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.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Big Year II

The University of Connecticut men's soccer team is not enjoying visits in or around our nation's capital this season. At the beginning of this month, the Huskies dropped down to Ludwig Field and walked out with their first loss (after seven wins and two draws). A run of five unbeaten Big East Conference games later, UConn was back earlier this week -- this time for a trip to Kehoe Field (for a game scheduled for Wednesday but delayed until Thursday) -- and left with loss number two.

The Hoyas are having an unbelievable season and exceeding all expectations. It is possible that the Washington metro area will be host to a number of NCAA Tournament games in a few weeks. (At least more likely than me dropping my excuses and finally making it up to Harrison to check out the new stadium for the Big East tournament before the NCAA tourney begins).

Unfortunately, the Hoyas are being overshadowed by the fact that Maryland is hitting its stride. London Woodberry hasn't played for the team since the first half of the Colgate match and the Terps were also without their most important player this season (Ethan White), but still managed to go down to Charlottesville and return with their eighth straight victory.

Two more regular season home games this season for the Terps as a final tuneup for the ACC tournament. William & Mary on Tuesday night and Coastal Carolina on Friday night. If you are in the area and have the nights free, you should be there. This is a special team and it is a special year.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Big Year

The Maryland women's soccer program is having an amazing season. They have already matched their win total from last season (14) and got their lucky 13th win of the year by -- ho hum -- going down to Chapel Hill and beating North Carolina for the first time in the program's history.

There have not been many opportunities to see the women play this October (their only home game of the month prior to tonight was on the 14th) and we were fortunate to be able to take care of work responsibilities so as to catch the second half of tonight's matchup of two top ten teams.

When the second half started, Florida State played aggressively and ran straight at (and through) the Terps' defense. Janice Cayman's goal seemed inevitable and the Seminoles looked like they had the game in hand.

But this appears to be a pretty resolute Maryland squad and the team did not panic, but rather continued to build and mount attacks. Eventually, a well-earned free kick outside of the goal box allowed Colleen Deegan to net the equalizer.

I was most impressed with Bowie's Yewande Balogun, who was fearless between the sticks. Florida State pressed well and the pressure unraveled Maryland's defense at times, but Balogun was superb. Fresh off a five save (and one assist) effort that downed the Tar Heels, Balogun threw herself in front of raiding Seminole players and kept firm command of the game.

I was also impressed by Rodney Wallace's presence at the game. There were only a handful of students at the game (hard to blame them, as hundreds were lined up to see Saul Williams perform) and the most avid cheering came from the score of FSU fans in the stands. But Wallace was there, sitting amongst the families in attendance, and neither taking a low profile or drawing attention to himself.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Look on the Bright Side...

Way too much negativity coming from these posts and thinking about D.C. United's finale, I would be remiss if I did not make two positive observations:

Jaime Moreno's goal was fully deserved. His dummies in the box confused the Toronto FC defender, baiting him into the handball, and earning the call that led to a converted penalty kick. But Jaime's goal was only possible because of Troy Perkins' release of the ball quickly up field to a spot where only Moreno could track it down. Perkins has gone through an awful year and has failed to meet the very high expectations that he walked into. But on that sequence, Perkins showed what he is capable of contributing should United add a meaningful attacking threat to its lineup.

Separately, Jordan Graye is a useful player. Graye put in two crosses from the left side in the second half that were superb. I do not understand why Graye saw so much bench this year, but those two crosses were the best placed of the game for D.C. United. Given how poorly balls are sent into the box on a general basis, this isn't actually saying very much, but Graye's crosses have gotten better and better as the season wound down. I may rate him too highly because of his unassuming style on the field and because his mistakes can likely be easily fixed with more experience, but he was an important component part of the team this year and I look forward to seeing what he can do with a year of MLS experience behind him.


The decisions by the ownership of the Rochester Rhinos and the Austin Aztex to leave the second-division have continued to trouble me. But while Rochester will still have some semblance of a team to root for -- there is more than enough precedent for a move down from the USL to USL2 -- Austin's fans have just been screwed.

