Thursday, July 29, 2010


A couple of important things happened with teams I care about while the lights were out in College Park.

First, Derrek Lee announced that he would exercise his ten and five rights and veto any trade to another team. For this expression of a desire to stay with a Chicago Cubs team that has experienced yet another season of absurd turmoil, Lee was pilloried by a vocal group of fans and commentators for refusing to allow management to move his salary and net back some (likely marginal) prospects. I will confess that I am stunned by this response. To me, Derrek Lee has come to be yet another iconic figure of the franchise -- a good player with immense talent who is also, oh by the way, a very good person. Lee has always represented the team with pride, been a consummate professional, and reflected well on the city of Chicago. I am therefore extremely appreciative of Bruce Miles' spirited defense of Lee in the Daily Herald.

It is almost to the point where I do not recognize a large portion of the fanbase that currently supports the Cubs. Out of necessity, the values instilled in me as a Cubs fan emphasized the personalities of the players rather than the transitory place of the team in the standings. Winning is all well and good, but a Cubs fan has little knowledge of what it is like to put winning on a pedestal above and beyond any other attribute of supporting a sports franchise. The fact that Ryne Sandberg never won a World Series does not, for me at least, detract from the fact that he is one of the greatest athletes in Chicago that I have had the privilege of rooting for. Same with Greg Maddux's two tenures on the North Side. The Cubs never lost because of Ryno or Mad Dog or Kid K or The Hawk or plain old Derrek Lee. The Cubs have lost in spite of having these great players. The belief that Lee should be booed because he has expressed a desire to stick it out in a locker room that will soon once again accommodate Big Z is insanity. General reports out of Chicago indicate that there is little chance that Lee will be re-signed next season. If this is true, the next two months should be about thanking Lee for everything he tried to do for the club and everything he achieved in that vain pursuit. I can say without equivocation that I am proud to support a team that Derrek Lee plays on. He was pure class from the moment he put on Cubbie blue and he has done nothing to tarnish that well-deserved image. Thanks Derrek. Even if it is only for a few more weeks, I am grateful for the chance to root for you a little longer.

Second, D.C. United released Boyzzz Khumalo on Tuesday. In response, a number of United supporters, including some of my fellow season ticket holders, have chosen to eulogize Khumalo's tenure with the team by hammering him for his purported deficiencies. On Sunday, in addition to getting autographs, I asked a few players if they would be willing to have their photographs taken with my daughter for posterity. I asked Julius James, because more than any single player on the team, his commitment and work ethic is exemplary and I love watching him play. I asked Rodney Wallace, because our daughter has been watching him play since he was at Maryland and has heard me rave about him for her entire life. I asked Adam Cristman, because I am in awe of hard he works for a salary of $30,000 a year and admire the hell out of the fact that he has not given up. And I asked Boyzzz Khumalo. I asked Khumalo because he is the nicest, kindest, most engaging player on the team. I asked Khumalo because he is perpetually smiling and always seemed to convey a sense that he understood the privilege of being able to wear DC United's shirt. I asked Khumalo because I wildly cheer for him whenever he is on the field and wince in exorbitant pain whenever he failed to convert a one-on-one opportunity or a sitter in front of goal.

I cannot honestly argue that Boyzzz deserved to be a starter on the team, nor that he didn't get a fair opportunity to prove his worth -- although he would have been helped by some competent forward play on the end of his crosses. I understand why he was cut, although I can think of at least one player on the squad who should have received marching orders before him. But it sucks all the same.

I appreciated the thoughts of Martin Shatzer on Khumalo's release and agree generally with the points made. I loved cheering for you Boyzzz. Keep the dream alive.

I would also make one additional point. As an objective and empirical matter, the closing of DC United's "USL" signings says nothing about the value of bringing in players from the lower leagues. Boyzzz, whatever his faults, was a sound contributor to United. A lot was asked of his fellow Riverhound Greg Janicki and although Janicki left United after some terrible hash work in the center of the defense in CONCACAF Champions league ties, United supporters may be treated to his play again in the MLS when the Vancouver Whitecaps make the leap from Division II next year. In fact, Janicki scored the gamewinner for Vancouver over Montreal at Saputo Stadium last night; it was the second time he scored against Montreal this season and his third goal for the Whitecaps.

Who is the Director of Soccer Operations for the Whitecaps? The same guy that brought Janicki into the fold at DC United, Tom Soehn (actual trivia: who set up Janicki's first goal against Montreal this season? Former DC United midfielder, Justin Moose, who Vancouver recently released). And hopefully, the same guy who will give Khumalo a shot now that he is a free agent.

