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The Things We Do for Love

How I almost missed the dramatic U.S. victory over Jamaica

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I received an email from Stampede Sports, the name of the indoor soccer facility where I’ve played on a team the past couple years. It was an invitation to come watch the US v. Jamaica World Cup qualifier in Stampede’s bar area, creatively dubbed “The Corral”.  The email made the event sound very exciting, including that it would be the first gathering of the Southlake chapter of the mighty American Outlaws (the US men’s national team supporters group).  I’m certainly not in the habit of watching my soccer matches in pubs or bars, primarily because I don’t drink.  But in this case I perked up since all of the US’ away qualifiers are only televised on the be In Sports channel, which I don’t get on my cable package.

So, right after I read the kids a goodnight story I threw on my US jersey from World Cup 2010 (the one with the beauty pageant sash) and headed for Stampede Sports in Southlake (about a 20 minute drive).

I arrived at “The Corral” at 8:30, just in time for kickoff, but there was no soccer on the single big screen TV hanging above the bar.  The few patrons seemed oblivious to any imminent World Cup qualifier.  There were no American Outlaws in sight.

I found a flight of stairs.  Aha!  I wasn’t aware that Stampede had an upper bar area.  The gathering must be upstairs.  I jogged up the stairs, afraid that I’d miss an early surprise goal by Clint Dempsey or more likely a squandered chance by Jozy Altidore.  Alas, no one was upstairs and the sole TV was turned off.

I jogged back downstairs.  The bartender changed the channel… to a Texas Rangers game.  I nearly broke into a cold sweat.  Did I dream up this qualifier?  It was June 7th, right?  I checked my watch to verify.

I suddenly remembered there were a couple party rooms at the far end of the arena.  Duh!  Why hadn’t I thought of those in the first place?  Surely the big watch party was there.  I jogged down to the rooms only to find them completely empty, lights turned off, doors locked.  This was not cool.

Ten minutes of the match were already gone.  I jogged to the front desk and asked where the game was being shown.  The teenaged girl manning the desk barely looked up as she replied (as if it were no big deal), “Oh yeah, we’re not showing it.  We don’t have that channel.”

“We don’t have that channel”?  Don’t have that channel?  But what about the email invitation?  What about the American Outlaws?  Why was I the only one that seemed to care that there was a crucial World Cup qualifier in progress?  I could feel my pulse in my temples.  This was turning into one of those dreams I periodically have where I’m running all over trying to find something or someone and never succeed.

I jogged back to my car without a plan.  Where could I possibly watch this game?  If I were in Europe or South America I’d probably just have to drive a couple blocks and look for a crowd spilling out of a shop or café broadcasting the game.  But not in Southlake, Texas – the ultimate suburban oasis.  If I wanted a designer latte, fancy ice cream, to see a movie, or purchase an Apple product, I’d be in business.  But finding a place to watch US v. Jamaica here on short notice?  I might as well be in the Australian outback.

I thought about calling my friend Kristian, but I was pretty sure he didn’t get be In Sports either, plus he lived in Arlington which would be another 30 minute hike from Southlake.  I thought about my friend Jim (the former professional mascot) but it was getting late, he’s working on his doctoral thesis, and his wife is pregnant with their second child, so I didn’t really want to bother him.

I hopped in my car, started driving, and dialed up the only fake person I could think to turn to:  Siri.  I asked her for Buffalo Wild Wings locations in Bedford.  I hadn’t been to a BWW in probably a decade, but I remembered they have lots of TVs.  Surely one of them was tuned to US/Jamaica.  Siri zapped me a map in a flash.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the strip mall parking lot where I thought the Buffalo Wild Wings used to be.  It was gone.  Had Siri led me astray?  I checked her map again.  No.  I was wrong – the restaurant moved in the decade since I’d been there and was now on the other side of the freeway.  I checked the time, disheartened.  It was nearly halftime already.

As I drove to the Buffalo Wild Wings I refreshed the match score on my phone… the US had scored!  I whipped into the parking lot and could already see multiple TVs tuned to the game.  Yes!

