My trip to the heart of rival territory…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chelsea’s draw with Juventus and win over Stoke
It wasn’t an altogether happy week to be a Chelsea fan. I guess it sounds ungrateful to gripe about a Champions League draw (against Juventus last Wednesday) and Premier League win (over Stoke yesterday) – particularly if you’re, say, a Liverpool fan – but there are some frustrating aspects to the Blues’ recent performances that have made for some nerve-wracking matches.
Let’s start with that mid-week Champions League season opener against Juventus at Stamford Bridge. Plenty to be excited about in the first half thanks to new Blue Oscar’s two sweet, long-range goals. Plenty to be frustrated about too though, thanks to Chelsea’s ongoing inability to protect a lead.
For all of Chelsea’s intricate passing prowess – and they’ve certainly improved in that area this season – they’ve had far too many giveaways the past few matches. Mikel got a lot of heat for his careless turnover pass that led to Juventus’ equalizing goal, but Ramires has had an alarming number of errant passes recently. As a side note, Mikel’s error was extra painful after watching former Chelsea favorite Michael Essien excel in Real Madrid’s big Champions League win over Manchester City Tuesday. It underscored my feeling that Essien was unfairly (and unwisely) pushed out the door in favor of Mikel. I like Mikel, but I still think Essien is a more complete and reliable midfielder.
Chelsea squandered a great opportunity to beat Juventus and now faces a slightly more uphill Champions League climb than should’ve been necessary.
Against Stoke yesterday, we saw more of the same shiny Chelsea possession that fails to create many actual scoring chances. Hazard continues to provide tremendous spark and creativity, and Oscar continues to show potential. Mata, Hazard, Oscar, and Ramires constantly buzzed around the box, and constantly got knocked off the ball or fouled. These are small guys. Fast guys, but small guys. Chelsea lacks attacking muscle. Chelsea desperately needs a striker like, well, I hate to say it but, like Drogba – someone who can hold the ball in the box, create something out of nothing, or dish it off for another shooter. Torres is not that guy. I’m completely frustrated with Torres. Victor Moses provided much more energy when he entered the game in the 61st minute (though I don’t understand why he replaced Hazard). Moses should start over Torres immediately.
It was fitting that Ashley Cole got Chelsea’s only goal yesterday. He continues to be a bit of an unsung hero for Chelsea, a defensive stalwart whose hustle and drive never seem to waiver.
It’s great to see Chelsea atop the league of course, but they’re barely squeaking by right now. To maintain their position (and control their Champions League destiny) they need more consistency on defense and need to convert their offensive passing creativity into goals.
Your thoughts on Chelsea’s Champions League opener and/or victory over Stoke?
It’s now or never for Blues veterans in their quest to be European Champions
When Chelsea overcame Barcelona to make it to the Champions League Final, I wrote that I was afraid the final itself might seem a bit anticlimactic after such an epic, heroic effort. I hope I’m wrong! Unfortunately, Chelsea squeezed in some pretty anticlimactic (and downright depressing) Premier League matches between the Champions League semifinal and tomorrow’s final. To defeat Bayern Munich in their home stadium will require another heroic effort. Chelsea can do it – Bayern isn’t as good as Barcelona. But the gutsy, smartly aggressive, unified Chelsea team will have to show up in Munich, not the lackadaisical squad that lost to Newcastle and Liverpool over the past couple weeks.
On the eve of the world’s biggest club competition final, most pundits are pegging Chelsea as the underdogs. The pundits are probably right. If the Blues can keep from conceding a goal in the first half hour, I like their chances. Offensively, Drogba and Lampard need to have a big game. I hope Torres gets to start up front with Drogba – I think they could create some good space together. Mata’s final-third passing must be sharp.
The area I’m most nervous about is defense. With Cahill and Luiz just now returning from hamstring injuries, I’m afraid they may not be up to speed enough to adequately fill in for the suspended Terry and Ivanovic. But then, who would’ve thought Jose Bosingwa (who replaced Cahill when he pulled his hamstring in the second leg against Barcelona) would be such a defensive rock against Barcelona? If Luiz gets the starting nod, he must play with absolute discipline, as he is susceptible to clumsy fouls in dangerous areas. I think Ashley Cole can hold off Arjen Robben on the right wing, but I’m not sure Chelsea has a defender that can consistently occupy Franck Ribery on the opposite wing. I’d also feel better if Terry was able to mark Mario Gomez in the middle.
