116street Soccer

Footballing from a lesser authority...

Location: New York, New York

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Le Sulk Returns

We here on 116th Street would like to take this time to warmly welcome Nicolas Anelka back to the Premiership, in this, Arsenal's summer of discontent. Nobody, of course, knows how to pout his way out of an ideal situation quite like Anelka, and the current want-aways of North London, Ashley Cole and Jose Antonio Reyes (who I henceforth dub "Vincent Chase," due to his shoddy publicity, bridge-burning agent and Mandy Moore-like obsession with Real Madrid) should really take notes on how to properly abandon the Gunners. Anelka, after all, is the one who left the Gunners, only to join a star-studded Real Madrid lineup and walk away with a Champions League title. Sure his London departure paved the way for Thierry Henry's ascension, consequently ruining his future with France, but who really cares about that? Do any Arsenal players have a European Cup on their resumes?
Of course, following Anelka's example can be a pretty slippery slope, but that's why we love him. Who else can boast of headlining eight different clubs across four different countries by the age of 27? I guess Bolton Wanderers would be apropos, in his case. Thing is, we here on 116th Street, really, really like Nicolas Anelka. There is something about the way in which he never promises to mature or apologize that somehow makes him seem more sincere than the Jermaine Pennants of the world. The prospect of him pissing off yet another authoritarian English manager warms our hearts to no end, and we can't wait to hear the first rumblings of yet another move. We missed the guy, what can we say? In a year of pretenders, the original malcontent has returned.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

And In Other News...

I just thought this picture was funny...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

It's Time To End This

If you are waiting for those harsh FIFA racism punishments to start kicking in, then join the club. After yet another incident in which a section of ultras subjected a player to fierce racial abuse, followed by a paltry fine, one can't help but wonder what kind of follow-up FIFA has undertaken to ensure that their new punishment system (three points for a first offence, six for a second and relegation for further offences) is more than an empty promise. Even moreso than punishment, however, one wonders what can be done to change the culture that produces such ugliness.
I, for one, believe that as big a part that ultras play in the game, it is time to curtail a bit of the anything-goes atmosphere that surrounds their sections. England has taken great steps in this regard, banning banners and flares, as well as setting up video surveillance to identify troublemakers. Some may say that such steps detract from the general atmosphere, but nobody complains that English stadiums lack charisma, do they? I am of the belief that if you establish a sense of order, people will behave more orderly. English fans had to learn this the hard way, during the dark times of the 1980's, but seem to have come out ok, even if they no longer have fences, banners, flares or standing sections.
So now we must turn our attention to the Santos Lagunas, Real Zaragozas and SS Lazios of the world, where uprooting a racist culture cannot be done at the club level, where ultras often have too much power and clubs often don't care enough to address the issue. FIFA must take up this cause itself, and start imposing its own rules upon wayward clubs. I cannot wait for the day when FIFA makes an example out of a club and hands out a hefty point deduction, or bans banners in all FIFA-sanctioned matches, or even relegates a habitual offender. It is right and it is necessary, and it's about time FIFA grew a pair and did it.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Anfield Anticipation