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I asked to be seated outside on the patio because the night air was unusually pleasant for north Texas in June.  I got a table and a menu just as the players left the field for halftime.  As soon as I sat down, the only other groups using tables on the patio finished up and left and I was suddenly sitting outside, in the darkness, all alone, in my US jersey.

Though I’d already had dinner and wasn’t hungry, I felt obligated to order something.  But my wife Trevlyn had me on the caveman diet, so a soda was forbidden.  I gritted my teeth and ordered an unsweet tea.  I hoped Trevlyn would forgive me for the chips and salsa I also ordered (chips aren’t caveman diet approved either).

The waitress asked me if I’d like to have the sound turned on outside.  I certainly did.  Soon, I was kicked back with my own snack, two high-def TVs, with surround sound, and a cool breeze blowing.  Did it make up for missing the entire first half?  Probably not, but it wasn’t a bad consolation.

Still, it wasn’t quite the same without any fellow fans to cheer on the US with.  I called my brother Dan, who has started his extreme busy season as a summer camp director, in the off chance that he was actually getting to watch the game live.  He’d just started watching the recording so we couldn’t discuss the action or gripe about players in real time.  He said he couldn’t stay on the phone long because he didn’t want to read any spoilers in my tone, but we started talking about Star Trek Into Darkness and ended up on the phone ten more minutes anyway.

Into darkness is exactly where I and all other true US soccer fans plunged when a victory that seemed relatively in hand disappeared with a Jamaican equalizer in the 89th minute.  I blamed Graham Zusi.  The Sporting KC midfielder lazily mistimed his jump for a header against a Jamaican player who won the ball and might have raced past Zusi had Zusi not tripped him and earned a yellow card.  The match commentators commended Zusi for a “smart” foul, but I’m not convinced the play would’ve been much of a threat had he not fouled.  Jamaica lined up the resulting free kick within easy distance of the US box.  Sure enough, the ball floated in and Jamaica’s Jermaine Beckford easily waltzed through and headed the ball into the goal past a frozen Tim Howard.

All my effort scrambling around suburbia like an obsessed treasure hunter suddenly seemed madness.  Why did the US team constantly break my heart so?  Why can’t they finish out games when they have the lead?  Why did I have to be on this wretched caveman diet when I’m not even a caveman?

As I stewed and pouted into stoppage time, the US pushed the ball up field with semi-urgency.  They earned a corner kick.  Michael Bradley played it short to Zusi, who wisely returned it to Bradley.  Bradley turned sharply toward the end line trying to beat his Jamaican marker.  Bradley looked covered but he struck a pass anyway.  Brad Evans received Bradley’s pass with his back to goal, spun and ripped a desperate shot that zipped into the upper right corner past Jamaica’s Hulk of a keeper Donovan Ricketts.

I was dumbfounded.  This.  Never.  Happens.  To.  The.  US.

I suddenly wanted Brad Evans posters for my office.  I even contemplated not cheering against him next time Dallas plays Seattle.

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Sure, a draw wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but the away win provided the US with some welcome breathing room.

I paid my bill and walked to my car.  The restaurant seemed unusually empty for a Friday night.  What a match!  The whole spectrum of sports fan emotion, dejection to elation, in under five minutes.  America doesn’t know what it’s missing.

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Talkin’ Sash

Chelsea’s new away kit is pretty cool except…

Chelsea recently released their new away kit for the 2012/13 season.  The Adidas duds are primarily white and classy overall – until you get to that baby blue sash.  The sash… arrrrgh!  It’s so overrated and overused in world soccer at the moment.  Nike used it pretty effectively for the U.S. national team at the 2010 World Cup in a nice nod to the 1950 U.S. World Cup squad who pulled off that famous upset of England.  But the last couple years have seen an outbreak of frequently hideous sashes (exhibit A in the hideous department is Sweden’s current away jersey, which resembles a road sign).  And now the sash has infected Chelsea.

Pumped about the sash: Frank Lampard, Daniel Sturridge, John Terry, and two unidentified summer transfers…

The new Chelsea away kit is almost an instant classic with its uncluttered, clean look, and tasteful Adidas shoulder stripes.  Many soccer fans hate all white uniforms, but I’ve always liked them.  The plainer white the kit, the better as far as I’m concerned.  But then they have to go and add that diagonal sash.  To be fair, the Chelsea sash isn’t a disaster as sashes go.  It’s simply unnecessary to the uniform.  Sorry to be such a sash basher, but they always remind me of beauty pageant contestants and dictators.