There are a lot of players with D.C. United ties -- in addition to Janicki, Mike Zaher, and Rod Dyachenko -- sprinkled throughout the second and third divisions of American soccer. And some of them are doing pretty impressive things that make you wonder about whether they are, in fact, good enough to excel in the MLS. Take, for example, Nicholas Addlery -- another one of my favorite all-time United players (for an explanation read this great profile) -- who scored twice for the Puerto Rico Islanders in their manhandling of the LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center in the CONCACAF Champions League. Addlery has built on a decent campaign with Vancouver with tremendous showings for Puerto Rico and, briefly, while on loan, with C.D. Aguila of El Salvador (as a bizarre coincidence, the principal reason for my love of Addlery is that I chaperoned a girls' soccer team to an event where Addlery guest-coached while he was still with United -- many of the girls' family members came to the U.S. from the area around San Miguel in El Salvador and Nicholas was awesome to each and every one of them).

Tiyi Shipalane is on the Carolina Railhawks' roster after being signed in June, and although he has not featured much for the team he recently impressed as a sub. Cristian Gomez has four goals and three assists so far this year for a bad Miami FC team. PG County's own Stephen DeRoux plays regularly for the Montreal Impact and will be back in the area to take on Crystal Palace at the Soccerplex on Saturday. The NSC Minnesota Stars feature Ely Allen and Louis Crayton. Quavas Kirk plays for the Timbers. Perhaps none of these are good enough to play in the MLS (although I think there is a heck of an argument for Addlery getting another shot) and are correctly not part of DCU, but the fact that these guys could not make it (or, in Gomez's case, could not continue to perform at a first division level) has no more bearing on the utility of tapping up players from the lower leagues than does the club's limited experience with Boyzzz, Shipalane, and Janicki.

To the extent that there is talent in the lower divisions -- and there is talent (Matthew Mbuta, anyone?) -- DCU ought to do everything possible to plug into it.


D.C. United hosted its annual "Meet the Team Day" on Sunday afternoon at RFK. Like every good, decent, upstanding parent in the country, I dragged my two-year old to walk around in 100 degree weather on the field to interact with people she doesn't know. And the bizarre thing is, it went well. Set aside for a moment that Ben Olsen may have thought that my daughter was about to pass out from dehydration (and how even making that conclusion possible reflects on me as a father), my little girl insisted on staying at the event and eventually got into handing the players a soccer ball she was carrying around from LAYSA fundraiser and getting autographs. The club, as always, did a tremendous job. The players were in good spirits, free ice cream and other distractions were available to the kids, and my daughter is even more excited about heading to RFK because of the experiences she's had at the stadium. This is, for me, the best event of the season and although I recognize it sucks for the players, it is one of the reasons that I will make sure to budget for season tickets every season.

Another great thing about the day -- for me -- is the team's sale of used kits. I own an excessively stupid amount of match worn shirts (is there anyone else in the U.S. who owns more the a half dozen Stranraer FC shirts? if so, buddy, you got problems) and the opportunity to add to my collection is always too much to pass up. Do I have any objective need for a Gonzalo Martinez or Tiyi Shipalane shirt? No. Do I own them anyway? Yes. But I am also incredibly embarrassed by this collection and try, as much as possible, to go through the inventory as discretely as possible which always means I buy too much of shirts that I cannot even defend procuring. On Sunday, two guys next to me were flipping through shirts while I tried to go through some of them on one corner of the table and one of the guys says to his friend "Look, it's a Rod Dyachenko... you have to buy this jersey... you hated this guy... he was your all time least favorite player." His friend responded with an icy glare and, with that reaction elicited, the Dyachenko shirt was thrown back into the pile. Cue me... "Are you going to buy that?" "What, this shirt?" "Yes." "No, man, no" "Ok, thanks."

Fast forward four hours. A storm has blown the transformer on the power line outside of our house, trees have come down throughout the neighborhood, and our power has been cut (and would not return until a few hours ago). Left with little to do in a dark house other than clean up after the storm, my daughter suggests that we "go soccer game." A treacherous hour long commute from College Park to Rockville follows (and gives full evidence to the widespread damage of the storm) and we are at Richard Montgomery High School watching Real Maryland take on Charleston.

And who is that on the field with Charleston's Mike Zaher -- DC United alum -- wearing number 12 for Real Maryland?

I'll admit that I ranted about Dyachenko's performances in a DC United shirt while sitting in RFK, but I also was always conscious of the fact that much of his poor performances could be chalked up to the way Soehn used him and gave him far more responsibility than he could perhaps handle. Rod has skills. He shows them in flashes during games -- in Sunday's match, it was a high pass that he took off his chest with his back to the goal from 24 yards out and, in the same motion, dropped it to a shot on his right foot that sailed over the crossbar. But he is also a frustrating player and that was also very much in evidence in the game.

Still, I am, oddly perhaps, looking forward to seeing how he fits with the team the rest of the season. The game was played in beautiful conditions and what we saw was a much better game than what we traveled to the Soccerplex to watch the previous day.

Although if I was under any illusion that Real Maryland had the best stadium situation of the three local professional teams, that notion was disabused by stadium officials noting that young men had snuck into the locker room during a previous game and stole the wallets and personal possessions of Real Maryland's players. Its one thing to try and ply your professional trade on a high school football field; its another to have that point underscored by getting ripped off for what few dollars you have while plying your trade on a high school football field.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Requiem for a Franchise

Last Sunday, we took the whole family to watch DC United take on the LA Galaxy at RFK and, once again, heading downtown felt like an event. Although the result was disappointing, the atmosphere at the stadium was tremendous, capped off by the emergence of casual fans in our section (the type who asked us if there were any players on the field from the U.S. national team? and which one is Landon Donovan? and whatever happened to Freddy Adu?). Even with a late Sunday night start, our two-year old wanted to stay until after the final whistle. Our enjoyment was heightened by seeing Terps A.J. Delagarza, Omar Gonzalez, and Stephen King on the field. It does not seem that long ago that we were watching them play at Ludwig and each of three -- along with the injured Rodney Wallace -- have firmly established themselves as Major League Soccer players.

On the subject of the Terps, we continue to be blown away by the sheer number of quality players that come through that program. While following our adopted Northern Irish team's graceful bow out of the Europa League competition to Azerbaijan's Qarabagh this week, we were reminded that the U.S. U-20 national team that is currently in Northern Ireland preparing for the Milk Cup features two current Terps -- the very impressive Ethan White and Zac MacMath.

We could not go to the Pompey friendly with DCU tonight -- unfortunate, as the reports from friends who went in our stead made it sound like a spectacle that will not be matched anytime soon -- and I missed the U.S. Open Cup game on Wednesday, so I insisted on going to watch Crystal Palace take on AC St. Louis at the Soccerplex this afternoon in 100 degree heat. My daughter and I were probably the only people that wanted to be there. I like the team. I like the franchise. I want to support professional soccer in Baltimore. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to watch Mathew Mbuta play. But I cannot imagine that the club can survive much longer in its current state. There were less than, we thought, seventy people at the game this afternoon. No one seemed to want to be there, not the players, not the club's staff, not the stadium employees, not the players' wives and girlfriends, and not the youth team that was being recognized by the club. The whole thing was embarrassing... all the more so, because we estimated that there were over 100 people outside the stadium waiting to get in for the Washington Freedom game two hours early.

I've been a season ticket holder for CP Baltimore for three years now. I have tried to get friends to go with me to games, with some modest success in years past. I made a half-hearted attempt to recruit people today and, frankly, I am glad that I failed. No one at the club has ever reached out to me -- we've never been invited to take part in an event for season ticket holders and we've never even met any of the players (although the club did send us a CP soccer ball signed by this year's team, which was greatly appreciated). The team's move to Towson, its current plight, and the fact that today will probably mark the last game we attend saddens me, but, at the same time, I don't really feel like we were ever a part of the team. I was surprised to hear my wife wax nostalgic about the club today, as she recalled the joy of going to Annapolis and watching Crystal Palace surprise the Red Bulls. With a Charlton alum anchoring the backline, and personalities like Shin Harada, Val Teixeira, and Mbuta on the squad, we felt like we lucked into something at the ground floor. Alas.

While that slips away, our ties with Real Maryland have grown stronger. In addition to having season tickets, we've sponsored the team commercially and the club has kindly participated in supporting an awesome charity in DC that works with kids. The staff has always been friendly and has gone out of its way, at every game, to make sure that they appreciate our custom. In contrast to CP Baltimore, our expectations for Real Maryland were pretty low. We largely went initially because of the number of DC United alums in the roster. Now, I think my daughter looks forward to going to the games that we can make at Richard Montgomery and that she'll enjoy going tomorrow night after meeting D.C. United's players earlier in the day. Not expected, but as long as she enjoys it and I get to take in a footie, I am not one to complain.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Whatever deficiencies might arise from the lack of a stadium of our own, all of that falls away come game time.

Walking up an escalator from the Stadium-Armory Metro Station last night, I was struck by how excited I was for the event and the intense surge of emotion at the anticipation for what was to come. I have had the same feeling over and over again in my life -- most often walking from the L station to Wrigley, but also when hopping off the tube to go to The Valley and ambling towards any number of stadiums around the world. But it dawned on me that I do not feel like this about any other DC-area sports team; the same excitement is not elicited by CP Baltimore or Real Maryland or the UMd or the Wizards or Nats or Mystics or, even, the Hoyas. I go to those games because I love sports and enjoy taking in the spectacle of a competition. I have come to love United and to welcome it into a part of me that is prepared to die a little bit with every loss and disappointment, just for the false promise of some glorious success over the horizon. Charlton won me over easily and quickly, but my feelings about United have developed gradually over time and have, I believe, largely been the product of the efforts of the incredible men and women that work in the club's front office. They have endeavored, consistently and without fail, to make my family feel welcome at RFK such that each of us feels a deep connection to the team and its fortunes.

The walk from metro station to stadium gate is long enough to ponder such self-involved piffles, with the walk from turnstile to seat allowing for contemplation of the number of beers I planned on consuming (answer: as many as possible as it was very hot and humid) and Mario Vargas Llosa's writing regarding the 1982 World Cup in Spain -- in particular his essay penned before the opening match between Argentina and Belgium. In that piece, the Peruvian batted back a theory pressed by a Brazilian intellectual who argued that the world loved soccer because it presented the world as it should be, a place where effort, talent, and skill were rewarded within the framework of universally agreed upon rules that were uniformly enforced rather than continuously corrupted. Llosa argued that people sat in the stands not because of a pining for an ideal world that would never be possible in our day-to-day lives but, instead, that what brought them out was the simple desire to have fun.

Having read the essay on the metro ride over, I puzzled over why I found his take unpersuasive, but the answer, of course, is clear. As a supporter, watching a game is not fun. It is a gamble and last night, United fans lost. A beautiful performance on the pitch was wiped away by a lost ball by one of United's youngest yet most reliable players.

However, although I am a Cubs fan, I do not go to games because I am masochistic either. Whatever emptiness existed from the result and however pleased Sounders' fans were with another victory at RFK, United fans have two things that they do not: Andy Najar and Julius James. Forget points and standings and playoffs, at this moment in time, Andy Najar is, on his own, worth the price of admission. What he did on the pitch last night was ridiculous and just watching the fear that a 17-year old kid strikes in seasoned professionals made it worth sitting through a match where we saw the beer man once in 90 minutes.

And then there is Julius James. In two games now, James has neutralized potent attackers from the Sounders (Montero) and Red Bulls (Angel) and has developed into the strongest, most confident center half that I have ever seen play in a United shirt.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

European Tour

Lots of reasons to care about soccer outside of the World Cup today -- although the Germany-Uruguay consolation tie was entertaining. Charlton opened up their preseason friendly schedule with a two goal loss to AFC Wimbledon. DC United takes on the Red Bulls tonight in Harrison, as we get ready for the introduction of some new blood while the club continues to improve its play.

Watching Diego Forlan put in another great performance today was a nice reminder that European cup competition has begun. Most of the world isn't going to care about the initial stages -- none of it will come close to Forlan's exquisite showing against Fulham in the Europa League final. Still, Champions League play officially kicked off at the end of June (with the ridiculous storyline of Andorra's champions -- FC Santa Coloma -- being decreed to be 3-0 losers to Malta's Birkirkara FC for failing to be able to offer a playable pitch) and the second qualifying round kicks off this week. Bohemians FC drew the Welsh champions, The New Saints, and will host the first leg at Dalymount Tuesday.

Northern Ireland's champions, Linfield, did not enjoy a favorable draw and will have to take on Norway's Rosenborg BK. They will be decided underdogs in the matchup, but all things are possible and Rosenborg exited the Europa League competition last year in the second round to Azerbaijan's FK Qarabag Agdam. Qarabag went on an incredible run in the Europa League last year, knocking out Rosenborg, then beating Finland's FC Honka in the third qualifying round before losing to Steve McClaren's FC Twente Dutch side in the fourth round.

This year, we will be paying particular attention to Qarabag's Europa League exploits as they have drawn Northern Ireland's Portadown FC in the second round. Portadown qualified for the Europa League by making the domestic cup final, although the club lost to Linfield. The club has had a miserable record in European play; prior to this season they had lost 21 matches, drew another five, and won only two. Portadown had not won a game in European competition since 1974, when the club beat Iceland's Valur Reykjavik two to one. That woeful record has been improved, however, this season, with a 1-1 home draw against Latvia's Skonto FC and a glorious 1-0 away win over Skonto in Riga. Both of Portadown's goals were scored by Richard Lecky, one of three Portadown players we sponsored last season. Portadown will host Qarabag at Shamrock park on Thursday and then will travel to Baku to take on the non-Baku situated Azerbaijani side a week later.

