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Countdown to Derby Day

My trip to the heart of rival territory…

BBVA_Compass_Stadium_East_Facade

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.

rise_and_shine_the_jay_demerit_story

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.)

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Red, White & Blues Roundup

Thoughts on last week’s big matches for U.S., Chelsea, and FC Dallas

There is a reason this blog has been mute this week, even as my three main teams were in action.  And it’s not a pleasant reason.  I’m calling out Time Warner Cable as the worst TV/internet provider in these United States!  My cable went out first.  It was gone for a week, forcing me to watch the Chelsea/Newcastle match at my non-soccer-fan in-laws house.  But thank goodness they have Fox Soccer!  And their big screen isn’t too shabby either.  My Time Warner internet “service” was also out during the cable outage.  Services were restored for a week, then this past Monday Time Warner decided they hadn’t quite scared me away as a customer so they knocked out my internet for another week.  They finally showed up to repair it Friday night.

Then yesterday, just to kick me while I’m down, Time Warner inexplicably pulled the plug on Fox Soccer Channel in the 67th minute of the Chelsea/QPR match!  The horror!  I think that was actually worst than not having cable at all because I didn’t have time to crash my in-laws for the game.  Of course, Time Warner finally restored Fox Soccer a couple hours later, but the damage to my fanhood had already been done.  Time Warner, you are a truly terrible service!  I will be dropping them as my cable/internet provider as soon as possible!

Now back to this week’s soccer action…

First, it was a great, relieving win for the U.S. over Jamaica Tuesday night.  The U.S. looked encouraging in the first half, rattling the post three times.  I started to get that uneasy feeling you get when your team is dominating but can’t quite find the net.  But Hercules Gomez finally created some breathing room with his amazing free kick in the second half.  The U.S. should’ve had more, and they allowed some nerve-wracking moments during the final ten minutes, but the three points were secured and hope is thankfully alive again for World Cup qualification.

“Herculez! Herculez!”

The Chelsea/QPR game was a scrappy one – at least the 67 minutes of it Time Warner allowed me to see.  It ended up a scoreless draw, so at least Chelsea retains first place in the league this week.  It wasn’t a great offensive Blues performance.  Torres was back to his thumb-twiddling ways up top.  Ramires was much weaker than usual.  Hazard continues to be pretty great though.  If his teammates learn to link up with him, Chelsea will generate a lot of goals this season.

Hazardous to defenses (I know, I know. I had to do it just this once.).

On the home front, I was at FC Dallas Stadium last night for the next-to-last FCD home game of the season.  It was a must-win match for FCD against Vancouver Whitecaps if Dallas has any hope of making the playoffs.  The play was extremely physical, the refereeing atrocious, and Dallas’ strike force woefully lacking in urgency (Blas Perez and Brek Shea looked downright lethargic).  The score remained 0-0 until the 96th minute when Julian De Guzman rocketed in one of the shots of the season.  Just minutes earlier I had lamented in my mind that De Guzman had done nothing of note since his arrival in Dallas a few months ago.  I’ve repented of that lament.  The crowd exploded after De Guzman’s amazing goal and it was probably the most exciting MLS match moment I’ve ever experienced in person.

The U.S. men and FC Dallas are off for a while, but Chelsea has a big week ahead with Juventus on Tuesday in Champions League action and Stoke visiting on Saturday.  Good times!

What was your favorite soccer moment this week?

No Goals, No Problem

When a 0-0 draw is no big deal

 

My daughter and I at her first FC Dallas match Saturday night.

Saturday night I went to FC Dallas Stadium to see FC Dallas’ first home match in over a month.  I was excited because my seven-year-old daughter was with me for her first-ever professional soccer match.

The night began well.  We got my regular parking spot (strategically located for maximum post-game traffic evasion).  I enjoyed the way her grip tightened on my hand as the sights and sounds of the looming stadium enveloped her.  Bought her a cute FC Dallas shirt in the team shop.  Saw Dirk Nowitzki towering over a horde of fans, gamely dishing out autographs (he had been the honorary pre-game Lamar Hunt statue scarfer).  I had to explain to my daughter who the giant was and why folks were mobbing him.

My time-conscious daughter was very anxious to get to our seats before game time, so I abandoned my quest to get a program.  What dads won’t do for their daughters!  We made it to our fifth row seats with minutes to spare.  She was impressed with her unobstructed view and our proximity to the field.  I was impressed with our sitting on the shady side of the stadium.  My daughter enjoyed Hooper’s (FCD’s mascot) pre-game antics, though she was too timid for me to summon him for a photo op.

So far I had engineered an ideal start to our first pro soccer outing together.  If the sailing continued to be this smooth, I’d have a lifetime of father/daughter soccer bonding to look forward to.  But just as I was feeling pretty good about myself, I forgot to warn her about the bone-rattling fireworks explosions that always accompany the conclusion of the Star-Spangled Banner at FCD Stadium.  She cowered.  I comforted and apologized for the lack of a heads-up.  Her smile returned.  Whew!  Crisis averted.  When she was five, a similar incident might’ve ended our night at the national anthem.