If Chelsea weathers the early Bayern onslaught, I think we’ll be in for a great back-and-forth battle. Of course, I’d definitely trade back-and-forth for a comfortable two or three goal Chelsea lead for most of the match!
Chelsea making it to the Champions League Final feels like the club is living on borrowed time. It’s almost like a bonus – of the best kind – that the team barely deserves after their awful Premier League season. Yet they do deserve to be in the final because no other team clawed their way through the tournament like Chelsea did. The Champions League and Premier League were odd dual seasons for the Blues this year – with their Champions League performances reminding us what they’re capable of. Chelsea has the chance on Saturday to turn a most forgettable season into an unforgettable one. For Chelsea veterans like Drogba and Lampard, you can be certain they’re going to leave it all on the field to ensure the team doesn’t waste this very rare opportunity.
Will Chelsea win their first ever European Cup on Saturday?
Chelsea rebound with 3 – 0 victory over Wolves
Whew! Finally – a nice stroll in the park Chelsea win for a change. After the tumultuous past two matches, it was a relief for Chelsea fans to enjoy a relatively stress-free match. In fact, the win over Wolves was precisely what yours truly suggested in my last post – multiple goals and a clean sheet. Nice to know the club was listening.
The goals came from Terry, Sturridge, and Mata – all in the first half. Chelsea got off to a more aggressive start than we’ve seen recently. They looked sharper and more focused overall. It was gratifying to see them maintain that focus for the full ninety and preserve their third shutout of the Premier League season.
Despite looking better the Blues offensive buildup is still on the slow side. Generally, they give defenses too much time to settle in, which has often neutralized Drogba and Torres this season. Speaking of, Drogba had several flashes of brilliance today but still looks a bit rusty. He even seemed lazy on occasion, when some hustle would’ve yielded better positioning. As for Torres, his continues to be a very disappointing situation. The sad and surprising (considering how great he was at Liverpool) thing is that he is not missed when he’s left out of the Chelsea lineup. They actually don’t need him right now. Sturridge and Mata excel without him. I would still like to see Torres become a great Chelsea player, but I completely understand AVB’s reluctance to play him lately.
Two reasons Chelsea looked so much better today were the contributions of Ramires and Ashley Cole. Ramires was oddly silent during the Bayer Leverkusen game, but was back in form today, creating space and opportunity with his speed and endurance. Cole continues to be an absolutely essential wingman for Chelsea – very consistent in the back and a constant threat going forward. He was definitely missed during the Bayer Leverkusen game (due to a minor ankle injury).
It may have been slightly disappointing that Chelsea didn’t convert any of their second half scoring chances, but with no major defensive mistakes, the win will be a good morale booster. The Blues took care of business today – an absolute must considering all the challenging matches leading up to Christmas!
What must Chelsea do to maintain momentum following the Wolves win?
Chelsea looks terrible in 2 – 1 Champions League loss to Bayer Leverkusen
This is going to be a bit of a rant. Can’t help it. I’m a fed up fan. Also a spoiled fan, I realize. After all, lots of teams lose a lot more often than Chelsea. But Chelsea is so much better than this! At least I thought they were. Today’s 2 – 1 loss to Bayer Leverkusen, on the heels of Sunday’s 2 – 1 loss to Liverpool (which was similarly flushed away late in the match), was absolutely ridiculous.
There I was, trying to enjoy a much-needed Thanksgiving break; all settled in to watch Chelsea take on Bayer Leverkusen live (from my living room couch). I was still smarting from that annoying Liverpool loss, but had been pumped up for the Bayer match by all the tough talk emanating from the Chelsea camp the past couple days. AVB defending his defense. Malouda saying “excuses are for losers”. Exactly the sorts of things fans need to hear after a miserable loss.
