Monday, August 27, 2012

Homegrown II

Having spent last night complaining about the former Terps hard done by the Olsen regime, D.C. United was well represented at Ludwig tonight.  Nick DeLeon, decked out in a red Louisville soccer shirt, was among the 3,002 others in the stands.  DeLeon spent some of the first half sitting on the parking lot side of the stadium within a group of Cardinals supporters; just a little bit further over, Brandon McDonald, Chris Pontius and Kurt Morsink, now United's scouting director, watched the match in surprising anonymity.

All saw a resplendent, dynamic, Marianas Trench deep Maryland squad trounce Louisville.  I think the post-game quotes from Coach Cirovski indicated a game that was closer than its scoreline.  It didn't seem that close from the stands, as Maryland's passing and movement kept the Cardinals' on their heels throughout the match. 

Coach Cirovski featured three freshmen in the starting eleven -- Mikey Ambrose at left back, Dakota Edwards as the center half opposite London Woodberry, and Schillo Tshuma up top -- while Christiano Francois and David Kabelik also saw time on the field as subs.  Given the challenge posed by a good Louisville side, the freshmen were fantastic.

All three seniors -- Woodberry, John Stertzer, and Taylor Kemp -- started and both London Woodberry and John Stertzer likely got Morsink's attention this evening.  I've not thought that London would do well inside, but tonight he snuffed out attacks and, after Widner Saint Cyr came on to buttress the midfield spine along with Helge Leikvang, Woodberry made a couple of useful marauding attacking runs over nearly the full length of the field.  Stertzer was terrific; he got the ball off his feet quickly and distributed the ball well enough to create numerous attacks on Louisville's goal.  Morsink might also have enjoyed Stertzer's frequent barking at teammates (often at Patrick Mullins) as he's not shy about letting his opinions be known.

And then there was Sunny Jane.  Two assists, with the second coming late in the match from a well-placed pass across the width of the field by Mullins as Coach Cirovski yelled for Sunny to hold the ball up and eat up the clock.  Instead, Sunny attacked his man, beat him off the dribble and played a ball in that evaded both shots and clearances until Stertzer tapped it in to kill the game.  He's fun to watch.   

Sunday, August 26, 2012


Tomorrow night, the Maryland men's soccer team's 2012 campaign will officially begin against the school -- Louisville -- that closed the book on the 2011 season.

This season I will not head to Ludwig hoping to see budding D.C. United contributors; not because I believe that this year's team isn't replete with talent (it is), but because I would prefer not to see Terps cut their professional teeth in a team led by Ben Olsen.

While Marcelo Saragosa, Mike Chabala, and Emiliano Dudar put in questionable shifts for United this afternoon in Montreal, Maryland alums Ethan White and Stephen King weren't even included in the 18.

Young players are not excluded from Ben Olsen's side.  Perry Kitchen (20) started again, along with Andy Najar (19), Bill Hamid (21), Chris Korb (24), and Long Tan (24).  Nick DeLeon (22) was ill, but otherwise would likely have been involved, while Chris Pontius (25) and Joe Willis (24) were available off the bench.

The issue isn't a lack of opportunity for young players generally.  Olsen has no problem going with youth.  The issue is, instead, player development. Najar, Hamid, Pontius, and Korb have shown improvements in their game this season --  Najar is more aggressive defensively and has ideas in mind after exhilarating runs; Hamid's confidence is exceptional; Pontius has become a legitimate scoring threat; and Korb's exhibited some surprising offensive skills.  But from the perspective of sitting outside the club, the margin for error for younger players not named Perry Kitchen is substantially smaller than for veterans, even where (particularly in the case of players like Jakovic, Dudar, Russell, Saragosa, and Morsink) the deference isn't warranted by on-field performance.

I've enjoyed D.C. United this year.  Even fleeting glances of lineups featuring Boskovic-DeRosario-Pontius-DeLeon-Najar justify the costs (both temporal and monetary) of season tickets.  Ethan White's total freeze-out has grated.  So has watching Saragosa ascend to the current throne of guileless midfielder fueled by piss and vinegar.  Even with all the problems at fullback, I harbored no desire for United's front office to find ways to return Rodney Wallace or Jeremy Hall to the region.

