"Are you ready to RUMBLE?!?" a man wearing sunglasses, a black suit, impressively shiny black shoes, and an American-flag bow tie asks as he stands on a raised wrestling mat.
The Iranian supporters standing in the temporary bleachers on the other side of Grand Central Station's Vanderbilt Hall most certainly are. They explode into cheers, waving green, red, and white flags in sizes ranging from pocket-appropriate to mini-tifo, and blow air horns.
After a stirring rendition of the national anthem of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a trumpeter steps onto the mat and plays a single scale. He follows those notes with a version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" that features the types of flourishes and embellishments one might anticipate of a national anthem played by a solitary trumpeter.
The final notes echo around the hall. The cheers rise. We are indeed ready to rumble.
Chris Wood and five of his closest friends are going bird-watching today. But this isn't some casual walk in the park; it's a serious endeavor that comes after a week of location scouting, forecast models, and even car maintenance practice. The six-person Team Sapsucker out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology plans to cover the roughly 500-square-mile triangle in Texas defined by San Antonio, Hill Country, and Galveston in an effort to break its own record of 264 species identified (seen or heard) in a 24-hour period.
The Big Day, as these endeavors are known in birding circles, is the group's third trip to South Texas. They set the American record in 2011 and, remarkably, tied it last April despite missing an hour of prime birding time due to a flat tire. "This year, we are going to do some flat-tire drills and other stuff to try to make sure we're OK," Andrew Farnsworth, one of the team leaders, says, and he's not kidding.
Soccer viewership on English-language stations in the United States is growing. Last week's match between the U.S. and Mexico drew a 1.6 overnight rating and 2.39 million viewers on ESPN, more than double the previous high for a World Cup qualifier on the channel. Fox Soccer Channel may be shutting down, but Champions League broadcasts are a key element to its replacement, Fox Sports 1. NBC paid $250 million for the rights to English Premier League games for three seasons and will televise six live games a week. Executives hope the matches will help grow the presence of NBC Sports Network.
Which brings us to Major League Soccer. In 2011, NBC bought broadcast rights for a fraction of what it paid for the EPL, reportedly $10 million per season. Ratings are improving but are still relatively small. A recent rivalry game between the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders had 209,000 viewers on NBCSN and came at the end of a 10-hour blitz of MLS coverage. The fact that NBCSN would air the domestic soccer league for an entire Saturday is undoubtedly progress, even if the ratings are climbing only incrementally. But national figures are one thing; after attending a few New York Red Bulls games and watching a few more on MSG, I wondered how MLS was doing on a local level. Specifically, were more fans watching games in person or on television?
Panic is mostly a matter of perception. The situation before the United States men's national team took the field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Friday night was this: With eight matches remaining in a 10-game tournament, the Americans — who hadn't lost a home World Cup qualifier since 2001 — were a single point out of second place in the six-team Hexagonal. They were playing at home in front of nearly 20,000 pro–Stars and Stripes supporters including 2,000 American Outlaws, the largest contingent ever. Jurgen Klinsmann's team was favored. Hardly a dire predicament.
And yet, the general mood in the reactionary, overblown world of U.S. soccer was that it was time to freak out. The sky was falling, ever faster after a midweek article in the Sporting News cited 22 anonymous sources who spoke about the coach's lack of, well, coaching, and factions within the squad. The mood was tense. The red, white, and blue — down four fullbacks and their no. 1 goalkeeper, no less — were in trouble.
On Wednesday, Bayern Munich and Málaga joined six other clubs in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Watching the games made me wonder how the United States national team would do if it were dropped into the group stage of the tournament. Would the Americans be able to finish in the top two of a four-team group featuring the Continent’s strongest sides?
I asked Earnie Stewart, former American midfielder and current technical director of Jozy Altidore's AZ club. Quite fairly, he more or less told me it was a ridiculous query. "They are not a club team. It's so very hard to compare international teams to club teams," he said. "It's totally different. The way you play. The responsibilities are different. Plus, there's the fact that it's something that's never going to happen. We're never going to have a national team in a club tournament."
Fair enough. Stewart — who has an actual, important job in soccer — has better things to do with his time than speculate about hypothetical tournaments. You know, like run a team. I, however, do not. So I set out to find an answer with the help of a couple of soccer journalist friends. (See: That thing about not having real jobs.)
The initial response was that the Stars and Stripes would struggle. "If you dropped the U.S. in and they hadn't trained together, they would get destroyed," says Zac Lee Rigg. "I think most national teams would. The World Cup is not as good quality as the Champions League is."