Then, Chelsea comes out completely flat against Bayer. Fortunately for the Blues, Bayer was also flat; otherwise the game might’ve been out of reach for Chelsea by halftime. After the Liverpool humiliation I expected Chelsea to open with guns blazing. Instead, they could barely string together a pass in the first half. I haven’t looked up any official stats to prove it, but it seemed like Chelsea had more giveaways than any other first half this season. Chelsea showed no fighting spirit out of the gate. Where was the hunger?
Chelsea had several shots toward the end of the first half with no heat on them and each right to the goalkeeper. The Blues’ vibe about such chances seems to be that the misses are no big deal, that plenty more will be created. But these missed opportunities can’t be shrugged off – they are repeatedly preventing victories! Chelsea demonstrated a complete lack of urgency today. You knew one goal would not be enough to hold off Bayer on their home turf, and yet Chelsea played like one goal was plenty. Daniel Sturridge was the only Blue who showed steady energy and desire. He initiated Chelsea’s best scoring chances of the match.
I understand it is AVB’s job to take a level-headed, measured approach to “fixing” things. Managers can’t react like fans. But where is the passion on the field? It’s time for the players to get a little mad and not take it anymore (losing that is). I wish AVB would do something unexpected and unconventional, like start benching some veterans in favor of hungry youth (bench Torres and Drogba and give Lukaku a shot). Things just aren’t working right now. The season is quickly slipping away on the two primary competition fronts. It’s time to shake things up!
The current slump is officially worse than last season’s. This is the Blues’ moment of truth. Chelsea must respond in a big way Saturday against Wolves (multiple goals and a clean sheet would be great place to start) or the Premier League season truly will be over for them!
What should Chelsea do to climb out of this slump? Feel free to offer advice below…
The latest and greatest from Camp Blues
It’s been a slow news day ahead of Chelsea’s Wednesday game against Kitchee. In related news, Kitchee is fun to say. According to manager Andre Villas-Boas, we can look forward to seeing a core unit on the field for an hour or so as the team continues honing fitness and cohesion. Players that appeared late in the game against Thai All-Stars will be staying on the longest tomorrow.
Unfortunately for Torres, that means he’ll likely spend most of the game on the bench. I read a good article today exploring why Torres has struggled to shine at Chelsea. I have been tough on Torres since his arrival, but only because I want him to succeed. Plus, it’s confounding (and frustrating) as to where the Liverpool Torres went. That guy was slippery and had a real knack for being in the right place at the right time to score goals. My theory is that he’s never fully recovered from his pre-World Cup ’10 knee injury. A lack of physical confidence has led to the shanks (consult non-soccer movie Tin Cup for shanks info). Anyway, perhaps his lack of form will cause the media to give up and get off his case, thereby allowing him to fully regroup and play to his potential.
Rumors are still dangling about various potential signings, but nothing concrete yet. The most out-of-left-field recent rumor I’ve heard is Chelsea interest in Kaka. I’ll believe that one when I see it. Honestly, I don’t know how Chelsea could possibly fit half the players they’re rumored to be interested in into the lineup unless they cut loose several players (which would be a bad idea).
Speaking of bad ideas – whose was it to give Salomon Kalou a video camera and let him roam the Chelsea cabin during their flight to Hong Kong? Just kidding, Kalou actually avoids too much shaky-cam and gives a humorous behind-the-scenes look at his fellow Blues.
Check back here tomorrow for a rundown of Chelsea v. Kitchee…
Will Torres find his footing in time for the EPL season start? Should Chelsea sign anyone else before the transfer window closes? Should Kalou-Cam be a regular feature on the club’s website?
1-0 Chelsea win leaves much to be desired from Blues
1st Half Highlights (or lowlights)/Commentary
-Good to see Bertrand and McEachran in the starting eleven.
-Chelsea played a 4-3-3 formation as preferred by Andre Villas-Boas at Porto.
-I’m unfamiliar with Slobodan Rajkovic in the back line (22-year-old). Apparently he has European work permit issues so he’s getting a look during the Asia tour.
-2nd min: Benayoun took a giveaway and gave great through-ball to Torres who slid a grounder right to the goalie. Torres should’ve finished the golden opportunity.
-First third of the game was very sluggish possession-wise for Chelsea. 67 passes in first 12 minutes or so, but in small spurts, often broken up, with very little flow and only a couple chances from Benayoun passes.