And that makes this quote from Phil Rawlins in the Austin American-Statemen all the more remarkable:

Asked why season-ticket holders weren't made aware of the team's financial struggles, Rawlins said: "Why would they be? When you're talking about investment on the scale and the range we're talking about, you're talking about investment from business people and executives in the community, not a season-ticket holder."

"They've given their all and their help by contributing and buying tickets ... but there's a lot of distance between your season-ticket base and (investors)."

I get that Rawlins is defensive about the move and that he would prefer to act like an ass rather than have to face the consequences of what he feels is a sound business decision. And its his company.

But these are the people that own soccer franchises in the USL?

Set to one side the fact that the statement demeans fans, why would anyone invest in a business where the principals were this myopic?

There's a lot of distance between season ticket holders and investors? Maybe. Maybe most season ticket holders are just making it and do not have wells of disposable income to toss at an entertainment. But there at least two reasons why this view is idiotic.

First, the level of investment required in a lower division soccer franchise is limited enough that small investments from a wide group of stakeholders can make a major difference to a club's bottom line. And those small, incremental "investments" (really capital contributions) can be obtained without giving up any equity in the enterprise or any real control of the business.

Second, even if the majority of fans are on tight budgets, some supporters will be business owners or managers or decision makers who are capable of making the level of investment that Rawlins appears to be talking about.

I hesitate to make the point, because it seems as if I am making a comparison to Rawlins when none is intended, but I have been stunned by the lack of interest that the management of our two local lower division soccer teams in getting to know their fanbase. I don't think that either club has a good handle on who shows up at their games. Given the limited size of the supporter pool, this seems strange. I have gotten to know a bit about the management of one of the clubs because I initiated contact and facilitated a meager contribution for this season to see what would transpire. My goal was to test the waters and see if it made sense to become a bigger part of the club and initial returns have been disappointing.

The reality, for me, is that I set aside a significant sum of funds each year to throw away on soccer. Through sponsorship schemes and minor involvement in British and Irish clubs, I've tried to learn a bit about -- in an entirely different setting that does not necessarily translate to setups here -- what makes these teams work. At this point, I would much rather waste money on supporting clubs that I will never see play in person because these organizations understand a basic rule that seems to have eluded those involved in the sport here: what makes a football club is its supporters. In the end, almost nothing else matters. Pissing away 3,000 supporters, however compelling the reason, and then pissing on those 3,000 supporters is singularly bizarre.

I love what Brian Quarstad is doing at IMS. In addition to being a dogged and careful reporter on issues that are not otherwise covered, his site provides a forum for people who care deeply about the future of soccer in the United States. And I've taken some solace from comments on his site that observe that the USSF simply cannot let the USL get away with undercutting their announced requirements for a second-division league in country. I would hope that there are people looking at what happened in Austin that have the good sense to realize that 3,000 regular supporters is a financial bedrock upon which a successful franchise can be built by even a marginally competent person with the financial capacity to keep an NASL franchise in town.

Monday, October 25, 2010

This Can't Be Good

Brian Quarstad is once again way ahead of the curve on news that has massive ramifications on U.S. soccer.

That news is devastating: the Rochester Rhinos have ditched the NASL to drop down to "USL Pro"; and the ownership of the Aztex has screwed Austin's fans to become a third soccer franchise in Florida that no one will care about.

I've not had much of an opinion about USL although my impressions are generally negative.

But this is the organization that will control the future of lower division U.S. soccer? An organization that puts out an official release with this?:

Adding two clubs of this stature to already established sides like USL-2 champion the Charleston Battery and the Richmond Kickers, clubs with strong international ties in Sevilla FC Puerto Rico and River Plate Puerto Rico and up-and-coming clubs like the Dayton Dutch Lions, the shift USL is leading in the way lower-division soccer operates in North America and the Caribbean is undeniably underway.

"Undeniably underway?" Sure. That sounds great.

But what was that you just said about the team that ditched Austin to move to Orlando?

"We are thrilled to have two of the most accomplished clubs in the USSF Division 2-Pro League announce their participation in USL PRO," Holt said. "Not only have these teams achieved a high level of success on the field, they are also leaders in terms of the professional structure of their club and in their communities."

Communities? Good stuff.

