I used to love NASCAR.
It doesn't fit in with the on-line persona I have intentionally or otherwise cultivated. Soccer coach and fan, sports observer, lawyer, alternative music aficionado. Doesn't really seem to fit with redneck, beer drinkin' race fan. But that was me.
Before soccer really. Before I coached or played, except for the few odd weeks when I was eight or in college or at summer camp. Before just about anything but Little League baseball and shooting hoops in the driveway and playing touch (or tackle when the grownups weren't watching) football in the yard, I went to races.
My indoctrination started when I was a kid, growing up 20 miles from Michigan International Speedway.
I had a classmate through junior high and high school whose father owned a very successful Indy car team. I went to some of those races, watched the cars, even got to meet some of the drivers (my friend's favorite was Swede Savage, who raced for her dad, the best racing name ever short of Dick Trickle).
But I always favored the NASCAR guys. Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, and The King, Richard Petty. I went to some races at MIS, watching what were truly stock cars zip around the track at 200 MPH, drafting when it could really be done, and I was enthralled.
Then I went to college in the heart of stock car racing, North Carolina. I worked the sports desk at The Winston-Salem Journal, answering the phones on Friday nights when writing my story about the high school football game that I had just covered. About half of the calls (this is pre-internet days, of course) were very simple: "Where did The King qualify?"
When I moved to West Virginia I remained a fan. My friends Steve and Howard and I had season tickets to Bristol International Speedway. Never figured out where the "International" came from, but that was okay. It was us and about 150,000 others, watching 42 (I think?) cars careen around a half-mile oval with ridiculous banks, crashing and passing and finishing backwards.
I went to races in Charlotte and Martinsville and Richmond and Darlington and North Wilkesboro and the Poconos and Dover. And I had a great time.
But kids and sports caused us to eventually give up our tickets and drew us to other pursuits. Gradually I became less and less interested as NASCAR attempted to appeal to a wider audience and gentrified itself and became vanilla and boring and popular and then not-so-popular.
All of the cars look the same. Few of the drivers have Southern accents and almost none can claim a lineage to the bootleggers and bandits who started the sport.
Now when there's a race on, I'll watch for a few minutes, but turn the channel as I realize I really don't care if a guy from California or Indiana or wherever wins. There's one on now, but I'd rather write than watch.
And I miss the good old days.
I watched the U.S. vs. Belgium match in a pub in Canmore, Alberta with C and a bunch of U.S. vacationers.
I marveled, with my countrymen, at Tim Howard.
I wondered how many would say "I told you so" when Wondo missed the sitter.
I groaned when Belgium scored, and scored again. I said to C after the first goal "Klinsmann has to sub Green for Bedoya" (honest, I really did). He listened after the second, and we cheered Green's fantastic goal, then groaned again as chances went wanting at the death.
I listened to Columbia vs. Brazil on XM radio driving from Lake Louise to Jasper, glad I was watching the Canadian Rockies out the car window instead of the match as I heard the cynical play of the former purveyors of the beautiful game and the exasperating refereeing described, convinced that FIFA had stacked the deck in Brazil's favor in every conceivable but subtle way.
I saw two German tourists, faces painted with the German flag, on a sunny Tuesday morning in Banff. Little did they, or I, know what lay in store a few hours later.
I passed a bar in the Calgary airport those few hours later, saw the game was on, and did a double, then a triple, take. The graphic read: "0 Brazil 4 Germany". In the 27th minute. I asked the guy standing next to me, still incredulous, "is that score right?" He assured me it was with a wry smile. I rushed back to the gate to tell C (she's of 100% German ancestry) of the score and that I was going to watch the rest of the first half, at least.
I rubbed my eyes when, not five minutes later, back at the bar, the graphic said: "0 Brazil 5 Germany." This time I just looked at the same guy, and he just nodded. Not a word was exchanged or needed.
I watched the French CBC station coverage at half time, deciding that even that lovely language couldn't put a pretty face on being down 0-5 in your own World Cup.
I decided that, at least this once, I was wrong about FIFA.
I followed The Netherlands game against Argentina, getting home from work to watch la Albicelestes win on PKs, a result that seemed neither deserved nor undeserved. Then I saw the Dutch destroy a slightly less desultory Brazil in the Third Place match.
I ambiguously watched the Final, half rooting for Germany because of that familial connection, half rooting for Argentina because I believe Messi to be the best player of this, and perhaps any, generation and that this was probably his best chance to add "world champion" to his resume.
I was pleased that it was not another boring, tentative final, at least not in the first half, and that it was settled not by PKs but by two moments of brilliance (Schurrle's cross and Gotze's finish).
I was glad that a record number of my countrymen watched with me.
Welcome to the World's Cup and the World's game, American. Stick around for a while.
I've written before about my ambivalence about my love of sports. Particularly soccer. Particularly a soccer tournament run by an organization as corrupt as FIFA.
But I've also resolved to embrace my obsession. And so I watched the U.S. game against Germany with E, didn't sit the whole first half, didn't even sit at half time while eating and pacing. E didn't either, although I'm not sure out of superstition or just nervousness. I hadn't been so nervous since my last Regional championship game. Or my last trial. Or the Ghana match.
I in my Klinsmannesque blue USA polo, E in his brand new away jersey that he had just opened, a present on his 23rd birthday. Moaning, muttering, yelling at the ref (which will either amuse or confirm the suspicions of my referee friends - and, no, I do not count the zebra in the photo to the right giving me a card among them).
Only after Muller scored (and what a fabulous strike) did I decide that particular talisman was broken and sat and watched, as much what was happening in the Portugal-Ghana game as ours, and fretted and groaned and, in the end, exalted. At a loss.
Some of my friends and family, new to soccer, still have problems with the nuances. What is up with added time? Why do players dive with impunity? How can losing a battle mean winning a war?
It's all part of the magic, my friends. There's often the chance of a last gasp. There's always the hesitation for the whistle, the pointing of the arm, the brandishing of the card. And there's also the ability to rely, in the group stage anyway, on good work already done and grinding out a result, and hoping that someone else keeps playing hard on the biggest sporting stage in the World.
Thanks Portugal. Thanks Ronaldo (never thought I'd say that).
We're through. And that's really all that matters right now. The shirt can stay.
I'm sitting for the Belgium game, though.
Some random thoughts:
Klinsmann got it right again. I thought Geoff Cameron needed to go after Portugal, and evidently Klinsmann did too. But he stuck to his guns that Omar Gonzalez was his right central defender on the bench and started Gonzalez against Germany. And Gonzalez was very, very good.
Tim Howard was fantastic. Jermaine Jones again was huge, but about as spent as me when the game ended. Bradley not great but better. Dempsey also exhausted (time to get someone else up front -- Altidore or Johannsson -- and let Dempsey play withdrawn?).
If you like soccer, or humor, or even better both, check out the Men in Blazers podcast from Grantland. Spider bites with questionable consequences, tiny bananas, Tiricoism, and, best of all, #wetherrara. These guys are fantastic.
Ian Darke was driving me crazy during the match. E and I kept yelling at him to quit restating the obvious and jinxing us. Michael Ballack, on the other hand, has gotten much better as a studio analyst.
And speaking of improved performances, I begrudgingly give credit to FIFA for lowering the boom on Suarez.
Belgium? I'll take our chances. And Argentina after that? That would be something not to miss.
I take back all the bad things I've been writing about Alexi Lalas. His observations immediately after the Americans' 2-2 draw against Portugal were spot on. It was a great match and the Yanks would have been thrilled with four points from the first two games if they had been offered prior to the start of the World Cup.
It's up to Jurgen Klinsmann to convince the team of that. That we're still in good shape and have showed the world what teamwork and hard work can accomplish. But while the last play of the Portugal match was the most disappointing, there were several things to be concerned about coming out of the match.
One is that Klinsmann's magical substitution touch abandoned him at a crucial point of the game. I understand the idea behind taking Graham Zusi out and putting Omar Gonzalez in the center of defense with a few minutes left (to waste time, for starters). But Gonzalez hasn't done much right in the last month and he was completely absent (out wide to the right and behind the play) when Portugal equalized. Perhaps he was in to man mark Cristiano Ronaldo, but he did a poor job of that as well. He should have been in front of the cross from Ronaldo to head it away, but even with fresh legs was out of the play as it occurred.
Which brings us to the worst performance over 90 minutes - that of Geoff Cameron. Lalas forgave him the horrible miss hit that put the ball at Nani's feet five yards out with only Tim Howard to beat five minutes into the match, but I can't. It was the kind of mistake you excuse at lower levels of soccer, but not in the World Cup. Cameron then compounded the error by being behind Varela when he headed in Ronaldo's cross to tie the game at the death. Ball watching in the 95th minute? Amateurish.
I understand a coach wanting to keep his defense consistent absent suspensions or injury, but one has to think that John Brooks will be seriously considered to replace Cameron against Germany on Thursday. After the Ghana match Klinsmann said that Brooks is his left central defense substitute (i.e., for Matt Besler) and Gonzalez the sub on the right. But Brooks and Besler have to be considered to pair against Germany, particularly given Brooks' familiarity with many of the German players.
