Friday, July 29, 2011

Vindication - Football, a.k.a. Soccer Comes to the Home of the New York Mets

It's true, soccer at the home of the Mets
I apologize in advance for going a bit off subject, but I promise that this rant will be worth it. (Plus, the game in question took place at Citi Field where the Mets play and I saw several folks wearing Arsenal jerseys so it's somewhat on topic).

I used to work at the biggest sports talk radio station in the country (no I was not on the air) and in the five years that I was there the sport of soccer was barely given any attention.  In fact the area's local MLS team was ignored to the extent that even the scores of their games weren't announced.  It was as if the city's professional soccer franchise and the sport itself didn't exist.

"Real" U.S. soccer fans of all ages
 The know it alls at this station called soccer boring and only popular with foreigners and kids. While I love "America's pastime" of baseball, it's ironic that the same folks who talk non stop about everything baseball would call soccer boring.  If you really look closely at the game of baseball, (even though I love it) it can be extremely boring.  While in baseball there are constant time outs, trips to the mound, pick off attempts, stepping in and out of the batter's box, etc. the game of soccer is non stop action for 90 plus minutes.  While fat tubby guys like Bartolo Colon and Prince Fielder are playing baseball, soccer players have to be athletes in top condition in order to keep up with the pace of their sport.

Maybe us Americans just like high scoring games and soccer matches are often tightly contested.  Perhaps if every touchdown that Peyton Manning threw only counted for one point rather than 6, American football wouldn't be as popular.  Imagine the Colts beating the Patriots 3-2 instead of 21-14.  Would that make football boring too?  After all as the Wall Street Journal reported, while an NFL game is 60 minutes long, in reality there is a grand total of 11 minutes of action.  Add in the commercials, time outs and half time and your average 60 minute football game lasts 3 hours, yet contains only 11 minutes of play.

While working at the radio station I often tried to check out what was going on in Champions League matches on one of the station's many newsroom televisions. I was pretty much laughed at and usually the channel would be changed to horse racing or something "more suitable".

The radio station's office was located in an area known for its high Greek population.  After the final match of Euro 2004 ended I made a bet with a couple of co-workers that if we went outside we would hear horns honking and people cheering within 5 minutes.  The bet was accepted and sure enough cars were driving by with men waving Greek flags and horns were honking like crazy.  Of course that was dismissed as something that only the local Greeks cared about.

While the rest of the planet was following the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the radio station pretty much just mentioned the scores of the games in brief updates.

Eventually I was able to get one of the more open minded on air hosts to come with me to check out an Arsenal vs. Manchester United match at Nevada Smiths.  At the time, Nevada Smiths was one of the only bars in New York that showed live soccer.  In fact to this day, Nevada Smiths uses the tag line, "Where football is religion". 

Due to the 5 hour time difference, we entered Nevada Smiths at 2:30 in the afternoon and as I expected, the place was packed with folks wearing Arsenal and Man. U jerseys.  As we squeezed in to find a spot, the singing began, the pints were flowing and I could tell that my guest was beginning to sense the passion and the meaning of the game to these fans.  While I can't recall the final score (I'm sure Arsenal won), as we left the still packed Nevada Smiths and emerged in to the late afternoon sunlight, the radio host told me that he loved the experience and defnitely got a better understanding of the sport and its fans.

Becks, more than just a pretty face
One of the most arrogant know it all hosts at the station, begrudgingly allowed MLS Commissioner Don Garber on air for an interview when the news of David Beckham coming to the states first hit.  It was probably the only time the sport had received more than a passing mention on air in the station's history.  I'm pretty sure it happened only because Beckham is a celebrity and on the pages of gossip magazines...not because he played soccer.

While this particular station continues to this date to ignore the sport of soccer in its own city, country and around the world in favor of baseball, NFL football, basketball and sometimes hockey (they don't really think anyone cares about hockey that much either), soccer has taken off big time in the U.S.

The NY area is now home to one of
the world's greatest soccer stars
Arsenal legend, Thierry Henry

