louis to the second division (or the return of Real Maryland to the third division). And that makes some sense insofar as the connection between supporters and these clubs is far more limited than the link between club and fans in Ireland or the United Kingdom. There is little reason for supporters to expend the time and effort on recapitalizing teams that became money pits almost immediately after coming to fruition and show no significant prospects for improvement in the near term. But that doesn't mean that this should not be a goal for U.S. soccer fans. Phil Rawlins' lack of regard for the importance of football fans in Austin was yet another incentive for fans exercising a bit more strength in terms of the sport in the U.S.

Still, any such uprising does not seem to be in the immediate future. In the interim, getting involved in helping teams outside of the United States that are facing extinction would seem to be a useful and educational alternative. I've learned quite a bit from only limited involvement with Ebbsfleet United and Stirling Albion and the supporters of Accrington Stanley. Most of what I have learned is of limited relevance outside of the specific context of those clubs, yet each experience has underscored the seminal role that supporters have the ability to play as something more than mere customers of an entertainment.

IFK Mariehamn

Two pieces of good news today to help break up the workday.

First, Maryland won its quarterfinal ACC tournament tie against Clemson. London Woodberry was once again absent from Maryland's squad, although Ethan White returned to the starting lineup. The Terps' backline continued to be a bit makeshift as Alex Lee was only able to put in twenty minutes, with Greg Young relieving him for the balance of the game.

The story of the match would appear to be Billy Cortes' continued star turn at right back in Woodberry's absence. Cortes' goal and assist accounted for both of Maryland's goals and put the Terps through to the semifinals to face Virginia.

Second, Goff reports that Josh Wicks will sign a contract to join IFK Mariehamn. If true, Wicks should be in the mix to replace Willis Ochieng.

If Wicks goes to Mariehamn, he'll be the third player with Real Maryland ties to join the team, following Giuseppe Funicello and Mason Trafford.

IFK Mariehamn presents a great opportunity for Josh. For reasons that still elude me, Wicks has drawn the ire of a number of DC United supporters. We were at the US Open Cup final against the Seattle Sounders. We saw the "stomp" on Montero. We were disappointed, but that is not my lasting memory of Josh Wicks as a member of the team. Much like Louis Crayton, Wicks played for the club's supporters and went out onto the pitch with enthusiasm every time he suited up.

The most endearing thing about Josh is how much his love for the sport is apparent. We've seen Josh in the stands at Ludwig, where he happily signed autographs for young kids at a college game, and in the stands at Richard Montgomery, taking in a Real Maryland game along with a sparse group of other supporters.

I hope that Wicks ends up at Mariehamn and I hope that he's been able to work through those things that have stood in the way of his success in the sport. We're rooting for him and, obviously, Real Maryland east.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Yeoman's Work

On Friday night, the Terps paid tribute to the senior members of the 2010 men's soccer team -- Will Swaim, Greg Young, Doug Rodkey, Billy Cortes, and Jason Herrick.

Some of the five will have a career as professional soccer players, although, with the exception of Jason Herrick, I am unsure as to which desire such a future.

During the game, our daughter wanted to goof off on the grass near the field. Standing next to her, I got a chance to see Herrick, at field level, deal with a defender that continually fouled him and tried to intimidate him with physical play. Herrick was nonplussed. With each hack, Herrick would pick himself up and return back to the play without a change in facial expression. If anything, the confrontations seemed to light a fire under Herrick.

In addition to a bit of a physical resemblance, watching Herrick play is a bit like watching the English international Kevin Davies. Both are physical strikers that do not shy away from contact. Both are also often overlooked because their consistent and steady play is overshadowed by flashier peers. And both seem to have fully committed to a professional approach to their craft.

After catching Spurs-Bolton this morning, I find the comparison a bit more intriguing. Davies was, of course, tremendous. More than his brace, his best play of the game came on the header that led to Martin Petrov's goal. Through 90 minutes, Davies won nearly every fifty-fifty ball that was near him. The header to Petrov was gorgeous.