As for the good news -- I start with Besler. He was fantastic throughout the match. Apparently Howard was voted Man of the Match, but for me it was Besler without question. Things could have fallen completely apart after Cameron's miscue, but Besler held it together, stepping when he needed to and distributing well from the back.
Jermaine Jones was very good again, although not as good as against Ghana, save for his fantastic goal. Kyle Beckerman worked hard and had some good touches, although he also was not as outstanding as he was against The Black Stars. One has to wonder, at 32 years of age apiece, whether Jones and Beckerman will have enough left in the tank to go the full 90 minutes against Germany (particularly with three days of rest while the Germans have four - thanks FIFA!).
Clint Dempsey worked very hard and deserved his goal (I had a player score a goal with her stomach once - in a 1-0 upset win over the school that at the time was ranked first in the state - so I appreciate particularly that method of scoring). Zusi gave away the ball too much, but his perfectly weighted pass set Dempsey up for the belly ball that looked at the time like it had put the Yanks in the Final 16. Howard made one fantastic save, but on a rebound shot from a ball off the post that seemed to go right through his hands.
Honestly, very few of our players except for Besler had outstanding games. Michael Bradley was once again sub-par (but please don't talk to me about how Klinsmann should pull him for the next match - we have no one else who can even come close to being able to do what Bradley does even on a bad day). That should bode well for our chances against Germany.
A win or draw against Germany and we're on to the Round of 16. A loss, and we might still get in depending on the result of the Portugal v. Ghana match. And if Germany draws against us they are not only in, but top the group.
Don't think that it hasn't already crossed my mind (and those of the powers-that-be in both the Ghanaian and Portuguese Football Federations) that a dull, goalless draw against a German team that the Americans' coach starred for as a player and coached on this very stage would suit both countries' purposes just fine, thank you very much.
Such an approach, however, doesn't seem to be in Klinsmann's DNA (remember when we could have sent Mexico packing if not for two stoppage time goals that broke Panama's heart eight months ago?). And it's hard to see the Germans giving either Klinsmann or the U.S. any quarter either ("uh, Ms. Merkel, about that whole listening to your phone calls thing? We're really, really sorry now").
If only we had held on. If only Cameron had taken a better touch early or marked his man late. If only Bradley hadn't given the ball away in the center of the field. If only Gonzalez had done the one thing he was put in the game to do.
But this is American soccer. We're second in the Group of Death with everything to play for, coming off of two gutty performances with a warrior leading us on the field as our captain. We don't coast or dazzle or do things the easy way. But, more often than not, we find a way.
Still, just this once, I would have been fine with us taking the easy way.
When your job is not that of full-time blogger, work sometimes gets in the way of posting. So it was with me on Monday, as I watched the U.S. v. Ghana match not at an American Outlaws watch party, or in the comfort of my own home, but on a boat in the middle of the Hudson River.
Fortunately a combination of my on-and-off whining for several weeks and the ingenuity of the good folks at USLAW meant that we had our own watch party on board, even though it was via the internet and on Univision (there was no sound anyway, so the fact that few of us could have understood any part of the broadcast other than "Gooooooooaaaaallllllllllll" really didn't matter).
As we motored under the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge (under which there was also a watch party significantly better attended than ours), some ate, some took in the sights, and others watched the game and cheered and groaned and critiqued (it was a bunch of lawyers after all) and was on the edge of its collective seat for 90 minutes plus stoppage time -- interminable, excruciating stoppage time.
And while, admittedly, the reaction of those lawyers wasn't as exuberant as that of many of those shown in the video below, I wouldn't trade the experience for any others - except maybe for those who were in attendance in Natal.
Just as with Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria in 2010, I suspect I'll always remember where I was when I jumped and shouted and acted like a fool when John Brooks' header went in and the U.S. vanquished the demon of Ghana in the World Cup. After the game, we glided past the Statue of Liberty and I took a picture and Tweeted this:
Good on you John Brooks, the unlikeliest of goal scoring heroes, and you Jurgen Klinsmann for, once again, making magical substitutions at crucial times (thinking more of the addition of Graham Zusi - who delivered the cross that Brooks headed - than Brooks here).
Aaron Johannsson kept yelling in his Brooks' ear after the goal, "just believe it." John's not alone Aaron. It took us all a while to believe.
I'm going back on my word to not post again before the World Cup starts. I'll just eke this one under the wire. And all at the risk of appearing a bigger and bigger Jurgen Klinsmann apologist. Or his lawyer.
Still, I'm about to start tearing my hair out. And this is good therapy.
The newest hubbub surrounding Klinsmann concerns his comments, made in a New York Times Magazine article and repeated yesterday at a press conference in Brazil, that it is not realistic to talk now about winning the 2014 World Cup.
The media and the social media sphere went into a frenzy. "That's un-American!" was the general theme. Since Alexi Lalas has blathered on for months about how we ought to go into this World Cup planning to win or we shouldn't bother showing up, I'm sure he made plenty of comments along those lines last night on ESPN's two-hour extravaganza previewing the tournament.
I'm not sure that he did because the show was so painfully bad that I couldn't watch for more than a minute at a time. ESPN paraded out panels and panels of so-called experts, most of whom speak English with one unintelligible accent or another. Including a woman from the UK who will be some sort of studio host and immediately flubbed her second line on the show. Why does ESPN insist on having foreigners talk to us about soccer? I'm sure Julie Foudy could do her job more intelligently and intelligibly than she. Michael Ballack was particularly ill at ease, which would have made continued watching a little like gawking at a wreck. I was tempted, but kept driving at normal speed and ended up in South Park, Colorado instead.
But I digress. While I can only assume Lalas's indignation, there are plenty of examples in print. The devastating observations of Gregg Doyel, (a columnist for cbssports.com whose bona fides are that he "covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association" Alrighty then, he's got the credentials!) are one example.
Doyel goes on, and on, and on shaking his pompoms and rattling his saber, using the tired trick of repeating Klinsmann's statement in italics while railing about how it's obvious from the statement that Klinsmann ain't "from around here" and that he has a lot to learn about American guts and ingenuity, blah blah blah. Another noted soccer journalist, Mike Wilbon of ESPN, apparently took umbrage with Klinsmann's questioning of Kobe Bryant's salary in the article and told Klinsmann to "[g]et the Hell out" of the country.
The only problem with Doyel and his ilk is that they are taking Klinsmann's statement completely out of context. Klinsmann did not say and has not said that the U.S. cannot win this World Cup. He has simply said that now is not the time to talk about it.
"I think for us now talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic,” he said. “If you do it like Greece in 2004, I think that nobody from Greece would have said, ‘We’re going to win the European Championship,’ but they did. At the end of the day, soccer, the beautiful thing is it’s unpredictable. You don’t know what happens.
“First we’ve got to make it through the group," he says, "so let’s stay with our feet on the ground and say, ‘Let’s get that group first done,’ and then the sky is the limit. But before and half-a-year before and even now (a day) before the World Cup starts, to say that we should win the World Cup is just not realistic.”
Makes sense, right? Brazil has won five World Cups. Italy has four. Germany has three. The U.S. has been to one semi-final, in 1930 when no one was paying attention. Klinsmann is merely saying "let's not get ahead of ourselves here. There are countries that can realistically say before the World Cup 'we want to win.' Or even 'we expect to win.' But the U.S., with its pedigree, is not yet one of them. Let's get through the group and then see what happens."
Over and over everyone reports, or even defends, the comment as "Klinsmann: Unrealistic for U.S. to expect title." But the quote was "for us now talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic." Now, as in right now or "half-a-year before." I am not parsing words, just taking them at face value. And what Klinsmann clearly said was absolutely correct, absolutely defensible, and absolutely coach speak. Let's take one game at a time. Let's put one foot in front of the other. Let's talk about our chances of winning a World Cup sometime after we make it out of the Group of Death.
I don't know what works the rabble rousers into their collective froth about Klinsmann. Is it the temerity that he showed to come from another country to coach "us"? Is it axing Donovan? Or is it just the usual soccer haters who seize the opportunity to throw cold water on the American psyche when once every four years (or two if the women do well) millions more Americans pay attention to soccer than the rest of the time?
Any way you choose, perhaps they could begin to show at least a shred of journalistic integrity by accurately quoting the man before excoriating him for something he did not say. Or just simply keep ignoring the game as they do the rest of the three years and eleven months of every four years.
Go back to covering high school football. We've got soccer to watch.
I ended my post about the U.S. vs. Turkey match saying that Jurgen Klinsmann might have trick or two up his sleeve before the first World Cup match against Ghana next Monday.
Turns out he had at least one, and we didn't have to wait until that game to see it.
The U.S. won its final warm-up match before Brazil, beating Nigeria 2-1 with two goals from Jozy Altidore (the first among the easiest he'll ever score, the second a vicious strike from 12 yards out). Nigeria pulled back a consolation goal on a penalty kick in the 86th minute to ruin keeper Tim Howard's shut out in a match in which he won his 100th cap for the Stars and Stripes.
The U.S. rolled onto the pitch against Nigeria in a formation featuring two defensive midfielders (Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones) and no true left winger. That left Graham Zusi on the bench (apparently confirming the opinions of those who were less than impressed with his performance against the Turks) and the Americans with no right wing. While a departure from the previous two matches, this was the formation that had guided the Yanks through qualifying, including topping the Hex for the third straight time.
As predicted, Alejandro Bedoya was back at left wing against Nigeria after making way for Brad Davis in the Turkey match and DeMarcus Beasley was again at left back in place of Timmy Chandler, unimpressive against the Turks.
Contrary to what you might imagine, this formation actually created more chances than did the one used against Azerbaijan and Turkey which featured two forwards, two out-and-out wingers and two center-mids. Dempsey played more like a withdrawn striker than a partner alongside Altidore, Jones was more offensive, often drifting out wide (but tracked back as well), and Michael Bradley bossed the midfield and teamed with Dempsey to direct the attack.
This allowed more room for Altidore to roam, and also opened up the wings for marauding attacks from Beasley and right back Fabian Johnson who was brilliant offensively once again. Bedoya lacked quality in the attacking half of the field, but his defensive work was a big improvement over Davis's. Nigeria had the majority of possession in the first half but never looked particularly threatening, while the Americans' counterattack always looked likely to score.
The U.S. defense was solid most of the game. Central defenders Matt Besler committed a late foul that was whistled for a deserved penalty, but while he has been downgraded by some for the foul (and his play in general), the penalty was largely the fault of Omar Gonzalez, who came on late and was badly beaten by a Nigerian attacker in the build-up that resulted in the penalty and the goal.
After dominating the African champions, it seems likely that the U.S. starting 11 against Nigeria will take the field in the same formation against Ghana. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. has the strength and speed in the midfield, and the familiarity and organization in the back, to deal with the Ghanaian attack. But Beckerman's insertion into the line-up gives some hope for a more organized defense and a more creative attack.
And that hope is needed after Ghana demolished South Korea 4-0 last night in its last tune-up for Brazil. While the scoreline is intimidating, apparently Ghana did not dominate play as comprehensively as it indicates and South Korea was hurt by poor finishing. Still, Ghana is spoiled for choices in the midfield and up top and will probably give the U.S. more to worry about as far as attacking options go than will Portugal.
Klinsmann appears to have this group as ready as it can be for the Group of Death. Two teams will survive, that much we know. Klinsmann has admitted that a win over Ghana is essential to the U.S. being one of those two. The time for analysis is over. Only the true test on the field remains.
We can assume, barring injury, that these players will be in the starting eleven when the U.S. men's team takes the pitch against Ghana on June 16 in Natal: Tim Howard, Matt Besler, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore.
So that leaves us with the questions of who will man the position alongside Besler in the center of defense, who the two outside fullbacks will be, and who the two wings will be.
Against Azerbaijan, Jurgen Klinsmann started Geoff Cameron at center back, DeMarcus Beasley (left) and Fabian Johnson (right) at fullback, Alejandro Bedoya (left) and Graham Zusi (right) on the wings. Many who know more than me thought that this line-up was also the one likely to start against Ghana and at least one blogger noted that it is arguably "the best eleven players that the U.S. has on the roster." Dempsey didn't start after having some discomfort in his groin while warming up for the match (Chris Wondolowski started in his place), but Dempsey's place is in the lineup is a foregone conclusion.
Omar Gonzalez seemed a lock a few months ago to start at center back, but some nervy play and a tweaked knee seemingly have him on the outside looking in for a starting spot. Beasley started the final qualifying matches at left back, almost out of desperation, and did passably well and was the clubhouse leader to man that position in Brazil as well.
Howard, Besler, Cameron, Jones, Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore, Johnson and Zusi started, in the same positions, against Turkey on Sunday. Brad Davis and Timmy Chandler manned the left wing and back positions, respectively, in place of Bedoya and Beasley. Neither Beasley nor Gonzalez played at all, even though Klinsmann used all six of his substitutes.
The U.S. won the match 2-1 thanks to a marvelous one-two from Johnson to Bradley and back that earned Johnson his first international goal for the U.S. and man of the match honors (along with his defensive play). Dempsey added a tap-in following a mistake in the Turkish defense before the U.S. surrendered a late goal on a penalty kick awarded after Cameron handled the ball in the box (on a play that was started by a bad defensive mistake by Chandler).
My impression was that all who have started both matches did nothing in either one to severely hurt their chances to start on June 16. Being the dutiful blogger (and researching lawyer) I decided to see how soccer experts rated the U.S. performances against Turkey. The results confirmed that, much like legal research, there is no clear answer, only varying opinions. Some rated Zusi's performance highly. But Soccer America found his performance the "[m]ost disappointing of the projected World Cup starters."
That Chandler was the weakest link on the pitch was agreed to by most if not all the commentators. And if not him, then the honor went to Julian Green, the 18 year-old starlet who looked overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation after coming on as a substitute and who, honestly, should not see the field for any of the matches in Brazil.
Brad Davis, while putting in some good crosses, did nothing to lead one to conclude that he should start instead of Bedoya. His lack of pace and inability to consistently defend his side of the field probably put more pressure on Chandler than would allow a completely fair assessment of Chandler's play.
One interesting option for Klinsmann would be to play Johnson at left fullback instead of the right, where he has started both friendlies. Johnson played both left back and left wing for his club team, Hoffenheim. But Klinsmann likely has Johnson at right back to allow his best outside defender to match up with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo in Brazil.
Johnson on the left would enable Klinsmann to start Davis, who offers more interesting offensive options than Bedoya and, if Davis pinches toward the middle as he often does, allow Johnson to make more effective offensive runs from the back. That would likely leave the right back position to DeAndre Yedlin another youngster (he's 20) who has buckets of pace but seems to rely on it at the expense of proper defensive positioning (Ronaldo would likely tear him up).
Or Klinsmann could move Cameron to right back, the position he plays for his club, Stoke, in the English Premier League, and start Gonzalez in the center of defense with Besler. But to do so would seemingly sacrifice the speed that Klinsmann values in his full backs.
All in all, it seems that those three positions, left back, left wing, and right back are the only ones up for grabs. And that Johnson will start at one of those outside back spots. So who's it going to be between Davis, Bedoya, Beasley, Johnson, and Gonzalez? My guess is Bedoya and Beasley. Saturday's match against Nigeria may tell us for certain.
Or Klinsmann may have one or two tricks up his sleeve yet ...
I could say I saw this coming.
Then again, I could say I didn't.
I admit that after his performance during last year's Gold Cup I thought that Landon Donovan had secured a place on the 2014 U.S. World Cup team. But a lot has happened since then.
Donovan's poor form in MLS so far this season (he has yet to score and while he has two assists, has not significantly influenced the L.A. Galaxy's performance this year) for one. And Donovan's admission that his age (or his current physical or mental condition) no longer allows him to train as hard for as many days in a row as he used to be able to for another.
Ultimately Donovan's form, age, and competition from younger or more in-form players led Jurgen Klinsmann to leave Donovan off of the 23-man roster that will travel to Brazil. The reaction from fans and pundits of the team has been vocal and varied.
Some believe that the decision will be disastrous for the team. Some believe that it's indicative of Klinsmann insuring that everyone understands that he, and he alone, is in charge. Others believe that it was warranted or even inevitable.
I just don't see this as a display of power by Klinsmann. If anything, I believe that he clearly established last year that this is his team, not Donovan's or anyone else's, when he excluded Donovan from the squad for a series of friendlies and qualifiers.
As for all the fans and supposed experts who criticize the move as stupid or wrong or biased I can only say: "Shut. Up."
I'm particularly sensitive to individuals who are wont to second-guess strategic coaching decisions, especially those who arrive at their conclusions based on what they've read or heard or seen on television. Most have no idea what has gone on at practice, in the locker room, in Klinsmann's conversations with his staff, or in his head.
Unless we start with the premise that Klinsmann is intentionally making decisions that are bad for the team and its chances for success in Brazil (which is nothing short of crazy), now hardly seems to be the time to criticize them. Does the specter of Donovan bearing down on them strike more fear into Portugal's or Germany's or Ghana's defenders than, say, Brad Davis or Julian Green? While the armchair managers certainly seem to think so, on what possible basis can they reach that conclusion other than pure speculation?
If the U.S. trails late in a match and Donovan isn't there to be brought off the bench, no doubt some will point to that moment (if the Yanks don't rally) as proof of Klinsmann's mistake. But in all likelihood the player that Klinsmann has in mind for that situation is Chris Wondolowski, whose inclusion in the roster is a cause for celebration.
Wondolowski played college soccer for NCAA Division II Chico State, then worked his way through the reserve teams of the San Jose Earthquakes, the Houston Dynamo, and then San Jose again before bursting on the scene with the senior San Jose squad in 2010. Wondo made his first national team appearance at the advanced age of 29, scored his first international goal in last year's Gold Cup at 30, and followed that up four days later by notching a hat-trick against Belize while wearing a shirt with the misspelled "Wondowlowski" on the back.
Wondo has earned a reputation for hard work and for being a consummate poaching forward. He doesn't always look pretty doing it, but the guy just scores goals when he's supposed to, and sometimes when he isn't. In other words, just the player you want to come off the bench late in a match when a goal is needed.
Surely, Klinsmann turned just such a scenario over in his head when deciding who to include on the roster. As well as who to use for late match set pieces (Brad Davis) or who may provide some late match toughness in the midfield (Kyle Beckerman), or who could serve as a replacement for a potentially suspended Jermaine Jones (Beckerman again).
