Major League Soccer Passes the Six Million Mark

31 Oct

Give up comparing soccer to the nation’s dominant sports. Baseball and Football don’t do comparisons – they exist alone. No point in soccer warriors climbing the walls of their impenetrable castles chanting, we’re going to be bigger than you one day! Forget it. They’ll throw their balls at you and knock you off.

Climb down and compare soccer to the world instead. MLS now ranks eighth in the world for attendance. Not bad for a league formed in 1996. This year, over six million went to MLS games. The five million barrier was broken last year. Place MLS above France, Argentina and the second division in soccer loopy England.

MLS is conservative in its approach, wisely so. Its pioneering efforts of new stadium barn raising and strong fencing preserves the inchoate soccer settlement. There are plenty of hungry mavericks out there who wish to see MLS accelerate to templates such as promotion and relegation leagues, a free market for wages, the end of the franchise concept. But who can see over the horizon?

Those high up in the Baseball and Football castles can. And all they see is more of America. Sure, they play the American sports in other parts of the world but few care. This might explain the interested number of baseball and football owners who are stretching their visions and wallets and getting into the global soccer game. Soccer has the wider horizon.


Shooting Stars – San Jose Earthquakes Shine in Being the Best

22 Oct

Americans of all creeds gathered to grab a blue shovel to build a home –  the new domain of the San Jose Earthquakes. On Sunday, a world record crowd of 6,256 fans grabbed shovels and dug for two minutes on the land destined to spring forth a new era in Bay Area soccer. The man from the Guinness Book of World Records gave his assent and the deal was done. Fans cheered when the official word came through. This was a day for the true blue Quakes fans. Everyone there deposited a little bit of heart and graft into the future of their club.

There was business to attend to after the groundbreaking event – the final homegame of the season. Across the rail tracks at Buck Shaw stadium, the Quakes took on their rivals from the southland, Los Angeles Galaxy, a distant constellation missing a couple of bulbs. David Beckham and Landon Donovan were absent but no one really noticed or much cared. After all, the Quakes had lorded over the Galaxy this season with a brighter magnitude of talent.

Pre-game, there was a majestic tifo display unfurled by the 1906 Ultras, the Quakes fireball supporters that pack a sonic boom. A marvelous roll of canvas covering their section depicted the iconic Star Wars credits featuring the Quakes stars Steven Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski in the leading rolls. The ref blew the kickoff whistle and the job of running all over the Galaxy commenced again.

Yet the Empire from LA was intent on striking back. The Quakes had won the two previous duels this season. The Galaxy were determined not to lose again and they set about their business convincingly. San Jose struggled and were lucky not to find themselves behind at the half.

After the interval, both teams powered up, more territory opened up, and the battle engaged. LA went for the win, twice taking the lead, only to have the advantage pulled back by the dogged Quakes set on keeping their unbeaten record at home this season intact.

All eyes were on Wondo, chasing the single season goalscoring record of twenty-seven, set in 1996 by Roy Lassiter, who watched the game from the stands. The Danville native needed two to tie Lassiter and when he bagged the equalizer to make it 2-2, many thought destiny was at hand. Wondo hit the post twice, prompted the Galaxy keeper to produce saves but could not fling the final peg. He has one more chance next week against Portland. “Records are made to be broken,” said Lassiter, and Wondo knows it.

The Quakes had won the coveted Supporters’ Shield the night before thanks to Kansas City being unable to beat New York. Naturally, the team would have preferred to snatch the silver for themselves from Los Angeles, the current holders. But it didn’t stop the celebrations at the final whistle. San Jose were the rulers of the 2012 MLS season with the most points. The scenes in the locker room went pop with splashdowns of champagne. The MLS Cup now beckons, the final shot for a team that has shone brilliant all season long. May the force be with you.

Scotland – A Case of Football Bunk

19 Oct

Some teams are forever rubbish. Their hopes are in the trash; they are always in the trash. They get dumped from every tournament routinely. They exist to make up the numbers, goal-scoring practice for opponents. The nose of defeat means nothing to them. The senses are numbed. They’ll never smell the roses, never be handed flowers by natives on their arrival for a World Cup Finals.

But what of countries that once saw themselves as contenders, indeed contributors to the soccer platform? Take a nation like Scotland. In the seventies, Scotland had a spot at the top table, when the World Cup Finals hosted only sixteen countries. The fiery Scots were feared, they were trouble; they fought like lions. They lived next door to the English and this made them madder. In celebration, their fans drank more than the rest of the countries combined and they sang louder than anyone else.  A World Cup without Scotland was unthinkable.

