Tonight, at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Real Madrid will play Chelsea in the final of the Guinness International Champions Cup, this summer’s version of the now-annual American tour of friendlies by (mostly) elite European clubs. The ICC kicked off last week and has featured seven European teams — Madrid, Chelsea, AC Milan, Everton, Inter Milan, Juventus, and Valencia — and one MLS team: the L.A. Galaxy. The games have been played throughout the country and included the first-ever soccer matches at Dodger Stadium, where Real Madrid faced Everton, and Juventus played the Galaxy in a double-header on Saturday night.
“(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.
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.
There's a good chance that Wednesday night will be the last soccer game Landon Donovan plays for quite some time. His Los Angeles Galaxy find themselves down 1-0 after the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal against the San Jose Earthquakes. Unless they can go into Buck Shaw Stadium and get a result against the Supporters' Shield winners, the season will end in less than 72 hours. And the Galaxy barely made it this far. For almost 70 minutes last Thursday night, there was a very real possibility the Galaxy would lose to an inferior Vancouver Whitecaps during Major League Soccer's playoff play-in game. The defending MLS Cup champions were dominating the ball but not the scoreline. It looked like one of those matches in which the better side wasn't going to win.
Donovan, 30, recently gave a couple of interviews in which he hinted at needing a long break following the MLS campaign. The brightest star in the American soccer landscape since he won the Golden Ball for being the best player at the 1999 U-17 World Cup, he also raised the possibility of retirement after the 2013 season. He's physically exhausted from playing virtually nonstop for club(s) and country since 1999, and emotionally drained from promoting the game.
In January 1992, when I was 11 years old, I piled into my travel soccer coach’s conversion van with a bunch of teammates and set out from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to watch the U.S. National Team play the Commonwealth of Independent States (better known as the former Soviet Union) at the Pontiac Silverdome. I’ll be honest: I don’t recall many specifics of the game (though I recommend you watch the highlights) — who won or lost, who played for the U.S. What I do remember is this: My intense desire to be there. That’s the way things were back then, before the ’94 World Cup brought the world’s game to the United States, before the MLS: If you were a soccer fan in the United States, you did everything you could to see a professional game in person.