116street Soccer

Footballing from a lesser authority...

Location: New York, New York

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bed-Ridden Observations from 116th Street

Now that my illness is dissipating, much has transpired that I feel the need to touch upon. Many topics have gone around the blogosphere more than once, so I'll try to be brief, and hopefully bring a fresh perspective. As always, every viewpoint comes from a lesser (and possibly hallucinatory) authority...

First off, the soccer crew at SI.com has absolutely been on fire in recent weeks. Jonah Freedman, in addition to keeping his often-entertaining, always-informative World Soccer Club Rankings rolling along each week, has the interviewing game on lock. His humorous, thoughtful conversations with stars such as Luis Figo and Owen Hargreaves, as well as USA and Red Bulls up-and-comer Marvell Wynne have been must-read material. Nobody gets to the heart of a story better than Grant Wahl, and his chats with Bruce Arena, combined with his terrific breakdown of the U.S. National Team coaching search, continue to certify my opinion of him as the best soccer writer in the U.S. Furthermore, no mainstream outlet covers Mexican and South American soccer as well as they do, and they try to keep the perspective as distinctly American (i.e. outsider) as possible. By the same token, Gabriele Marcotti's writing on the European game remains top-notch. We here on 116th Street also love SI's concise format, allowing the best stories to get play, keeping the rumors separate from the actual news and making the site the best mainstream outlet for American fans of the game abroad.

Late Pass, first edition: count me in on the bandwagon of latecomers to The Wire. HBO On Demand comes in quite handy when one is bed-ridden, and I have managed to see every episode of the new season. Twice. Seriously. I try not to be one given to hyperbole, but when I read a critic (I can't recall who specifically, possibly Slate, possibly Simmons - yikes) refer to it as the most important fictional drama in the history of American television, I didn't even flinch. It is the only show I have seen that has me consistenly processing the real-life implications of what I have just watched, for days on end. It is a drama that will keep you engrossed, entertained, and challenging yourself. But I'm sure you're not reading any of that for the first time, so I'll move on.

Nice to see my man Raul Gonzalez Blanco (a longtime Favorite Player of 116th Street) hit two against Dinamo Kyiv on Tuesday. We may never again see the Raul of his "Golden Boy" days, but nobody epitomizes the spirit of Real Madrid (the "real" Real; the one that used to scare the Manchester out of United a few years back) quite like he does. At the same time, I have a message for Mr. Capello: free Robinho! We need more Robinho!

Just as Marlo Stanfield is sure to find out, it's hard being on top. Barcelona had better take this lesson to heart, because sleepwalking through a match like they did against Werder Bremen does not win this grand tournament. We have no problem with Ludovic Giuly at all, but why was he starting over Leo Messi?

Players we loooooove to talk $#!+ about (Lampard, Drogba, Jose Antonio Reyes) have been stepping it up lately. We don't like to apologize for things, so they'd better not keep it up. Players we simply love (Shevchenko, Rooney, Adriano) are playing like they deserve to have us talk $#!+ about them. Our Favorite Player of Them All has two goals so far, both with his head (he never scores with his head!), and everyone is talking up Peter Crouch at the moment. I guess that's why they play the games...

How corrupt is the state of the game? The bung expose happened, and nobody even battered an eyelash (Ashley Cole has a pretty bad agent and publicist, however; he's not the epitome of everything wrong with the game, but he's coming off really bad right now. Somehow Gallas has escaped this scrutiny when he was probably just as bad).

Speaking of bad publicity, Landon Donovan just needs to shut up. Seriously, Landon, just shut the eff up! Learn the phrase "no comment." Stop doing P.R. interviews. Landon is a good player, thus he should let his play do the talking, and let his play sell the Nikes, and let his play reassure his place with the national team. The only thing these interviews are doing is giving haters (such as us here on 116th Street) more ammunition with which to call for his head. By the same token, Clint Dempsey needs to shut the eff up. Everyone's favorite player after the World Cup has given everyone a negative impression through his multi-faceted campaign to free himself from MLS. The suspensions and verbal attacks only bring to mind another Clint who was once a favorite of USA fans. Clint, let your play do the talking; it will set you free.

All hail the Royals of Reading! Those cats are going to give me a heart attack, for sure.