Jimmy Burns' fantastic "La Roja" highlights a quote from Johan Cruyff that unmasked the parochial origins of my frustration:
"Fans the world over like to see good players who share their mentality, and preferably come from their country, and if a coach has to choose between a foreign and a local with equal qualities, he should go for the local.  That way the fans are less likely to whistle him if things go wrong.  In Barca, people like seeing players from the cantera in the first team; it makes them feel that the coach somehow is more a part of Barcelona that way."
 For me, this is undoubtedly true.  I would be willing to sit through five horrid performances by Conor Shanosky well before sitting through the ninety minutes of mediocre meaninglessness embodied by Marcelo Saragosa today.  No matter how many times commentators try and paint a different picture, Perry Kitchen is having a very disappointing season in United's midfield -- yet, in the stands, we shrug off the unforced giveaways and poor passes.

Superficially, this whinge makes no sense because it is aimed at someone who spent over a decade in the black and red.  Olsen is hard-woven into the fabric of the club.  But while he is indelibly part of the franchise, Ben Olsen, on his own, is not D.C. United.  The qualities that Olsen embodied are inconsistent, as a governing philosophy, with United's image of itself.  A cagey, veteran team with "bite" that gets stuck in every match might compete well in the league and, possibly, be in frame for an MLS Cup, but it is certainly not what D.C. United has been selling to supporters.

But more important than the marketing sleight of hand is what it means for the talent trapped on the roster.  When supporters of the Houston Dynamo weighed in with "Free Geoff Cameron" signs, I half-hoped that offers would come in for Pontius, Najar, and Hamid before the close of the August transfer window.  All three are a joy to watch, but all three would be better served somewhere else.

Monday, August 6, 2012


The first Maryland football game we attended was a non-conference match-up against Akron back in 2002.  The gross imbalance in the size of the players on the two squads commanded all of our attention; the violence was asymmetrical, not an athletic contest so much as an exercise in brutality.  That game dulled our enjoyment of college football for some time.

Last year, the DeMatha-Gonzaga football game matched two high school teams of similar size and skill.  One team did not bludgeon a helpless opponent.  But our belief that the disquieting violence of the Maryland-Akron match was due to one team being substantially weaker than the other disappeared.  Standing on the sidelines close to the action, we could feel the concussive blows delivered by teenage wrecking balls.

American football loses its luster; when Devin Thomas walks away from $700,000 in salary from the Chicago Bears citing, in part, concerns about long-term health, the "we don't want anyone not fully committed" line from Lovie falls flat while the absence of any reference to Thomas's welfare concerns on the official web-site is a damning indictment of the NFL's ability to grapple with this new reality.

American football won't be the only sport under strict public scrutiny for very long.

Last night, a ball pops loose in the goal box in front of Bill Hamid.  All 6'4" of Emiliano Dudar jumped back towards goal authoritatively to clear the ball back over the bar, willing to concede the corner kick to bring order to chaos.  Innocuous enough play, except all 5'10" of Daniel Woolard went to clear the free ball the opposite direction and met Dudar's head instead.

We love Woolard.  We love everything that Woolard stands for in terms of perseverance and commitment.  Didn't get a single DI scholarship offer to play soccer.  Played in Division II for Midwestern State University. Worked hard enough, played well enough to be a MLS supplemental draft pick in 2007.  Four years ago, Daniel (and Stephen King) earned $17,700 as professional soccer players for the Chicago Fire -- on a team where Cuauhtemoc Blanco pocketed $2.5 million to play the same game for the same team. 

Woolard's not exactly swimming in cash now with D.C. United -- he's one of the lowest paid players on the squad, with a lower salary than King's ($56,250).  And to get to this point, Woolard had to overcome being cut loose by the Fire and going back to play in the PDL where he suffered a concussion with debilitating after-effects.

We know Woolard's story.  It is a huge part of why we enjoy watching the man play soccer in a DCU shirt.

So that is in our heads when Bill Hamid is trying to organize the defense in advance of the corner kick.  And then Hamid is frantically screaming at Woolard -- standing fifteen yards out near the noisy side -- to get into the box and Daniel's not responding.  One of his teammates runs out to see what's going on; a moment later the players on the pitch are even more frantically signalling to the sideline that help is needed and a sub must be prepped.

The image that will stick with me is of Woolard's eyes as he was escorted into the locker room -- although somewhat vacant, they evinced both fear and anger.

Maybe there will be good news in the coming days and that would put our minds somewhat at ease.  What we saw (from the stands) was horror.

There are worse things.  One of the things we look forward to at MLS games is catching up with college players that we got to see at Ludwig.  Last night, it meant seeing Justin Meram (Michigan) and Ethan Finlay (Creighton) again.  We didn't get to see Maryland's ACC-rivals on the Crwe, Cole Grossman (Duke) or Kirk Urso (UNC).  We won't be able to see Urso play ever again.

Rest in peace.