  • Major League Soccer has continued to grow with regular expansion in to new markets: Seattle, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Portland and Montreal in 2012, with increasing attendance and a clear plan for continued growth.
  • Big name players have come to the states to play in MLS: Beckham, Henry, Angel, Márquez, Ljungberg while MLS players have gone on to Europe and succeded: Donovan, Friedel, Dempsey, Holden,  Altidore, Edu.
  • Here in New York (sorry New Jersey) the Red Bulls have a beautiful brand new soccer specific stadium and a growing fan base.
  • The US Men's national team topped their group at last summer's World Cup (sorry England) and stirred up a bit of soccer fever throughout the country.
  • Most recently the Women's national team, yes the women, were being talked about everywhere, were all over the television and the entire country was caught up in their run to the final.
  • Fans no longer have to head to a pub at 7 a.m. to see a game as Fox Soccer Channel has become a staple of cable television and even ESPN has begun to broadcast EPL and Champions League games along with their MLS coverage..
  • On a typical weekend, soccer fans in the states have viewing access from home to about 5-6 EPL games, 2-3 La Liga and Serie A games, the occasional Bundesliga, Eredivisie and Ligue 1 match as well as Mexican league games and some South American games.
  • This year's Champions League final was broadcast on Fox, yes national network coverage of the European championship in the U.S.
  • Fergie in New Jersey
    2 things I never thought
    would go together
  • This year's MLS All Star Game with Manchester United at Red Bull Arena was a sell out with tickets being scalped for as much as $300.
  • Each summer more international superstar filled teams continue to come to the U.S. for exhibition matches (and of course to sell merchandise) and play to large crowds.  This summer's World Football Challenge featuring teams such as Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid includes 14 matches in cities across the U.S. and Canada.
Which leads to the match that I attended this past Tuesday at Citi Field, the home of baseball's New York Mets.  Club America of Mexico met Juventus of Italy as part of the World Football Challenge in conjunction with MLS.

While in my past life (when money was falling off of trees in the years prior to 2008) I used to get press passes and backstage credentials all the time, in my new recession life these type of perks have been much rarer.  Thus, I was thrilled when I was approved for a media credential for the match.  Along with the free food, following a sporting event from the press box is the way to go.  The stats are distributed the key plays are announced and of course you're protected from the elements (in this case there was a torrential downpour and lightning storm).

Holy crap, Buffon on the same field
where the Mets play?  Wow.
 The atmosphere inside the stadium was fantastic and despite not being a sellout, supporters of both teams made so much noise with fans decked out in team jerseys, carrying banners and even some vuvuzelas left over from South Africa.

When speaking with groups of fans for my game coverage, every single one of them was from the New York and New Jersey area and were thrilled to be able to see the team that they follow in their own backyard.  I truly felt vindicated and saw real proof that the know it all sports radio talking heads are missing the boat on the most popular sport in the world.  Yes, it's true...regular people, citizens of our very own country, in our very own city and surrounding areas are interested in soccer!!!!!!!!!!!!

As for the article, if you're interested, here it is.

Becks takes a corner in front of a SOLD OUT out NY
crowd.  Maybe there's something to this "boring" sport
Next post will be back on track about Arsenal and the New York Mets.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Arsenal and the Mets: Waiting for the Changes

Carlos Beltran may not be a Met for much longer
It's been a pretty suprising season so far for the much maligned New York Mets.  With the Maddoff scandal hanging over the heads of the Wilpons and little money to spend heading in to the season Mets fans braced themselves for six months of misery.  Adding to these less than stellar expectations were injuries to star pitcher Johan Santana and unexpected stints on the DL for David Wright, Ike Davis, Jason Bay and Jose Reyes.  With all the casualties, the Mets have at times fielded a lineup that resembled their AAA franchise, Buffalo Bison including Justin Turner, Ruben Tejada, Lucas Duda, Jason Pridie and Dillon Gee.

While not running away with the division by any means, the 2011 New York Mets have been a gritty, tough bunch that have been a lot of fun to watch.  In fact, this team that was expected to be terrible plays harder and with more pride than the 2007-2008 Mets teams that were expected to win. 

Josey Reyes is putting up MVP numbers and Carlos Beltran has quietly been going about his business and getting some major hits.  On the pitching side, Jonathan Niese and Dillon Geen have stepped in to the roles of dependable starters after supposed "ace" Mike Pelfrey has proven that he's simply not that good.

With the trading deadline approaching and the Mets not really in the playoff picture, it's inevitable that some players won't be on the roster come next week.  While early talk was of Reyes being the big chip in the trade market, Mets fans made their voices heard loud and clear and hopefully management has listened.  The player most likely to go is Beltran.  While he never quite lived up to the expectations he came with and will forever be remembered for his strikeout with the bases loaded to end game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, Beltran handled himself like a pro and will definitely be missed.  Hopefully the Mets will get some real prospects in return as the team's record with trades is less than stellar. 

While there may be some other moves, true Mets fans expect David Wright and Jose Reyes to still be Mets come August 1st.  Let the rebuilding begin.


Of course it's not about the money
More troubling to me is the uncertainty and changes taking place at Arsenal.  One of the biggest and most successful clubs in all of English football yet this off season has brought nothing by negative stories.  From Clichy heading to money bags Man City and taking a swipe at Arsenal in the process, to Nasri snubbing Arsenal and seemingly holding out for the highest bidder and of course the neverending Barcelona lovefest with Cesc Fabregas its been nothing but negativity and who's leaving.