Herrick offers similar attributes in the air and Casey Townsend, among others, has benefited immensely from Herrick's willingness to commit himself to every free ball. But I nevertheless wonder if any MLS team will value Herrick's considerable contributions on the field. Herrick is frequently faulted for not being able to consistently create his own shots, but Herrick nevertheless creates scoring opportunities.

Jason will be drafted by an MLS team, but the pick is unlikely to be made with much fanfare. That's unfortunate, because several years of watching him play have eliminated all doubts that he'll be successful as a professional -- so long as he is given a real opportunity to prove himself.

A Big Year III

Yewande Balogun put up another shutout (Gametracker says she made 6 saves) and kept Maryland in their ACC semifinal matchup against Boston College to facilitate a Danielle Hubka game winner less than a minute into overtime. The Terps now face Wake Forest in the ACC Conference final on Sunday.

We were at Ludwig for the men's season finale against Coastal Carolina. Shaun Docking's strategy was different than what we've seen from other teams. Docking had two of his defenders shadowing Jason Herrick and Casey Townsend continually throughout the first half. And it worked, Coastal Carolina shut down Townsend and Herrick.

However, there were eight other outfield players for Maryland who had an easier time of it. Boyzzz Khumalo's alma mater gave up five goals on the night. Four were screaming shots from out side the goal box -- a beautiful free kick from Karou Forbess, a rope from Billy Cortes to give Maryland the lead, a stunning laser from Helge Leikvang to close the scoring, and another shot whipped into goal off the foot of Matt Kassel (which I missed while chasing around my daughter). All five goals would have been scored off of long distance shorts (and Leikvang would have had a brace), but Helge's shot bounded off the crossbar just beyond the goal line only to have the rebound put back into the net by a brilliant header from Paul Torres.

London Woodberry was, again, "injured," and Ethan White also didn't feature. The backline of Cortes, Lee, Young, and Kemp was not heavily challenged. The game was comfortable enough where we got a relatively extended look at Jake Pace and Gordon Murie.

Maryland rolled tonight. The team, however, seems unsettled enough in defense that the Terps' ability to make a dominant run in the NCAA tournament is a bit of a question. As good as Cortes has been at right back, Maryland is better with London Woodberry at fullback and Cortes in the midfield. The ACC tournament will be an interesting trial run.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Trying to be for a sport when it is flat on its back

On Tuesday night, I opted to subject my two-year old to the elements at Ludwig over enjoying the comfortable interior of Comcast, where the Maryland women were hosting their first exhibition game of the season. We've dallied and dithered on renewing our season tickets, principally because of my almost singular focus on soccer to the exclusion of everything else. Our daughter has never asked me to take her to a basketball game (although there is no question she enjoys going to see the Maryland women play), but she does constantly ask to join me at soccer games.

I will remedy my lethargy by renewing today and we'll plan to be at Comcast for the second exhibition game Sunday. And I'll do both because, while watching my Bulls get thumped by a Knicks team that made two-thirds of its three point shots, I got caught up with DC Basketcases.

It is dramatic understatement to note that Eileen and Judith are passionate about women's basketball. Their love of the sport exists in an environment where most of the sports world is either apathetic to it or actively derisive. Even within this hostile environment, some of those in charge of the sport have piled on by marginalizing its fans even further, as Sheila Johnson proved again recently by summarily dismissing any responsibility to keep fans informed about major developments with the Washington Mystics.

Yet, in spite of these challenges, they remain firmly committed to the sport.

It may be obvious that I see parallels between soccer and women's basketball. In the Washington metropolitan region, we are at great risk of losing three of the four professional soccer teams in our area over the offseason and, should it happen, few will care. Although the collapsing of franchises may not matter to people now, I believe that, with time, scores of other families will come to appreciate what the Freedom, CP Baltimore, and Real Maryland offer. I would imagine that DC Basketcases has the same abiding hope for the Mystics and women's basketball in general.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

TT For Now

It is fitting that after declaring the 2010 Bears a fun team to watch, viewing two of their last four games has killed my interest in football this season. I am grateful insofar as it could have been a lot worse had I actually seen the game against Carolina.