I was glad to see Brek Shea in the starting eleven after ages away due to suspension and injury.  Things were looking up.  This was surely the night FC Dallas would turn their miserable season around!

And then the game started.  Neither Dallas nor Chivas USA was capable of stringing together three passes.  At one point a dude sitting on our row asked his kids if they “noticed a difference between their [Dallas & Chivas] passing and the game we saw this afternoon [Spain v. France Euro 2012 quarterfinal]?”  He and I exchanged knowing glances and I replied, “Just a little bit.”  I wanted to apologize to my daughter for the choppy, foul-a-minute mess we were witnessing.  But she seemed to think the teams were pretty good.

The real goal-scoring opportunities were few and far between for both sides (only four shots on target all night – 3 for Dallas, 1 for Chivas).  Dallas knocked on the door more often, but couldn’t close the deal.  As the match reached the 80th minute, I really began to sweat because I desperately wanted my daughter to experience a goal at her first MLS game.  Otherwise she might never want to go with me again!  They score actual goals in the soccer league she plays in.  Usually lots of them.  What was this 0-0 madness?

By the time we reached 85 minutes, I wanted to pull my hair out.  Not only were we dangerously close to my daughter not seeing a goal, but I could see the shades being pulled on Dallas’ season!  My daughter even sheepishly admitted she wouldn’t mind if Chivas scored – she just wanted to see a goal!  I wasn’t willing to stoop to that level of goal desperation, but I understood her plight.  The entire future of our father/daughter soccer bonding was at stake and these knuckleheads couldn’t even get a shot on goal!  I suddenly felt the urge to pitch-invade, to sprint toward the FCD players, screaming like a banshee, “Can’t you see my daughter needs you to score?!”

Alas, even with three minutes of stoppage time, Dallas couldn’t find the back of the net.  What a letdown.  What a dreary season.  Dallas’ longest winless streak since 2005.  But mostly I was disappointed for my daughter.  Bless her heart, she kept emphasizing how much she’d wanted to see a goal.  Why did I feel like such a failure?  They’re the ones who couldn’t kick the ball into the giant nets mounted at each end of the field!

But then, the goalless draw – that inexplicable bane of soccer’s existence for average American sports fans – was implausibly redeemed.  We weren’t even out of the stadium yet when my daughter leaned closer and asked, “Dad, can I come with you every time you go to FC Dallas games?”

Hear that, FCD players?  You owe us a couple goals next time.

Seeing Red

Hernandez & Perez lack common sense in 2-0 loss to Colorado

FC Dallas has had an awful start to the 2012 MLS season.  Not so much in terms of points (12 so far from 10 games, in 6th place in the Western Conference), but because of injuries.  The injured list is so ridiculously long that the club had to bring in an extra player last week (former Timbers man James Marcelin) to augment the weakened squad.  It’s a nightmare scenario for manager Schellas Hyndman, as even Brek Shea missed Sunday night’s home clash with Colorado due to turf toe issues.

Knowing the team is scraping to get by, veteran (and former captain) Daniel Hernandez received two yellow cards in short succession, earning himself an early trip to the showers, all in the first half hour against Colorado.  Two minutes after the Hernandez ejection, new FCD forward Blas Perez received a red card for a bone-headed, cleats up collision with the Rapids’ Drew Moor.  Suddenly, with nearly an hour of the match remaining, Dallas had nine players and little chance of winning an important match.

The Perez red card might’ve been debatable, but it was probably deserved.  Hernandez’s two yellows were certainly deserved.  They were both very petty offenses committed by veteran players who should know better.

The Hernandez cards were particularly problematic because he received the first one for mouthing off at the ref.  It was ridiculous, immature, and unacceptable behavior from one of the team leaders.  Hernandez is a tough dude and has been a solid midfielder for Dallas the past few seasons, but he is too mouthy, and this time it is really going to cost his team.  Hernandez has earned two red cards already this season.  He seems to have lost a step, which has made him prone to irrational challenges.  He would be much better suited to a substitute role this season, but Dallas’ current injury situation makes that difficult.

The Perez challenge was very unwise considering that Hernandez had just been ejected.  Perez seemed to be a great acquisition at the season’s start, but I’d like to see more goals and fewer off-the-ball shenanigans from him.  Just play the game!

The mental lapse of two players with so much experience hurts Dallas during a crucial week with Seattle visiting on Wednesday and a trip to Columbus Saturday.  Having lost to Colorado, these next two matches are even more important.  The ejections were also a slap in the face to FC Dallas fans that didn’t pay to see the team limp their way through an hour of the match with nine men (as valiant as they were) on their way to a 2-0 defeat.