-I’d like to see a little more aggressiveness and snap. Manchester United and Real Madrid look sharper and hungrier for goals in their recent U.S. friendlies.
-17th min: Bertrand hit cross from left that was mis-cleared, Kalou tapped it to Lampard who missed the goal badly.
-19th min: Excellent through-ball from Kalou to Torres who couldn’t toe it in from a tough angle.
-Through first 20 minutes, Chelsea defense looked very calm and composed. No real threats from Malaysia XI.
-Some impressive work from Bertrand passing and dribbling down left side.
-29th min: Lampard free kick right on edge of box, but he smashed it off Malouda and out of play.
-Torres was static off the ball for much of the half. Not encouraging.
-Chelsea looked pretty sloppy in the final third, which was a problem for much of last season.
-36th min: Bosingwa threw an unusual mini-tantrum, throwing the ball away when he disagreed with a throw-in call. A few minutes later Kalou protested when he was called for a clear hand-ball. Both cases showed poor sportsmanship/professionalism from Chelsea, particularly for a friendly! They should know better.
-37th min: Patrick Van Aanholt replaced Bertrand at left back. Not sure if it was planned, or if Bertrand was gassed. Surprising move because Bertrand looked strong and confident.
-39th min: Torres made one good move past a defender inside the left side of the box to get a shot off, but once again from a bad angle.
-With 40 minutes gone, one of the game commentators remarked that, “…preseason or not, [he is] exceptionally underwhelmed by Chelsea. No real movement. No real desire.” I couldn’t have agreed with him more!
-42nd min: Lampard missed another chance in the box, right in front of goal, after a quick succession of nice passes (though he looked to be barely offside anyway).
-45th min: Great cross from Bosingwa but Torres barely missed getting his head on it and Benayoun’s resulting clean-up shot was blocked by a defender.
Summary: While you can’t read too much into preseason matches, this was a very disappointing start from Chelsea. You would expect that competition for playing spots would inspire more aggressiveness and spark from players trying to impress the manager. Alas, there was very little energy or zip from the squad in the first half with the exceptions of Benayoun and Bertrand.
-An entirely new eleven started the second half.
-47th min: Mikel made the kind of quality long-range shot that was missing in the first half.
-First 10 minutes of the second half Chelsea showed a bit more desire, but not many scoring chances to show for it.
-60th min: Good initiative by Terry, taking a ball at midfield and rushing it forward. Nice leading pass to Anelka who passed it back toward the middle, but a defender cleared it out.
-20 minutes into the second half I was getting restless. It seemed every Chelsea pass was just out of reach, or intercepted, or headed away. Far too many long balls. Little build-up passing. The initial hope brought on by the second half eleven began to fade.
-69th min: Zhirkov free kick found Terry’s head but it went a couple feet over the crossbar. At least Terry was showing some leadership with his aggressiveness.
-70th min: Sturridge ran onto a ball, took it into the box and hit a nice low shot, but the GK made a great save.
-As usual, Drogba worked much harder off the ball than Torres. He makes things happen. He’s a troublemaker for defenses. Hopefully Torres will learn from Drogba’s wily ways!
-78th min: Drogba free kick outside left side of the box was a screamer that the goalkeeper barely got a hand on. The ball bounced off the post, off the GK’s back, bounced on the line, and was ruled a goal by the linesman. Replays clearly showed the ball did not cross the line.
-85th min: Malaysia missed an easy goal after an unusual lapse in the middle of the Chelsea defense.
-Billy Clifford (midfielder), Mikel, and Anelka were invisible for the last 20 minutes. Not good.
Summary: With the Blues players only having to play one half, we should have seen much more hustle and desire. Yes it’s only preseason, but Malaysia is a team that lost to Liverpool 6-3 just last week. That’s the kind of dominating result you want to encourage and reward a team for training hard in preseason. You want to blaze through these tune-up games, build confidence, and peak in time for the EPL season premier against Stoke.
Overall, absolutely not the energetic, goal-blitz I was looking for from Chelsea. It was a lackadaisical effort that brought back bad memories of last season. Andre Villas-Boas couldn’t have been impressed. Hopefully he’ll light a fire under the team before the next match in Thailand on Sunday!
How do you think Chelsea played today?