Late pass, second edition: I picked up Winning Eleven 9 just before I got sick. That game is ridiculous! Consider me a convert, I can't even imagine picking up FIFA 2007 at this point. When you're holed up sick with nowhere to go, there are few better ways to pass the time.

Craig Bellamy is still gangsta.

Is it scary that Chelsea is top of the table without hitting their best form, or will all the new additions keep them from ever hitting their best form? Can anyone keep up with them? I would be inclined to answer "Yes" to 1 and "No" to 2, but I'm still sticking with my Liverpool pick, because I like when coaches use 95 different lineups. It did wonders for Larry Brown with the Knicks last year...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


...for the lack of recent updates, I have been fighting a bad case of flu lately, but I expect to be back on my own two very soon, and will serenade you all with my opinions on this crazy game in no time...


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Barca Comes to El Barrio

I caught a terrific match this morning between FC Barcelona and Real Betis. Yes, I am fully aware that Barcelona plays Racing Santander today, but before you call me crazy, allow me to set the scene. Having awakened by all miracles without a hangover, I set about the East Harlem streets to see what the newly spectacular weather might bring. I myself got a cup of hazelnut coffee, and made a right onto 114th Street, bringing myself to Thomas Jefferson Park.
Upon my arrival, some youth soccer games were about to begin, so I took a look around to see exactly what would unfold. Directly in front of me were two teams of six and seven-year-olds. One team was wearing exact replicas of Barcelona's famous kit, with the scarlet and blue shining brightly under the sunlight, and the yellow numbers making it pretty easy to pick each kid out. The other was in a slightly more generic, but similarly well-made kit; their green and white allowed me to mentally connect them to Betis. Looking around, I saw that another game was already in progress, featuring significantly older kids (late teens) in similarly detailed Barca unis, against a bunch of dudes in t-shirts. Less interested in that game, I turned my attention back to the little ones.
Nearly every kid on the field was Mexican-American, save for one black kid playing up top for Barca as the lone striker. Being the sort who uses racial identifiers, I branded him "Eto'o" for the rest of the game. Kickoff came, and I found the skill level to be much higher than I expected for a bunch of seven-year-olds. The Barcelona kids were especially well-organized for a bunch of little kids; they kept their shape and spread the ball around, whereas the Betis kids, seemingly older and bigger, crowded around the ball and followed each other around, never passing. A very small Barcelona kid, wearing number 6 ("Little Xavi," as I referred to him from then on), tried to manuever around a skilled Betis defender, and flopped in a way that would do Francesco Totti proud. He got the call, and I couldn't help but laugh to myself, they learn these things at such a young age.
Betis came charging back on the counterattack, six of them crowded around the ball, each screaming for a pass that none of them deserved. Barca's very tall girl, marshalling the central defense, stepped forward and cleared it away with ease. More kids were now coming to the park, including a team of middle-school-age kids, also wearing complete Barcelona uniforms. Either Barca started a U.S. academy and didn't tell anyone, or Leo Messi is going to show up at the park any minute now.
The Betis team, for all of their tactical deficiencies, were bigger and more skilled with the ball, and it was starting to show. Another hive-like counterattack yields a goal, and it's 1-0 Real Betis. Barca is still digging in though, with Little Xavi all over the place, providing inspiration. For a kid who can't be older than six, he's definitely the best player on the field, but he's no ball-hog. He's all-action, much like Barca's real number 6, breaking up plays and trying to distribute the ball to his teammates; for a six-year-old, he has a real feel for the game.
Another bad clearance from the kiddie Blaugrana, and the team in green buries the sitter, two-nil, Betis. I spy a couple of African-American kids, about eleven or twelve, warming up on the sideline, one in a Stephon Marbury Knicks t-shirt, the other in a Che Guevara shirt and cargo pants, displaying more skill on the ball than any of the other kids at the park. Little Xavi flops again, and this time doesn't get the call. He writhes on the ground in fake pain for a while, and the referee starts laughing, so much so that he misses a handball.
A kid from Betis puts a sweet nutmeg on the female Carles Puyol, but hits the post with his shot. Eto'o takes off on a great countering run, getting one-on-one with the keeper before being taken out from behind from a Betis defender. The ref awards a corner, no penalty, but all the parents here are sane, so nobody gets carried away protesting the call. The kid in the Stephon Marbury t-shirt walks by, effortlessly switching his dribbling from basketball to soccer, working on both crossovers and stepovers with skill and ease. The game has real a future in this country, I think to myself.
The smaller Barcelona kids are losing, but they stay in their formations and keep passing. They might be losing the game, but they are going to be the better players in the long run. A kid named Danny from Betis is hogging the ball, and all the kids are pissed off. Soon enough, though, they pull off a rare display of good passing, and put the final ball away, 3-0 Betis. A couple of Mexican kids in Brazil jerseys are anxious for the game to end, so they can get on the field. Stephon Marbury and Che Guevara are on the other side, feeling the same way.
The final whistle blows, the game ends, 3-0 to the team in green and white. The Barca kids don't look very disappointed, but they go to get a drink of water. The Betis kids want to keep playing, so they stay on the field and have a kick around. The two Mexican kids and the two black kids hang out by one goal, doing the same.
The two Mexican kids in the Brazil shirts don't appear to speak any English, and the two black kids in the t-shirts don't seem to speak any Spanish, yet somehow they have organized a game of "21," with one kid as goalkeeper and the other three playing every man for himself. They are having a great time with it, and I'm amazed at how kids are able to immediately move beyond boundaries that adults struggle with consistently. The ball goes wide and the designated keeper retrieves it, throwing it back in before he can get back to goal. The other three, their eyes wide with anticipation, all go for the header that will catch the keeper off his line; they all miss, and a collective "AWW!!!" rings out. I laugh out loud, finish my coffee and head home to write about all that I saw.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Galacticos Gone Soft