But despite the hand-wringing and hectoring of the Chicago media, it is difficult for me to pin the blame for losing three of the last four on a lack of a running game or an unwillingness to abandon a pretty passing game. For the first time in quite some time at Soldier Field, the problem does not appear to be coaching strategy, but execution. Jay Cutler is probably a fine quarterback, but his unwillingness or inability to adjust to Martz's offense and take the checkdown option is killing both him and the team's massive offensive potential.

The easy refrain from those responsible for interpreting Chicago sports is to vacillate between pillorying Cutler for his outsized ego and horrid performances and lecturing Martz for his unwillingness to run the ball into the line. It is not surprising that the media analysis has been derivative and overladen with affected expertise, nor is it surprising that its bogus bluster. What is surprising is that it need not be this way and that the state of sports writing in the country has not devolved to a state that this is all that is on offer.

Witness, for example, T.J. Simers' incisive takedown of Vinny Del Negro after VDN's four game tenure with the Clippers. Simers gets to the core of what many Bulls fans saw early on in his time in Chicago, but what appeared to evade Chicago sportswriters busy telling supporters that Tyrus Thomas was not a committed enough player and disruptive in the locker room. The truth, I would imagine, implicated VDN's deficiencies as a coach.

In contrast, early returns for Tom Thibodeau's nascent reign are promising. Dare I write it? The 2010-2011 Bulls are entertaining. I have watched two of the three games this season (the opener in Oklahoma City and Monday night's game against Portland) and the ceiling/floor on this team is wide open. Thibodeau has rewarded performance and handed out playing time on that basis. After the first two games, Scalabrine looked like he was going to be TT's security blanket, but the ginger giant did not see significant floor time when the Blazers began their fourth quarter run. Luol Deng rode the pine when his play on the court fell flat, but on Monday night Thibodeau seemed fully content to hand the game over to Deng on his way to a career game. TT has also not been enamored with the veteran players brought in to round out the squad, and C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, and Keith Bogans have not been guaranteed playing time just because they've logged significant minutes in the NBA.

The team has not yet gotten significant contributions from the Jazz trio (Korver, Brewer, and Boozer) and if and when they do step up the team becomes even more difficult to characterize. For the time being, the Bulls' returning core is setting the pace. Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, and James Johnson will drive the team.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

3 to 0

A pair of three to zero results have made for a pleasant day.

I don't know if any Charlton supporter expected the squad to go away to Swindon Town and come back having given our playoff vanquishers of a season ago a drubbing. I did not and news of Joe Anyinsah's second goal caused me to give an audible cheer in the office today -- something quickly misinterpreted as having something to do with developments in the midterm elections. Paul Benson's goal had me even more excited as I have taken quite a shine to the player. I am very hopeful that the quality of his character will be rewarded with plenty of tallies during the league campaign.

I knocked off work in time to make it to Ludwig for a visit from the #17 ranked Tribe of William & Mary. Although we made it to the stadium in time, snacks for the little one were the first priority and we missed the decisive goal score a minute into the game. We were in our seats for the second goal -- the best we've seen from a Terp all season -- when Casey Townsend one timed a punted ball from Taylor Kemp into the left corner of the goal. Townsend should have had a brace but put a free shot directly into William & Mary's keeper. The rebound, however, led to the third goal.

London Woodberry was "injured" again for tonight's game and Ethan White was also out for the game. But the makeshift backline of Billy Cortes at right back and Greg Young slotting in next to Alex Lee in the middle did not give the Tribe many opportunities on goal. Even where the shots were put on frame, Zac MacMath was there to palm the ball away from goal.

Maryland dominated the match and William & Mary didn't seem to be in the same class. But my principal takeaway was that, as much as I enjoyed the game, I was glad to hear the final whistle, as it was really, really cold.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Senior Day

On another beautiful October day in Maryland, we were able to catch the second half of the women's regular season finale against Miami. With players on their roster from McLean, Fairfax, and Columbia, the Hurricanes gave the Terps a scare in front of a significant number of away supporters at Ludwig.

Miami matched Maryland's early goal shortly into the second half and effectively bottled up the Terps offense until a well-taken headed goal from junior Lydia Hastings put the game away.

