116street Soccer

Footballing from a lesser authority...

Location: New York, New York

Saturday, April 29, 2006

It Ain't Over, England

How shocking was that? Here we were, on 116th street, watching Chelsea turn Manchester United into the 2006 version of Michael Spinks, when Wayne Rooney (who had been committed to fouling Chelsea players right to the very finish), went down in obvious agony. My first thoughts, along with everyone in the world who watched this game, were something along the lines of well, I guess England won't be winning the World Cup this year... Now Rooney is out six weeks with a broken foot, and England is screwed.
Is that an absolute guarantee though? Is Rooney really the key to England's success, the way so many writers and commentators suggest? England might not be able to withstand the losses of both Rooney and Michael Owen (who, incidentally, also came up limp, again, today), but after watching Joe Cole's magnificent goal this afternoon and overall play this season, it has become obvious that Rooney is not England's only creative influence. In fact, the Rooney injury may serve to be blessing in disguise for England. The adjustments that Sven-Goran Eriksson will have to make to overcome his absence may shake up the status quo of England's 4-4-2 formation, which may not fit the talents of England's best players anyway. Now, Steven Gerrard's superior skill, Michael Carrick's ball-winning and Frank Lampard's umm... well... presence (?) may be used in ways by which they don't simply serve to complement Rooney, England's golden boy.
England certainly has depth issues at striker, but perhaps adjusting the midfield formation (perhaps Carrick in front of the back four, Gerrard in the middle, Cole and David Beckham on the wings and Lampard behind a lone striker?) could overcome this issue. Maybe this could be Jermaine Defoe's chance to show his stuff, or maybe they turn to James Beattie (a Favorite Player of 116th Street) for help. All I'm trying to say, England fans, is this: don't despair, all hope is not lost (at least not until you see Peter Crouch getting a start for the Three Lions).

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Old School

So Milan, in full desperation mode and needing to score at least once to force extra time, and twice to actually move on to the final, assembled a lineup that would have kicked @$$ back in '98, starting Inzaghi, Seedorf, Costacurta (isn't he older than Santa Claus?) and Stam. With so much "experience" on the field, the Rossoneri were certainly well-organized; at the same time, was it even remotely surprising to see Barcelona run circles around them, beating them to every loose ball?
Barca, to their credit, were not merely content to sit back and defend (Ronaldinho would probably never have that), which makes Milan's performance that much more disappointing. Lacking the quickness to get as far forward as they would like, they had to drop Shevchenko further back than normal to sustain their attack, and while they got a few chances, they also seemed to be lacking in ideas.
All of this speaks to a larger problem within Milan, ever since they won the European Cup in '03; they are simply too old to win this thing anymore. They started six players over the age of 30 last night (including Methuselah himself, Costacurta), and two of their three substitutes, Rui Costa and Cafu, also fit into that "great in '98" category. The team only has two significant players age 25 and under, Alberto Gilardino and Kaka (off-topic: is it just me, or is there something Mandy Moore-like about Kaka?).
So, after watching Barcelona run laps around these guys, after being witness to their seven minutes of hell against Liverpool last year, and after observing their failure to take the scudetto back from Juventus, I have come to the conclusion that unless some major changes occur this off-season, AC Milan will be irrelevant for the near future. Barca is younger and more skilled, the Red Devils are retooling, Arsenal is practically a youth academy now, Chelsea is buying everyone and Juve is just plain better. Of course, it's not all bad news at the San Siro: at least they're not Real Madrid.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Seated on the 6 train this morning was a man reading the sports section of El Diario, upon which, in the top right corner, was a small picture of Juan Roman Riquelme, along with a mini-headline that read "Glub, Glub, Glub" (I assume that to be some kind of choking reference). In my mind, to label Villareal as chokers would be extreme (not to mention in poor taste). At the same time, it was evident that the Yellow Submarine is not quite ready for prime time.
After observing the full match, I was reminded of E.L. Thayer's Casey At The Bat, with Diego Forlan and Guillermo Franco in starring roles as Cooney and Barrows. Much like the Mudville Nine, Villareal did not necessarily play poorly, but in the few opportunities that came their way (the kind of opportunities that separate the great teams from the good), they came away panicked and sloppy. Again, to say that they choked is a bit much; a team such as Milan or Barca, to which such a stage is nothing new, would have won the match 3-0. But for this crew of Champions League newbies, their inability to finish should come as no surprise. Thus, we had Forlan playing as if Sir Alex Ferguson was standing directly over his shoulder, and Franco doing his best Taylor Twellman impersonation.
In Thayer's poem, it is the unheralded duo of Flynn and Blake who come through in the moment of desperation, getting on base with two outs in the ninth. In this dramatic reinterpretation of the story, it was Jose Mari, the late game substitute, who added the proper amount of embellishment to Gael Clichy's foul, resulting in the last-gasp penalty for Juan Roman Riquelme, "The Mighty Casey" personified.
As Riquelme strode forward, the ESPN2 cameras did an outstanding job of getting close in on the faces of Riquelme, the once-and-future hero, and Jens Lehmann, goalkeeper and world-class prick. You could already see the wheels turning in Riquelme's head; my initial thought was, he's nervous. When he started his run, it was already a done deal: unless Lehmann guessed the wrong direction to dive in (he didn't), this kick was going to be stopped. It wasn't a great save, but it wasn't a terrible kick, either; much like Casey's game-ending strikeout, it was a foregone conclusion.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Farewell, Zizou