I also think if you’re going with a mostly white uniform, you need to complete the ensemble with white socks.  But this getup’s socks are black.  Oh well.  It could be worse.  I do like that they went with different shades of blue rather than off-the-wall colors that are totally unrelated to the club’s core colors.  Overall, it’s a mixed review.  Certainly not bad, but I’m not going to rush out and get this one.  Blame the sash.

What do you think of Chelsea’s new away kit?

Allez Les Bleus!

Why I’m rooting for France in Euro 2012

A lot of people don’t like France.  Or maybe it’s French folks they dislike.  And I can understand that a little.  They can be culturally snooty sometimes; though so can pretty much every other nationality on earth.  And from a soccer standpoint I can understand why people wouldn’t like the French national team seeing as two of the most infamous meltdowns in World Cup history were perpetrated by les Bleus.  There was Zinedine Zidane’s head butt of Italy’s Marco Materazzi that may have cost France the World Cup title in 2006.  Then there was the undetected hand-ball by Thierry Henry that unfairly sent France instead of Ireland to World Cup 2010 in South Africa.  The team imploded in South Africa, with coach Raymond Domenech kicking Nicolas Anelka off the team and the rest of the squad refusing to practice at one point in protest.

Particularly after the World Cup 2010 incident, the French team gained the reputation (whether accurate or not) as selfish mega-stars that cared more about themselves than representing their country honorably.  Since then, the French Football Federation wisely dumped strange Coach Domenech and hired Laurent Blanc, an alum from the World Cup ’98 winning French side.  Blanc has successfully overhauled the French squad, giving new youngsters a chance while reincorporating the megastars.  France has plenty of megastars by the way, including Benzema, Ribery, Nasri, Malouda, and Ben Arfa.

So why in the world would I root for France in the Euros this summer?  It’s a personal connection.  I lived in France for nine months when I was eleven-years-old.  Nine months can make a big impression at any age, but especially when you’re eleven.  I really liked soccer before we moved to France, but I really loved soccer within a couple weeks of living in France.  It was very contagious.  I was playing pick-up games with neighborhood kids the first day I was there!  Couldn’t understand a word they were saying at that point, but soccer bridged the gaps.  And the soccer never relented the whole time I was there.

Since I attended a French public school in Tours, France, I was naturally influenced by their player and team preferences, which of course included the French national team.  Euro ’88 was my first European Championship experience.  I was hooked.  I ended up cheering on Holland because I liked Ruud Gullit and because France hadn’t qualified.  The French weren’t too happy about that, particularly since they’d won the title in 1984.  I’ve rooted for France ever since my time living there, with a couple of exceptions – if they’re playing the U.S. obviously, and at the 2002 World Cup I cheered for Senegal over France because I also lived in Senegal for five years.  But that’s another story.

When it comes to the Euros, I love watching the tournament, but the fun is enhanced when you have a team to cheer on.  France has their issues, but I’m sticking with them.  Not because of particular players, but because when I watch them, I remember the faces of all the French classmates I ran with at school and on the playground, whose exuberance for les Bleus and football itself had an effect on me that has never quite faded.

(France plays their opening game of Euro 2012 against England on Monday, June 11, at 11:00 AM (Central) on ESPN)

Who will you root for in Euro 2012?

The Appendectomy Blues – Part 2

Post-Chelsea v. QPR thoughts on how to ensure fairer soccer games

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I found myself in the emergency room last Sunday with my appendix nice and irritated – a condition probably instigated by the red card bonanza perpetrated against Chelsea in their 1 – 0 loss at Queen’s Park Rangers.  I couldn’t sleep Sunday night as I awaited surgery Monday morning so I spent some time thinking of simple ways the Premier League (and by extension the world) could rid soccer of 99% of controversial calls.  The following is what I came up with.  And you’re welcome, world.