Hastings gave them the lead, but Yewande Balogun again won the game with fearless play in goal. Shortly after Maryland's second goal, Miami's senior striker Brittney Steinbruch beat Maryland's defense on a run with the ball at her feet and had Balogun one on one with a great opportunity to tie things up, but the Terps' keeper came out quickly, forced Steinbruch to make a quick decision. Even then, Steinbruch got off a good shot that Balogun parried with her right arm.

At the end of the match, Steinbruch had to be consoled by teammates. I hope it was not because of the missed shot, as she did everything right on the play -- Balogun just made a very, very good reaction save.

If Maryland is selected to host a game in the NCAA tournament, it will apparently be played Friday, November 12th. That will eliminate, for me, any thoughts of heading up to Harrison for the Big East tournament. The chance to see Jasymne Spencer's stepover one more time this season is too good to pass up.

Staying Up

A pleasant trip to The Mall this afternoon precluded me from following developments at The Valley this morning, but it appears that a bit of sanity has been restored with a win over the Owls and CAFC back in playoff position.

The good result for Charlton was complimented by similar success for the two Scottish sides that have grown near and dear to our hearts, as both Raith and Stranraer maintained their respective table topping form with wins in their league fixtures.

The Finnish football season concluded last week and despite my assumption that IFK Mariehamn would coast to safety, things did not go smoothly. IFK ultimately ensured a return to the top flight next season by finishing in 12th place, but left things close with a loss to KuPS in the season finale, caused, in part, by an own goal from Real Maryland's own Mason Trafford. Things would have been much worse, however, if not for fellow USL2 alum Lamar Neagle's goal against the team ultimately relegated -- FC Lahti -- in the previous fixture.

Managing a draw against the league's worst team salvaged IFK's season. And Neagle's goal was his second in two games, having also scored IFK's only goal in their loss at MyPa.

Ending the season with two losses and a draw was undoubtedly disappointing to the team and its supporters, but I remain impressed at how quickly Trafford, Neagle, and Giuseppe Funicello became important contributors to the side.

I will be curious to see whether any of the three will be invited to extend their stay in Finland -- if they have any interest -- as IFK's league position has now been assured. None of the three are apparently under contract beyond this season (only six players on the team have contracts that run into 2011).

IFK is reported to have the smallest budget of any team in the Veikkausliiga, a fact that is not surprising given that the club hails from the Aland Islands, population 27,500 (with the town of Mariehamn -- the islands' only city -- hosting 11,000 of that number). Pekka Lysski's squad has punched above its weight the last few seasons with finishes of fourth, fifth, and sixth place in three of the preceding four seasons. Indeed, although IFK has finished twelfth twice before since its promotion to the premier league in 2005, the fact that it is in the top division at all is beyond any reasonable explanation. The club apparently spent only one year in the Ykkonen after gaining promotion out of Kakkonen's South Group in 2003 and has not looked back since.

IFK's remarkable run must be due, in no small part, to Lysski's willingness to bring in talent from anywhere in the world. The team had players of nine different nationalities this past season, many of whom are using the experience as a springboard to bigger and better opportunities. The team's keeper, Kenya's Willis Ochieng (one of two Kenyans on this year's side), as just one example, is reported to be looking for opportunities in Sweden after his three year contract concluded at the close of the season.

Although there are unquestionably Americans playing abroad that are achieving amazing things on far grander scales -- as ably demonstrated by Maurice Edu's terrific goal against Inverness today and Clint Dempsey's brace at Craven Cottage (including a headed goal off a beautiful cross by Mexico's Carlos Salcido) -- Lamar Neagle's experience at IFK is singularly amazing because of everything inherent in the immediate transition from USL2 MVP to a little club in the Veikkausliiga from a little town nestled in the midst of little Swedish-speaking islands.

Jamie Hill of Yanks Abroad advises that if any of the three return to the Veikkausliiga next season, they may be joined by another American, as Etchu Tabe's RoPS won promotion to the premier league at the expense of Lahti. RoPS also features a Canadian, Kennedy Owusu-Ansah, who saw limited playing time last season. There appears to be no guarantee that either will return, as the club will focus first on resigning domestic players for the 2011 campaign.