The FA Premier League kicks off tomorrow, and while we Americans may annoy the Brits with our fixation on this league above all others, and our insistence on referring to it as the "EPL," there is no question that we here on 116th Street cannot get enough of this competition. Everyone and their cousin seems to be making EPL previews these days (and yes, I have no qualms about referring to it as the EPL; as long as Scotland calls their league the SPL, I'm doing what I want to do, it's a free country), so rather than to dally in who's whos and American equivalents, I am going to take this time to talk about the most compelling Premiership storylines making the rounds of 116th Street.
No player has us more fixated presently than Frank Lampard, Chelsea superstar, England underperformer and general enigma. Lampard scores goals by the boatload, works pretty hard on the field and seems as invaluable a member of the squad as Chelsea has. Thing is, he hasn't really been in form for quite some time; Chelsea's slip in the table last season (they barely hung on to win the title, nearly squandering a 15-point lead, if you'll recall) could be more than slightly attributed to Lampard's slip in play, and he carried his lack of sharpness over to the World Cup, where he might have been the worst high-profile player in Germany. Lampard's inability to create chances for others, or find the net at the World Cup, has reared itself again in the preseason, as Chelsea has struggled to put together a cohesive side. If he cannot find his form soon, the formerly indispensable player may find his way to the bench, usurped by high-profile names such as Ballack, Essien, or even Obi Mikel.
Lots of new Americans in the Prem this year, and the boys from Reading arrive with much fanfare. We get our first look at Bobby Convey and Marcus Hahnemann this year when Reading hosts Middlesbrough tomorrow afternoon, in a match televised (perhaps not coincidentally) by Fox Soccer Channel. Of course, we are already pretty familiar with both Convey and Hahnemann, both from their days in our own domestic league as well as through their lofty status as members of the U.S. national team. So no disrespect to them or Cory Gibbs (newly signed to Charlton but sidelind by injury), but the Yank we really want to see is Jay DeMerit, on-the-rise defender from newly-promoted Watford. With roster spots on the U.S. team up for grabs as the squad enters its next cycle, players such as DeMerit and West Ham's Jonathan Spector bear special attention. Naturally, we will be keeping up on the activities of the other Americans scattered throughout the league, but we always like to give extra props to the new kids on the block.
Over at Old Trafford, we couldn't care less whether Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are getting along, because there is a much more important conflict going on at Manchester United: who is going to rock the mullet harder this year, Michael Carrick or Darren Fletcher? Both players were working on fairly impressive "starter kits" last season, but now that they are teammates, the stakes have been raised. Carrick, for his part, seems headed for a full on Billy Ray Cyrus look, while Fletcher appears to be going for more of a Tyler from "Life Goes On" kind of thing. Which mullet will win? Hopefully neither player got a haircut during the offseason.
We loved the rise of West Ham last season, with their collection of kids taking them all the way to the FA Cup final (I know, it's not technically the Prem, but it was still fun). West Ham's academy is unparalleled, but it has been raided before; how long can Nigel Reo-Coker, Anton Ferdinand and Bobby Zamora stick with the Hammers? Will they follow in the footsteps of Carrick, Lampard, Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe and Rio Ferdinand away from Upton Park? For this season, at least until January, Hammers fans can enjoy the youngsters, who could potentially bring United one more memorable season.
Who the eff is going to score for Newcastle? With Michael Owen out, possibly for the season, the Magpies have only one striker to start the season with, Shola Ameobi. For a Toon Army used to the scoring heroics of now-retired Alan Shearer, the lack of goals may be difficult to stomach. This squad needs to make a serious move before the window closes, or it could be an ugly, ugly season at St. James' Park. Newcastle has already missed out on attainable targets like Craig Bellamy, Andy Johnson, Dean Ashton and Dirk Kuyt, so the pickings at forward are somewhat slim at this point. Nevertheless, this squad is in dire need of forwards, and playing a 4-5-1 might not help them this year. Damien Duff might have to pull off some real miracles from the wing to save Newcastle.
Speaking of transfers, Arsenal's offseason drama surrounding Ashley Cole and Jose Antonio Reyes are not helping a squad trying to keep North London rivals Tottenham at bay. The Gunners need to find reinforcements immediately, as the squad has a ton of young talent but little depth. Spurs, meanwhile, will need a strong performance from new signing Didier Zokora to effectively replace their engine, Carrick. The battle for fourth place was decided by two points last season, and key losses could sink either of these squads.
Finally, we here on 116th Street nominate Luis Garcia of Liverpool as the breakout star of the Barclaycard Permiership for 2006-07. Luis Garcia has excelled in a few different roles for the Reds in seasons past, but we feel that he has all the potential to be the next Raul (yes, we really did just say that) if given a proper opportunity. Given the chance to partner up front with Dirk Kuyt, we expect him to supplant Craig Bellamy in Liverpool's pecking order and become one of the true stars of this league. It is due to the potential of the Kuyt/Luis Garcia combination, as well as the continued brilliance of Steven Gerrard and a nightmarishly stifling defense, that we here on 116th Street predict Liverpool to win their first Premier League crown and 19th English championship overall. Chelsea will take a while to get it together, Arsenal and Manchester United are not title ready, and Tottenham is too far away from serious contention, meaning that in 2007, you'll never walk alone.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Final Word on the Topic of Eurosnobbery

