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.