As with the end of my last post, I note again that whether Klinsmann's 23-man roster is the "right" one will be proven, at least in part, by how those players perform in Brazil. Or, perhaps, even in qualifying for (and hopefully at) the 2018 World Cup.
But, for now, let's let Klinsmann be the coach and we be the fans, nothing more and nothing less. And let's celebrate Donovan's career as one of the best player to ever put on the shirt of his nation's team. And let's celebrate the fact that a guy whose name that team couldn't even spell right a year ago will don that same shirt (for the first, and probably last, time) at this year's World Cup.
Post Script: Came across this blog post while researching my next one. Eeriely similar to mine. I swear I hadn't seen it when I wrote mine.
Meanwhile, over on the XY side of things, last week Jurgen Klinsmann announced his preliminary squad of 30 players that will go to camp in California to train for the World Cup this summer in Brazil.
There were no real surprises on the list, including the omission of Eddie Johnson from the team. And while not surprising, and seemingly handled well by Klinsmann, Johnson's omission is unfortunate given his service to his country's team.
While Klinsmann kept his word and chose players for the squad who were, for the most part, performing well for their clubs (Landon Donovan being one notable exception), it's not easy to forget Johnson's play during the CONCACAF qualifying rounds that was one of the biggest reasons that the U.S. is going to Brazil in the first place.
The men struggled early in the third round of qualifying and, with a record of 2-1-1, were playing away to "minnows" Antigua and Barbuda. In danger of coming away with no better than a draw, Johnson scored both goals in a 2-1 win, including the game winner in the 90th minute.
Then Johnson made appearances in eight of the Hex (fourth round) qualifying matches, scoring two goals including the game winner in the latest Dos a Cero victory over Mexico in Columbus.
But that was while Johnson was flying high and scoring goals for the Seattle Sounders last MLS season. After finding success in MLS with Dallas and Kansas City, his career had taken a wrong turn in stints in the English Premier League and the English Championship, only to be revived in 2012 and 2013 with Seattle.
After last season, Johnson, feeling he was underpaid, essentially forced a trade from Seattle to D.C. United (Seattle was unable to meet Johnson's wage demands because of the MLS salary cap). While the salary increase was merited, Johnson didn't do his potential spot on the national team any favors by moving to the team with the worst scoring record in MLS history in 2013, or by explaining his scoring futility since joining D.C. by saying that in Seattle he was fed by "better guys that had more quality on the ball."
Johnson's complaint and the resulting fallout were consistent with the general perception of Johnson, which that he is moody and not a team player. In explaining why he had felt compelled to explain to his teammates why he threw them under the bus, Johnson said: "I don't want them to think I am better than them. That's always been the perception of my career: I'm a prima donna, I'm a bad teammate, I'm bad in the locker room. That's not the case."
Klinsmann specifically said that the incident "had nothing to do with the decision" to not name Johnson to the 30-man squad, instead implying that Johnson had simply fallen behind other players vying for forward spots on the team. And it is arguable that Johnson's exclusion is less painful now than it will be for the seven players who will train in Palo Alto and participate in the friendly matches between now and June 2 only to not make the 23-man team that will travel to Brazil.
It is, however, a bitter pill for Johnson to swallow, particularly given his role in getting the team to Brazil in the first place. And another example of how U.S. soccer has become both more internally competitive and more cold-hearted. Perhaps that's what we need to be able to compete with the best in the world. It will be up to Klinsmann and those 23 players with him in Brazil to prove that we can on the pitch as well as we recently have off of it.
You could take two recent decisions involving the U.S. Men's and Women's national teams as good signs. As indications that we are big time now, that we make heartless decisions based on what we think is best for our programs, nothing more and nothing less.
Or you could see it as the passing of an era, from a time when our national soccer teams, perhaps to a fault, recognized past service or gave longer leash to a coach because it was the right thing, even if it wasn't necessarily in the best interests of the team (Briana Scurry starting in the 2007 World Cup semifinals instead of Hope Solo comes to mind, but perhaps then-coach Greg Ryan would disagree, since the fallout from that determination cost him his job).
The first decision involved the "shocking" dismissal last month of Women's head coach Tom Sermanni. Unlike Pia Sundhage's last game, there was no celebration after Sermanni's last match as coach, in which the U.S. beat China 3-0. In fact, other than Sunil Gulati and perhaps handful of others, no one knew that it was Sermanni's last match.
That victory came on the heels of a disappointing performance by the squad in the Algrave Cup, an annual women's tournament held in Portugal. The U.S. drew with eventual runners-up Japan in their first group match before losing to Sweden 1-0 and to Denmark by a shocking 5-3 score. Sweden is now coached by Sundhage, adding insult to the injury of a seventh place finish.
While the team's performance in Portugal was admittedly underwhelming, it did not seem to be sufficient justification for a change. The termination came as a shock to Sermanni who is universally beloved by his players and seemingly deserved better, or, at the least, some notice that a change was being considered.
In the aftermath of the firing, pundits offered varying theories on the reasons for and the timing of Sermanni's departure. With CONCACAF Wold Cup qualifying set to take place in October for the 2015 Women's World Cup to be held in Canada, time is short for another coach to impose his or her vision on the team.
Gulati denied that a player revolt provoked Sermanni's dismissal, but it's hard to believe that the veterans of the squad were happy with Sermanni's habit of thrusting players new to the national team into starting spots (and, in particular, leaving Abby Wambach on the bench for the entire match against Japan and for all but five minutes against Denmark). Gulati did admit in his press conference that he gained information from "people in and around the team" that played a role in the decision, along with an assessment of "where the team's going and heading," and the performance in Portugal.
It's inconceivable that the decision was made with anything other than the best of intentions - clearly, Gulati and others in the U.S. Soccer brain trust thought the team was headed in the wrong direction (or, more likely, in no particular direction). With a qualification tournament upcoming that was nearly the team's undoing four years ago (remember the loss to Mexico? the play-off matches against Italy?) surely part of what played into Sermanni's firing was that if a change had to be made, it had to be made soon.
So, Sermanni wasn't the answer. Fair enough. But who is? The anticipation was that a new coach would be named by early May, but it's nearly the middle of the month and still no new coach. The list of candidates, frankly, isn't that inspiring (although Sundhage's former assistant, Tony Gustavsson, is an intriguing option). And time is growing short.
One thing is certain: if we are in a new, cold world of soccer with our women's national team, the choice this time had better be the right one. Or heads other than just the next coach's ought to roll.
That was my tweet as I sat in the stands at Sporting Park in suburban Kansas City, soaking in the atmosphere before Sporting Kansas City's match against the Columbus Crew last Sunday. And I think I got it just right.
The crowd was fantastic throughout, singing, chanting, banging on drums and rooting their club on. And, I have to admit, that while I've supported the Crew since their inception, I certainly got caught up in the atmosphere and understood why the fans loved the team and that the feeling was clearly reciprocated by the players. Maybe that's why I wasn't the least disappointed that KC won the match 2-0.
The contrast between the Kansas City crowd and those at Crew games was stark. While, admittedly, the Crew haven't given their fans a whole lot to cheer about in the past few years, the suspicion sneaked over you that there was something more fundamental at work - that the KC fans have embraced the sport and their club, while the Columbus fans have not, and probably never will.
More's the pity because the clubs are siblings of the same father - Lamar Hunt, one of the founding members of the MLS originally owned both franchises. But while, despite its professional football and baseball teams, the Kansas City area has become fervent about professional soccer, Columbus has not.
Rather than dwelling on the contrasts between the two franchises, however, I found more comfort in contrasting my experience at Sporting Kansas City Park with that of the first few MLS matches I ever saw in person. They were Crew games at what was then a decrepit Ohio State Stadium. Even putting aside my person distaste with regard to the facility and its regular tenant, it was a cold tomb in which the 10,000 or so in attendance on a good day were swallowed up by 80,000 empty seats.
From those humble beginnings, MLS has grown to scenes like those I witnessed last Sunday, on a beautiful day, with the sun streaming down on the natural grass pitch in a beautiful stadium dedicated to professional soccer. And similar scenes play out every weekend from one coast to the other, particularly in Seattle and Portland (although both have Field Turf pitches, which I can personally attest is beneficial where grass doesn't grow well, but is still not real grass) and Salt Lake City and Philadelphia and Houston.
We have become a soccer nation. And, at least some times, we play soccer the way it's meant to be.
Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy: "This is for Venturi, who thinks I should lay up."
Romeo Posnar: "Yeah, what does he know? He only won this tournament before you were born."
I've compared Bubba Watson to Gandalf and Arnold Palmer before, but, for all those who have seen "Tin Cup", the similarity between Bubba in the 2014 Masters and Roy McAvoy, the fictional range pro from Salome, Texas played by Kevin Costner in the film, was unavoidable.
Much as Tin Cup knew that Ken Venturi, former U.S. Open champion turned television commentator, was advising his viewers that McAvoy should play it safe on the 72nd hole of the tournament, hopefully Bubba was aware of the chatter between David Feherty and Nick Faldo regarding his shot on 15 at the Masters on the final day.