I am sad now. As I have stated before, Sports Illustrated's '98 World Cup preview was my introduction to the stars of this game, and from the very beginning, my curiosity was piqued by this Frenchman with the unpronounceable name and touted skills. SI told me that he would be the hero of the tournament, and when his first header found its way to the back of the Brazilian net, I knew (without really knowing) that an upset for the ages was in the works. For the very first time, my imagination had been captured by a soccer player.
Juventus never came on American TV during the years before FOX Soccer Channel, so I had to approximate his skills on FIFA '98. I knew a guy in school who knew nothing of soccer, same as me, but couldn't get enough of The Old Lady in that game. "Juventus is the best team!" he would say. "They have that guy Del Piero, and Inzaghi, and that other guy, the best one, Zee-who? How do you say it? Zee-dan-ee? Zee-den-ay? Zee-dann? Zee-DAHN! That guy!" He started hanging Juve stuff on his walls, had a Juve background for his computer; he was bianconeri through and through, and he didn't even know it. He probably didn't even know about the sale until FIFA 2002 came out, now that I think about it (I can just imagine him choosing Juventus in that game and having a major "WTF?" moment: "Where the hell is Zidane?" he would ask before chucking his controller across the room).
The sale was pretty much a watershed moment for a lot of people, but for me it meant that I could finaly watch him perform his magic, because Real Madrid's Champions League exploits were always on ESPN2 in the afternoon. There he was, spinning away from a confused defender. Look at him, finding Raul for yet another magical assist. He was, without a doubt, the best player on a squad full of great ones; he was the French/Armenian Algerian embodiment of Michael Jordan, and when he scored that goal in '02, I got the same feeling as I did when Mike hit that last shot against Utah.
Now, he is leaving. He's not gone just yet, he will treat us to one last World Cup before he goes, but to me it feels as if he is already gone. After all, how much life could he possibly have left in those creaky legs come June? Playing as one of the Galacticos has dulled his impact somewhat, but he can still have an impact, so perhaps he can help France achieve glory once more. Soon he will be gone though, and with him will go his grace, humility and superior skill. He was the world's greatest, and my favorite player. I am sad.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Here's To Spurs

Over the weekend, I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's essay about the nature of bias vs. opinion, and as I was contemplating this, along with the events of this weekend, I came to a stunning conclusion: I had cruelly and indifferently disrespected Tottenham Hotspur by barely even mentioning them in my last post. The presumption of Arsenal's inevitable catching of Spurs, and their apparent indifference to such an event, rendered Tottenham's accomplishments this season practically insignificant to my subconscious mind.
Contrary to all appearances, this is not an Arsenal blog: their march through the Champions League, combined with their efforts to make next year's CL, as well as their efforts to hold onto Thierry Henry beyond this season (efforts clearly influenced by the two aforementioned sporting pursuits) have made them the story of the season. That their hopes of keeping all three dreams alive is affected by their fierce inter-city rivals only makes this story more poetic, so it's only natural that people like myself and the media at large spend most of their time dissecting the Gunners. Thus, here I am, trying to make up for my diss of Spurs by spending even more time making sure everyone knows and understands the story of Arsenal.
Part of this is Tottenham's fault, however; they may be ahead of the Highbury gang in the standings, but I can't think of any other league in the world where the comptetition for fourth place gets any press, anyway. When removed from the context of being pursued by their archenemies (who just happen to be a major contender for the championship of Europe), Spurs are nothing more than a fourth-place team with no trophies to compete for, hoping to sneak into next season's big dance; without Arsenal, they are irrelevant. Furthermore, aside from the footballing genius of Robbie Keane, they're also pretty boring. I certainly wouldn't use a Tottenham match to introduce any of my friends to the world of English soccer.
So what then can we say about Spurs? Well, Keane has been playing so well that I wish Ireland had managed to qualify for the World Cup, just so I could watch him a little longer. Edgar Davids is still rocking the dreads and Blade-ish sunglasses, so that's something, and Michael Carrick's attempts to look like Billy Ray Cyrus have not gone unnoticed here on 116th street. I like Aaron Lennon's game, too. Oh yeah, their manager reminds me of a cross between Santa Claus and Tony Soprano, too, for some reason. So, here's to you, Tottenham Hotspur; because of you, I care about fourth place. Just remind me to avoid watching your games like the plague.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