These may be the headiest times our little domestic league has ever seen, with good showings against some of the world's greatest clubs, unprecedented American interest in soccer and very good stadium news from both New York and Salt Lake. As the league continues to demonstrate its value, the debate between the Eurosnobs and MLS fans has heated up once again, perhaps even moreso than ever before. Many MLS fans, you see, armed with newfound confidence, are coming hard at the naysayers, some of whom continue to cling to an overwhelmingly negative perception of the league. The funny thing, of course, is that MLS is neither as good as its staunchest defenders say it is, or even close to being as bad off as its detractors might suggest. What do we then make of these factions?
The Eurosnobs (we here on 116th Street probably lean closest to belonging to this group), due to their contentious argument that MLS is an inferior league (it is), seem to bear the guilt of an entire generation, according to the MLS faction. What guilt do I speak of? The guilt of being "damaging to American soccer," of course. The argument, which seems to be gaining quite a bit of steam these days, is that any American fan who is not actively watching, attending and supporting the domestic league is (and not entirely in this order) making MLS stadiums appear empty on television, thereby turning casual American sports fans away from MLS; turning the atmosphere at MLS stadiums into a mausoleum, thereby turning casual American sports fans away from MLS; keeping MLS ratings down, thereby keeping MLS matches off of SportsCenter, and thereby turning casual American fans away from MLS; essentially, anything that could potentially contribute to the downfall of the league can be attributed to the Eurosnobs, due to their failure to support MLS. The cousin to this argument is the one that says that any American who is not supporting the league is no true soccer fan. Sorry, but I'm not buying.
Contrary to being a detriment to the league, the Eurosnob is actually of considerable help (yes, even Jamie Trecker). It is the Eurosnob who helps keep the league and the American game honest. MLS, hybrid of American sports and European soccer traditions that it is, is held to a higher standard by those who would look down upon it. Without the Eurosnob, Alexi Lalas can make vague references to millions worldwide worshipping an inferior brand of soccer, and actually get away with it. The redesign of Red Bull Park has Eurosnob appeal in spades, and all of these big exhibitions between MLS and Euro superpowers were scheduled with Eurosnobs in mind. Without the Eurosnob, we'd still have the Dallas Burn and the San Jose Clash (well, maybe not San Jose). To MLS, Eurosnobbery is inspiration personified. Don't hate the Europoser, MLS fan; look upon him or her and see the face of motivation.
But all you Eurosnobs out there, you need to be nicer to the league, too. Stop raining on MLS fans' parades! If they want to get all gassed about the MLS All-Stars beating Chelsea (and friendly or not, Chelski looked pathetic out there), let them do so. MLS won the game, fair and square, and if MLS fans want to talk trash to every Chelsea fan they see, they have every right. If the league wants to look silly with confetti after the game, let it. Nobody makes fun of Bolton fans for getting piss drunk after beating Chelsea, so why torment an underdog of a different sort? Furthermore, if you're gonna talk trash about MLS, at least do so from the perspective of having watched an entire match. Sure, it's not as good a league as the Bundesliga, but it's probably as good as the Scottish Premiership, sans Rangers and Celtic (although D.C. United fans might take me to task for that one) and its best teams can hold their own with anybody. It may lack star power and stepovers, but it's worth watching if you're a soccer fan.
So now, instead of calling each other names and going Old Firm at each other over message boards, let's all take a step back and realize that both sides, far from being a detriment to the American game, are quite good for it. After all, it's America, and there is a passionate, serious debate going on about soccer. When is the last time that ever happened?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sign Borgetti (while you can)!

We here on 116th Street are well aware of the general hate that most American soccer fans have for Jared Borgetti, but with his place at Bolton long gone, and his move to Saudi Arabia on the outs, it is a no-brainer that MLS should go in for the striker. I'm not advising that the league should break the bank for him, but if reasonable terms can be worked out, Borgetti's arrival would mean much to a league that presently struggles with name recognition.
Beyond his obvious appeal to Mexican communities in MLS cities, Borgetti is a productive player, with an eye for goal that the league could use in a major way. Furthermore, his polarizing presence would add fuel to rivalries wherever he plays (imagine what Borgetti's presence on FC Dallas would do to the Dallas-Houston rivalry, or as a member of the Galaxy, deepening the LA-Chivas rift!). He might (this could be a major stretch) even help the Red Bulls, on the field and off. MLS, we are watching you: this deal should be a no-brainer (especially since you already missed out on Jay-Jay Okocha).

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Good Night For Soccer

There are some out there, inexplicably employed at major media outlets, and with an obvious agenda against American soccer, who somehow find a way to look for negatives in what was an overwhelmingly positive night for the league. In case you missed it, the MLS All Stars defeated Chelsea last night, 1-0, in a thoroughly entertaining game, and the exact kind of showcase the league should be putting on annually. Prior to the game, some were decrying the league for an obvious lack of star power, made even more glaring by the absences of talents like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, and many (including we here on 116th Street) feared that the league may face a repeat of last year's 5-0 debacle against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.
But credit MLS for turning the entire affair into a celebration of the league. It was a good move to put the injured Donovan in the booth as co-host. Say what you will about his World Cup performance (and I've said plenty), but he brought a good deal of enthusiasm about the league to the broadcast, and provided the league with a much-needed familiar face, even if not on the field. ESPN put on quite a good broadcast, with the kind of production values we will hope to see under the newly-announced television rights contract. Lots of cameras, crisp graphics, few hiccups (they made one bad mistake, however, cutting away to a wide shot when the MLS All Stars had a throw-in near the Chelsea goal, causing ESPN to miss the first part of De Rosario's goal), hopefully they will continue to work out the bugs as they improve their soccer coverage.
ESPN finally got it right and tossed Marcelo Balboa out of the booth, hopefully never to return. With Eric Wynalda in his place, rough edges abounded, but he generally kept the discourse intelligent, kept the stammering to a minimum, provided a much-needed "on-field" perspective, and was quite funny (one note to ESPN: work harder on getting your facts straight. Transfer fees go to clubs, not the players, and Wynalda, at the least, should have set that fact straight). His late-game trash-talking style is exactly the kind of thing the American game needs, to feel the emotional aspect of the game and claim it for ourselves (I loved his, "we'll cut the grass shorter for you next time," remark to John Terry post-game).
On to Peter Nowak and the players, a very big thank you for lining up 3-5-2 and pressing the attack. Clumsy and deferential early in the match, the MLS team picked up confidence as the game went on, and provided an entertaining style that Chelsea chose not to match (Chelsea, an exciting team? Not under Jose Mourinho). I couldn't believe my eyes; a mostly American outfit, playing short passes, keeping the ball on the ground, maintaining possession and attacking? Too good to be true! I went into the match expecting Arena-ish long balls, and was pleasantly surprised to find a well-organized, wide-open attack. It brought smiles to the faces of 116th Street.
Special props go to Eddie Robinson for his game saving clearance, a spectacular, exciting play; Chris Albright, for attacking the Chelsea defense from the beginning; Jimmy Conrad, for fouling Didier Drogba every chance he got; Freddy Adu, for playing fearlessly, even though he was getting thrown around like a rag doll; and Dwayne De Rosario, for providing a great deal of class throughout, as well as scoring an exciting winner. Is this really the breakthrough match for U.S. soccer? Probably not, Chelsea looked about as interested in this match as I am in finding a handbag to carry little-@$$ dogs around in, although they did turn up the heat late in the match. But there is much to be happy about. The league, while still inferior, showed that it does have some talent, and a lot of heart, and is capable of hanging with the best teams in the world on its best day. More important than gaining respect from the Chelseas of the world, the league showed itself valuable to American fans, many of whom showed up to cheer on the Blues, but ended the night shouting "Over-Rated!" at Lampard and company. The only negatives to find in a night like last night are the dubious ones you'd have to dig for, Jamie Trecker.