Regard the Rooney. Here he is, above, in a photograph taken last January, in the act of kissing, or grabbing, his Manchester United badge on his Manchester United jersey, in front of some Manchester United fans, at Manchester City's stadium, the Etihad, in an act that probably made Manchester United fans delirious, and Manchester City fans want to go full Filomena on him. He's Wayne Rooney. He's here to score goals and make people crazy. And he's all out of goals.
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.
As any Liverpool fan with a good memory will be happy to tell you, English football did not start with the Premier League's 1992 formation. It can sometimes feel that way; the league is rather proficient at self-mythology, so much so you'd think an achievement like, say, Tottenham's double-winning 1960-61 side played football in another dimension. But there are decades of legendary players, dynasties (yes, Liverpool), and shocking anomalies (Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, for instance) that came before Sky Sports and the Illuminati conspired to create the sports-entertainment juggernaut that is widely regarded by people who don't watch La Liga and the Bundesliga as the best football league in the world.
But was there English football before Sir Alex Ferguson? That's actually hard to recall. The Manchester United manager retired today with 13 Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies, five FA Cups, and four League Cups. He is, unscientifically, the greatest manager or coach in modern sports history. No other leader has been so successful for so long, and been so adaptive while seeming, at least on the surface, to be so unchanging. When football players were carb-ing up with pies before matches, sneaking halftime cigarettes in toilet stalls, and putting together a decent lager buzz almost before the final whistle of a match, Ferguson was there. And when players started having their every movement monitored by Prozone, ate nothing but whitefish and green veggies, and tactical chalkboards started looking like a prop from the set of A Beautiful Mind, Ferguson was there. He's won on cold, rainy nights in Wigan and on "that night in Barcelona." In 27 years at Old Trafford, he has managed some of the greatest players in the history of football, including Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Cristiano Ronaldo, Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, and Paul Scholes. He also managed Bebe.
On a still-wintry April 20, I filed into Minneapolis’s Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome for the second game of Minnesota United FC’s first season, kind of. Although the name is new, the team — technically speaking — is not. Technically, they were the champions of the inaugural season of the North American Soccer League in 2011, when they were known as Minnesota Stars FC. This was a year after they had been founded as NSC Minnesota Stars, named for their home base at the National Sports Center in Blaine, about half an hour’s drive north of the Twin Cities.
They are not, however, directly related to the Minnesota Thunder, who were the state’s professional soccer team from 1990 to 2009. That team’s goal of leaving the United Soccer League’s First Division for the NASL ended in bankruptcy. The team’s owner, Dean Johnson, skipped town, bought the Belgian club RFC Liège with a promise to turn it around, and then disappeared completely after a Belgian sports magazine uncovered his past financial problems.
Don’t worry; there’s more. Although in some ways spiritually connected, this new NASL is not directly connected to the NASL that existed from 1968 to 1984, a league that included the Minnesota Kicks (1976–1981), whose logo is, frankly, awesome.
A few years after the Kicks folded, the original NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers moved to Minnesota and became the Minnesota Strikers for the last year of the NASL’s run in 1984. Then they were an indoor soccer team in the Major Indoor Soccer League. In case that’s all not confusing enough, the new NASL has a new Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Let's take a look at what we learned (aside from "fear the rise of Germany") from four matches in which we certainly learned to fear the rise of Germany.
Life After Gotze
Borussia Dortmund midfielder (and soon to be Bayern Munich player) Mario Gotze was subbed off after less than 20 minutes of their second-leg match at the Bernabeu with a suspected hamstring tear. His removal had a rather negative effect. Kevin Grosskreutz, who by the standards of German midfielders is an elderly 24, came on for Gotze. Marco Reus, who started the match in a roving left winger role, shifted into a more central position, more advanced than where Gotze had been playing. Grosskreutz tucked in on the left.
While his positioning and tracking were acceptable, Grosskreutz's touch and decision-making were not. Too frequently play broke down as balls were funneled in his direction. Grosskreutz is a very good player to have as your first choice off the bench in the Bundesliga; he is not up to the standards of starting in the midfield for a Champions League finalist.
Gotze is a unique talent, but he will have to be replaced with someone capable of creating alongside Reus. Problem is, Dortmund already lost that player. His name is Shinji Kagawa and he plays for Manchester United now.
Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund side has had an eventful week. On the eve of their Champions League semifinal first leg against Real Madrid, it was announced that midfielder Mario Gotze would transfer to Bundesliga rival Bayern Munich after this season. Dortmund took the news in stride, beating Madrid, 4-1; the scoreline somehow both flattered the Real's effort, and all but assured Dortmund's passage into the Champions League final, pending today's result. Then over the weekend, in Bundesliga action, Dortmund's prodigal son Nuri Sahin drilled what may be the Bundesliga goal of the season in Dortmund's 2-1 win over Fortuna Dusseldorf.
Old-school fan violence reared its ugly head this weekend, from the hallowed terraces of Wembley to the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne. Even hardened criminals from the depths of Her Majesty's Prison Service were in disbelief over the audacity of one horse-punching Magpie supporter.
Somewhere amid this nonsense, football was played, and in this week's suboptimal podcast the Men in Blazers consider it all — from the Chelsea–Man City FA Cup semifinal to Everton's continued late-season form, courtesy of a win against relegation-threatened QPR that sent Harry Redknapp into his ritual comical rage. Now, with just a month left in this Premier League season, Michael and Roger handicap the race for Arsene Wenger's coveted "fourth-place trophy."
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the United States men's national team in the summer of 2011, United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati tasked the former German star with two objectives: (1) qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and (2) remake the American program in an effort to turn a middling soccer nation into something resembling a world power.
Twenty months into the experiment, Klinsmann has succeeded in some areas and failed in others. It's been a battle, partly because those two goals come into conflict with each other. The need to win now butts against the development of players for the future. The head coach talks about imposing a system of high-pressure soccer, complete with skillful, one-touch passing. But changing a style and a culture while raising the overall level of talent takes time. And time is a luxury the squad doesn't have if it plans to reach Brazil '14.
Kevin Sampson is a writer shaped by his experiences on the "island state" of Liverpool, England, where he is also a longtime season-ticket holder for the celebrated soccer team. His novels and nonfiction writing explore the recent past and present of a city that has been transformed, for better or worse, in the age of globalization. On the eve of the publication of his new novel, The Killing Pool, I talked to Sampson about his lifelong obsession with Liverpool Football Club; his exploration of football violence in his debut novel, Awaydays; the lead-up to the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died; and the influence of the legendary Liverpool fanzine The End on supporter culture.
When it came time to adapt Awaydays for the screen, the music was a really big part of the result. The soundtrack was pretty fantastic (there were even Manchester bands in there).
Awaydays is pretty much wedded to ... Liverpool's post-punk renaissance. The waterfront, the Ropewalks area, and the former trading hubs on either side of Victoria Street had so many disused warehouses and silos and underground storage cellars that, once the ships sailed for good, there were just so many wonderful, atmospheric bars and clubs springing up. Some of the most precious, for me, were Eric's (which spawned the Zoo Records and Eternal labels), Checkmate, the Swinging Apple, Michel Claire, the City Vaults, Maxwell's Plum, Oscar's. With Awaydays, we tried to use tracks that would have been recorded by the end of 1979, and which you would likely have heard in clubs like Eric's. So, yeah ... plenty of Bunnymen, Ultravox, Joy Division, Magazine, and a previously unreleased demo version of the Cure's "10.15, Saturday Night." Beautiful, heartbreaking stuff!
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.
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?
With Michael Davies away, Rog goes solo, welcoming USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann to the pod. Fresh from the March of the Penguins win against Costa Rica, and a gutsy draw in the Azteca thunderdome, Klinsmann candidly discusses his own identity, management style, change strategy, and vision for American soccer's future. He is also willing to broach the big topics, including the heroic role Kyle Beckerman could play for the U.S. team at World Cup 2014 in Rio.
Normal suboptimal Men in Blazers service will be resumed next week.
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”).