Undoubtedly the thousands of fans in Austin appreciate those accolades. And, certainly, when you are struggling to make your mark in the American sports scene, pissing on thousands of diehard fans is a surefire way to change that scenario. Well played.

Real Maryland has not yet been announced as a USL Pro team and CP Baltimore seems unlikely to be a viable franchise and DC United has no prospects for finding a home in the metropolitan Washington area, so even better times for DC based fans of professional soccer.

To review, USSF intervened in the dispute between two rival groups of owners in the second division of U.S. soccer last year and, under the Federation's leadership, things are even more of a mess than what existed two years ago.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

If this is it...

Probably should have gone to see Maryland beat Wake Forest last night, if only to not have to see Morsink play again (if there is a way to go out, the giveaway that resulted in Toronto's game winner is a nice capstone to a season long career with DCU).

Not a lot of effort, not a lot of heart from United again and the fans that showed up deserve a lot of credit for putting loyalty above good sense and sitting through another abject performance.

But probably for everyone there, it was worthwhile to see Moreno's face at the final whistle. Although this was a terrible season to mark as his last and there seems to be no legitimate reason for forcing Moreno out on a schedule that is anything other than his own, none of this can take away from what he has done for the club and what Jaime means for its supporters.

Congratulations and thank you Jaime.

Taking Charlton to Pound Town

Last Sunday, a trip to the Imagination Stage in Bethesda resulted in a pleasant afternoon watching their current rendition of Bunnicula. This year's version of the play effortlessly blends elements intended to maintain the interest of adults in the audience with a fast paced storyline that never loses the interest of the (very) young barely filling in their seats. Because so much of the live entertainment intended for children is insipid in nature, the quality of the production was greatly appreciated and stoked our daughter's interest and enthusiasm for going to a children's event at the Studio Theatre yesterday morning.

By the time it was over and our daughter was comfortably ensconced in Logan Circle, Charlton had just started the remarkable feat of blowing a three goal lead at Carlisle. Reduced to getting irregular updates on the collapse from Charlton Life, I started thinking about the last time that we got to see Mike Grella, who seemed to be playing a seminal part in forcing Charlton's disintegration. Back in September of 2008, Grella visited Ludwig as part of a ranked Duke team that posed a serious challenge to the eventual national champions.

Grella was destined to be a Blue Devil. Cocksure and the opposite of charismatic, Grella looks like he could have walked off the screen as one of the legions of villains in a Lethal Weapon movie. On that September night, in front of a charged audience of over 6,000 in College Park, the Terps held Grella in check, winning the match on a set play headed home by Omar Gonzalez.

After the season, Grella turned down the opportunity to play for Toronto FC in the MLS and headed to Europe to try his fortune. A number of Americans that pay attention to the sport, I think, wrote him off for the decision even after an impressive trial with Leeds United netted him a contract at Elland Road, because he was toiling in the third division of English soccer. This would have been a ridiculous conclusion to draw considering LUFC's illustrious history and, even conceding the current hard times for the club, any team that beat Manchester United at Old Trafford to advance in the FA Cup offers more than anything an MLS team could come up with.

The fact that Grella has not been able to secure a regular berth with Leeds in the Npower Championship and the criticism he drew for refusing to join fourth-division Bradford City on loan to get playing time this season did not bode well, but early returns from his limited run alongside former USMNT golden child Frank Simek at Carlisle seem to be promising.

There was a lot of talent on the field for that September game and I think that it might be fair to at least raise the argument that Grella's career shows the most promise of anyone who participated in the game. Most of this sentiment reveals profound pessimism about the ability of USSF and MLS to build the career of U.S. soccer players.

Darrius Barnes played all 90 minutes for Duke and is now a regular starter in the New England Revolution's back four. Maryland's defensive back four has also done pretty well in country -- Omar Gonzalez and AJ Delagarza have impressed for the Galaxy; Rodney Wallace is a key part of DC United and was sorely missed this season; and Rich Costanzo has acquitted himself well with the now-defunct Thunder and the Rochester Rhinos in the U.S. second division. Jeremy Hall seems to have returned to health and is back in the starting lineup alongside some tremendous teammates with Red Bulls; Graham Zusi is an important contributor for the KC Wizards; and Drew Yates got paid to play professionally for FC Tampa Bay last season.

