Earlier this year, after a particularly fractious clash between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, I wrote a piece calling this MLS’s most interesting rivalry — not the fiercest, not the most historically relevant, but the most interesting. Why interesting? Because it had arisen out of the way the teams play. Now we have the chance for a very public referendum on which style works better, as the two clubs are due to meet in the MLS Cup final at Sporting Park on December 7.
The Designated Player has all the sweet hook-ups. So this week, when Twitter began rumbling that Orlando City were about to be confirmed as the 21st MLS club, entering the league in 2015, there was only one man he wanted to speak to.
The DP swiftly called up Ray Hudson (“Hi DeeeeePeee”), former coach of the defunct Miami Fusion, professional Geordie, and current much-loved idiosyncratic commentator for beIN Sports, to get his take on the revival of Florida’s soccer fortunes. Apologies for the spelling. Blame the useless Siri app on the DP’s phone. Also, some of the metaphors jump around a bit, but that’s Ray, not the technology. As Ray himself put it, “Leaping like a salmon, my logic is like Riohhhh Ferdinand on the morning of a drug test. Like Neetsheee telling us God is dead, sipping tea on the pastor’s patio.”
So after a frantic week, the playoffs are nearly done. From 10 hopeful teams we’re suddenly down to four, and among the teams out of the running, there are a whole heap of autopsies already under way — especially in New York, L.A., and Seattle.
After a frenetic burst of games seemingly every other night, we’re halfway through the conference finals, but now face a two-week wait before the second legs.
The four weary teams remaining are now trundling slowly across the plateau toward the final on December 9, and this seems as good a time as any to catch our breath and ask, “What just happened?” In particular, I want to look at the teams that just left us, because we never really had a chance to say good-bye.
The first time I watched the Barnicle brothers' documentary Tifo, I found it hard to believe it had been shot in America. The scenes of choreographed fandom and collective passion border on delirium. After savoring them, most soccer fans will immediately add Portland's Jeld-Wen Field to their lists of "lifetime must-visit" footballing experiences, alongside Juventus Stadium and Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park.
In Part 1, Mike Petke discussed the cultural change that had allowed him to become Red Bulls head coach and his attempt to once more change the culture of the team to one that was more “accountable.”
When you hear Mike Petke talk about accountability, your mind inevitably wanders to his relationship with veteran New York Red Bulls director of football Andy Roxburgh, who is a very visible presence at the club and who appointed the rookie coach at the start of the season. Before my interview with Petke began, I’d watched Roxburgh, a prominent figure at New York training sessions, running a penalty shootout to end one such session — a shootout that incidentally was settled by Petke scoring. I was curious how it had been for Petke to have the former UEFA technical director above him at the club. There was already scrutiny surrounding an untested coach occupying a position usually given to more proven veterans. Had there been a point in the year when he’d had to push back a little and assert his authority on the side?
Mike Petke has his feet up on his desk at the New York Red Bulls' training ground in Hanover, New Jersey. He catches me eyeing the actual-size replica of a Gears of War weapon sitting in the corner of his office and then me looking warily back at his shoes in my face, and he laughs.
“This is not me being big time. My feet are killing me."
It was a rather crazy set of results this past weekend in MLS. Only one team out of a possible four that could have clinched a playoff spot did so. It was yet another reminder that the one consistent winner in MLS this season has been forced parity, though it was also a reminder that teams have consistently shot themselves in the foot after getting into positions to pull away from their rivals. It makes one wonder this: Does anybody want to win the Supporters' Shield?
On Monday night, FIFA 14 dropped with a big party in New York, DJed by Swizz Beatz and featuring Drake playing Tim Cahill in a rap-soccer-thumb-dexterity mash-up. But at the end of the night, as the last reveler exited the building clutching their free game, the true technological exhibition was about to get under way, for a select few at least.
Keen-eyed observers at the FIFA event would have noted that as the New York Red Bulls squad posed giddily for photos with the victorious Cahill, one of their number was noticeably absent. As Grantland edged toward a door at the back of the venue, where we saw a disappointed Drake and his crew being turned away, it became clear why: The highly secret demo feed of Thierry Henry’s Inner Monologue was back and launching at the FIFA after-party.
The bare facts first: It’s taken 30 weeks, but as of Friday night, Seattle are top of the MLS Supporters Shield standings. The Sounders beat reigning leaders Real Salt Lake 2-0 in front of 55,000 people and leapfrogged into first place, just as the regular season winds up.
As far as the crowd went, it wasn’t quite the 67,000-plus that saw Clint Dempsey’s home debut against Portland, but I wouldn't fret too much about falling attendances. Seattle, basically, have a lot of fans. And when more than 50,000 of those fans show up, Seattle win — at least the eight or so times it has happened so far. Whether that means that the money spent on Dempsey might have been better spent employing 10,000 film extras for Sounders home games, just to be on the safe side, I can’t say. But 55,000 people showed up on Friday night and the Sounders were easy victors, going ahead after three minutes and never looking back in the most important game of the year.
