I left Manchester 10 years ago, after 14 years of living in the city. Through that entire time, Sir Alex Ferguson has been the manager of Manchester United. And in a few weeks' time, he won’t be.
Perhaps it's that final symbolic severing of a particular connection to a city I didn't stick with that's the reason I’m sitting in my office in Brooklyn feeling surprisingly maudlin this morning. When I moved to Manchester in the late 1980s, Ferguson, along with Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, was already one of the iconic faces of the city, and for me that iconography has grown more distinct with time and distance.
There are casual Manc acquaintances from my time there who I haven’t seen in years, except in the odd pixelated glimpse of filled-out faces or shots of their children (filtered by Facebook and my own squinted puzzlement as to who they are and where I know them from). But cutaway shots of Ferguson "reacting" have been a continual part of the texture of my life, wherever I’ve been in the world. The loss of that saddens me, regardless of how I, a non-United fan, might feel about the phenomena he reacted to. Over time, I came to experience watching Ferguson at an affective level, somehow distinct from the narrative of games. Knowing he'd be animated on the touchline was like knowing the color green existed.
One thousand years, 3,000 players, three miles — welcome to Royal Shrovetide Football.
Every Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, the small market town of Ashbourne, in Derbyshire, England, becomes transformed from a sleepy rural idyll to the venue for perhaps the oldest game of football in the world — and one of the last relics of the mass football games that are the precursor of all modern footballing codes, from gridiron to soccer.
Over those two days in spring, a very English form of Mardi Gras takes place, as 3,000 players gather in the town center to take part in the annual Royal Shrovetide Football contest between Up’ards and Down’ards (the team names are a reference to the two sides of the River Henmore that runs through the town, and team affiliations tend to be determined by birth). On each day of play, around about lunchtime, a specially painted ball is thrown (“Turned Up”) to a mass of players from a brick platform in what was once a common field, and is now a municipal car park. From then until 10 p.m., the only rules governing the movement of the ball between the two goals — millstones set into the river banks three miles apart on opposite sides of the town — are the two rules that state that you can’t take the ball through the churchyard and you can’t put it in a vehicle. Other than that, and murder, that’s about it — as quaint English rituals go, this is not Morris dancing.
As I type this, a rather beautiful silver shield is winging its way from Real Salt Lake to Chivas USA, to the next group of MLS supporters who get to celebrate their part in creating it. The Supporters' Shield is a trophy made by MLS fans to honor the team who tops the regular-season standings, is now in its second physical incarnation. A new fan-funded trophy has taken the place of the original — one that had filled up with more engraved history than its originators perhaps dared hope for.
The original trophy grew out of the legendary North American Soccer Listserv, which predated MLS, though not by much — the '90s boom of the web running pretty much concurrent with the latest version of Division One soccer in North America. That paralleling with Internet history is a crucial characteristic of the social fabric of contemporary U.S. and Canadian soccer support — for better or worse it’s a digital league. The original Listserv featured many voices who would become key players in the first wave of organized MLS supporter culture, as well as figures like Phil Schoen, the current beIN TV announcer, who ended up being an inadvertent driver of what, for the time, was the ambitious form the first shield took.
The U.S. Soccer Federation is 100 years old today. For a game with “no history” in this country, that’s a lot of history.
As a kid in England, taking my first tentative steps toward knowing my own local soccer history, I was fascinated by the team names of the competing FA Cup finalists listed in the historical records. With no frame of reference other than the names themselves, the exploits of Royal Engineers, Wanderers, Corinthians, and Old Etonians seemed impossibly exotic and fascinating. Learning more about the actual history behind the names was actually bittersweet — for one, the team names acquired a fixed geographical place when you learned about them, whereas up until then they were just floating signifiers, abstract forces that might feasibly show up in my street, not that much different from Batman. Discovering and growing with the knowledge of what, for example, Old Etonians actually were could only be disappointing — David Cameron is no Batman. And also, in my intense-little-guy reasoning, if a team was actually a place and the team didn’t exist anymore, than that must mean places might not exist anymore, and then
Essentially, thanks for teaching me about death, Martin Tyler, with your so-called Story of Football.
So on Sunday night I get a text from Phil about fascists.
