Category Archives: MLS 2013 season

Dallas ‘Til I Cry: Learning to Love Major League Soccer

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Those of you who used to periodically read this blog may have noticed the lack of new posts for many months.  I did not intend to neglect Red, White and Blues as much as I have, however, the neglect was for a good reason.  My writing energies over the last year were poured into completing my first non-fiction book, a soccer title, called Dallas ‘Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer.

“Euro Snob” is sometimes used to describe American soccer fans that generally ignore Major League Soccer in favor of the elite professional leagues of Europe. As a big Chelsea FC supporter, I was admittedly one of these Euro Snobs for several years. In 2013 however, feeling obligated as an American soccer fan to pay attention to my domestic league, I decided to try to become a fan of MLS by following it closely for the first time. My conduit for this MLS experiment was becoming a Season Ticket Holder for my local club, FC Dallas.

Dallas ‘Til I Cry: Learning to Love Major League Soccer chronicles my experience as I try to become a full-fledged supporter of FC Dallas and MLS overall. Part soccer fan memoir, part MLS critique, the book explores American soccer fandom in all its joys, agonies, and quirks. It’s an American twist on the kind of soccer fan passion reflected in books like Fever Pitch, Bloody Confused!, and 32 Programmes. Whether already a fan of MLS, cynical about the league, or a curious fan who simply enjoys narratives of soccer cultures around the world, I hope you’ll find Dallas ‘Til I Cry to be a funny, heart-warming examination of the much-maligned, resilient, and emergent Major League Soccer.

The book is now available to purchase on Amazon.com and will be available soon as an e-book for Kindle.  I will also be relaunching this soccer blog at http://www.nathannipper.com in the coming weeks.  Thank you very much for reading this blog over the years.  I appreciate your support and hope you will check out my new book as well as continue to read the new blog when it launches at nathannipper.com.

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Countdown to Derby Day

My trip to the heart of rival territory…

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The first week of March was exhausting.  My high school soccer team had a regional playoff game on Monday night, which we won, propelling us into the state final four in Houston the following weekend.  I spent the rest of the week leading up to our Thursday afternoon departure madly scrambling to arrange all the last-minute Houston trip details.

One of the main scheduling conundrums that needed solving was what to do with our 22-man team on Friday afternoon.  With our semifinal game scheduled for 9:00 Friday morning, we had quite the time to kill afterward.  I needed something fun and economical that wouldn’t completely sap their energy ahead of the state championship game on Saturday (assuming we won our semifinal of course).

I considered visiting the Johnson Space Center, but it is actually rather far from where we were staying in Houston.  After scuttling NASA, my natural inclination was something Houston Dynamo-related – despite the fact they are the sworn enemy of FC Dallas.  But what could we do?

I contacted the Dynamo’s Director of Soccer Operations, inquiring as politely as possible whether it would be possible for my team to attend a Dynamo training session if they had one Friday afternoon.  I suppose this would be akin to a Liverpool fan wanting to visit a Manchester United training session.  I did feel slightly traitor-ish since I’ve never arranged for my team to attend an FC Dallas training session, but these were unique circumstances, us making the final four in Houston and all.  At least that’s how I soothed my fan conscience.

Surprisingly, I actually heard back from the Soccer Operations guy that the Dynamo would be training Thursday and Friday morning at 10:00 AM and that we were welcome to attend either session.  My heart sank as my super cool (and cheap!) team outing would not be possible since we would be playing our semifinal Friday morning at 9:00.

The Dynamo training session bust led me to wonder if the club offered tours of their practically brand new BBVA Compass Stadium (it opened in 2012).  I called the number and talked to account executive Ken who was very enthusiastic about the prospects of arranging a tour for my team.  He got our request approved, called me back and just like that we were set for a 3:00 PM stadium tour on Friday.

I was excited.  Not only am I endeavoring to be a more faithful MLS supporter, but I also want to spur impressionable young men to support it as well, thus doing my part to influence future generations of American soccer fans.  Selfishly, I really wanted to find out if BBVA Compass Stadium is as cool as it looks on TV.

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On the nearly five hour drive from our school in suburban Dallas to Houston, I tried to inspire the team with a screening of Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story which I had recently purchased expressly for this trip.  While documentaries may not be everyone’s cup of tea (much less teenagers’) I thought this soccer-centric story would surely have widespread appeal.  The film may be sluggish in parts, but who wouldn’t be roused, perhaps even get a lump in the throat, when Demerit scores the winning goal that gained Watford promotion to the Premier League in 2006?  Well, apparently I am the only one so affected.  Every time I glanced around at my players on the bus during the film, no one was remotely paying attention.  Each was absorbed in his own digital devices and oversized headphones.  My inspirational/motivational attempt became the running joke of our state trip as I was the only one interested in watching Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story (and I had already seen it).