Faldo had spent much of Saturday tut-tutting about Bubba's "nervy" putting, all but flat-out saying that Watson was choking. One got the feeling at the time that Faldo, who's game was tedious and precise (and won him six majors) was relishing what he saw as the anti-Faldo's collapse. Even on Sunday, when Watson seized the tournament on the 8th and 9th holes, Faldo seemed to assume that another meltdown was only a sweeping left-handed hook or missed putt away (and he never did give credit to Bubba that his putting was anything but nervy on Sunday as he one-putted 10 of the first 16 holes).
Feherty meanwhile, who can be wildly entertaining and is not hypercritical, assessed Watson's lie after his drive on 15 left him amongst the pines on the left-hand side of the hole, with water in front of the par 5 to carry and a three shot lead to protect. "He has to lay up," said Feherty more than once. "It's the only smart play," said Faldo, or words to that effect.
Watson, however, had other ideas. His second shot darted through the limbs, crossed the water, and landed behind the green.
It may have truly been the smart play. A lay-up might have left Watson out of position for a third shot over the water. Or he may have been concerned that it would carry all the way to the water.
I prefer, however, to think that, much like McAvoy, Bubba decided to tilt at another windmill and told his caddy Ted Scott "This is for Faldo, who thinks I should lay up." And then, unlike Tin Cup, cleared the water, made par, and won the tournament by three strokes.
What makes the comparison complete? Bubba, in either a knowing nod to Tin Cup or just because he truly is a small-town boy from Bagdad, Florida, celebrated his victory with friends and family at a Waffle House, just like Roy after his record-setting 62 in the second round of the Open.
"That shot was a defining moment, and when a defining moment comes along, you define the moment … or the moment defines you." Roy McAvoy.
First there was the call for the anonymous trailblazer, the modern day Jackie Robinson.
Then there was Robbie Rogers (although the "American" sports-centric press barely gives him passing mention).
And now Michael Sam. And Jason Collins (although Collins was really before Rogers or Sam, but wasn't playing professionally at the time).
This is the third year in a row that I've felt compelled to write about sexual orientation in sports, right around this time each year. And my how the dialogue has changed. From the (apparently) radical idea that athletes can hasten societal change, we are now at the point where the vast majority of the country recognizes that Rogers, Sam, and Collins are helping do exactly that.
Sure, there has been the predictable backlash (primarily behind the anonymous curtain of social media), but there has been much more pubic praise for the fortitude that was displayed in coming out (Sam) and signing an NBA contract as its first publicly gay player (Collins). There's even the interesting symmetry between Collins' debut with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets, and Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers.
To be clear: I am by no means claiming this as a victory for sports over society. Obviously, a conscious decision has been made by many in our country over the last few years to reexamine our attitudes toward sexuality, both individually and collectively. But, because they are such a part of our social consciousness, sports, more than perhaps anything else, cause us to examine issues that we may have casual or even subconscious predilections toward in a new way.
Interesting, too, is that "news" regarding female athletes coming out is no longer really news. While one might think that this is due in part to simple stereotyping (i.e., female athletes being regarded as "mannish"), I believe it's more likely attributable to the realization that female athletes were the real ground breakers regarding sexual orientation long before males made, or more precisely were required to make, their sexuality a public issue.
Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Sheryl Swoopes paved the way for Megan Rapinoe, Britney Griner, and Abby Wambach. To such an extent that, while Wambach's marriage to her long-time partner last year did make the headlines, it seemed that it was more because of who she was (one of the most visible female athletes in the country) not because she was marrying another woman. In other words, just another celebrity wedding in Hawaii.
Wambach said as much when she commented: "I can't speak for other people, but for me, I feel like gone are the days that you need to come out of a closet. I never felt like I was in a closet. I never did."
It certainly won't be tomorrow, and it may not be next year, but sooner or later, that day is coming for male athletes as well.
The hypocrisy of organized sporting institutions (particularly those that were founded as "amateur" associations) is not limited to FIFA, nor to European-based fiefdoms. But one of the elements that enables FIFA's and the Olympic Organizing Committee's, continuing high-handed corruption is the lack of a governing body to, well, govern them.
Not so in the United States, where the NCAA is facing attacks in several judicial bodies by the individuals who have made it and its member schools billions of dollars, the same folks that the NCAA insists on calling scholar-athletes.
The Through the Looking Glass logic of the NCAA is hard to deny, particularly after the recommendation of its football rules committee this month that offensive teams be charged with a delay of game penalty for snapping the ball within the first ten seconds of the play clock. You read that right: delay of game for playing too quickly. The proposed rule has been dubbed the "Saban Rule" after Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who supports the rule apparently because "run and shoot" offences provide opponents with the opportunity to actually compete with a school that routinely has the best recruiting class in the nation. Whether the fact that only one of every five college coaches support the change matters more to the NCAA than what Saban desires remains to be seen.
While court action is unlikely with regard to the Saban Rule, the NCAA does face serious challenges in several other areas which may well force its hand with how it administers college sports. First came former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon's law suit against the NCAA and its corporate partners EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company seeking compensation for players who either appeared in video games or in televised broadcasts while in college.
O'Bannon's case has slogged its way through the legal system and reached a tipping point in late December 2013 when U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken certified a class of former college players (comprised of O'Bannon and other named plaintiffs including Bill Russell) that sought licensing fees from EA Sports and CLC, but ruled that they could not proceed as a class on their claims against the NCAA for the use of their likenesses in televised broadcasts.
The ruling may appear a victory for the NCAA, but it still faces the claims made by the individual plaintiffs in the case, and it could have to face the daunting prospect of trying to resolve not one but hundreds of individual cases brought in all 50 states instead. Just as importantly, because the certification of the class against EA Sport and CLC would give the former athletes the rights to their own images while in college, the NCAA sought the stay of a ruling regarding a similar class in another class action which was denied by the United States Supreme Court.
In the back-and-forth between lawyers after Judge Wilken's ruling was issued, the NCAA repeated its mantra regarding "student-athletes" and the many benefits to which they are entitled in yet another attempt to justify the fact that it and its member schools make billions of dollars from the labor of their football and basketball players (and pay their coaches millions of dollars at the same time).
Meanwhile, Northwestern University football players have taken steps to organize and join a union. The critical issue in that case, is, of course, whether football players are employees of the university or are merely (wait for it ...) student-athletes. The NLRB held hearings last week in Chicago in the case, in which Northwestern introduced a number of witnesses to testify that its athletes (who, with their 97% graduation rate, are probably more "students" than at most U.S. universities) receive academic support and are limited in the amount of time that they are allowed to practice or otherwise participate in their sport.
If past cases are any indication, the players may have a tough go of it. An effort by graduate assistants at Brown University to organize last decade was denied by the NLRB, which found that the assistants were primarily students, not employees, and reversed a prior decision of the Board to the contrary. But left unanswered is the question of why one cannot be both. "I don't know that there's anything inconsistent with being a student and an employee," noted Craig Becker, the AFL-CIO's general counsel.
The ultimate decision in the NLRB case may rest on the next Presidential election, as it's unlikely that it will be submitted to the consideration of the entire Board until 2016. Just as in Brown case's George W. Bush's Board reversed precedent regarding the organizing efforts of graduate assistants at private institutions, so too the next Board is likely to be comprised of a majority of pro-union or pro-employer members depending on whether a Republican or Democrat next sits in the White House.
Regardless of the outcome in that case, however, the O'Bannon case is likely to have a more immediate impact, both because it appears to be nearing it apex (trial is scheduled for this June) and because it will likely hit the NCAA where it hurts the most - its pocketbook and that of its member institutions. It's hard to see the NCAA's position regarding compensation of players for the use of their likenesses as anything other than archaic, last ditch attempt to cling to the same arguments that Major League Baseball made and ultimately lost long ago regarding its reserve clause, which essentially made players indentured servants to their mother clubs.
While the NCAA has a valid point that players do receive at least the opportunity to receive a higher education through their scholarships, the value of that education so pales in comparison to the billions of dollars flowing to the NCAA and its members that it is difficult to perceive that as adequate or just compensation in the 21st Century. While O'Bannon's case against the NCAA may or may not ultimately succeed, one suspects that the recent movement toward paying football and basketball players some amounts in addition to their tuition and room and board may be an avenue to at least limit whatever future financial bleeding may result from his case and thousands of others that will follow if it is successful.
Unless the European leagues all decide that they should change their seasons to a March to November schedule. Which is exactly what they appear to be considering.
The acting chairman of the European Club Association, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (who is also the "top official" of Bayern Munich, almost indisputably the best soccer club in the world at the moment), just last week floated the idea that the European leagues should consider playing a Spring to late Fall season just like ... well, just like the MLS season that has drawn Sepp Blatter's wrath for years.
Rummenigge's reasoning makes so much sense, highlighting the issues (particularly bad weather) that Russian professional soccer has been endured since it switched its season to coincide with UEFA's, that FIFA will find very hard to ignore.
First, Rummenigge points out that, in Germany, France, or England "summer is the best period of the year. And that is the season we don't play. In deepest winter, when it is very cold and snowing, we play nearly all the time in conditions that are disagreeable for both players and spectators. It is not logical."
Not that logic has ever gotten in the way of Blatter's or FIFA's edicts in the past.