While I may be accused of believing in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, the total disrespect and lack of gratitude being shown to Arsenal Football Club and Arsene Wenger by players he made in to stars is horrible.  I understand players have a short playing career and need to look out for their best interests, but the greed and disloyalty being displayed is disgusting.  Arsenal is one of the most valuable sports teams in the world and these ungrateful mercenaries are treating it like it's a pub team.

Arsene who? Show me the money.
Meanwhile, fans are grumbling about the lack of quality players coming in and doubt is starting to creep in.  The mighty Arsenal is being subjected to abuse by the "mean girls" of the EPL (ManUre, Sheik City and Chel$ki) as well as the "well respected" British press.

Despite all this, I still believe in Arsene Wenger and I hope that he gets to have the last laugh at all his detractors this season.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Summer happenings: Arsenal rumour mill and Mets play respectable baseball

Man City's Sheikh
Once the European football season ends "The Silly Season" officially begins.  This is the time when fans are bombarded with rumours, speculation, half truths and a constant barrage of transfer gossip that may or may not have any validity.  Teams looking to bring in players and those looking to offload are busy during the summer months looking for the best deals that will make their squads' stronger.

Arsenal are no different than the rest. However, what has made this a frustrating and often infuriating summer so far is the nastiness and vitriol being thrown at the team and manager Arsene Wenger.  If all the stories that have been printed were true, it would seem that Arsenal would have no players left other than Sebastien Squillaci, Marouane Chamakh, Abou Diaby and a couple of ball boys.  I can certainly understand why The News of the World got shut down as most of the British tabloids are pure crap.  Here are just a few examples:

Samir Nasri Arsenal or mercenary?

Then of course there's the never ending Cesc Fabregas soap opera of will he rejoin his pals at Barcelona or will he stay at the club he currently captains.

Add to all these "tips" and "rumours" the constant Arsenal bashing of the press and you would think that Arsenal were Derby County of 2007-2008.  It's crazy.  This is one of the most successful football clubs in all of England and yes, they haven't won a trophy in 6 years, but they are always challenging for them.  Plus, let's be honest, a lot of teams haven't won a trophy since before most of us were born. 

One journalist who really got it right is John Cross of The Mirror.  What is most frustrating to Arsenal supporters who truly love the club, are players that seem to give up and don't take responsibility for their part in the teams' shortcomings.  This line from his article is spot on, "If Arsenal had won the title, there is no doubt in my mind that Nasri would have signed a new contract. But, at the same time, it's almost laughable when players absolve themselves personally of any blame for their club not winning trophies."

Agreed.  How about stepping up and being a leader for the club that gave you a shot at the big time?  If these players want to be with winners, then they themselves need to be winners.

Captain or join the boys club?
Cesc Fabregas has been great with Arsenal, but this love affair with Barcelona and their obnoxious players is ridiculous.  Be careful what you wish for Cesc as you may not get the playing time you are used to and you certainly won't be "the man" as you are at Arsenal.  In fact, you'll probably end up as a squad player.  I cannot understand a young player that has been given the captaincy of one of the biggest teams in Europe and is loved by the fans, throwing it all away so he can "hang out with his friends."  He may regret this decision,

Arsenal fans on Twitter are all united in their love for the club.  It's disappointing when a player that the fans have supported and sang songs for suddenly loses that passion once buckets of money and promises of glory are dangled in front of them.  This truly is "The Silly Season."

Switching gears, the 2011 New York Mets have thus far been surprising over achievers.  They will head in to this week's All Star Break with a record over .500 and have earned a degree of respectability from those around the league.  What's amazing is they have done this without regular players David Wright, Ike Davis, Johan Santana and most recently Jose Reyes.  Somehow the replace"mets" have shown some fight and the oft maligned Carlos Beltran has morphed in to the team's leader.

Justin Turner has arrived
Lucas Duda, Justin Turner, Dillon Gee, Jason Pridie and Ruben Tejada have all contributed to making the Mets a gritty, hard nosed team that is fun to watch.

The Mets' recent road trip to Oakland, Texas and Detroit for inter league play looked pretty rough on paper.  However, something amazing happened; the Mets won 2 out of 3 in each series including scoring 14 runs over the Rangers in one game and putting up 14 runs followed by 16 runs in consecutive games against the Tigers.

Don't trade Reyes
Meanwhile, Jose Reyes is having an MVP season thus far: batting .350, 124 hits, 22 doubles, 15 triples and 30 stolen bases.  He has been the player every Mets fan always knew he could be and the Don't Trade Reyes cause has taken off.  Latest news has GM Sandy Alderson listening to the fans. 

While no one really expects the team to make the playoffs this season, new manager Terry Collins and GM Alderson appear to be making the right moves in restoring the Mets' reputation.