At Least There's The F.A. Cup

These season-finish races would be a hell of a lot more exciting if the participants involved could actually make it a race. Manchester United, with their championship hopes on the line, couldn't beat Sunderland last week, who must have clearly intimidated the Red Devils with their 11 points. Man Yoo, shameful as they are for that, have nothing on Arsenal, who apparently don't give a #*^% about their standing in the Premier League; so intent are the Gunners on winning the Champions League, they held Thierry Henry out of the Man United clash over a week ago, then did the same against Spurs this afternoon. Only when they needed their Superman to save their sorry behinds did Henry make an appearance.
The general question is, if a team like Arsenal is going to clearly show everyone that they couldn't care less about a supposed "must-win" game by keeping their best player out of the match, what incentive is there for a fan to keep up with the events of the Premier League? Of course everyone knows that at this point in the season the Champions League is the show, but they keep on playing, evidently because there are a few things left to play for, such as getting into next year's Champions League. If you're Arsenal, don't you try as hard to get in both ways? Well, whatever, I guess now I know not to pay attention to anything involving the words "Premier" and "League" from now until the World Cup begins, because the English teams themselves seem to have already called it a season.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Not All News Is Good News

Not even a week ago I was here on 116th street, basking in the progress made by Major League Soccer these past few years. Galaxy-Chivas played to a packed house in L.A., the MetroStars had been rescued by Red Bull, Adidas was outfitting the league in sharp, new unis and attendance was up league-wide. It was enough to make me forgive MLS for actually naming a franchise "Real Salt Lake." I knew the league still had problems, such as a small minority of unruly fans, getting a team into Philadelphia (okay that's a more personal issue) and the Kansas City Wizards in general, but nothing but sunny skies seemed to be on the horizon.
It turns out that fans may not necessarily be tired of Euro-styled naming of teams, but as the backlash to Inter Toronto FC shows, directly ripping team names from other squads abroad does not do much toward establishing one's own identity. As if that's not enough of a headache, the Wizards, who the league has been trying to find a buyer for since the stone age, have seen their stadium situation go from bad to worse. Unable to find a buyer and stuck in a bad situation at Arrowhead Stadium, the team may have to sit out next season while Arrowhead undergoes renovations.
Well, when it rains it pours, I suppose, because Red Bull might be a bigger pain in the arse than expected. With Alexi Lalas leaving to take over the Galaxy, the subsequent organizational shakeup in New York is leaving all options on the table, including renaming the team (again) as the "Red Bull Cosmos" (at least "New York Red Bulls" sounded like an actual team; this one makes me want to vomit; then again, the name also sounds like a vomit-inducing drink, so pick your poison). In addition to renaming the team, there is also word that RBNY is also considering walking away from the Harrison, NJ, stadium deal, the same deal the league practically killed itself trying to get done, the deal it took years to accomplsh, the deal that was going to ensure the financial stability of soccer in the New York region for good (AEG, the stadium operator, says the Harrison deal is still on). On the bright side, the MLS All-Stars will be playing Chelsea this year, so it's not all bad news, right?