This summer five USMNT players have signed or re-signed with MLS clubs. The most significant of those was Clint Dempsey, who shocked the American soccer community by transferring to the Seattle Sounders from Tottenham Hotspur. Two weeks later, 24-year-old Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez, the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year and 2012 MLS Cup MVP, signed a Designated Player contract with the Galaxy, foregoing opportunities to play in Europe to stick with the two-time defending MLS champions. Nearly two weeks later, Landon Donovan announced he, too, would be signing a contract extension with the Galaxy, likely meaning that he would end his professional career in Los Angeles.
It’s been a busy week or so in MLS, and there’s no doubt what the headline story has been: Clint Dempsey’s signing for Seattle Sounders even had its own Twitter comet trail marking his path across the skies toward Cascadia. Sounders fans scrambled to Sea-Tac following sightings of the player going for a connecting flight in San Francisco, only for the player to be smuggled from the tarmac out of the airport by his prospective club — ensuring that the far more entertaining business of Internet speculation held sway over prosaic confirmation for at least a few more hours of #DempseyWatch.
Last year around this time it was a foregone conclusion that American attacking midfielder Clint Dempsey would join five-time European champion Liverpool FC, pairing with Luis Suarez in a revamped attack, as the American-owned Reds would attempt to regain their traditional hold on one of England's places in the UEFA Champions League. That move fell through, with Liverpool's owners unwilling to meet Fulham's valuation for Dempsey, who moved instead to Tottenham Hotspur.
I'm in a dark wood-clad, faux-Edwardian drawing room off the lobby of a luxury hotel in downtown Kansas City. I'm waiting to interview Italo Zanzi, the American CEO of AS Roma, which is in town to play the MLS All-Stars. Somewhere behind me a TV screen is showing a preseason game between Manchester City and AC Milan. A loud middle-aged man in chinos is pacing the room, cursing out what I hope, for her sake, is his ex-wife on his cell phone. As he's bemoaning her lax morality and linking it loudly to her use of his money, Rudi Garcia, the French coach of Roma, enters the room, edges warily round him, and makes his way past me to watch the screen, followed by a couple of his players. "What's the score?" he asks in Italian. An American hotel guest who's been watching the game looks up and answers in English, as though such a request were commonplace: "5-3. It was 5-2 after 38 minutes." "Cinque due?" The cluster of Roma staff pulls faces at this scoreline. I glance at my laptop. The Guardian homepage is highlighting a video clip of Chelsea arriving in Washington D.C. for the International Champions Cup. The angry man, whose voice is pure antebellum throwback, is still booming out comments to the effect that he's a God-fearing man just looking out for what's right — seemingly unaware of the creeping perniciousness of global soccer infiltrating his environment and further undermining all he has ever known and held dear.
One of the rewards of following a league closely over time is watching the organic development of rivalries. I’m not talking about the preset rivalries of geography, or, in a relatively new league like MLS, the wholesale adoption of rivalries from other sports. In a way, I’m not even talking about the folk rivalries sustained by fans. No, I’m talking about rivalries that first and foremost are kindled by events on the field, and that may flare up and subside with a generation of players and coaches accruing histories and resentments with each game.
Writing for the Guardian the other day, I gave the example of the Manchester United and Arsenal rivalry of the turn of the century — where the ongoing battle for supremacy between the two best teams in the Premier League became almost a footnote to the increasingly bizarre soap opera of player interaction. From the early king-of-the-ring brawl sparked by an innocuous-looking tackle by Winterburn on McClair, the business of titles going back and forth between Old Trafford and Highbury was peppered with flashpoints: Keane vs. Vieira in the tunnel, Keown taunting Van Nistelrooy, Pizzagate. Though on reflection, perhaps what I’m talking about is more in the fashion of the mutual enmity between Chelsea and Liverpool that emerged in the Mourinho and Benitez eras, seemingly from nowhere — certainly from two teams who’d never particularly regarded each other as natural rivals.
There was a poignant, historic photo on MLS's website a few weeks ago. Pictured were four young U.S. U-20 internationals, celebrating after one of their number had scored. On the left of the picture is a young Dax McCarty. Behind him, virtually unrecognizable with a shock of hair, is Michael Bradley (who currently plays in midfield for AS Roma), still at that point very much in the shadow of his father, Bob, and yet to make doubters eat their words about nepotism. To the right is a grinning Robbie Rogers, also a long way shy of the story line that will define his career.
One might have thought MLS were running the photo to illustrate Rogers's topical return to active soccer duty. But in fact the photo's true subject is right at the center of it — the goal scorer, Danny Szetela, bearing an expression that suggests this is the most natural thing in the world for him. If you had to guess from the image which of these players would today be trying to find his way back from a soccer wilderness, he’d probably be the last one you’d name, so determined does he look — so certain of his future.
Yet, after nearly three years away from the game, and following painful and complicated surgeries that cost him his last pro contract at D.C. United, Szetela is trying to beat the odds to return to the professional game. His unlikely route back has seen him training with, and then playing for, family friend Greg Bajek’s amateur team, Icon FC, in Montville, New Jersey. Along the way Szetela has found himself on a U.S. Open Cup run with Icon.