Other sports could learn a thing or two from soccer’s strict card system punishments.  Usually, I like the strictness in soccer.  In theory, the threat of being booted from the game keeps players in line.  Other sports often tolerate too much misbehavior.  But when referees get the decision wrong, the strictness backfires and completely changes the match.  And if the ref hands out an unwarranted red card, the consequences reach beyond the current match since players must sit out the next three matches!  So one mistake by a referee can potentially change a team’s entire season.

The Premier League likes to tout itself as the world’s biggest and/or best league.  I mostly agree with that assessment, but if the Premier League wants to retain that tout, it needs to step up and demonstrate leadership in adopting officiating technology.  There are two basic, relatively simple technologies that would solve a myriad of bad call problems:  goal-line technology and limited instant replay.

Goal-line technology is the bare minimum of these two solutions.  Critics say officiating tech of any kind would disturb the natural flow of soccer.  Really?  We’re not talking about ten minute evaluations here.  Besides, the game’s flow has already been interrupted if a goal is scored.  The typical goal celebration lasts as long or longer than the time it would take to determine a goal’s validity.

My limited instant replay plan would limit reviewable calls to red cards and any calls made inside the penalty box (including off-sides in the box).  That way you’re only reviewing calls (like PKs) that have the greatest potential to dramatically affect the outcome of the match.  Again, to critics who say it would interrupt the flow I say, have you watched a soccer match on TV recently?  It usually takes about 30 seconds for commentators to check a few replays and render judgment – judgment that’s usually obvious and correct once you see it from a few angles.  Soccer usually doesn’t require JFK-level forensics to determine whether a guy’s diving in the box – if you have replay available.  Besides, limited reviews wouldn’t interrupt a game any more than the flop-and-writhe players that annoy soccer fans worldwide every weekend.  If you really want to help the flow of games, deal with the flop-and-writhers!

In a way I can understand soccer purists’ anti-tech stance, but they’re being stubborn and ignorant to think that the game would be severely altered by adding goal-line tech and instant replay for major calls.  If purists need proof, just look at tennis.  Talk about a game steeped in its own history/traditions!  But even tennis has shot-spotting technology.  It hasn’t hurt tennis.  It hasn’t even replaced chair umpires or linesmen.  It doesn’t take too long.  It serves players well by bringing them justice.  It’s more fair!

The rules of our most popular sports were developed in a time when people couldn’t even imagine television.  Game officials had the final word on calls because there was no alternative.  You simply had to accept their errors as part of the game.  In the modern technology-driven world however, it’s naïve of soccer’s governing bodies to sail along without instant replay and expect fans to be okay with it.  It’s like an historical event unfolding live with a TV audience that clearly sees what happened.  But historians on site say something else happened and that’s what gets printed in history books.  It’s a bizarre state of denial for leagues to be okay with getting something wrong when everyone on earth knows the truth thanks to TV technology (“Hand of Gaul” anyone?).

FIFA doesn’t have the guts to make the necessary tech changes.  Plus, they’re too busy counting their billions in recent World Cup TV rights deals.  But if the Premier League would take the lead on officiating technology, FIFA would surely sit up and take notice.  It’s ironic that the British F.A. is willing to use replay tech to determine if John Terry uttered racist no-no’s after the QPR game, but they won’t use it to challenge the ref’s calls in that game that could alter the final league standings!

Yes, you have quite a bit of time on your hands when you’re in the hospital.

What do you think of my goal-line tech and limited replay plan?  Feel free to weigh in…

Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story

Producers seek funds to complete underdog documentary

Jay DeMerit has a great story.  It’s an especially enjoyable tale if you’re a soccer fan, but anyone who likes dogged determination stories will find much to admire in the narrative of DeMerit’s soccer career.  He went from an undrafted, unknown dude from Wisconsin all the way to the top level of British soccer, ultimately representing the US in last summer’s World Cup (he now plays for Vancouver in MLS).

Demerit’s story would make a perfect addition to the string of quality sports movies from Disney and producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray (The Rookie, Miracle, Invincible, Secretariat).  Alas, Hollywood thinks soccer movies don’t make money (and they’re pretty much correct).  All the more reason to check out this article and support the documentary.  You can see the goose-bumps-inducing trailer here.  I can’t wait to see the completed version.

Would you go see a documentary or movie about Jay Demerit?