It's In The Game

Could there have been a bigger tease than this week's first leg action? I can't remember the last time we had two games of such importance (that did not end in draws), that gave us less of a story. At least Barcelona got an away goal (of course, it was only one, which makes it slightly less significant, but it does matter). So now that we know that Milan is going to play for real next week, and that Arsenal will probably try to get one for the road, what is there left to talk about?
Well never fear, because here on 116th street, we know that if you follow the beautiful game stateside, there's at least a halfway decent chance that you play the FIFA series. Where I'm going with this, of course, is to the question on everyone's mind: if the makeshift Arsenal back four of Flamini, Senderos, Toure and Eboue haven't conceded a Champions League goal since the Truman administration, how is EA gonna rate them for FIFA 07? Flamini, whose FIFA 06 rating is something like 71, is a tricky one, because his natural position is central midfield instead of left back, and we know how EA likes to screw with the ratings for players whose skills don't necessarily match their position (Frank Lampard is an 85 in FIFA 06, for example, when everyone knows he should be at least a 92). Anyway, figure Flamini gets a boost in tackling and pace, I see him at somewhere like 84 next year.
Senderos, with his strength, tackling and heading will undoubtedly move up into the 80's, and anything less than an 85 will be a travesty. Kolo Toure was already an 88 in FIFA 06, but he's taken a step into the elite category of defending this year; expect him to register as a 90 in next year's game. Eboue isn't even in FIFA 06, and as such I have no idea how EA will rate him next year. They generally tend to underrate new players, though (Cristiano Ronaldo sucked in FIFA 2004), so I wouldn't be surprised if he came in at a 77, even though he is also probably deserving of an 85 himself.
All FIFA video gaming conjecture aside, what happens when Arsenal's defensive starters return from injury remains to be seen. Cole, Campbell and Lauren have international reputations, as well as a higher pay grade. Cole seems to want out of Highbury, but Campbell and Lauren's futures are more precarious. Is it safe to assume that these kids will be able to duplicate this year's magic next season? If so, then the two vets are surplus. But what if Senderos and Eboue slump next year? Arsene Wenger won't be able to use FIFA 07 ratings to determine who to play.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

All Good Things (Part 2)...

I was at Nevada Smith's not too long ago, having a pint with Father Ted, who was telling me a story about an England shirt he had purchased. "I bought this England shirt, it was beautiful. So I came in here with it on, and Jack (the bartender) says to me, he says, 'What are you doing?' So I said, 'What?' Jack looks at me and he says, 'That shirt, it has a signature!' Well, I didn't know! Jack says, 'It's Alan Shearer!' Gasp! I took it right off!"
Alan Shearer commands a lot of respect in England, and deservedly so, although he never really captured my imagination very much. He was definitely from the English school of alpha-male footballers (Wayne Rooney, anyone?), but, as a striker, did not leave a trail of injured players from devastating tackles like my man Keano, nor was he humorously psychotic in the manner of Lee Bowyer. In fact, for a tough guy, Shearer always seemed a bit jovial, a Bruce Willis-type figure in the Premier League.
So while Shearer may have never been flashy or crazy, he did have a thing for scoring goals, and he scored more than any other player in the history of the Premier League. Even now, at age 35, it remained no surprise to see Shearer's marker lose him mysteriously, only to turn around and see the captain of the Toon Army one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
Monday, with three games left in his playing career, and with his 206th goal for Newcastle United already tallied, Shearer suffered an apparent tear to his MCL. If the scans go as expected, the injury means the end to his illustrious career. Shearer didn't play with the flair or elegance of his contemporary superstars Giggs or Bergkamp, but he did play with a passion rivaled by no one (well, almost no one). Some may say that this is a sad end to the career of a player who deserved better, and they may be right. But in my mind, Alan Shearer played until he was physically unable to do so any longer, which, for him, sounds just right.

A New Challenge

In between loads of laundry, I was catching glimpses of Saturday's Chicago Fire vs. Columbus Crew match, pleased to see that what at first glimpse appeared to be many yellow seats were, in fact, Crew fans dressed in their team's colors (what possessed the Crew to paint their seats yellow, anyway?). I was even happier to see the many kids in the crowd shots, carrying banners and enthusiastically cheering on the Crew. What a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, I thought to myself, and what a great new generation of fans.
Later that night, after a pleasant evening out with The Girl By 23rd Street, I came home in time to catch the match (I refuse to call it a "Superclasico") between the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA. This one had an incredible atmosphere; it was as if a Liverpool-Everton derby had suddenly been transferred to the Home Depot Center. It was great to see the decidedly non-"soccer mom"-ish Chivas fans get their chance to celebrate, as Ante Razov put them ahead early in the second half, and it was even better to witness the Landon Donovan show that allowed L.A. to come back and get the win. With these games of this quality, as well as with attendance and television ratings markedly improved from last season, it appears as though MLS is poised to have an impact upon the American sporting scene. But before it can do that, the league has to tackle some new issues to ensure that a family atmosphere is upheld at its stadiums.
The ESPN2 crew was interviewing the actor Kuno Becker about the upcoming soccer-themed movie Goal!, but could barely conduct the interview because the Chivas fans were throwing so much confetti at them. The ducking of foreign objects wasn't only limited to the production team, however; Galaxy keeper Kevin Hartman had to wade through a sea of streamers in his failed attempt to stop Razov's opening goal. Soccer fans worldwide love the festive atmosphere a good supporters' group can provide, and confetti and streamers are obviously a very big part of that, but MLS needs to find a solution to the problem of fans throwing objects onto the field. I am a believer in the theory that the appearance of disorder only leads to further chaos, and while such problems are nowhere near epidemic, the league needs to take steps to eliminate them now before public perception equates MLS with hooliganism.
In England, video surveillance and lifetime bans have helped curb some of the unruly behavior that plagued the FA in the 1980's. I'm not saying MLS needs to take such drastic steps, but the time is right to find a necessary solution, especially in light of the fan violence that took place opening weekend during the Red Bull New York vs. D.C. United game. Disorderly crowds are not exclusive to soccer (go to a Flyers-Devils game and you'll find that out), but the league cannot afford to have its fans and product equated with the actions of their counterparts overseas. Regardless, I have confidence in the league, following its progress in stadium development, marketing and sponsorship, and financial stability. If they continue to raise their standards, I believe we will see progress in finding solutions to these new challenges as well.

