Sunday, March 24, 2013

Give Em Something to Talk About

I loved Brian Straus's terrific story for Sporting News on dissension within the U.S. men's national team regarding Jurgen Klinsmann's leadership.  I loved it even as a huge fan of Klinsmann's philosophy and approach and a totally over-the-top, unfair, irrational critic of Bob Bradley's regime.

In substance, Straus's reporting communicated exactly what I want to hear:  the U.S. players are being challenged to be more than automatons meant to execute strategic orders.  They are, instead, professional footballers responsible for forming a cohesive whole based on a loose structure, their own aptitude, and creative chaos.

That this challenge is being made in the wake of former conservative management of tight control and preparation is all the more perfect.  Straus's narrative walks off the silver screen of the fictionalized account of Brian Clough's doomed attempt to replace Don Revie at Leeds.  After The Damn United establishes Revie's obsessive scouting and game preparation, the film portrays his former wards directly challenging Clough at Elland Road for his failure to brief them in advance of a match against Rangers.  Clough's response?

You're professional footballers.

Stop Stan Bowles.

That's all you need to know about QPR.

And I don't have justify myself to you . . . not how or when I conduct training . . .
Of course, things didn't exactly go swimmingly for Clough in West Yorkshire.  And there is a substantial risk that Klinsmann's revolution will leave the U.S. without an invitation to the party in Brazil. 

Straus's story ignited a national conversation.  Much of it is unhelpful -- it doesn't matter who talked or why they talked and, as Greg Seltzer notes, attacking Mr. Straus's journalistic integrity is completely inappropriate.  But all American soccer fans should be talking about the culture of domestic soccer.  Klinsmann, by both word and deed, is mounting a powerful challenge to conventional wisdom.  Let the kids play.  Let them have fun.  They'll figure it out.  It's ludicrously naive and impractical.  It's also thrilling.

You can get results by industry.  The athletic gifts and talent of the elite American footballer are enough to stay on the field with the globe's powers.  But discipline and execution do not create a platform for evolution.  Creation is reined in for the sake of cohesion.  It is also miserable to watch.

D.C. United drew over 17,000 for its opening home match against Real Salt Lake.  After managing a single goal in three matches played with a mind-numbingly tedious game plan of useless possession, only 11,000 showed up for home game number two against the Columbus Crew.   That's twenty percent below last year's average attendance during the regular season (13,846).  In fact, only three out of the seventeen home matches last season had less fans in the seats -- and everyone of those games was a midweek (Wednesday night) fixture.  I was out of town and could not attend, but found three takers in my absence.  The other four season tickets in our group went unused despite being offered to any taker gratis.

United supporters and the club can keep pretending that it is the decaying stadium, the weather, or a college basketball tournament that's keeping seats freely available, but the games have made for miserable viewing (whether live or on the television).  We can also continue to endure excuses about purported failures to execute, but that's not going to convince anyone that there is an interesting product at RFK.  It is particularly hard to argue against unleashing the talent on the roster when there is little functional difference between losing matches 2-1 or 2-0 and losing them 5-4 or 6-3.

We are, nevertheless, where we are.  U.S. soccer is rigid and mechanical.  Klinsmann's critique has not been met by supportive voices amongst the coaches of the MLS.

One of the other things that makes the story great is the identity of the person who penned it.  Because the story was authored by Brian Straus and not, say, Grant Wahl, the focus is more on football than on personalities.  It is not a gossip piece.  It is reporting.  And that bodes well for the future of the sport in this country as too much of what is written about the game is short on giving fans greater insight into what they are seeing or why things unfolded in a particular way on the pitch.

Well done Brian.  Good job out of you.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013


On the way out of RFK last night, a father says to his son:  "D.C. United won!  Did you have a good time?"  The kid replies:  "I guess.  Nothing really happened.  It was boring."

Olsen's Army!

The club is going to ridiculous lengths to enhance fan experience -- including having representatives stand by the exits to thank supporters personally for coming out -- without having an on-field product that will build the next generation of season ticket holders.

United won.  They controlled large portions of the match and bottled up Real Salt Lake.  When needed, Bill Hamid was clutch, making at least one unreal reaction save to preserve the shutout.  Dejan Jakovic was terrific, putting in one of the most solid shifts I've seen him play in a United uniform.  The young Panamanian, Marcos Sanchez, was fun to watch with some creative flourish and quick turns.  And Nick DeLeon was run into the ground but still managed to play a great ball forward very late in the match.

