New York City FC has a lot to get right in a short amount of time, but appointing Jason Kreis as their first head coach is a very good start.
Since the team was announced back in May, the MLS expansion side has been under intense scrutiny — not just for the possible appointments they make, but also for any signs that might betray a tin ear for the dialect of soccer in America. That's partially to be expected: The ownership at Manchester City aren't so naive as to think that name recognition alone would see them welcomed without reservation in the U.S. — especially in the tribal world of football. That said, the NYCFC admin might have been surprised to be immediately labeled Chivas Mark II and asked to prove otherwise with their every move.
Saturday’s MLS Cup final wasn’t a game for the ages, though it ended up being a pretty engrossing one and did have its own mythical qualities for future generations. It was the coldest MLS Cup final ever, featured a penalty shootout that went to the 10th round, and we saw Sporting captain and keeper Jimmy Nielsen labor through what may be his last game with broken ribs.
So the highlight reel will tell its story, and it won’t be wrong exactly. But the memories of those who were there at any particular game will always differ slightly from the official history. For one thing, I’ve always believed that, try as we might to impose the logic of highlights onto personal sporting memories, the mind has a way of misbehaving — it always chooses its own, strange thumbnails.
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.”
For those of you who have given Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign a miss, you didn't miss much. Ireland, under Giovanni Trappatoni, may have gotten within a Thierry Henry handball of the 2010 finals and qualified for last year's European Championships (where they didn't get out of the group stages), but the popular perception of them as a side slowly deflating from international relevance was compounded by a thoroughly indifferent World Cup 2014 campaign.
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?
Some months ago, I found myself walking through an empty fairground in deepest Brooklyn, to a U.S. Open Cup first-round game between Brooklyn Italians and Icon FC. I made eye contact with half the crowd, watched a stray ball bounce into a Dumpster (where presumably it still remains), and heard every shout from the benches — mostly because I spent most of the game wandering between them. The key was low. I was in heaven.
After that game, I followed the winner, Icon FC, to their next match, and have continued to follow the winners of each successive game until they lost, then followed the fortunes of the team that beat them. Some of those accounts are up on Grantland already. Some, like the tournament they reflect, have so far been caught up in scheduling woes. But arriving for the final in Sandy, Utah, where Real Salt Lake will take on D.C. United for the Cup, it has occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve ever really explained what drew me to this tournament in the first place, and why you, the American sports fan, should care. So here's a short version of just why any sports fan with a pulse should follow this tournament.
A look at this past weekend's Premier League action.
The Tortoise and the Hare
Mike L. Goodman: Ahh, the Manchester derby, where championships are won and lost, seasons decided, the fates of coaches and managers alike resting on the razor’s edge. Or not. A 38-game season is deceptively long, and how a team fares against the majority of the league is much more important than how it does against its chief rival. Last year, for example, both Manchester City and Chelsea took more points off of teams in the top five (Arsenal, Chelsea, City, United, Spurs) than United did, and United walked away with the league. Spurs performed much better against elite teams than Arsenal, but Arsenal nipped them at the wire for the fourth spot. There are, in fact, 78 points available against the bottom 13 teams in the league (with Liverpool and Everton currently not quite Champions League contenders but still better than hoi polloi below them on the table). That number of points, coincidentally, would have gotten a team second place last season. United took 69 of those points last year. That’s why they won the title so easily.
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.
Scene: The writer is stuck in Glasgow for a day, waiting for a flight back to New York. He goes to a café for breakfast. He reads the paper, sips his coffee, and starts to plan the day. Two men sit down at the table next to him.
The two men start to talk. Actually, strictly speaking they appear to be damned to talk — there is little volition as the words start to flow. The tone of their interactions and the slow pace at which they move and barely regard each other is more suggestive of companionable silence than conversation, yet there is a steady stream of phrases passing between them with a low, thoughtful urgency. It's utterly engaged yet strangely dispassionate, as if they're running through a vital but quotidian safety checklist, or a catechism:
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.
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.