Monday, April 17, 2006

All Good Things...

At the time when we here on 116th street were first discovering this fantastic game, we weren't on 116th Street, and we definitely weren't in France, where the World Cup was being held. We were watching Saturday matches on ABC, trying to keep up with the action by consistently peeking back at our Sports Illustrated World Cup preview (props to Grant Wahl for calling France as the winner that year).
SI had tipped another guy, Clarence Seedorf, as the player to watch from the Netherlands, but once the games started there was no question that the guy to pay attention to was Dennis Bergkamp. Bergkamp led the Dutch to the semifinal that year, scoring a legendary goal against Argentina in the process, before returning to Arsenal for the 1998-99 season.
Saturday was Dennis Bergkamp Day, marking the end of an era for both Arsenal and its soon-to-be-departed stadium. Bergkamp, whose grace, elegance and skill had made him an Arsenal legend, was given a proper send-off from the Highbury faithful, and he treated them to one last masterful performance, against West Bromwich Albion. The Arsenal crowd showed up with orange T-shirts and banners to show their support for the Non-Flying Dutchman (Bergkamp's fear of planes is as world-renowned as his passing), and he came on in the 72nd minute, with the score tied at 1-1. 4 minutes after appearing, he hustled to the rebound of Robert Pires' strike, and instead of hurrying a shot on goal, he showed his usual calm, turning away from goal to deliver a pass back to Pires, who put the Gunners ahead, 2-1. It was a classic Bergkamp assist, recalling his days with the free-wheeling Arsenal sides of the late 90's.
In the 89th minute, the man often referred to as "Iceman" and "Dennis the Menace" put a storybook finish to his special day, curling a beautiful strike into the top right corner of the net. With seven games remaining in his Premier League career (he may get a few more matches if Arsenal continue to advance in the Champions League), Dennis Bergkamp showed everyone that he still has a little magic left in his boots. We here on 116th street will patiently wait for another player with his elegance, but we are likely to be disappointed.

The Case for Chris Albright

Let us pause for a moment to consider the cautionary tale of Jeff Agoos. In Agoos, the U.S. had a seasoned left back, one who had been through the MLS wars with D.C. United, had passed through the fire of World Cup qualifying play and whose experience was sure to overcome his weaknesses on the grandest stage. In 2002, Agoos traveled with the U.S. team to Korea, only to have one of the more disastrous World Cup campaigns in recent memory. He was outrun frequently, was found guilty of losing his man in key moments and scored an own goal against Portugal.
Fast forward to 2006, and let us witness the potential for history to repeat itself. Anyone who saw Frankie Hejduk a.) lose and b.) get outrun by Teafore Bennett in the Jamaica-USA friendly on Tuesday could have easily had flashbacks to the worst of Agoos' performances. Like Agoos before him, Hejduk has been a good soldier for the Yanks, and is now showing the signs of a dip in form. Fortunately for Bruce Arena, and unlike in 2002, there is a younger alternative capable of doing more for the Stars and Stripes, and that individual is Chris Albright.
While watching the Los Angeles Galaxy-Chivas USA game Saturday night, I was impressed with Albright's ability to get forward and make sound passes. This, combined with the danger his heading ability presents in dead ball situations (Albright is a converted striker), allows him to present an element to the national team that Hejduk (a more by-the-book defender) does not. Albright has also been solid defensively for both club and country, and while he may lack Hejduk's experience, he has been a solid contributor and the more consistent of the two. Granted, neither Albright nor Hejduk may even see very much playing time in Germany, with Steve Cherundolo having practically nailed down the starting spot at right back, but as a fan I can say that I feel more comfortable with Albright back there over Hejduk. Whether or not Bruce Arena feels the same way remains to be seen.