In fact, of the players on the field that day, the only other student athlete that went to Europe to play was, I think, Graham Dugoni, who last month headed to Norway to play in the second division for Mjondalen (and has seen only limited playing time).

Of these players, who is the most likely to be playing at the highest levels in Europe? At the moment, I think it is fair to say that the answer is Mike Grella. He still has to perform and show that he can play at a much higher level, but it seems far more likely that Grella will be tapped up from his current spot than any of the others, no matter how well they are doing in the MLS. Maybe that's wrong, but Grella showed yesterday that he has the ability, and if he can translate his skills into performance, he has put himself in the best position to take advantage of it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


My daughter was accompanied home from day care last week with a report that noted that she had been disobedient throughout the day and had spent considerable time in the "quiet chair" (she had apparently been slugging some of the other kids and when they howled in protest, she held her index finger up to her mouth and shouted "shhhhhh!"). In that sense, it was disappointing that she elected not to accompany me to Ludwig tonight as she would have felt an immediate, personal connection to London Woodberry. (Instead, she chose to stay home and watch Charlotte's Web for the eighth time in the last month ... leading my wife to discover that the reason she had been telling us over the last week that a number of things were "not fair" was a line delivered by Dakota Fanning early in the movie ... my wife already has a bizarre antipathy for Fanning and this added further fuel to that fire). I was too far away from the event to see what triggered it, but a bad giveaway in front of London led to a great opportunity on goal for Colgate. Woodberry was yanked from the game immediately and Cirovski appeared to let him have it on the sideline -- he was banished from the bench and forced to stand away from the team for the remainder of the game.

What Woodberry saw from his absurd vantage point justified my daughter's decision. I had gone to Ludwig expecting a walkover and a chance to see extended minutes from Maryland's bench players. Colgate, after all, had already lost this season to Cornell at home and Long Island away. But for the first thirty minutes or so, Colgate had Maryland on its heels. While Woodberry drew the ire of Cirovski, Taylor Kemp on the opposite flank had a howler of a game. Kemp repeatedly gave the ball away in bad positions in the back and Colgate tested him repeatedly by sending through balls to Jeff Leach on the right flank. Kemp was not alone, however, as Maryland struggled to string together passes and maintain possession. Nevertheless, while Woodberry watched from the barrier, Kemp played the full 90.

The tension between players that bring artistry to their games at Ludwig and those who embody a more brass knuckle hard-nosed work ethic is an interesting dynamic to Maryland's team and was fully on display tonight. On a surprisingly cold evening, the few fans and students that turned up were spared the prospect of extended minutes by a gorgeous shot from outside the box by Karou Forbess ten minutes from the half. Forbess' elegant shots and passes seem to put him fully in the artist camp of the team and may explain his limited minutes.

Similarly, I continue to swoon every time Sunny Jane is introduced to the festivities. Jane's agility and skill on the ball impress the spectator, but, on nights like tonight with few in the stands, what Jane does with the ball on his feet is offset by the bellowing screams of "Get Back Sunny!" from the coaches when Jane strays too far from his defensive obligations.

Ultimately, what won the game tonight was Maryland's hard workers. Greg Young, who replaced Woodberry at left back, embodies that ethic and filled the position effectively if lacking flair. The goal that sealed the game was off a corner whipped in by Kassel and headed in from five feet outside the goalmouth by Casey Townsend who fought his way into the position. But the night belonged to Jason Herrick, who bullied Colgate's tall back line (their two center backs are listed at 6'5 and 6'4" and the left back is reported to be 6'2"), and fought for every ball near him. Late in the game, Herrick went up for a 50/50 ball and put in an elbow into the side of the head of a Colgate defender. At an ensuing throw in, the Colgate player noted to the linesmen that he had been nailed on the side of his face and showed the blood drawn to prove his point. The rest of the Colgate players appeared outraged at another instance of the hard, physical play of Herrick and I assumed that they would try and exact revenge, but, instead, appeared to give Herrick a wider berth.

Maryland walked away a 2-0 victor and avoided embarrassment, but Colgate acquitted itself well, created a number of good goal scoring opportunities, and did not crumble under Maryland's pressure.

Zac MacMath had another excellent game in goal. The design of Cirovski's gameplan puts a lot of pressure on the backline and goal as the offense is built from and flows through the back and MacMath handles that pressure effortlessly. Even with some foul ups from the full backs, MacMath seemed nonplussed, confident with Ethan White and Alex Lee in front of him. The most impressive aspect of MacMath's game -- building on my note regarding the Clemson match -- is his distribution. For Colgate, keeper Chris Miller struggled to get goal kicks into Maryland's half. On the other side of the field, MacMath boomed kicks forward into open areas for Herrick, Townsend, Oduaran, or Mullins to run down. If Colgate got a shot on target or a cross to close to MacMath, their players had to release back quickly to keep pace with a racing Terp that would otherwise be in a dead sprint with Miller to get to MacMath's punted ball. MacMath is no slouch with his arm either. Late in the second half he hurled a ball past the half line mark towards a streaking Herrick only to have the ball cleared away by a well-timed lunge by Mike Garzi that averted disaster.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Moving Right Along...

A rude awakening on Saturday morning as Charlton's latest embarrassment at The Valley was a 4-0 drubbing by Brighton & Hove Albion. Phil Parkinson has his team. He's dispatched or alienated all of the mercurial skilled players on the squad for honest workers and, well, that does not seem to be going very well.

Being a glutton for punishment I ruined a fantastic afternoon spent in Anacostia by bringing the family home to watch DC United play the Fire on Comcast. Brian McBride's swan song at Toyota Park featured a performance every bit as dire from DC United as the last game against the Earthquakes. Jakovic and James returned to the lineup to anchor the back line, Najar was back, and Boskovic was on the bench, but once again MLS veterans got the nod over more talented alternatives with Devon McTavish as a fullback over Jordan Graye and Kurt Morsink as holding mid with Carlos Varela on the bench and Stephen King pushed up behind Pablo Hernandez and Danny Allsopp. At this point in the season, it should not matter in the slightest what happens in these meaningless games, but an awful game from disinterested players in DCU shirts is disheartening nonetheless.

An evening trip to Ludwig salvaged the soccer day. In the starting eleven of the USMNT on Tuesday evening, two (Onyewu and Holden) were former Clemson Tigers and two (Goodson and Edu) were former Maryland Terrapins. The last several years have seen a pretty vastly different turn in fortunes in the two programs and the Tigers came to College Park after having been humbled by Elon to face a Terps squad that is rolling. The first half played out according to script with some brilliant play from Sunny Jane rewarded when he broke the ice from a scramble in the box. A second goal off knotted home by Paul Torres off of a gorgeous cross from London Woodberry provided a comfortable lead. By the close of the first half, the game had the makings of a blowout with the Terps' youngsters, particularly freshmen Sunny Jane and Patrick Mullins and sophomores Paul Torres, London Woodberry, and Ethan White imposing themselves on an overwhelmed Tiger squad.

But the script was shredded in the second half after some great counterattacking play from Clemson. The Tigers abused Woodberry up the left channel and stunned the crowd by equalizing a half hour into the second half. Herrick's game winner -- a headed goal off of a seeing eye punt from Maryland's defensive half -- was a huge relief. At the end of regulation, however, Maryland appeared to have committed a foul in the goal box and was lucky to avoid overtime.

A couple of additional random observations:

The crowd was the best we've seen at Ludwig. The Crew was fantastic. Many of their chants were in support of the Terps rather than derision of the opposing squad and our daughter and many other children joined in. Almost every seat in the stands was filled for a non-marquee matchup on a cold evening and the vibe was overwhelmingly positive. Those who came out were rewarded with a great game and the question of whether we will be at Ludwig or at RFK next Saturday night is now a lot closer than I would otherwise have imagined. I feel an obligation to show my respect and appreciation for Jaime Moreno but, at the same time, if those paid to play for D.C. United do not feel similarly obligated regarding the intensity and quality of their performance, then perhaps my obligation can be met in some way other than sitting through another crap display.

Separately, I've struggled to see what makes Zac MacMath such a talked about goalkeeping prospect in his games at home this season. There is no question that he is a good player, but the hype hasn't seemed matched by his play. That misconception was corrected last night. I've been fortunate to see some pretty cool things at Ludwig over the last few years, but one sequence that probably escaped the attention of most in the stadium floored me. MacMath fumbled a cross and the ball bounced down in the goal box. Tigers players descended on the ball, but MacMath kept his cool. He picked up the ball and punted it forward on a frozen rope to Casey Townsend who was flashing up field. The ball caught the Tigers in a vulnerable state and was hit almost perfectly. Townsend missed the chip, but it should have been a goal. It was a turnaround that took all of three seconds. From a dangerous opportunity in the box for Clemson to almost giving up a goal on the other side of the field in a blink of an eye. I doubt that anyone but MacMath could do that in the college game right now.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Proper Stadium

DC United supporters should be issued a warning prior to heading to Chester, Pennsylvania. Going to PPL Park will make you angry. Not because of anything about the stadium per se, but because the Park is a cruel demonstration of what soccer fans in the Washington DC area have no meaningful hope for: a beautiful soccer-specific facility.

The performance of the U.S. Men's National Team did not warrant a four hour commute on a Tuesday night and few thought it was worth a trip of any length as we were joined by a paltry number of Uncle Sam's Army and a slightly larger group of Colombian partisans. But that did not matter. PPL Park is the best place I've seen a soccer game in the United States. The sight lines are amazing and the proximity to the action on the field is remarkable:

And Philly Union's fans have to love the team they come out to support. At halftime a series of moronic skirmishes relating to U.S. and Colombian flags in our section drove my daughter and I to the team store. While looking through the kid's merchandise, my daughter looked up to see Danny Califf standing with his wife flipping through team gear. Califf seemed to enjoy interacting with fans and answering questions and Califf was warmly received. Nevertheless, despite Califf's presence, knowing that she could get one thing in the store, my daughter picked out a matted photo of Fred to take home. I have no idea why she picked Fred's picture -- I would hope that it was because she has met him repeatedly and he has always been extremely friendly (unlikely, as she kept referring to the picture as a map and we had watched two hours of Dora the Explorer on the way up) -- but I am beaming with pride regardless.

I am now probably fully ensconced within the anti-Bob Bradley camp, even while recognizing that most of my complaints are ridiculous. Tuesday did nothing to sway my thoughts. The first half was a droll mess with a bizarre 4 - 1 - 4 -1 formation that was horribly organized. Most of Colombia's defense was composed not of their players but of the wanderings of Brek Shea and congestion with Edu, Bradley, Jones, and Holden trying to get out of each other's way. The experimentation with a new lineup did not seem terribly sincere and a switch to the more comfortable 4-4-2 in the second half seemed to confirm that the first half was just a straw man.

Regardless, Jermaine Jones is as good as advertised. His game on Tuesday night was the personification of a box to box midfielder. Jones set up attacks both through prescient long balls forward into dangerous space and with possession up to the goal box. And he also tracked back to close down on Colombia's admittedly anemic attack. The folks we were with reported that the game got much better when the second half opened up, but we were hanging out in the team store and by the time we got back to our seats the game was disintegrating again. Absurd dives on the field and feigned nationalistic pugilism in the stands marred the last fifteen minutes of the game.

Neither team left its supporters with much to be excited about, but it was still a good experience. And outside of the minor bellyaching, the only real complaint I had coming out of the stadium was the Sons of Ben's ruinous insistence on supporting their sides with profanity-laced chants. The claims that this is an issue about preserving the freedom of supporters to express themselves as they see fit are absolutely moronic. The issue is respect. Both for your fellow supporters and for the integrity of the game. The f-bomb doesn't need to be sung in unison to show that you are behind your team. This isn't junior high. The constant swearing is embarrassing to other fans -- particularly parents who quickly tire of telling their children that the chants are inappropriate -- but, more importantly, it reflects poorly on the franchise as a whole. After having sat through a game in PPL, I cannot understand why anyone would argue the point that the cursing is appropriate. It is functionally the equivalent of taking a dump or vomiting in the stands, it demeans the incredible gift that Philadelphia-area soccer fans have been awarded.