What do you think?  Am I being too harsh with these red card criticisms?

My First Trip of 2012 to FC Dallas Stadium

In which FC Dallas gifts Portland Timbers a goal for 1 – 1 draw

I spent St. Patty’s day, or evening actually, at FC Dallas Stadium (formerly Pizza Hut Park).  I wasn’t able to make it to the season opener last Sunday versus NY Red Bulls as I was traveling with my family on spring break.  I enjoyed watching FCD beat the Red Bulls on NBC Sports Network though and thoroughly enjoyed their coverage.  NBC didn’t dumb anything down at all (unlike a certain channel that starts with an “F” and ends with an “ox” during their nationally televised Champions League final).  So Saturday night was my first opportunity of the 2012 season to see FCD live as they battled the ax men from the northwest, better known as the Portland Timbers.  Here are my random musings on the match experience:

FCD’s new forward Blas Perez of Panama (I think he should go by that full moniker, including “of Panama” just for fun) has been impressive in his first two games.  He kept the Timbers on their toes in the first half (scoring FCD’s only goal), but in the second they paid closer attention to his wily maneuverings and that, coupled with a lack of offensive support from his FCD cronies, kept him from threatening as much.

Enjoyment of a match in person is seriously affected by those seated around you.  Most of my experiences at FCD games have been quite positive, but last night I had a trio of male knuckleheads babbling incessantly behind me.  They quickly beat everyone over the head with the fact they are Timbers fans, though only one had on a Timbers jacket (the other two inexplicably wore a Man U jacket and an old Dallas Burn jersey).  They regaled the rest of us with comedic gems like “Nice dive!” (directed at an FCD player), quickly followed by “Nice scuba suit!”  They also got a kick out of “Hey linesman, your sports bra too tight?” which I thought was a blow aimed at the poor linesman’s manhood until I realized that he actually was wearing some sort of clearly visible sports bra-like device under his ref jersey.  As if fans need further excuse to ridicule refs!  Not sure what that was all about – perhaps MLS is tracking refs’ vital signs this year via the bra, I mean device.  The Timber Trio’s favorite barb of the night though was their admonishment to any FCD player who got knocked down to “Hit the weights!”  They apparently thought this sage advice since they screamed it approximately one thousand times during the match.  Oddly enough, the motor mouths didn’t appear to be drunk at all.

Vuvuzelas mar the soccer world.  Unfortunately, the plastic horn menaces – that sound like a cross between a wounded Wookie and an elephant – are a perpetual presence at FCD matches.  I much prefer the steady crowd roar, singing, and chanting of European matches to vuvuzelas and drum beating.  The honk of the vuvuzela is a truly melancholy wail that sounds downright depressing, particularly in the 88th minute when your team is tied or losing and could use an aural spark.  That’s the main problem with vuvus – they’re not peppy in the least.  Perhaps the suits think vuvus help create “atmosphere”.  They are mistaken.  Vuvus sound ridiculous and aren’t festive in the least.  The only good thing about vuvus is that every time I hear one I’m reminded of Will Ferrell as “Jeff Vuvuzela” at the Espy’s a couple years ago.

FC Dallas has made several improvements to the match experience for fans.  I like the new seating right behind the north goal, which helps a bit to enclose the cavernous stage/beer garden space.  The halftime videos hosted by Vydra were very well done and quite entertaining – I particularly enjoyed the Q&A with Ricardo Villar in which he had to choose between random things like “Man City or Man U” (I forgive him for choosing Man U – was hoping he’d say “neither”).  One improvement the club still desperately needs however is a larger on-site team store.  The current shoebox size shop is entirely inadequate.  Saturday night before the game they had to use a frazzled bouncer to allow folks in a few at a time, but even then, once finally inside, the shop was literally shoulder-to-shoulder which made it impossible to fully browse the merchandise.

 

As for the match, Dallas controlled the first half, but the Timbers adequately adjusted after halftime and came out looking like a different team.  Even so, the Dallas defense (led by Ugo Ihemelu and Zach Loyd) was solid and likely would’ve held on to win were it not for Kevin Hartman’s uncharacteristic blunder in which he booted the ball straight up to the top of his own box where Portland’s Darlington Nagbe was waiting to pounce and slipped in an easy goal to tie the game.  Unfortunately, Dallas often found themselves short-handed on the attack as the spark provided by Loyd’s wing runs in the first half virtually disappeared in the second.  There was precious little offensive creativity from Dallas in the second half (which only encouraged the restless vuvuzela blowers).  FCD really needs David Ferreira back from injury and Brek Shea back from Olympic qualifying duty!

Despite the vuvus and obnoxious Timbers fans, it was a good time as usual at FC Dallas Stadium.  The draw was disappointing, but Dallas generally looks strong and should be very competitive this year.

Where do you think FC Dallas will finish in the Western Conference standings this year?