Before the United States men's national team starts each formal practice, the players warm up in little groups. They juggle, getting touches, and chatting with each other. On one portion of the green pitch, you might see youngsters Juan Agudelo, Josh Gatt, Terrence Boyd, and Joe Gyau sharing a multicolored Nike ball. Fifteen yards away, German Americans Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, and Danny Williams pass and speak in their native tongue, while the Mexican American contingent — Herculez Gomez, Jose Torres, and Edgar Castillo — one-touch in a triangle. Elsewhere, Mix Diskerud, Jozy Altidore, and Maurice Edu chat about life in Europe. It's a relaxed environment, one you would expect to see on soccer fields across the country and the rest of the world, a place where friends play with friends and young men with similar life experiences gravitate toward each other.
The question is how, if at all, the varied backgrounds, languages, and experiences affect the American team. Is there a danger that the cliques will present problems on the field? I asked Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi, who parlayed a breakout performance during the 2012 January camp into a few World Cup qualifier starts and a leadership role during the '13 traditional session. "In my experience, it's been alright," he says. "All the guys are from all different areas, but we are a group that gets together pretty well. I think it's a very good thing to have a mix of youth and veteran leadership."
Aric Almirola earned more than $4.7 million during the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, winning the pole at the Coca-Cola 600 and driving the no. 43 Ford car to top-10 finishes in two of the year's final four races. The 28-year-old, who was born at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and is sometimes called the "Cuban Missile," drove well enough in his first full season in stock car racing's biggest tour to land himself another year with Richard Petty Motorsports. He credits part of his success to an unusual pastime: bike riding, which he picked up three years ago and he believes prepares him for the rigors of flying around a track at 150-plus mph for hours at a time.
"The cardio standpoint of getting on a bike and riding for two, three, four hours simulates so much of what we go through in the car. And also, the heat. I love to ride my bike in the dead middle of the summer when it's 105 degrees outside because it's so much like being in my race car. Your heart rate's up. You're sweating to death. And that is exactly what we deal with in the race car," he says over the phone. "[Racing is] not tremendously physical, but it's very cardio and it's very hot inside our cars. It's important for your body to learn to stay hydrated and to not lose all your electrolytes. Being on the bike in the middle of the summer helps me focus on my hydration and staying focused when I'm hot, tired, sweaty, and completely miserable."
Eight days ago, the United States men's national soccer team fell, 2-1, in Honduras to open the final round of 2014 World Cup qualification. The defeat was notable for a few reasons, one being the fact that it was the first meaningful Hexagonal round match that Landon Donovan's missed in more than a decade. The tepid performance on the field, which saw the Americans lack the spark of creativity so often brought by the team's all-time leading scorer, renewed calls for Donovan to once again don the Stars and Stripes. Someone even started a White House petition calling for President Obama's intervention in the matter. (The initiative looks destined to fail. As of this writing, it had 36 signatures, 99,964 short of the number needed to spur action from the Oval Office.)
For the past three days, we've been told repeatedly that San Pedro Sula, a city of almost 900,000, is the most dangerous place in the world. The United States Soccer Federation informed journalists who were covering the Americans' first game of the final round of World Cup qualifying of this fact before we arrived. A Monday-night briefing by the State Department reiterated the point, citing a 2011 murder rate that was the highest in the world.
But it was hard to agree with that thesis Wednesday afternoon at Estadio Olimpico. An hour before the home side opened its quest for the 2014 World Cup, the stands were two-thirds full and bouncing with the reverberations of blasting Latin music. The audience consisted of many men, but also plenty of wives and girlfriends (but not WAGs), families, hand-holding, and smiles. Eventually, a reported attendance of 37,000 would fill the venue for the 3 p.m. game. It likely wasn't quite that many — there were more than 3,000 empty spots among the 40,000 seats — but still, more than .004 percent of the country's population turned out to cheer on their Catrachos. It felt like a party, not at all like a war zone.
In truth, the cracks in the SPS-as-Beirut-circa–Spy Game narrative started to show earlier in the week. The city is dangerous, especially at night, but there's a good will here toward visiting tourists. Half a dozen fans from the States offered tales of walking down the streets and getting assaulted by nothing more than good-natured jeers at their red, white, and blue jerseys. They found an excellent local restaurant the previous night. They took cabs, but they were fine. That is admittedly a small sample size, but it's nothing like the horror stories we were told, or the ones that pop up in the papers.