We bought our tickets for the U.S. - Poland friendly at Soldier Field shortly after they went on sale. Sweet tickets right off the field. A weekend back home in Chicago. The announcement that Bob Bradley had been hired and that USSF had flirted with Jurgen Klinsmann but ultimately decided that they didn't want to cede control of national soccer development to a proven winner (why change things when they are already broken?) substantially dampened initial enthusiasm. The formal announcement that the U.S. - Colombia friendly would be held up the road at PPL Park in Chester killed the enthusiasm and I sold off the sweet seats (thank you StubHub). Consolation came in the form of a league match between San Jose and DC at RFK. Walking out of the stadium, I regretted not having left to Chicago.

Of our group of season ticket holders, only one other person made the trip to the game Saturday night and he regretted leaving his house as well. The effort was abominable. For the Earthquakes, the play of Bobby Convey, Geovanni, and Chris Wondolowski was terrific. Wondolowski's two goals had a significant degree of difficulty. At 27, Wondolowski has to be considered one of the elite strikers in the MLS. In the league since 2005, his goal total this season (14 in 25 games played) blows away his prior contributions (4 goals in 39 games). And watching him play from the field makes clear that Wondolowski's development is not dumb luck but the product of an incredible work ethic and a ruthless commitment to putting himself in dangerous positions.

For a neutral, Wondolowki's performance, coupled with confirmation of Bobby Convey's resurgence and Geovanni's skill, would have made the game worthwhile. But the negatives emanating from DCU's effort wiped that all out. It wasn't all awful. This was our first extended look at 33-year old Carlos Varela, who was fantastic. As impressed as we were with the skill on display in third division football in Switzerland, Varela's talent, honed in the top two Swiss divisions with Geneva's Servette, FC Basel, FC Aarau, and Bern's Young Boys, is self-evident. By the same token, so is Varela's professional approach to the game. We have never seen Pablo Hernandez play worse and despite the fact that he flubbed the numerous opportunities created by Varela, it did not change Varela's approach.

The flip side of that coin was the disaster that befell Jaime Moreno in the opening minutes of the game when he threw himself to the ground after contact with Brandon McDonald. Moreno was trying to draw a red card for McDonald -- encouraged by Morsink hopping around flapping his hand around demanding an ejection -- and ended up getting himself tossed as well. Ben Olsen opted to let Morsink take the role of defensive mid, with Clyde Simms being pushed into the backline and Stephen King asked to push up. The result was a disaster. Simms, as usual, was more than competent and proved once again why he is one the most valuable players on the team. But King was incredibly uncomfortable taking shots on goal and didn't look anything like the threatening attacking player we had grown familiar with at Maryland. As for Morsink, I have developed such a strong bias against him that I cannot rationally evaluate his performance. But I have grown increasingly sensitive to how often Morsink bitches out his teammates without holding himself to the same standard. The game reached an epoch of awfulness when, in the second half, an Earthquake player split a double team at the upper left corner of the goal box, with Morsink providing the inside cover. Rather than turn around and chase back coverage, once Morsink was beat, he stood in place. Notably, no one took him to task for the gross dereliction of duty.

Olsen used three subs. None impressed. Allsopp made no difference. Former Miami FC second-division promotee J.P. Rodrigues was lucky not to get tossed for some awful tackles after getting out of position and Junior Carreiro was a mess.

If DCU's goal was to hasten the end of the season, the awful effort undoubtedly had most of the team's dwindling supporters eager for the end of the year. I have not regretted going to games this year and have genuinely appreciated how entertaining the games have been, despite results. But not last Saturday. That was a travesty. A disorganized team that looks like it has not been provided any discernible tactical guidance is a fairly unattractive way to present season ticket holders with a request for renewals.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Turtle Power

Ludwig Field on Friday and Tuesday night and a pretty stark contrast in atmospheres. On Friday night, we joined over 7,000 people (including a hobbled Rodney Wallace) at Maryland's televised game against Duke. The game wasn't terribly entertaining or maybe it was -- we found an open spot on the hill where we could see about one-third of the field unobstructed -- but it was a heck of a place to be. The negative vibe of the Maryland student support (blah, blah, blah SUCKS! blah, blah, blah SUCKS!) was ratcheted up by the identity of the opponent but leveled out by an equal number of students that showed up just to watch the match and a whole lot of alums and neighbors from the surrounding community. My daughter had a blast and she enjoyed running around with lots of other young children at the stadium and I had as much fun watching her as I did watching an impressive Maryland team on the field. At the end of the game, she was so happy with the evening that she wanted to get down to the field to applaud the players. I walked out a happy man.

