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?
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.
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.
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:
On November 17, 2010, 17-year-old Juan Agudelo made his debut with the United States men's national team, wearing the no. 17 shirt and scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over South Africa. Four months later, the teenager found the back of the net in a 1-1 draw against Argentina, and U.S. fans were buzzing about his impressive potential. Was Agudelo the forward they had been waiting for? Had the phenom finally arrived?
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.
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.