A small contingent of folks in College Park, Maryland will be paying attention to developments at Shamrock on Thursday. Best of luck and here's hoping that everyone associated with the club enjoys the experience for as long as it lasts.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Home of Our Own

Earlier today, season ticket holders received the following letter by electronic mail from Crystal Palace Baltimore's President Pete Medd:

Dear Season Ticket Holder,

First and foremost, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support of our club. Our season ticket holders have, and continue to be the backbone of our organization.

As many of you already know, our relationship with UMBC has ended and we will no longer be playing our home fixtures on their campus. We had hoped that our relationship with the university would continue for this season and indeed for the next, but many factors dictated our need to move into a new home.

With this in mind, we are pleased to announce that we have a new home for the remainder of the 2010 season. We will be playing our home fixtures at the Paul Angelo Russo Stadium on the Calvert Hall campus. Moving into Towson is great for the organization and the convenient location of a fairly new stadium will make the viewing experience for our fans that much better.

Unfortunately, as the turf has to be replaced before we can move into our new digs, we will be playing our next four games at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown. It is an incredible soccer-specific facility that plays host to the WPS Washington Freedom and DC United’s US Open Cup games. If we are to have a temporary home, we might as well make it a comfortable one.

We look forward to having you aboard with us at Crystal Palace Baltimore as we move forward in this new chapter in our history.


Pete Medd
President, Crystal Palace Baltimore

Once the club moves to Towson, it will probably mark the end of our attendance of CP Baltimore games, but we might be able to swing going to the SoccerPlex for the next four matches, so it temporarily works out.

But the e-mail from the team drives home something that should be extremely disconcerting to any soccer fan in the DC-Baltimore metropolitan area. We have three professional clubs in the region and the team with arguably the best stadium situation is the third division team, Real Maryland, which plays on a high school football field. The club plays at a stadium sized for its crowd and near mass transportation. Richard Montgomery High School, for all of its flaws, has become a venue that we look forward to taking our daughter to for a game. UMBC, in contrast, was generally miserable -- an experience underscored by a game last season played while fans were attacked by angry hornets. Our allegiances, accordingly, shifted and we are now three times more likely to attend a Real Maryland game than a CP Baltimore fixture.

Things with DC United are better, insofar as RFK is located on the blue/orange line and I've never been attacked by stinging/biting insects at the stadium. But the field situation is clearly not sustainable. The upper bowl is rarely populated and when we've gone to Open Cup matches there, the 2,000 attendees posed in relief against 50,000 empty seats detracts substantially from the game.

It simply cannot be that difficult to build a soccer-specific stadium in a region that is crazy about the sport. I've been by the new Red Bulls stadium in Harrison a couple of times in the past year and I am unabashedly jealous of what their supporters have been given. Yesterday, I insisted on taking a detour from sightseeing to go to the Stade Saputo in Montreal and came away even more embarrassed by what we lack. The soccer specific stadium is magnificent:

The Montreal Impact also have a practice field next door (we saw players running in and out of the administrative offices when we visited):

When I told one of the staff members how we didn't have anything like this in Baltimore, she responded that "Oui, we are very proud of the stadium" and described with reverence the July 2009 visit of the Girondins to the stadium. Nearly 12,000 showed up for that match at the Stade Saputo (which, a week later, was followed up with a visit from River Plate). Nothing similar would appear to even be possible for CP Baltimore and I would imagine that even when DC United is able to entice AC Milan (or, for that matter, Pompey) to RFK, there is some embarrassment about the grounds.

Nevertheless, there seems to be little hope in the near term for a stadium anywhere in the region. There is no good reason for the lack of will to make a stadium a reality and at this point, if DC United is forced to move to Baltimore just to be able to have a home of their own, I would not object.

And just one minor note: if you are running for county council in Prince George's and want my support, with support meaning not only my vote, but an eager volunteer and campaign contributor, tell me that you will go to war for a stadium in our jurisdiction. Tell me, and my neighbors, that you recognize how important a soccer stadium would be for the diverse citizenry of your county and how such a stadium would have social relevance well beyond anything that FedEx Field could possibly offer or what U.S. Airways Arena could ever have hoped to achieve. In other words, Al Whiting, tell me that you are not Eric Olson.