What may well appeal to both, however, is his second argument: that switching to a March to November season would ease the pressure on those who play for both club and country by clearly demarcating the club and international seasons. Many clubs now agonize over losing players in the middle of their seasons to train and play with their national teams, taking them away from their "paying jobs" and risking fatigue and injury.
And who knows? Maybe Rummenigge's idea was floated as part of a wider scheme by Blatter himself to justify what I wrote about in the first part of this post -- moving the 2022 Qatar World Cup to the winter of 2022-23. This may be the first step in allowing Blatter to retreat from his previous hard-line position on the seasons of the MLS and Russian professional leagues and appear as eminently reasonable in doing so.
Either way, if the European leagues move their seasons Don Garber, the MLS Commissioner, will breathe a huge sigh of relief. And all of Blatter's blathering about its non-competitiveness because of the position of its season will be revealed as just that.
For years, FIFA Emir Sepp Blatter hounded MLS about changing its season to coincide with that of the European leagues. And, according to fairly recent reports, he may have been close to winning the argument. That should have changed, though, this past week with two separate developments regarding soccer and when it is played.
While the pretense of the advice was that the U.S. pro season should coincide with that of England, Spain, Germany, etc., it always struck me that Blatter's position on the issue was either incredibly naive (not caring that MLS can not now, and will not for years, if ever, be able to compete directly with the NFL) or, more likely, incredibly arrogant (Sepp thinks that if our pros play at the same time of year as Europe's they will be better players, so we should think that too).
Blatter didn't care that many MLS teams shared stadiums with NFL franchises or college football teams that made playing from August to May logistically impossible. Or that fans, forced to make the choice, would opt for football over soccer. Or that the thought of playing soccer in Boston or New York City or Chicago or Denver or Toronto or Montreal in December and January and February is absurd (evidently, the NFL missed that memo too). Just his saying "play August to May" should have been all the reason we needed to make it so.
Never mind that the Swedes aren't stupid enough to play in the Scandinavian winter, or that Brazilian clubs play May to December. Or that the Russians, who apparently caved in to Blatter's pressure, have experienced all sorts of issues in converting their season from March to December to August to May (hmm, maybe that's why they were awarded the 2018 World Cup? in a way, that would be a refreshing change from the usual monetary bribes).
The first development that should eliminate any consideration of kowtowing to the Blatter Rule on soccer seasons was a slip by FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke during an interview on a French radio station. Valcke admitted that it is likely that the 2022 World Cup (to be held in Qatar, remember?) will take place in December 2022 and January 2023.
Right smack dab in the middle of the domestic professional season Blatter has championed in most of Europe, forced on Russia, and has tried to foist off on the U.S. But in the Qatari winter, when temperatures will average a pleasant 25C rather than the brutal 50C weather in June and July, when the World Cup has been held in late May, June, and or July every time since its inception in 1930. Every time.
So much for tradition and concerns about domestic soccer. Not to mention the support of UEFA, which is thoroughly annoyed at the suggestion that the tournament will take place during both domestic competitions and its lucrative Champions and Europa League seasons, risking injury to its best players at the same time. Or of Fox and Telemundo which ponied up more than double the amount paid by ESPN to broadcast the South African and Brazilian World Cup to win the bid for the rights to the 2018 and 2022 Cups and now face the prospect of trying to convince advertisers that their money is better spent on soccer during the same months as the college football conference championship games, bowls, and playoffs and the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl.
While the ensuing denials, partial withdrawals, and outrage that followed Valcke's interview reveal FIFA at its Keystone Cops best, the real point is this: Blatter's demands that the U.S. change its domestic season were as baseless and dictatorial as most other decisions he has handed down during his reign.
No matter how corrupt the selection of Qatar has proven to be (and it was astonishingly, brazenly corrupt, even for FIFA), no matter how stupid the idea of playing soccer in the Middle Eastern desert in June and July was, no matter how absurd the suggestion that the outdoor stadiums could be air conditioned for players' and fans' safety (yeah, that was b.s. too), the 2022 (well, and 2023) World Cup will be played there and then, the domestic season which he championed for years be damned. Which is pretty much what it will be.
And the conclusion. Or the beginning, depending on how you want to look at it.
1. Young Fathers by Typhoon.
"When you're young you have …
You have your whole life before you,
everyone will adore you,
grow up, you'll be an astronaut.
(Or anything you want).
What goes up, goes up in flames.
And now your choices surround you,
indecision confounds you.
And you're pacing around the place.
(Shows you everything you're not)."
It took a really great song to knock what is now #2 off its perch. And this is it.
2. Humiliation by The National.
"All the L.A. women;
Fall asleep while swimmin'.
I got paid to fish 'em out;
and then one day I lost the job.
And I cried a little.
I got fried a little.
Then she laid her eyes on mine,
and she said 'Babe you're better off.'"
My favorite song from when I first heard it this spring until … White Lighter came along. The above stanza is my favorite from any song all year, still.
3. Chocolate by The 1975.
"Run run away from the boys in the blue.
Oh, my car smells like chocolate.
Now think about what to do,
think about what to say,
think about how to think.
Pause it play it, pause it play it, pause it."
The video looks like a London-esque version of West Side Story. But the song has to be about very non-1950's drug use.
4. Time to Run by Lord Huron.
"I've no regrets.
I will not ask for your forgiveness.
Lower your defense,
run away with me and it'll all make sense.
I did it all for you,
don't spurn me after all I've gone through.
No time to rest,
gonna find me a life, baby, way out West."
What exactly did he do for her that makes him have to run?
5. Pompeii by Bastille.
"And the walls kept tumbling down
in the city that we love.
Great clouds all over the hills
bringing darkness from above."
Pompeii as a metaphor for our current cities/civilization? Or just one in particular (London? L.A.?). Whatever, it's a really catchy song.
6. Unbelievers by Vampire Weekend.
"See the sun go down.
It's going on down, and the night is deep.
Want a little light,
but who's gonna save a little light for me?"
One of the irreligious songs that I referred to in my first part of the list. Hard to see this song as anything but an indictment of organized religion. But it's a great tune, and certainly has some validity to its assessment.
7. Holy by Frightened Rabbit.
"While you read to me from the riot act
way on high, high.
Clutching a crisp new testament,
breathing fire, fire.
Will you save me the fake benevolence?
I don't have time
I'm just too far gone for a telling,
lost my pride."
I promise it is coincidence that this song follows Unbelievers, other than the fact that they were among my favorite songs this year. Still, the lyrics and particularly the video of Holy suggest that it may not be directed against the Church. Check out the "bible" in the video - it's got FR's "Pedestrian Verse" symbol on it.
8. The House that Heaven Built by The Japandroids.
"It's a lifeless life with no …
fixed address to give.
But you're not mine to die for anymore,
so I must live.
Born of a bottle from
And now you know,
and here I am."
Actually the best lyrics are Oh-oh-oh-ohohohoh-oh, but that doesn't translate too well. Amazing that just two guys can make this much noisy great music.
9. Goodbye by Rocket & The Ghost.
"Hide yourself behind the stairs.
Set the fire to your daddy's chair.
I honestly don't know how I first came across this song (perhaps on BIRP), but obviously I like it a lot. The group reminds me of Seryn, who graced the list in 2011.
10. Lightning Bolt by Pearl Jam.
"Always something and never nothing.
Isn't that the way we're taught to be?
Flipping through the worn out pages,
and stages when you knew not who to be …
'Til the lightning strike sets you free."
Eddie Vedder, sans ukulele, can still rock.
U.S. Soccer ran an on-line "tournament bracket" asking fans to choose their "best moment" of the first 100 years of soccer in the States.
While admittedly the results were overly-weighted to recent events (the Men's team's third place finish in the 1930 World Cup - it's best ever - only made the third round), the fans seemingly tended to voting for "best moments" (as the competition suggested) rather than team achievements.
I voted in most of the rounds, but it wasn't until after I cast my vote in the finals that I realized that both finalist moments were ones about which I had previously written posts.
In fact, they were posts with a similar theme, and were similarly … well, gushy about soccer in general and the men's and women's teams in particular.
The winner? Abby Wambach's goal at the death in the 2011 Women's World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil to send the match into overtime. It was that goal that I waxed poetic about in a post that was based on the theme that began with the other finalist, which was ...
Landon Donovan's goal, also at the death, against Algeria in the 2010 Men's World Cup which sent the U.S. into the round of 16, and soccer fans across the States into a frenzy not seen before for any soccer match of any kind. That post, too, was based on the wisdom of Delmar in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and his invitation to partake of the waters of salvation.
Did Wambach and Donovan redeem soccer in the U.S.? Well, in retrospect, perhaps not completely. After all, the men lost their next game to Ghana in 2010 and the women lost in the World Cup final to Japan later in that tournament.
But they certainly excited more people than just me about our national teams and soccer in general. And arguably set the stage for the women's 2012 Olympic triumph and the men's resurgence under Jurgen Klinsmann. I can still remember going crazy in my family room, with my son and a co-worker who had ditched work to watch the game. It was kind of like this:
And their reemergence in the poll allows me to say, one more time, "C'mon in, the water's fine."
The list continues, with a repeat from this list, a repeat from the last two years, and a Ferris Bueller reference.