The first United States men's national team friendly of every new year is a predictably strange affair. It comes at the end of a long training camp and features roughly two dozen tired guys, the vast majority of whom are not first-choice players for the USMNT. Many of them are not even second or third on the positional depth charts. The group traditionally consists mostly of players in between Major League Soccer seasons, as well as a few assorted refugees from teams in one of the Scandinavian leagues that take a long winter break so their fans don't freeze while watching a mid-January match. It’s a moment to make impressions — sometimes first, sometimes final.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann called the typical gathering of players this year but attempted to add some gravitas to the month-long affair that culminated with Tuesday night's abysmal 0-0 draw against Canada. His reasons for doing so were both practical and ideological. For one, the Americans are in a slow transition at a few key positions, as both the in-flux center back situation and the uncertain status of Landon Donovan are creating a number of problems.
The United States national team finished 2012 with a record of 9-2-3, tying the best calendar year showing in the modern era. They qualified for the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification. They beat Italy and Mexico on the road, and tied Russia in Russia. They found some talent — Graham Zusi, Geoff Cameron, and Danny Williams, especially — and brought back some more (hey, Eddie Johnson). Jurgen Klinsmann's troops suffered setbacks, as well, notably a loss in Jamaica and an inability to "play pretty" consistently, but it was a successful 12-month period. On to 2013, one more year until the World Cup in Brazil. Here are 20 things the team needs to accomplish in its centennial season.
On a Saturday earlier this month, Tim Howard played 90 minutes and made two saves in Everton's 2-1 victory over Sunderland at Goodison Park. Soon after the win, he hopped on a plane bound for Frankfurt to meet up with his American teammates, who were jetting in from all over the world. A couple quick training sessions later and Howard found himself standing in goal on a cold night in Krasnodar, Russia, brilliantly defending the beleaguered United States net as the Stars and Stripes managed a 2-2 draw. Howard made six saves, a few of them of the spectacular variety that U.S. supporters have come to expect. Four days later, following a charter from Russia to Germany and another flight back to England, the goalkeeper stood between the pipes at Reading's Madejski Stadium, attempting to help Everton earn three more points in their English Premier League campaign. His club lost 2-1 as Howard made a solitary save.
The one-week total: one win, one loss, one draw in three different stadiums, training in three countries, four flights, four goals conceded, 10 saves made, and 270 minutes of soccer played. It's all rather exhausting. Not all international breaks are so quick, but they all add miles and minutes to weary legs. And yet, for a world-class soccer player like Howard, these jumps between club and country are standard.
I was shivering in the open, unheated press box in Krasnodar's Kuban Stadium, watching the United States men's national team as they were losing 1-0 to host Russia, when a friend — who has seen a lot of these matches — sent me an e-mail:
"This seems like a traditional game where we get a garbage equalizer?"
Maybe?, I thought, fingers too cold to type back. We were halfway through the second half and scoreless since Fedor Smolov put Russia ahead in the ninth minute. The Americans, initially disjointed in front of 28,000 intensely loud fans, were better after the first 20 minutes or so, but they weren't exactly creating chances. If anything, Tim Howard and poor Russian finishing were the only reasons the scoreline wasn't more lopsided.
I sat watching, waiting, expecting a U.S. loss to close out 2012. Except six minutes after the initial e-mail, another came:
Krasnodar, Russia, is a gray city. It was founded as a Cossack fortress and now boasts roughly 700,000 citizens, lying about 830 miles due south of Moscow down Highway M4, which skirts the Eastern border of Ukraine. It is 90 miles from the Black Sea port city of Novorossiysk, five hours by dirty Mercedes from Sochi, and 10 from Georgia. Yalta is about 240 miles as the crow flies, but, in classic "ya can't get there from here" fashion, a 600-mile drive around the Sea of Azov. Which is to say, Krasnodar is very much a place you only end up if you go intentionally.
On Wednesday evening, the United States national team plays the Russians in the city's Kuban Stadium, normally home to FC Kuban Krasnodar and FC Krasnodar, as a peace offering. Russia will host the 2018 World Cup (thanks, petrodollars!), but the southern city will not hold any of the matches, a decision that caused 500 protesters to claim FIFA and the Russian Federation were "spitting on the souls of fans."
Good-bye, World Cup; hello, Stars and Stripes. (The cynic in me wonders which is the lesser of two evils.)
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.