Friday morning we dispatched Houston St. Thomas Episcopal 4-0 in our semifinal, advancing to Saturday’s state championship game against Houston Cypress Christian.  Immediately following our game, the team shuttled over to another venue to watch our varsity girls’ team win their semifinal 1-0.  From there, both teams traveled to a deli that was supposed to accommodate our huge troupe for lunch.  After finally directing our charter bus driver (who mystifyingly did not have a GPS) to this very difficult-to-locate deli, we immediately discovered the deli had not been forthcoming on the phone about their ability to serve and seat our huge group (which included over forty players, plus coaches and several parents).  This deli was in fact a lunch counter inside a high-rise office building.  We had to find another restaurant capable of serving us in a timely manner, as it would have taken approximately 36 hours for everyone to eat had we stayed at the deli.  The deli owner was furious and gave my assistant coach an earful, but we really had no choice but to head elsewhere.

By then I was severely stressed as I could see no way we would make it to the stadium on time for our tour.  Strategizing at the alternative restaurant where we finally landed, I decided to call account executive Ken and see if there was any way to move our tour time to 4:00.  Ken could not have been more laid back and accommodating.  This in spite of the fact that the Dynamo brass had given Ken and the rest of the club’s staff the day off because of all the midnight oil they’d been burning in the weeks leading up to the MLS season opener.  Ken told me to give him a call when we were on our way to the stadium, that he would be passing the time playing FIFA ’13 at a buddy’s apartment directly across the street from the stadium.  Now I felt extra pressure – this guy was basically giving up his afternoon off to make this tour happen for us.

Houston traffic was the next hurdle on our BBVA Compass Stadium quest.  We inched along for an hour on Southwest Freeway 59.  I’m pretty sure Los Angeles has the only traffic I’ve experienced worse than Houston’s.  I had to call account executive Ken again to explain our lateness.  He still seemed cucumber-cool, assuring me he had no problem playing FIFA while he waited.  Ken’s FIFA fun wasn’t quite enough to assuage my stress over our lateness though.

Finally, at 4:45 PM we pulled alongside the stadium.  The team universally proclaimed the structure’s coolness.  I wholeheartedly concurred.  My first thought was disdain at how much the exterior aesthetics of the Dynamo’s stadium trumped FC Dallas’.  From the outside BBVA Compass Stadium looks like it was constructed by and for NASA, all silver and sleek and airy.  From the outside, FC Dallas Stadium looks like part of a nice strip mall.

Ken met us outside the stadium, checked us in with security, and led us straight into the lower level inner ring tunnel.  He explained straight away that we unfortunately wouldn’t be able to visit the Dynamo locker room, that not even he had ever been that far inside the inner sanctum.  That roused my suspicions that ridiculously successful Dynamo Head Coach Dominic Kinnear has a vault of secrets in there.

CCA @ Dynamo 1

Our first tour stop was the players’ tunnel leading to the pitch.  Ken led us down the ramp to the edge of the pitch right behind one of the goals.  We were allowed to step to the edge of the grass, but no further.  The Dynamo are apparently extra finicky about their pitch.  Ken said he’s only been on the pitch once, during last year’s staff Christmas party when they played an inter-office staff match.  From field level the empty stadium is awesome – a truly soccer specific venue.  I’ve never been in a stadium so large that feels so intimate.  Though it seats 22,000, the seats on the top row feel remarkably close to the pitch.

That's me enjoying the view from field level.

That’s me enjoying the view from field level.

Ken proudly moved us through various sections of the stadium – the south party deck available for corporate rentals, the premium season ticket holder sections featuring leather seats with hand-stitched Houston Dynamo monograms, and finally the President’s Club interior lounge overlooking midfield.  Stunning.

The lateness of our arrival unfortunately meant limiting our tour to half an hour.  Ken would have let us stay longer, but we had a dinner reservation to get to and considering the traffic, we wanted to eat before midnight.  As Ken led us back out of the stadium, we passed the Dynamo team shop, which surprisingly wasn’t much larger than FC Dallas’ shoe box-sized shop.  One of our team captains asked Ken, “Everyone gets a free jersey, right?”  Ken assured him that not even he gets a free jersey as a Dynamo employee.  I guess you have to pay for that awesome space-aged stadium somehow.

As I forked over the cash for our tour (the admission included a match ticket, but since none of us reside in Houston we opted to donate our tickets to a local charity) and thanked Ken for his helpfulness, he informed me he would be at FC Dallas with the rest of the Dynamo front office staff for the big FC Dallas v. Dynamo Derby match on Sunday, March 17.  I said I’d look for him there.  We shook hands, our eyes narrowing as our grip tightened and the rivalry vibes took over… in my mind at least.  He hasn’t been to FC Dallas Stadium before and I felt like apologizing for our home ground relative to the Dynamo’s awesome environs, but caught myself.  What would I apologize for?  So what if the Dynamo have a sweet stadium?  That doesn’t make me like their team any better.  I hope Ken has as pleasant an experience at our stadium as we had at theirs – right up until game time at least.  Then I hope it’s a sad, sad day for Dynamo fans.