11. San Francisco by The Mowgli's.
"I've been in love with love.
And the idea of
something binding us together.
You know that love is strong enough."
First repeat artists on this year's list (foreshadowing). These guys and gals are infectiously good-natured and fun.
12. The Southern Wind by Eliza and The Bear.
"When it feels like
love has passed you by.
I won't go and tell you how
to live your life.
You got a lion's heart.
You got a lion.
You got a lion's heart.
You got to find it."
A little bit of Of Monsters and Men a little bit of Freelance Whales. But, as far as I can tell from the video, no Eliza.
13. Shake by The Head and the Heart.
"Even if it was a mistake, I can't forget your face.
Even if it was just a day, you won't forget the one
who's making you shake."
Another great song from this talented group, which appears on the list for the third consecutive year.
14. The John Wayne by Little Green Cars.
"You know it's your neglect;
it's the reason that I'm so obsessed with you.
And when I asked you your name, you said
and I guess it's true.
'Cause then you shot me down
doubled over and I hit the ground right in front of you."
A plaintive (and little bit creepy) love song.
15. Best Day of My Life by American Authors.
"I howled at the moon with friends.
And then the sun came crashing in.
But all the possibilities;
No limits just epiphanies.
A little bit too poppy, a little bit of a fun. rip-off, but hooky as heck.
16. Here Comes the Night Time by Arcade Fire.
"They say heaven's a place.
Yeah, heaven's a place and they know where it is.
But you know where it is?
It's behind the gate, they won't let you in.
And when they hear the beat, coming from the street, they lock the door.
But if there's no music up in heaven, then what's it for?"
My favorite song (so far) on the new album Reflektor.
17. I Had Me a Girl by The Civil Wars.
"I had me a girl;
Like cigarette smoke,
she came and she went."
Apparently Joy Williams and John Paul White hit on the perfect name for their brief, brilliant collaboration, which seemingly has ended rather acrimoniously.
18. Some Place by Nick Waterhouse.
"Don't expect you to
Not much … tryin' to speak, well
Can't help tryin' to
say it again.
Am I sounding too oblique?"
Rockabilly song in the vein of previous list resident J.D. McPherson. Awesome video.
19. Thrift Shop by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
"They be like oh that Gucci, that's hella tight.
I'm like, Yo, that's fifty dollars for a t-shirt.
Limited edition, let's do some simple addition.
Fifty dollars for a t-shirt, that's just some ignorant b……."
I've heard it described as a "novelty song" but it strikes me more as a parody. The onesie rocks. And if I have to give you a language warning for this one, you've lived under a stone for the last year.
20. Default by Django Django.
"Why don't you hand it over,
time is up, you've had your shot.
Gather once again,
disasters in the end,
it's like a default."
Another act I was fortunate enough to see at Bonnaroo this year.
This year marks the fifth that I've posted on Facebook my favorite songs from the past year, and the third that I've posted about them here. As with the previous years, these are songs released in either 2013 or 2012. A few of the songs and artists appear on some real music critics' lists, but I assure you that no offense is intended by including them on mine as well.
21. The Man Who Lives Forever by Lord Huron.
"They say we're all gonna die, but I'll never believe it.
I love this world and I don't wanna leave it.
Say that death is a deal that you cannot refuse.
But I love you girl and I don't wanna lose you."
Missed out on them twice: first when the album was released late last year, the second when they were at Bonnaroo and E was saving us seats, but my brother and I stayed camped out for The Mowgli's. Trying to make up for it now -- a great song.
22. Call Me by St. Paul & The Broken Bones.
"This ain't the heartache
that I thought I knew.
This ain't the party
that I thought we'd do."
Some blue-eyed soul for you, courtesy of my brother who introduced me to the group. Blue-eyed soul is one thing, but that voice coming out of that person? Very cool.
23. Don't Swallow the Cap by The National.
"I have only two emotions,
careful fear and dead devotion.
I can't get the balance right,
with all my marbles in the fight."
I think I've seen just about every song from the standout album "Trouble Will Find Me" on one top songs list or the other. This is one of my favorites.
24. Dim Lights, Thick Smoke by Dwight Yoakam.
"You're drinking and dancin' to a honky-tonk band.
When you left your lovin' family life, that's right back were your ran.
So go on and have your fun, but you won't always look so smart.
When some day that lonely bar room breaks your honky-tonk heart."
I cannot explain my longstanding love of Dwight and his music. And I will not try.
25. Gasoline by Alpine.
"There's ... a light I've found in your eyes.
That ... I've never found in mine.
I know I ... I could never ever show you.
But there's always night time."
I suppose this song is another of those that I like that is close to a guilty pleasure. But like it I do.
26. Super 8 by Jason Isbell.
"Well they slapped me back to life
and they telephoned my wife,
and they filled me full of Pedialyte.
Some are guts, some are glory,
it would make a great story,
if I ever could remember it right."
Life, love, and near-death in, yes, a Super 8 motel in Bristol.
27. The Valley by The Oh Hello's.
"We were young when we heard you
call our names in the silence.
Like a fire in the dark;
like a sword upon our hearts."
Wikipedia says The Oh Hello's are a Christian band. If so, they provide a counterbalance to some of the irreligious songs on the list, including the next one.
28. Late March, Death March by Frightened Rabbit.
"As we walk … through an hour-long pregnant pause;
No grain of truce can be borne.
My bridge is burned .. perhaps we'll shortly learn,
that it was arson all along."
Veteran list followers won't be surprised by my inclusion of FR, one of my all-time favorite bands.
29. Open Ended Life by The Avett Brothers.
"Let's find something new to talk about;
I'm tired of talkin' 'bout myself.
I spent my whole life talkin' to convince everyone
that I was something else.
And the part that kinda hurts is
I think it finally worked …
and now I'm leaving."
Another regular denizen of the list. Not overly impressed by the new album as a whole, but this one is vintage Avetts.
30. The Great Divide by The Mowgli's.
"I've gone to meet my maker.
And when I find what I was made for,
this soul of mine will finally find some peace.
So I will smile, and I'll see you there."
The first of several acts I was fortunate enough to see live this past year. The Mowgli's really seem to like each other and have fun making music.
Following on the heels of my recent post on participation trophies comes this news from some of the fine folks at the Kanawha County Board of Education: it is considering a policy that would mandate playing time for middle school athletes.
Presumably suggested with the best of intentions by Board member Becky Jordon, the as-yet (and hopefully to remain) unspecific policy would apparently require all middle school athletes to receive at least some playing time in every game.
After receiving initial, and almost completely unanimous, opposition to the idea, Ms. Jordon attempted to explain the "thought" process behind the proposed policy but just dug herself a deeper hole. The explanation is so inexplicable that it deserves ample re-quoting.
"Jordon says the sixth- through eighth-grade is a fragile time for students, and some coaches are too hard on young athletes. That can be detrimental to their future success, she said.
'I think this has been misunderstood. Yes, there are a lot of young athletes that work really hard, and they deserve the right to play more. I just feel like it needs to be fair. I'm not saying take the superstars out of the game, but you know what? Give everyone a chance,' she said. 'We have some coaches that don't always treat everyone fair, . . . and often times there are hurt feelings.
I can promise that, if a kid sits on that bench all through middle school, they will not attempt to be engaged in high school. We know the kids that are most involved are the most successful,' she said. 'It's not just about bullying. It's an awkward age. There isn't a person that can say middle school was a great time. If we can make a minimal step to make kids feel better about themselves, we should.'"
While, at least as it was initially reported, it appeared the proposal would require equal playing time for athletes, Ms. Jordon either never made that part of her proposal or abandoned it. But the idea that a Board of Education (particularly one faced with budgetary difficulties following the recent resounding defeat of an excess levy) should be looking over the shoulder of every middle school coach in the county to "give everyone a chance" is almost as absurd.
Heaven forbid that 12, 13, and 14 year-olds learn that everything isn't "fair" or that everyone doesn't get "a chance." We should make them feel "better about themselves" even if it is at the expense of more talented, or, even worse, more dedicated teammates.
Not to mention the aside that "I'm not saying take the superstars out of the game" raises two serious questions: (1) why not? If participation, not excellence, is the mandated goal of Kanawha County now, why should the gifted get special treatment?; and (2) who exactly is going to determine which players are the "superstars"? Surely not the coaches, Ms. Jordon doesn't trust them enough to make decisions about playing time.
Perhaps the Board should spend its time, energy, and precious little funding to set up a blue ribbon panel to decide, on a school-by-school and team-by-team basis, exactly who the superstars are that are entitled to Board-sanctioned special treatment. And while they're at it, I guess they need to set up a second panel to determine which of the athletes has "worked really hard" enough to warrant playing time.
It also says something about Ms. Jordon's view of athletics and the school system when she asserts that "if a kid sits on that bench all through middle school, they will not attempt to be engaged in high school." Maybe they shouldn't be "engaged" in sports in the first place. Or, how 'bout they decide to be engaged in something they have an aptitude for, say debate, or chorus, or robotics, or a mathematics competition, or theater, or wood shop or metal shop (I'm probably showing my age here -- do they have wood shop or metal shop in middle school these days?), or even a job after school?