I should focus on the positives.  It was a fun night out.  17,000 plus saw United earn three points.  United's staff is great.  I'm glad I went.

But a moment on the scorer of the game-winning goal:  Lionard Pajoy is being described as the polarizing figure on United's roster.  I can't imagine that he will be more polarizing than Carlos Ruiz, but Pajoy is unlikely to become a fan favorite even if he scores a dozen or so goals this season.  Pajoy's yellow card in the 28th minute was fully deserved for a dirty, entirely unnecessary kick at Kwame Watson-Siriboe.  And the caution failed to prevent Pajoy from chirping endlessly at Sorin Stoica for the rest of the half every time a call didn't go his way.  It is not exactly a privilege to have to cheer for a player that underscores the worst of Bennie bite ball.

The best sequence of the match came late in the second half when Marcelo Saragosa, subbed on for an injured John Thorrington, received the ball fifteen or so yards from midfield, watched his teammates launch forward, and dribbled backwards toward four RSL players so as to make a bizarre back pass to Hamid that left little room for error.  That one pass would have erased roughly eighty minutes of conservative, sleep inducing soccer.

Still, maybe everything changes when Dwayne DeRosario is back in the lineup.  I watched DeRo for a bit this afternoon at Ludwig and he's ready to step right back in.

In terms of soccer, the scrimmage today with Maryland was more compelling than the home opener last night.

Patrick Mullins can more than hold his own against professionals, showing once again that he's ready whenever he wants to make the jump.

Mullins saw several familiar faces in the DC United side, with Casey Townsend getting time up top and Ethan White anchoring the back line (along with Daniel Woolard, Henry Kalungi, and Robbie Russell).  After Russell pulled himself out of the game with a leg injury, he was spelled by another Maryland alum, Alex Lee.

I had hoped to have seen the last of Kurt Morsink chewing out teammates for perceived failings after Kurt retired but, alas, Morsink played alongside Conor Shanosky in the midfield.  True to form, late in the scrimmage, Morsink lit into Ethan for something that neither I nor Mr. White appeared to think had been a mistake.  Kurt continued to press the point, whatever it was, after the final whistle.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Baseball & Snow Flurries

I know next to nothing about college baseball.  After attending and enjoying a couple of Maryland baseball games last year, I bought season tickets this year and filed away the intent to check out games when possible.  With our kids otherwise engaged on Saturday, the first opportunity this season corresponded with a double header against Princeton.

Although bitterly cold (and snowing (?)), it was several hours well worth spent.  The opening game was a rout, with K.J. Hockaday, Kyle Convissar, and Charlie White going a combined 10 for 13 to put more than enough runs on the board for Brady Kirkpatrick's second win of the year.

I had to leave early in the second game, but stayed long enough to see why freshman Kevin Mooney was Maryland's high school player of the year.  It was also apparent, from both games, why Maryland's last coaching regime was so high on the pair of Brooklyn recruits out of Grand Street, Kevin Martir (C) and Jose Cuas (2B/SS).  Cuas let a routine grounder that should have been a double play eat him up late in the first game, but otherwise looked solid in the field and at the plate.  Martir's a solid backstop who looks like he can carry his own with the bat as well.

The lasting impression from the games, however, was the incredible bloodlines on display for Princeton.  I should have recognized head coach Scott Bradley from his time with the Mariners (as Randy Johnson's personal catcher, no less), but when any American soccer fan sees him the first connection drawn is how much he looks like his older brother, Bob. 

Scott has pulled together an impressive pedigree of catchers.  The starting backstop for game one happens to look and play very much like his father, former Chicago Cub and current assistant General Manager of the Angels, Scott Servais.  The starting backstop for game two looks quite a bit like his major league father and current Mets' bench coach, Bob Geren.  Princeton has both Geren boys, with older brother Bobby spelling Brett late in the game.  As famous as Tyler, Bobby, and Bret's respective fathers are, they pale in (current) comparison to the patriarch of another catcher on the roster, Andrew Christie.

I would hazard a guess that few of the several Princeton supporters that made it out to College Park for the series enjoyed the games much.  It was cold, Princeton was overmatched, and it was a brutal way to start the season.  Nevertheless, despite the rough conditions, they were great.  They will, with luck, get much more pleasure out of the trip to Georgetown in two weeks.