Now a World Cup with Scotland is unthinkable. The fire is gone, the lion meows, the next-door neighbor laughs at them and the fans drink more than the other countries combined to drown their sorrows. As for their songs, a sad lament of dirges and desperation accompany the disharmony. The tattered Tartan Army sings, We’ll Walk a Million Miles for One of Your Goals, oh Scotland. Try two million.  It’s never going to happen.

Scotland is already out of the running for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They have been out of the running for World Cups since 1998. For this is not a soccer problem but one of the spirit and the mind. Lay them down on the psychiatrist’s couch and take a blood sample. The lab results are in – years of overdosing on downer coaches feeding the once proud lion a diet of depressant tactics and fear of everything. The current depressor (he’s facing the axe) actually fielded a team without one striker. Talk about sending a message of hopeless, low self-esteem.

So, what therapeutic remedy is available for a soccer casualty like Scotland? Happy pills! Happy, happy, happy pills! And the fans can have some too.

First of all, accept the fact that you are rubbish. Then field seven attackers and three defenders. Throw caution out with the depressants. Go for it! Fly at the opponents and their carefully structured strategy. What a surprise they will get! We thought Scotland was a bunch of miserable defensive losers, they will say, but look at them throw everything into attack with smiles upon their faces.

And what does Scotland have to lose? Nothing. It’s all been lost already! As for the fans – give up singing that pathetic drone called Flower of Scotland – When will we see your likes again? Never! Good! Live in the present, not the past. Sing Bay City Rollers songs instead, something happy and cheery and not so ponderously glum. Now watch Scotland win a few games.

The next Scotland boss (appointment to be made imminently) should be psychiatrically evaluated. Not to discover why anyone should ever be so crazy to accept a road to nowhere but whether he can bring levity and happiness and attacking at all costs. Kill the meow and make the lion roar again. Listen! The neighbor has stopped laughing. And the fans are singing Easy! Easy!

Fergie’s Aberdeen

15 Oct

(Alex Ferguson with Celtic’s legendary coach, Jock Stein)

Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson. Yes, he will be sculpted in bronze outside Old Trafford when the time comes. When the sculptor chooses the base for the statue, granite should be ordered. For it is in the “granite city” of Aberdeen in northeast Scotland that Ferguson’s hardened coaching mould was cast.

Approaching Aberdeen by road, the driver sees the granite metropolis sparkle in the distance. Some say the stone is radioactive. It certainly is mesmerizing. It rubbed off on Alex Ferguson when he took over as coach of the city’s team in 1978. In his eight years in charge of  “The Dons,” he orchestrated a meltdown at the core of Scottish football with a team that glowed.

For as long as the medieval mind of Scotland could remember, the two-headed Goliath of Scottish football, the Old Firm known as Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic, had devoured everything in its path. Other teams existed to fight for third place in the league or occasionally strike the giant on the nose with the odd knockout win in the Scottish Cup. Glasgow sucked the air out of Scottish soccer, if not Scottish life. But nothing lasts forever.

In the Sixties, oil was discovered in the North Sea. Aberdeen became an oil city overnight. Black gold pumped money into the region. Provincial became international. Naturally, the flame on the city’s football team began to burn brighter. Aberdeen installed the first all-seated stadium in Scotland. They were modern.

Fergie arrived and set about rigging the side that would become the best in Europe in 1983, winners of the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, Europe’s second biggest club prize at the time. Fergie had raised the players who would shape Scotland’s last golden generation of talent. Wullie Miller, his captain, would go on to lead the national team alongside his Aberdeen teammates Alex McLeish, Gordon Strachan, Jim Leighton and Mark McGee. Under Ferguson, Aberdeen won the Scottish league thrice and the Scottish Cup four times.

The Old Firm hated these upstarts from Aberdeen. Sheepshaggers, they called them. How dare this bunch of provincial muttonfuckers come down to holy Glasgow to upset the trinity of football, religion and entitlement. The outrage!

Alex Ferguson is a Glasgow man. He worked as a toolmaker in the shipyards of Glasgow as a youth. Ferige had played for Rangers as a professional before coaching, not a great player but he had fulfilled the dream of many a Protestant boy by wearing the red, white and blue of Scotland’s Protestant club.  But there were rumors that his welcome at Rangers was limited as he was married to a Catholic, an uncomfortable reality for Rangers players in the sixties and seventies. Rangers had a de facto ban on fielding Catholic players until 1989. Ferguson denies that this was an issue for him or for the club and that he left Rangers solely for soccer reasons.