On Saturday, after a fierce 0-0 first half, we finally breached the goal and never looked back, defeating Houston Cypress Christian 4-0 for our school’s first-ever varsity boys soccer state championship.  It must have been that inspiring Dynamo stadium tour – either that or Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story.

I'm the exhausted-looking coach on the far left.

(I’m the exhausted-looking coach on the far left.)

Shea it ain’t so, Brek!

Brek Shea will be missed in Dallas

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Brek Shea has been the face of FC Dallas the past two seasons, but now he plays for Stoke City.  I’m glad for Shea.  It’s always good to see American players get a shot in the perceived top league in the world.  But since I just bought an FC Dallas season ticket a few weeks ago, this is not welcome news.

I first saw Shea play in person in 2010, the season he made his first professional start and really came into his own for FC Dallas.  He almost immediately caught my eye as a special player.  It wasn’t just the flashy shock of ultra blonde hair.  He hustled his tail off and wasn’t afraid to run with the ball at opponents.  He had height, strength, speed, and all-important feistiness.  He could scoot around the edges and get passes across the box or get shots off when other players would have lost possession.  He spent that 2010 season under the radar and I shared FC Dallas fans’ pride of recognizing potential that the wider world hadn’t fully noticed yet.  I even called my younger brother and soccer confidant Dan to tell him about this Brek Shea and how he could be on the national team someday.

Shea and FC Dallas made it to their first and only MLS Cup Final in 2010 where they lost to Colorado.  By the start of 2011, the cat was out of the bag with Shea and opponents started marking him tightly.  It was a tougher season for him (and FC Dallas), yet he was still a standout and a finalist for the league’s MVP.  Buzz began building about him.  In the offseason, he got to train for a few weeks at Arsenal.  FC Dallas wisely signed him on through 2015.  By the start of last season, the media spotlight on Shea was blinding.  Even in Dallas he was becoming a household name (okay, still mostly just among us soccer nerds).  US National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann jumped on board the Brek train too, granting Shea several consecutive caps.

Then the 2012 MLS season got under way and Shea fizzled on field.  A turf toe injury sidelined him for several weeks.  I actually observed him up close as he was nearing recovery from that injury when he participated in a demonstration drill run by FC Dallas Head Coach Schellas Hyndman at Hyndman’s annual clinic for local coaches.  I was impressed and surprised that Shea turned up for the demo – something he certainly wasn’t obligated to do on such a hot May afternoon.  The demo was a mix of academy players and FC Dallas reserve players, but Shea played as hard as if he were trying to earn a starting spot.  Afterwards he affably hung around to chat with coaches and pose for photos.  He certainly didn’t appear too overwhelmed by stardom that day.

Shea continued struggling with injuries throughout 2012, but even when he was in the lineup he couldn’t recover his near-MVP form from 2011.  Fans grumbled impatiently.  Brek and Hyndman got into a spat on NBC when Hyndman benched him late during a contentious match at San Jose.  Shea the wonder boy suddenly seemed mentally and physically drained.

Now it looks like the business side of soccer has reared its necessary and sometimes ugly head with Dallas apparently eager to cash in on Stoke City’s interest in the 22-year-old Shea.  Shea was a rare rising star for Dallas, a real potential franchise player.  I had a feeling it would just be a matter of time before a bigger club snatched him up – Dallas is too small a club to retain stars for very long.  The only real surprise is why now?  Shea had such a dismal 2012 MLS season that I was confident he would be in Dallas at least through 2013.  I was really looking forward to this being a comeback season for Brek.

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I should have been suspicious when Zach Loyd began featuring a bit more than Shea in FC Dallas’ promotional efforts toward the end of last season.  Considering that and the rift between Hyndman and Shea, the writing has likely been on the wall for several months.  I wish Dallas would splash the Stoke cash they get for Shea on a replacement star, someone for season ticket holders like myself to get jazzed about.  But I won’t hold my breath.

It’s a catch-22 for American soccer fans when deals like this come along.  On one hand, you want to see U.S. players get opportunities in the world’s top league – it’s great for their development, enhances our national team, and improves American soccer’s reputation.  On the other hand it highlights where MLS falls in the pecking order of the world’s soccer leagues.  It seems difficult enough (particularly in a market like Dallas) to get fans to support MLS teams that actually have an American star or two, much less when those stars get shipped to more prestigious European leagues.

I wish Shea all the best at Stoke City.  This FC Dallas fan will definitely miss him.

Your thoughts on Shea’s transfer to Stoke City?