Phil is my designated friend for casual abuse around the sporting arena. We share text messages full of sarcasm and invective that may well act as a social service for those around us, by being a valve for expressions of frustration and negative emotional energy that would otherwise find its way into incidents on the subway. He supports a Premier League team that's not as successful as they used to be, but one that gets by on faded grandeur and the occasional cup win. I support a team whose name appears on the Wikipedia page for the phrase “Yo-Yo club” (since I started supporting Sunderland, they’ve been promoted eight times, relegated seven, and have been eliminated in the playoffs three times — suffice it to say, the season run-ins are usually lively one way or another).
Seen from the outside, my exchanges with Phil about the respective “fortunes” of our teams could be likened to the cast of Downton Abbey riding a small model train that’s going in sedate circles, with occasional breaks for ice cream, during which the oversize passengers exchange hurled rocks with waifs on an adjacent ceaseless roller coaster (waifs who’ve ceased throwing up and are now mostly in a troubled, fitful sleep except for the jolt of the tracks every time they pass “Go”).
Never let it be said that the Designated Player backs down from a fight. Whether it’s demanding that The European cuts a few of the makeweights to bump my salary up to a living (large) wage, or calling out my rookie left back on Twitter (“@genericclogger22 My level = not you #achieve #1998UEFACupQF #respectlearnit #whentopmanfreePASSit”), the D.P. is right there on top of it, giving third-person, off-the-record briefings and generally showing his stomach for the fight. A stomach, natch, that was recently described as “box-to-box” on something called Les Cahiers du Football.
So when I heard that MLS had come up with a Rivalry Week, and that not only that, but a team of 150 NBC staff was going to be producing a mammoth 10-hour, countrywide production devoted to the first day’s play, that really threw down the gauntlet. The Designated Player is worth the equivalent of 177 mortals and a diabetic bulldog, so matching the human resources being thrown at Rivalry Week by the NBC peacock shouldn’t be a problem. Not only that, but I intended to emulate their lead anchors and announcers Russ Thaler, Arlo White, and Kyle Martino by also covering the first game live at Red Bull Arena. Then while they were Cannonball Run–ning their way up to their state-of-the-art studio facility in Connecticut to host their experimental two-and-a-half-hour, four-game MLS Breakaway show, I’d be reclining in my luxury PATH train on the way to my state-of-disarray Brooklyn apartment to doze fitfully through the rest of the day.
Andy Roxburgh is talking about Bruce Arena. He’s not been at New York Red Bulls long, but it appears the new Sporting Director may have already been asked one too many times about the management model at the Los Angeles Galaxy, and can’t resist a wry little dig at the head coach and general manager of the current MLS champions.
Roxburgh barely pauses on the aside, though, launching straight into a detailed breakdown of the new Red Bulls management structure: “What happens in this case, is this model is based on the French FA. The French FA when Gerard [Houllier, Red Bulls global director of soccer] was there, was the technical director and the CEO, and one didn’t answer to the other. They were in partnership, they linked occasionally, when appropriate. But each one of them was responsible for his own area, and the person who was above them is only one person, who’s the president. Now, it’s the same model here.”
Last week’s news that Robbie Rogers had come out, while also “stepping away” from soccer, was both encouraging and discouraging for the context and reaction it received. Encouraging, in that Rogers’s announcement was met with overwhelming support, and that this was a young athlete in the prime of his career making the decision to come out. The discouraging aspect was that the coming-out was allied to the “stepping away” — with many of those supportive of Rogers’s decision sad that he didn’t see a way forward playing the game.
For his part Rogers doesn’t owe anyone anything, and as a young man who’d made his way in the modest financial climate of MLS, he’s hardly alone in having to think about life beyond the game sooner than other professional athletes. So it’s possibly a little more complex than a homophobic culture forcing him out of the game despite its lucrative lure — though god knows, when thinking about comparably paid careers in the wake of announcing one’s sexuality, it’s understandable to choose one where that decision was not considered fair game for on-field and off-field trash-talking.
“(The American) is always in the mood to move on ... He is devoured with a passion for movement, he cannot stay in one place; he must go and come, he must stretch his limbs and keep his muscles in play. When his feet are not in motion, his fingers must be in action ... He always has to have something to do, he is always in a terrible hurry. He is fit for all sorts of work except those which require a careful slowness. Those fill him with horror; it is his idea of hell.”
—Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, 1839
“Sorry, but Thierry has to go now.”
Henry springs to his feet laughing as the press officer intervenes.
“Wow. I’ve got to come here more often.”
The small group sitting at a table in a Red Bull Arena executive box have asked maybe three questions of a player who usually has to endure more. This is MLS media day — a day when key players from every MLS team are brought to New York to film preseason spots with the league, sponsors, and TV partners, and somewhere among all this, find themselves ushered through a door to meet a few members of the local and national press in quick roundtable conversations. Henry, understandably, is in demand and now he bounces to his feet and bounds cheerfully out of the room, pursued by a team carrying clipboards. Those of us left in the box reset our recorders as Chris Wondolowski edges politely in to take his place.
“Welcome to the family. We’re happy to have you. Stay humble, but stay hungry.”
Making his way off the stage he’s just shared with MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Andrew Farrell nods earnestly at the short greeting by his new head coach, Jay Heaps, and looks down at the New England Revolution scarf now draped round his neck. At the other side of the hall, at the ESPN broadcast desk, analysts Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman are now praising the no. 1 pick in the 2013 SuperDraft — Lalas is noting the young man’s confidence playing the ball out of defense, while Twellman, a former no. 2 overall draft pick for the Revs, and club hero, is praising second-year coach Heaps, for exciting a beleaguered fan base by trading to secure the top player on the board.
Farrell is just relieved that the process is over. With Toronto initially holding the first pick and Farrell’s star rising at the Combine, it had been widely expected he would be headed to Canada, until New England made the draft-day move for its first-ever top pick — a bold gesture of faith in a young player who elicits stock phrases such as “significant upside” but who is, like all his peers, untested at the professional level. “I tried to stay away from all the mock drafts and blogs and all that," says Farrell. "Until they call your name, you’re never certain. I heard one or two things from my agent that there’s been a a trade, and I’d spoken to New England and liked them. A lot of the teams I’d spoken to said nice things, but were, like, ‘We’re too low of a pick to get you’, but they (New England) didn’t really hint at anything like a trade from fourth to first.”
Not for the first or last time in his life, Machael David was approaching a fork in the road. Seventeen years old and carrying a UK passport bearing someone else’s picture, the young Nigerian found himself confronted by two lines in the JFK Airport immigration hall. Tired and hungry (he hadn’t known the food on the trans-Atlantic flight was free), and speaking only rudimentary English, the young man now faced a moment of uncertainty as to which line to join and, looking for a sign, slowed to a halt. Irritated by the sudden blockage, a family group pushed impatiently past him and headed for the shorter “U.S. Citizens” line. David smiled and followed them gratefully, thinking: “This must be where the black people go ... ”
Seven years later, I’m standing with Machael David beside a soccer field in Florida, and he’s telling me, “I’m glad that I was caught. It enabled me to go through everything that has happened since.” The route from a harsh fluorescent-lit interview room at JFK to speaking with reporters at the MLS Combine has not been a straightforward one, but then neither was the path that brought him to America in the first place. For David, it has become the norm for the lucky breaks in his life to first appear as crushing disappointments.
It’s perhaps why he’s so upbeat and positive when we talk, despite what has been a disappointing Combine for him on the field. When we first speak, he’s just come off the field after his final trial game, playing in his favored holding midfield role, after he had been positioned in an unfamiliar right-back role for his previous games. His performance has been tidy (David’s favorite player is Claude Makelele, that most reliable of cogs in flashy teams’ engine rooms), but despite his constant talking and organizing, and vividly colored boots, it possibly hasn’t been as eye-catching as it needs to be for a game played in audition mode. At every turn, David chose the neat pass, the simple interception, the teammate in space. For all his wider spiritual belief, founded in personal experience and his Christian faith, that the right opportunities in life will reveal themselves, part of me finds myself wishing that just for today he’d been more selfish in forcing the issue and grabbing the coaches’ attentions on the field.