It was a hell of a Matchday 1, with plenty of notable developments, from the fairly ridiculous (Jose Mourinho's conspicacy theories) to the head-scratching (Liverpool fielding a squad that would have a tough time beating Bolton Wanderers, let alone playing in the Champions League), and with a hint of the spectacular (Shunsuke Nakamura's sweet free kick, Barca's general excellence, as well as Tomas Rosicky's screamer). I know I lamented the number of games just the other day, but there's nothing better than some classic Champions League action, and the game's best were on display these past two days.
Even with all of the incredible action and developing storylines, no Champions League subplot interests us more than what is going on with Real Madrid these days. The former bullies of the UEFA block turned in such an uninspired, unimaginative performance, you would have thought they started the game with Luis Garcia, Steven Gerrard, and Xabi Alonso on the bench. This is a team whose apparent sense of entitlement, and resistance to any kind of gritty play, allowed Olympique Lyonnais to run circles around them. The miracle was not that Lyon handled them in CL play once again, nor was it that Real's ballyhooed defense gave up two goals; the miracle was that Lyon didn't tack on an additional two or three. Real looked every bit the bunch of over-the-hill, overrated fat cats that they've spent the offseason trying to convince everyone they weren't.
Fabio Capello, the man Real have enlisted to right their incredibly fast-sinking ship, seemed so tactically rigid that Lyon could have fielded Boudewijn Zenden, Jermaine Pennant and Steve Finnan, and still 4-3-3-ed the isht out of the old Galacticos. Late in the match, needing two to come back and at least one to save face, Real eschewed creative play, crisp passing or even general teamwork in favor of cheap flopping.
But why should we care how Real Madrid does in the Champions League? Perhaps, due to their star power, it is because we look forward to seeing the world's best players performing at their best. Thing is, when those big names underperform, they become no better than those squads undeserving to be in the tournament. When Fabio Cannavaro gets beat straight up by Fred, or when David Beckham is about as useful as Drew Bledsoe under pressure, or when Raul is about as useful as, well, David Beckham, it's time to start over. Other clubs keep passion high by developing a fair number of their own players. For Real, that ship has sailed; nevertheless, they still have quite a bit of young talent, and perhaps it's time for the old guard to step back for the next generation of Real stars (save for Jose Antonio Reyes; he sucks). But since we're footballing from a lesser authority over here, what do I know? I'm the one on the Liverpool bandwagon, after all.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Trim the Fat

Our excitement regarding Matchday One, limitless as it may seem, has to be reduced in the light of the absolute glut of events on the current footballing calendar. Is FIFA (and, by association, UEFA) cannibalizing itself? It seems as though there is an overhyped matchup everywhere you look at the moment. Not even two months after the end of the World Cup, the international schedule started up in earnest, with Argentina and Brazil facing off in England to decide... well, what exactly? Do we really need international friendlies, in any form, any time before 2007? I know Euro 2008 is supposed to be a big deal, but why on Earth would UEFA start up qualification at a time when their cash cows, domestic competition and the Champions League, are ready to kick off?
The problem with so many disparate storylines is that it dilutes the interesting factors of the game. The World Cup just ended (JUST ended), yet somehow we have to attach meaning to another France-Italy clash. Claude Makelele has just barely gotten a start for Chelsea, but somehow the story of his inclusion with France overshadows the start of his club season. With so many different competitions going on at once, what is the point of paying attention to any of them? They surely can't all carry the same amount of significance. If Germany hangs 13 on San Marino, and Everton beats Liverpool by the same score that Brazil beat Argentina by, and the very same Reds are about to face PSV tomorrow, and these are from four different competitions, in the span of about a week, what the eff is the point? What was even the point of the World Cup? It's about time the soccer world took the time to learn that less is more (unless we're talking about Robinho; we need more Robinho).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Breakups Can Be So Messy

Do you remember that girl you used to date? She was the really sexy one, and you went to all of the best parties together; all the world was jealous of you. Thing is, you were never really into her that much, and when you knew it was time to let her go, her ego couldn't handle it. She had never been dumped before (after all, everyone wanted to be with her), so to keep from losing face, she started giving you the cold treatment and saying mean things about you to anyone who would ask.
Of course, once you started seeing that other girl, the classy one who didn't party as much but was sexy as hell in her own right, the one that she hated, all hell broke loose. She started dissing you to complete strangers; started hooking up with the other girl's ex; she even resorted to making up asinine stories about you that no one could even begin to take seriously. Things got so bad that when you ran into the girl that you'd see from time to time on the side, you couldn't help but crack up, laughing at how bizarre your ex's behavior had become.
Her self-esteem issues were now showing through, and while you were so very ready for a fresh start with your new lady, your ex's increasingly strange antics were keeping you from moving on. Even those dudes from back in the day, the ones who were so jealous before, would come up to you asking, "What's up with Chelsea?"
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Yeah, me neither.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Another Arsenal Signing?

This one seems to have slipped under the radar of most news reports, but apparently Arsenal signed Brazilian Under-19 captain Denilson from Sao Paulo. I only learned of it by seeing it posted on the PremierLeague.com website. I don't know anything about this "new" Denilson, other than that his Wiki page says he is a defensive midfielder. Of course, given Arsenal's penchant for unearthing teenage gems, not mention his status as Brazil Under-19 captain, I'm sure we'll be hearing more from him in the future.

The Wizards Stay, After All

The craziest transfer deadline in recent memory came to a close yesterday, with the Cole-Gallas sagas coming to an intertwined, anticlimactic conclusion (they really needed to go down to the wire for this one?), conspiracy theories already popping up about the Tevez-Mascherano deal (and really, who doesn't love a good conspiracy theory?), Vinny Chase finally getting a shot with Mandy Moore (be careful what you ask for), and, surprise, Run DMB joining up with City. Good times all around, unless you're a Man U fan, in which case, you've got nothing, or if you're Jose Mourinho and you just lost your best defender in exchange for Ashley Cole (I feel you, Jose).
Getting significantly less press, but perhaps just as significant, was yesterday's handover of the Kansas City Wizards, from Lamar Hunt to entrepreneurs Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig. Whether or not this move manages to save the Wizards remains to be seen, but in the short term, it gives a struggling franchise a new lease on life, and gives MLS some slightly firmer ground upon which to stand. MLS is a league that simply cannot survive waves of franchise relocation or contraction, and even though moving the Wizards from Kansas City to Philadelphia does have its benefits, the league needs to prove that it can keep its clubs established for it to achieve any kind of legitimacy.
Now that the Wizards have ownership, the team can focus on finding a location in which to play for next year, with Arrowhead Stadium off-limits, and the odds of building a soccer-specific stadium improve with dedicated ownership backing the team. MLS needs to show that it can survive a rough marketplace, not just to win over a tough U.S. audience, but also just to keep itself growing. Hopefully with this, as well as the recent developments in Utah, the league has outgrown its contraction/relocation phase, and can begin making some actual inroads in becoming a lasting part of the communities it caters to.