Of course, Ms. Jordon's proposal also completely disregards the value of Team and being a member of a team (even if you don't play much or aren't particularly good) about which I have written before. As I always told my players, there are six or seven McDonald's all-Americans sitting on the Duke basketball bench every year, but they practice every day and they're as much a part of the team as anyone.
But there is no capital "T" in team if everyone gets to play and only the "superstars" play more than the rest. Just show up and play, lest your feelings get hurt and you come to realize at 14, rather than at 18 or 19, that we are not all the same and that life doesn't hand out either participation trophies or playing time.
"Put me in coach, I'm ready to play."
Takes on a whole new meaning when followed with "no, I mean you have to put me in. It's my turn. Ms. Jordon says so."
It's only fair, right?
"We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment."
An open letter from the Miami Dolphins:
Jonathan Martin didn't get it. And neither do you.
It's not that we're above the law. It's that we make the law, we are the law. An entirely different ethos applies here -- we decide what's wrong and what's right, even what's black and what's white. Envy, self-importance, resentment? Those are the qualities we were told we should build our lives around, ever since we were recruited to play college ball starting in the ninth grade, since we lost or won our first big game.
That you will never understand is a given. You in your comfortable La-Z-Boy, watching us risk our health every Sunday, not knowing if the next hit might end our careers. We gave up on you a long time ago. Sure, we depend on you to watch so that we can earn what we do playing a game, but we don't live in your world or live by your rules, and don't want you meddling with ours.
Jonathan, he could have been different from you. He had the ability, the physique, the strength to be a part of our world. But he wouldn't follow our law. He didn't join in the locker room pranks. He wouldn't help pay for a trip he didn't go on.
And so Richie got the word (even though he probably didn't need it) to come down hard on Jonathan. To bring him into the fold.
But Jonathan still wouldn't give in. Sure, he nodded his head and smiled sometimes, hoping Richie would stop. He may have even made a half-hearted attempt at joining in some dirty jokes or playing along with some racist comments. But he still wasn't one of us.
Even when he decided he had enough and left, in the middle of the season, we might have let him come back. We'll let outsiders hang around for a while, if they're really good or we really need them. But then Jonathan broke the biggest rule of all: never, ever, let anyone in that world know what goes on in this one.
And by doing that, maybe Jonathan, for the first time, understands the rules. Crap stays in-house, no matter what. If you have a problem, you work it out by fighting the guy who's causing it, even if he too weighs over 300 pounds and has a long history of "character issues" up to and including the possibility that he is a sociopath.
You don't go running to your agent or to the media. Even if you can't take it anymore.
Because, once you do, you're never, ever getting back in. Because, once you do, you will understand the lengths we will go to to protect our code, our rules, our world. Even if it means our black players explaining that Richie is really more black than Jonathan. Or that everyone under 40 uses the n-word all the time now; that it's not derogatory any more, it's a term of affection. Kind of like "Bro" or "Dude" in your world. Or easier stuff like that Jonathan never fit in, was stand-offish and quiet and not quite as manly as the rest of us.
It hasn't been easy to do, especially that whole Richie as an honorary black guy thing. But we did it because if we didn't there'd be no end to it. No end to your trying to impose your rules in our world.
The only funny thing these past few weeks (well, other than that honorary black guy thing)? When Jonathan's agent said that he's looking forward to playing football again. Not in this universe, pal. Not in Miami or the 31 other locker rooms. We live by our rules, not yours, not your agent's.
And our rules say welcome to Hell Jonathan.
About this time every high school soccer season, I'd begin thinking about the awards that we coaches would give our players at our season ending get-together.
I had a tradition that, every other season, I would find a toy, token, or object that fit each player and her abilities, attitudes, or interests. Sometimes they would be obvious, sometimes not. They were always meant to be fun, even if they were occasionally a little ambiguously mean.
The superstitious player who wouldn't abandon her soccer boots at the end of the season, choosing to use duck tape on them instead, received a big roll of tape for the next year. The elegant winger who ran like a colt and cursed like a sailor was given a Princess Leia doll with a tiny bar of soap in her mouth. The player who consistently "forgot" to bring her running shoes to practice got another pair of her very own for the next season.
I sometimes wonder if any of them have kept those knickknacks, which weren't huge and gaudy like the dozens I'm sure they had been handed at the end of every soccer, basketball, and softball league in which they had participated when they were younger.
Ever since our son, E, first brought home a "participation trophy" from soccer when he was four years old, I have been opposed to youth leagues that award them. Trophies should be won, not handed out like Halloween treats. When an athlete, at any age, earns a trophy, she does so knowing that her team excelled -- or at least was better than most -- not just for showing up.
Fortunately, E got it at an early age. As competitive as he was, it didn't take long for him to realize that trophies won were much more valuable than those provided for participation. And I never gave the participation trophies much more thought.
Others, however, have given them great consideration, and have concluded that we may well have poisoned a whole generation into thinking that they are entitled to anything and everything, including a trophy for mere attendance. In a recent op ed piece in the New York Times, the author cites psychologists and psychological studies that conclude that participation trophies are counterproductive. "Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, found that kids respond positively to praise; they enjoy hearing that they’re talented, smart and so on. But after such praise of their innate abilities, they collapse at the first experience of difficulty. Demoralized by their failure, they say they’d rather cheat than risk failing again."
I think it's a little too easy to blame the awards themselves to any great extent, but perfectly legitimate to blame what they represent: a generation of parents (yes, you baby boomers) that failed to discipline their children when they misbehaved and failed completely at the honest, objective analysis of their children's abilities and the value that sports and teamwork can provide even in the absence of athletic skill.
As you might imagine, there are many stories that I could tell about dealing with unrealistic or misguided parents advocating for their children (often to the child's horror) with regard to athletics. But to do so at this point would be both futile and equally selfish on my part.
While the author of The Times article starts her article with the premise that if the youth league your child is joining hands out participation trophies you should "find another program", that's easier to do in New York City than Charleston, West Virginia. And, in some ways, it's just a further abdication of a parent's responsibilities. Isn't it more of a teaching moment, when their kid brings home that first shiny trophy that is the same as one that every other child received, for the adults to point that out, to state that while participation is fine excellence is better?
They will get it. E certainly did. While he lives in Richmond now, his room at home is still stuffed with various reminders of his athletic achievements: a state track relay championship medal, plaques from state tennis championships, a first-team all-state soccer plaque, even trophies from basketball and soccer tournaments won ten or more years ago. But those participation trophies? He banished them to the attic long ago.
I kept telling myself "it was only a friendly. It was only a friendly."
On two occasions this summer, after the U.S. Men's soccer team's big win over Germany and its shocking come-from-behind triumph over Bosnia-Herzegovina, I reminded myself of just that. After all, in the midst of UEFA qualifying, those countries may have treated the games as warm-ups, an opportunity to allow their reserve squad players a taste of international action.
But the mere fact that the Americans won both matches, in which they likely would have collapsed two years ago, or even earlier this year (remember the game against Belgium a week before the one against Germany?) made me think that something big was brewing with the national team.
Back in January, I wrote about how this was a cross-roads year for both the U.S. Men's and Women's National teams, as well as women's professional soccer in the U.S. Feast or famine; make or break. A year of ascendancy or disaster? is the way I put it.
While the Woman's national team has done just fine under new coach Tom Sermanni, and the jury is still very much out with regard to the new women's league, the answer for the Men's team is clear: ascendancy it is.
The improvement shown against two of the best squads in Europe in the friendlies was borne out in the remaining matches of CONCACAF qualifying as the Americans, after a serious misstep in Costa Rica (which was clearly the second best team in this Hex), steamrolled Mexico and Jamaica and then stunned poor Panama, on the cusp of kicking Mexico to the qualifying curb, with two extra time goals in the final qualifying match.
While some pundits wondered post-match about the wisdom of pursuing an in-game strategy that kept Mexican hopes alive in the World Cup (with their loss to Costa Rica in the final match and what seemed like a imminent win by Panama over the U.S. Panama would have traveled to New Zealand and back for a playoff and Mexico would have been sent home to lick its considerable psychological and monetary wounds), I'm glad that the team and Coach Jurgen Klinsmann saw fit to play hard and go for a win in their last competitive match before next summer's World Cup.
And least we forget, while Klinsmann is now being hailed as a savant and savior, it wasn't too long ago that his leadership and tactics were being seriously questioned. But first with those friendlies, then with the wins over Mexico and Panama, Klinsmann has show a deft touch with substitutions and the ability to get the most out of his players, especially those that he does not put in the starting 11.
Klinsmann's leadership strengths discredit the idea that the U.S. should have "thrown" the Panama game. That thought is completely contrary to the way that Klinsmann is going about the job of building a different soccer psyche in this country, and that is not the lesson that he would have wanted his players in Panama City to take away from that match.
Instead, the Americans flew back to the U.S. full of confidence, convinced that they can win any match, at any time, with any 11 players on the pitch. Whether that will bear out depends a lot on what countries it draws into its group in the World Cup (and it might get ugly)(you could waste hours keeping track of all the possible permutations using the draw simulator here). Nonetheless, that confidence will be there when they step on the pitch, somewhere in Brazil against an unknown opponent in June 2014. I can't wait. And I don't think they can either.