“It was tough out there on the wing — that side of the field is really hard. I think they use it for cricket ... ”
I’m talking to a young hopeful at the MLS Combine, the selection trials for the SuperDraft, after he has dragged himself off the field to talk to the few reporters gathered here at the Central Broward Regional Park stadium. I look out in the general area of where he is pointing, and see that there is indeed a dry, hard square of dirt at the far side of the field, large enough to accommodate a particularly unforgiving wicket, if not being quite so accommodating to a sprinting soccer player’s cleats. The player looks irritated — the state of the field out there has compounded his frustration at being played on the wing instead of his normal forward position, and he feels he hasn’t done himself justice on the biggest stage of his footballing life so far. As he slopes off to the locker room, he gives another last grimace at the dusty patch of ground. It’s doubtful that he’ll be consoled when he returns for his next game two days later to find the dirt has been painted green. Welcome to the lowest rung of MLS.
Happy New Year? Just checking. According to Bruce Arena, 2011 didn’t end until June 2012, at least if we’re to believe the epic MLS Cup postgame press conference, which itself finished sometime around January 3, 2013, some 32 days after the final whistle. While most of the L.A. Galaxy players were still on the field cavorting after their win, and as David Beckham’s brand conducted a complicated transatlantic farewell merger with itself in front of the L.A. fans, in a shower of confetti and symbolic multiple-flag donning (with a side order of fruit of loins), elsewhere, deep in the bowels of the Home Depot Center, a press conference that stretched into Samuel Beckett territory was getting under way. (“It’s been a long season. Is it over? Yes. Well? Shall we go? Yes, Let’s go.” They do not move.) Sometime during the third hour, a weary Bruce Arena was asked about the two halves of his side’s Hyde-and-Jekyll season and he volunteered the idea that after their MLS Cup victory the previous year, the 2011 season never ended, what with postseason tours, injury-prompted reshuffles, CONCACAF Champions League preparations, and so on. Only the MLS champions’ visit to the White House in May (at which point the Galaxy were woefully out of form) finally gave a sense of closure and started the turnaround that led to another Cup.
In footballing terms you can have sympathy with Arena’s position, but on the other hand, one of the perils of following MLS in tandem with other leagues — which is the general lot of all but the most parochial of American soccer fans — is that there is no such thing as an offseason. No sooner had I turned the key in my rental car, leaving the Home Depot Center to the more diligent cleaners a few hours after the final whistle of MLS Cup, than I found myself checking my phone and thinking idly, I wonder what the mood’s like in Sunderland right now.
Here's a video of Lionel Messi scoring 86 goals in the year of our Maradona, 2012, breaking Gerd Muller's record of 85 goals for club and country in a calendar year.
It's hard to pick just one. There was the cheeky chip against Valencia, a shooting-star free kick against Atletico Madrid, the time he froze the Bayer Leverkusen backline in carbonite like a bunch of German Han Solos, and when he invented the geometry of the future against Granada. I liked when he backed a pickup truck into a compact parking spot on the roof of Zaragoza's keeper's garage, and when he made Philippe Senderos look like Lennie from Of Mice and Men against Switzerland. I loved the free kicks against Uruguay and Real Madrid, and the snapshot against Deportivo La Coruña. Nobody's better at their chosen sport than Lionel Messi is at football, right now. Watching him score 86 goals, either during the games, or in YouTube compilations, for Barcelona or for Argentina, was one of the greatest gifts we received this year. He'll be justly rewarded for these accomplishments with trophies and silverware, but I just wanted to give him my thanks. Watching him play is one of the best things I did with my time this year. — Chris Ryan
It’s been a funny few weeks with Hurricanes, snowstorms, Beckhams, and playoffs in my part of the world, not to mention the three days I spent in a darkened room as I processed the concept of Gerard Butler as a Celtic legend, and the week spent on a Manhattan Beach vision quest with Landon Donovan (before he took the decisive penalty in the MLS Cup final it occurred to me that I’d seen that squat before, just before he hurled marshmallows and peyote onto our campfire).
But the bills have to be paid, and with the second draft of my rewrite on the next Lifetime made-for-TV movie due next week (I can’t say too much about it, but the title is L’étranger and the tagline is “Lindsay Lohan IS Hope Solo”), and the confetti just about settled at the Home Depot Center, it’s time to turn our thoughts to looking back on this year’s MLS campaign.
So without further ado, here are the Designated Player 2012 MLS awards: