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.
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?
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.
I spent the weekend in the most pleasant way an Arsenal fan can spend a weekend that falls within the summer transfer window: perusing YouTube for a contact high off the fumes of past glories. The complete Invincibles season. The wizardry of Dennis Bergkamp. Legends of the Premier League: Thierry Henry. Cesc Fábregas "Pass Master" compilations. Michael Thomas’s stoppage-time goal-into-breakdance-windmill/caterpillar-celebration as Arsenal win the league over Liverpool at Anfield on the final day — the final seconds! — of the 1988-89 season. When your threadbare team is on the eighth year of a silverware drought, most recently snuck into fourth place with all the confidence of a cheating husband coming home after a tryst, and has put its best transfer hopes in the rumor of a $78 million dollar deal for a racist and two-time cannibal, nostalgia is as good as it gets. On the cusp of a new season, Arsenal have made one player acquisition, the free transfer of 20-year-old, often-injured French international Yaya Sanogo. It’s a move so stereotypical of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger that it’s akin to walking into a doughnut shop and seeing a cop stuffing his face with crullers.
In case you were busy watching The Great Gatsby in 3-D as an ill-advised cram session for your 11th-grade English final, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
The Miami Heat rebounded from a disappointing Game 1 defeat by pasting the Chicago Bulls, 115-78, to even up their second-round series. After a pair of ejections, the Bulls found themselves playing without Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson, meaning they had to play a mostly reserve lineup of B.J. Armstrong, Jud Buechler, Toni Kukoc, Bill Wennington and Luc Longley. Despite the influx of forgotten veterans, the oldest player on the court remained Heat reserve Juwan Howard, who was inactive with "being tired, man; real, real tired."
Klay Thompson had 34 points and 14 rebounds as the Golden State Warriors held off the San Antonio Spurs, 100-91. Midway through Thompson's explosive first half, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was seen staring at the Warriors' wing, mumbling, "decent athleticism, floor-stretching 3-point shooting, on a rookie contract … how do I not possess him?" Popovich then wiped off the small amount of drool that had collected at the corner of his mouth, snapped at Spurs guard Danny Green for being a "lollygagger," before making a mental note to himself to take the title of "general manager" back from R.C. Buford after the game.
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?
Never let it be said that the Designated Player backs down from a fight. Whether it’s demanding that The European cuts a few of the makeweights to bump my salary up to a living (large) wage, or calling out my rookie left back on Twitter (“@genericclogger22 My level = not you #achieve #1998UEFACupQF #respectlearnit #whentopmanfreePASSit”), the D.P. is right there on top of it, giving third-person, off-the-record briefings and generally showing his stomach for the fight. A stomach, natch, that was recently described as “box-to-box” on something called Les Cahiers du Football.
So when I heard that MLS had come up with a Rivalry Week, and that not only that, but a team of 150 NBC staff was going to be producing a mammoth 10-hour, countrywide production devoted to the first day’s play, that really threw down the gauntlet. The Designated Player is worth the equivalent of 177 mortals and a diabetic bulldog, so matching the human resources being thrown at Rivalry Week by the NBC peacock shouldn’t be a problem. Not only that, but I intended to emulate their lead anchors and announcers Russ Thaler, Arlo White, and Kyle Martino by also covering the first game live at Red Bull Arena. Then while they were Cannonball Run–ning their way up to their state-of-the-art studio facility in Connecticut to host their experimental two-and-a-half-hour, four-game MLS Breakaway show, I’d be reclining in my luxury PATH train on the way to my state-of-disarray Brooklyn apartment to doze fitfully through the rest of the day.
Andy Roxburgh is talking about Bruce Arena. He’s not been at New York Red Bulls long, but it appears the new Sporting Director may have already been asked one too many times about the management model at the Los Angeles Galaxy, and can’t resist a wry little dig at the head coach and general manager of the current MLS champions.
Roxburgh barely pauses on the aside, though, launching straight into a detailed breakdown of the new Red Bulls management structure: “What happens in this case, is this model is based on the French FA. The French FA when Gerard [Houllier, Red Bulls global director of soccer] was there, was the technical director and the CEO, and one didn’t answer to the other. They were in partnership, they linked occasionally, when appropriate. But each one of them was responsible for his own area, and the person who was above them is only one person, who’s the president. Now, it’s the same model here.”
“(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.
It’s been a funny few weeks with Hurricanes, snowstorms, Beckhams, and playoffs in my part of the world, not to mention the three days I spent in a darkened room as I processed the concept of Gerard Butler as a Celtic legend, and the week spent on a Manhattan Beach vision quest with Landon Donovan (before he took the decisive penalty in the MLS Cup final it occurred to me that I’d seen that squat before, just before he hurled marshmallows and peyote onto our campfire).
But the bills have to be paid, and with the second draft of my rewrite on the next Lifetime made-for-TV movie due next week (I can’t say too much about it, but the title is L’étranger and the tagline is “Lindsay Lohan IS Hope Solo”), and the confetti just about settled at the Home Depot Center, it’s time to turn our thoughts to looking back on this year’s MLS campaign.
So without further ado, here are the Designated Player 2012 MLS awards:
I like to think that somewhere in deepest Wisconsin there’s an equivalent of the Bat Signal, but bearing the logo of the defunct Miami Fusion. It’s linked by Bluetooth to the Big Soccer message boards, and now and again, in cases of dire emergency, enough frenzied postings from MLS fans will send its beam arching into the sky while a siren made of old Ray Hudson samples yells ‘Peeeeeeetaaaaaaaa!” into the night
Peter Wilt is a curio within the world of MLS. To a certain vintage of fans, he’s an iconic figure who stands for a perceived Golden Age of club-fan relationships — setting a romantic standard that subsequent generations of execs can only fall short of as the game grows. As former general manager and president of the Chicago Fire, Wilt helped usher the first MLS expansion team into the league, to great success on and off the field. He was at the forefront of, if not a downright pioneer of, many of the tropes we now associate with MLS 2.0, from dedicated stadia to supporters' sections — and even a prototypical version of the designated player, in signing Hristo Stoichkov before such a thing as a designated player existed. Yet despite the fan clamor for him that always arises when a senior management position opens up in MLS, Wilt hasn’t held a senior MLS position since being forced out of the Fire in 2005.
Titi! This is from today's New York Red Bulls–Chicago Fire game. New York won the match, 1-0, off the back of this WONDER STRIKE from Thierry Henry, who clearly still has it (and by "it" I mean the ability to peel the bark off the goalpost with an all-laces shot). Henry wound up being taken out of the game later because of a hamstring problem. Seriously though, you score something like that then you rest your hamstrings for the rest of the fiscal year. Take a bow, son!
Andrei Arshavin came to my attention at Euro 2008 the same way a man might find a beautiful woman in a dimly lit bar shortly after a breakup. Back then he got my mind off all that was wrong with Arsenal and offered the promise of something better. And as I watched him on Tuesday, in Russia’s 1-1 draw against Poland, I was reminded of why I once fell for him and why we simply can never be.
The Men in Blazers haven't spoken in weeks. And now they return from holiday to find their dear Premier League in shambles, victim to a relentless onslaught of matches. In their absence, the Manchester clubs experienced defeat, Chelsea attempted a group hug, and a Thierry Henry statue is set to come back to life at Arsenal. But what does it all mean?
Luckily, in this week's pod, Michael Davies and Roger Bennett address all those burning questions and more. Plus, they answer more of your deft telegrams and look ahead to this weekend's mighty FA Cup -- imagine the Portland Sea Dogs vs. New York Yankees.