One of his mentors was Jock Stein, the legendary Celtic and Scotland manager. Stein, a Protestant, led Celtic to victory in the European Cup in 1967, the first British club to achieve the feat. Celtic represented Irish-Catholic Glasgow but they were more progressive than their rivals across town. No religion bar was set against signing players or coaches. Stein had felt the sting of sectarianism, rejected by his friends when he too married a Catholic. Ferguson, like Stein, was an outsider. Both men were bigger than Glasgow’s prejudices. Ferguson turned down the coaching job at Rangers when it was offered to him. Manchester United gained.

In the eighties, a documentary was made about Aberdeen’s Ferguson. His players spoke of a coach who hated losing not just on the field but playing cards on the team bus or snooker in the games room. Before matches, his adrenaline would be pumping furiously. He ran the locker room with an iron fist, berating players who let the side down, scaring the daylight out of youngsters who failed to make the grade. Born was the legend of Fergie’s “hairdryer ” blasting hot venomous air at the hapless. Speaking of which, when an Aberdeen player decided to get a perm, Fergie went ballistic and frizzled the fool by making him wear a balaclava at training sessions until the perm had grown out. Annoying Fergie was a mistake. Still is.

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle

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Portland – USA’s Soccer Front / Wayne Rooney Speaks Latin

21 Sep

Portland, Oregon – Portland is soccer mad. I stepped off the plane to see Portland Timbers merchandise everywhere. Even a fast food burger joint was selling scarves and hats along with the fries.

The city was buzzing with anticipation. Seattle Sounders were in town for a nationally televised MLS game on NBC last Saturday. Fans began lining up at the stadium the day before the kickoff. The bars buzzed with soccer talk. Seven hundred Seattle fans were making the trip south. And the Timbers Army, Portland’s thousands strong supporters group, was primed for a show of strength against their Cascadian archrival. No love was lost.

On game-day, I stepped off the light rail to crowd singing coming from inside the nearby stadium. It felt like going to a game in Europe. The atmosphere was pinging. This was a thumping soccer vibe, and it was right here in America.

Inside the ground, the Timbers Army occupied the entire north end. They bounced and sang in collective harmony. It was deafening. A lumberjack walked around the field wielding a chainsaw. He sawed off a log from a felled tree when Portland scored. Seattle’s goalkeeper shivered.

Every game sells out. I was told thousands are on the waiting list to get seats in the Army sections. The Timbers Army has gotten so big it has become a membership driven, non-profit entity. Members’ dues and merchandise sales finance community projects. Creating soccer fields in low-income neighborhoods is one example of this remarkable fan power. It fits right in with the city’s progressive wavelength.

Merritt Paulson owns the Timbers. He is the son of Hank Paulson, Treasury Secretary in the last Bush administration and former Goldman Sachs CEO. Remember Hank? In 2008, he read the note to the world that his capitalist pals in the financial industry had raided the cookie jar.

It seems an odd mix at Portland – social activism fan style on the one-side connected to the gilded edge on the other. Marxists may find that contradiction funny. Certainly, Portland is the vanguard for the country’s soccer experience. They seem to have figured out the grid lines between the team’s supply and the fans’ demands.

Terra Firma – Today’s classics lesson. His leg was sliced open by a cleat during a recent game. A bandaged Wayne Rooney, England’s superstar striker, was photographed on his sofa donning a T-shirt emblazoned with the Latin phrase, Virescit Vulnere Virtus (courage becomes greater through a wound.)

Over the summer, Rooney was photographed in Las Vegas not so much following Carpe Diem! as Carpe Cervisiam! (seize the beer!) On returning to his team a little bloated, Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson gulped, Re vera, postas bene, (Say, you are drinking a lot.) Fergie benched him. The press pounced on Wayne’s weakness for ale.

Of course, as we all know, merda taurorum animas conturbit (B.S. baffles the brain,) especially when beer is involved, so fans of the great Wayne Rooney patiently await his recovery and triumphant return to the soccer forum where the message to his detractors will be vescere bracis meis (eat my shorts.) Hail Rooney!

Street or Suburb? Who wins?