Last night, a far smaller crowd took in an even better game against UConn. While students and neighbors spent a chilly night elsewhere, the game drew plenty of interest for other quarters. Goff notes:

Sixth-ranked Maryland handed No. 2 Connecticut its first loss, 1-0, in College Park. Among the witnesses at Ludwig Field: D.C. United interim coach Ben Olsen and technical director Chad Ashton; Real Salt Lake executive Garth Lagerwey; Houston Dynamo assistant Steve Ralston; former DCU coach Curt Onalfo; and representatives from the Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls.

We sat near Chad Ashton in the first half and then, at my daughter's prompting, switched to the other side of the field and saw Ben Olsen make his way out a bit early. The first half of the match was wide open with the Huskies and Terps storming up and down the field and putting intense pressure on each other's defenses. The second half was a lot uglier as UConn appeared to emphasize physicality and a series of harsh fouls soured the game.

I had a hard time figuring out who to pay attention to on UConn and wasn't familiar with the team prior to the game. Tony Cascio may have drawn a number of professional scouts, but the only players that really stood out on the other side were freshman Andrew Jean-Baptiste (for some undisciplined physical play and many of the harsh fouls), senior Alan Ponce, and sophomore Carlos Alvarez (for their chippy work up front).

But when not chasing my daughter around, I got to see a lot of Maryland's players. Alex Lee has been drafted into middle of the defense with London Woodberry starting on the right of the defense. Woodberry's slight build belies his tenacious approach to his craft. Cirovski has noted that he sees his defense as coming together and with Woodberry and Lee on the right and White and Kemp on the left, the Terps have an impressive back four. Ethan White is insanely good. As far as making an impression, Patrick Mullins looks like he can score at any point from any place on the field. He provides Maryland with an offensive threat that has not been present on past teams and the more he plays, the more the crosses from Kemp, Woodberry, Rodkey, and Forbess will be rewarded with conversions.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Finland, Finland, Finland

The Finnish adventure for USL2 alums Mason Trafford, Giuseppe Funicello, and Lamar Neagle has continued to be a good story both for them and for IFK Mariehamn. With three games left in the season, IFK has moved to eighth on the league table after a huge win over fellow relegation candidates JJK Jyvaskyla this week. Trafford and Funicello started the game and Neagle came on to join them as a late substitute. IFK fell behind 2-1 at the half but Real Maryland's Mason Trafford equalized off of a corner and IFK scored again to secure a vital three points.

IFK's web-site now also features a short interview with Funicello and Trafford, both of whom express (perhaps predictably) great fondness for their new club and for the team's supporters.

IFK will face the team just below them on the league table -- Myllykosken Pallo –47 -- in their next match, followed by a fixture against the club currently slated for relegation, FC Lahti. With safety perhaps assured, Trafford, Funicello, Neagle and company can set their sights on moving further up the table closer to IFK's fourth place finish last season.

Separately, the number of Americans and Canadians in the Finnish top flight that Trafford, Neagle, and Funicello joined merits a brief mention. University of Wisconsin Green Bay alum Tosaint Ricketts is part of the Myllykosken Pallo –47 squad that will face IFK next. FC Inter Turku, a club that currently sits sixth in the league table, features the former Rochester Rhino Daniel Antunez and former Toronto FC keeper David Monsalve. Another Canadian in Finland -- USL PDL Toronto Lynx alum Frank Jonke -- also has fairly good prospects at avoiding relegation this season, as recently promoted AC Oulu sit 11th on the league table, but have their next two fixtures scheduled against teams that are 12th and 13th. The team that sits 12th, Vaasan Palloseura, features two Americans: recent Clemson alum Greg Eckhardt and another USL2 alum (Harrisburg City Islander) Brian Pope (who is apparently injured).