11 Sep

US soccer will never be #1; it doesn’t have a street game. Isn’t that what they say? No shoeless street urchins knocking around a ball made from socks as raw sewage flows across the scrap landed penalty box. Look at England, the first world version of this fantasy, and hail the working class soccer legend. His old dad kicked the ball with him after a shift at the factory; they spent years bonding on the crumbling stadium terracing flowing with discharged piss from lager bladders and mouths. And how junior didn’t need to bother with all that boring math and geometry at school. He could run diagonals and create linear equations on a soccer field – poor + soccer = legend of the game. We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control. Ball control speaks louder than any college, mate.

So, here come the Americans. Playing on the grass carpets of soccer suburbia, as beautifully manicured as their soccer mom’s nails. It’s a safe game, soccer, no need for helmets and hurt, no need for the threatening newspeak of hoops, no danger of being around too many bad boys. And do your homework! We want that scholarship to college for our juniors, where the blackboard teaches not just Humanities but how to play soccer.

Listen to the coach, play the paradigm, be a good sport. It’s all about fun, love of the game – viciousness unknown, cheating despised, bullying, hacking, stealing are out – no thanks, that is not for us. That’s not soccer. That’s not how we play in America. We play fair.

So what! Is that last paragraph even mildly accurate? Most likely not but some commentators think it is. Let’s assume some of it credible for the sake of a few more strokes. What has this pleasant model produced? You could say, US internationalist Landon Donovan – smart, educated, a guy who advocates reading as a pastime, a cultured man with an ability to string together sentences like he strings together goals. Did he grow up playing on the dangerous street of the underclass? Certainly not. Boy of the suburb. Is he as good a player as any once disadvantaged street-smart soccer peer? He certainly is.

So do we need the soccer street to succeed at the world’s game? Consider this. What are we good at in America? We’re good at TV, and very good at the unreality of reality TV. Calling all producers. Here’s the script. It’s in the copyright vault. Get in touch if you wish to buy it.

We build a slum with a scrap of land with previously mentioned raw sewage flowing across the penalty box. We find some young soccer prodigies and deprive them of vegetables, feeding them survivalist soccer every day as they battle hardships of poverty and villainy, learning to fight like the street demands every time they chase down the ball.

There are no coaching mentors. No showers, no soft down pillows, no cleats – barefoot makes better players – and after a summer of reality TV poverty, bus them to the well heeled suburbs to play against the top kids in uniforms, fresh and clean and smelling of roses.

Who will win? Street or suburb?

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.


World Cup – USA Needs To Get Hard

9 Sep

Soccer-lite. That sums up the US men’s national team performance against Jamaica yesterday. As if the players had been sinking Bud Light while the Jamaicans were hitting the hooch. The US performance was thin and weak. And it is time for coach Jurgen Klinsmann to flush it away before it is too late.

A few months ago, Klinsmann called for his players to get nasty – to get stuck in. There was none of that on display in the 2-1 loss in Kingston. The Reggaeboyz sensed from the outset that the Americans were playing shallow. The Jamaicans bit. Too many Americans were falling down looking surprised that Jamaica was not some collegiate side born from American suburbia.

Well, gentlemen, (emphasis on gentle), to win in World Cup world soccer you have to stick the boot in now and again. Sure, Michael Bradley was missing from the midfield due to injury. He would never have allowed such timidity to be playing around him, at least without having a word with his teammates. And Landon Donovan’s piercing stride was also sorely missed. But it has to be asked – does the next wave of US players have the punch?

Klinsmann should be looking for players who can mess with the opponent’s heads – extroverts, not idling brooders. Think of the great Brian McBride and his rattle; Alexi Lalas giving it the large one to opponents who considered US soccer a joke; Claudio Reyna and his hot foot; Jay De Merit coming up fighting from obscurity to mark Wayne Rooney out of the US v England game at the last World Cup. Where are those types of players to be found in the national team?

If Klinsmann is trying to include MLS players in his team, then why is the lethargic Kyle Beckerman playing in the squad when San Jose’s Steven Lenhart is never considered. Lenhart won’t play shallow. He’ll bite the opponents. He’ll make chances by showing defenders that they are in for a rough ride. Yes, niggle the defender, nudge him in the back off the ball, say something not too pretty about his face. Make his pissed off. Eventually, he’ll make mistakes.

Klinsmann has to forget about this project nonsense. As if he can design a team like an engineer in a BMW factory, paying attention to the latest interior software. It’s hardware we need now.

The chance to prove the above rant wrong comes around this Tuesday when Jamaica comes to Ohio for the return leg. Dump that Bud Light rubbish and hit the Jamaicans hard – make that Red Stripe on Old Glory shine.