The greatest sporting rivalry?

Sitting in a bar in lower Manhattan last year my good friend Luge Pravda and I discussed what the greatest sporting rivalry was in the world.  The conversation had started after a drunk Mexican guy who had been sitting next to us suggested that the Real Madrid v Barca game on the TV was for “p@ssies” and that the atmosphere was better “in my pants” (his, not mine I hasten to add).  I asked him what he thought was the biggest and he suggested the Yankees v Red Sox in baseball.  Whilst I am not a baseball aficionado, I have been to enough games to understand some of the nuances of the game as well as being able to observe close up the wonderful character that is the faux drunk American man and his random screams of excitement.  Back in the day (well, when the Yankee Stadium was only home to baseball rather than the bizarre home of a major football side playing games at an odd angle) I actually went to a Yankees v Red Sox game with Boston running out 9-0 winners.  I certainly couldn’t remember any shenanigans on a scale of West Ham v Millwall or Celtic v Rangers apart from the odd random shouts from fans of “Red Cocks Suck”, “No.  Wankees suck” and so on..



As luck would have it I would be back in New York for a grand total of 26 hours for work just when the latest chapter of baseball’s greatest rivalry would be played at Yankee Stadium.  Tickets for virtually every US sporting event aren’t hard to get these days.  Despite this ticking all the boxes of a potential sell-out, over 4,000 tickets (8% of the capacity) were on sale on StubHub alone.

20413212851_38daf4e2bf_kSo here is where I simply do not understand Baseball (and a number of other American sports) fans.  I arrived at the stadium at 7.15, ten minutes after the “start time” thanks to almost SouthEastern train-esque punctuality of the Metro North Line.  There were thousands upon thousands of people outside the stadium.  Whilst there were long queues to get into the stadium, there were also people still drinking in the bars and eating in the restaurants.  I’m sure some will not have had tickets, but there didn’t seem to be any rush to get into watch the game.

With no time for a beer outside, we headed up to the 4th tier where our seats were.  Queues for every concession stand were massive.  Was anyone actually watching the game?  We struggled in vain to find somewhere selling a beer that wasn’t Bud, Coors or Miller.  The “Craft Beer” concession stand was selling Stella and Heineken, meaning for the sake of actually getting to watch some of the action, we went with New Castle Ale (aka Newcastle Brown Ale).  Only two each mind, and no more after the 7th innings just in case you enjoy yourself too much.  You can of course gorge yourself silly on cholesterol-loaded, heart-attack inducing fried food, served in massive buckets right up until the end of the game.

20218979630_454ac17a48_kWe got to our seats with the score at 1-0 after three innings.  It wasn’t a thriller but crowd watching from our seats in the Gods was.  I would hazard a guess that the average time a fan actually sat in his seat was less than 10 minutes judging by the constant coming and going.  To keep them amused we had “kiss cam”, “hug cam”, “smile cam”, “strange not sure what it was supposed to be cam” and “YMCA cam”.  One young lady in the front of the tier behind got a bit too excited at the “Y” action that she almost lost her top in Barbara Windsor style.

The location was perfect for a night of sport though, with the sun setting behind us and the planes leaving Laguardia passing overhead more than making up for the stalemate being played out in front of us.  Luge had been here a few weeks previous (see here) to watch New York City play and the pitch markings were still visible.  With the Yankees being as close to a national treasure as you can get, it is still amazing that “soccer” is allowed to be played here.

In the fifth innings we had some excitement as the Red Sox scored two runs.  Pockets of fans stood up and cheered without reprisal.  Had that have been Messi scoring in the Bernabau or Rooney at Anfield I would dare to suggest their celebrations would have been cut very short.  But the Yankees came back in the next innings, scoring three of their own.  We had a game on, especially when the Red Sox scored again at the top of the 7th (see I do know some of the jargon) to make it 4-3.  However, with the big hand approaching 30 it was time for me to leave for my trip back up to the suburbs.  We’d seen the best of the play, had a couple of English beers, a good chat and nearly seen a girl embarrass herself.  What more could you want for $33?

Of course it turned out to be one of those memorable victories, with the Yankees scoring 9 (NINE!) runs in the time it took us to walk from our seats to the train station, giving them a 13-3 victory and the bragging rights for, let me see, 24 hours until the teams met again (Red Sox gained some revenge with a 2-1 win).

I’m not sure this would rank in my top 20 (50?) rivalries that I had seen in the sporting flesh.  Whilst the opposing fans may dislike each other, it was very rare in US sport for it to ever boil over into violence.  Rivalry is perhaps too strong a word for it.  Mild irritation possibly.  It’s still a great way to spend an evening though.


That comment about US sport rarely boiling over into violence?  Well 10 days later, it did.

US and them

We are very keen on eulogising about the magic of the FA Cup in this country and quite rightly so.  It is the oldest football competition in the world, full of nostalgia and goosebump-inducing moments.  Every fan of every club will have a story, a moment in history that they will never forget.  Some of us have experienced the elation at seeing our team win the trophy, such as I did as a ten-year old when perhaps the last ever second tier side, West Ham United, won the trophy. Some have had the despair at losing in a final, perhaps none so cruel as on penalties (stand up again West Ham fans for the last final to be settled in this way back in 2006). Today, with football dominated by money at the top-level of the game, many fans of Premier League clubs may not care about the FA Cup anymore. The Football Association themselves showed their true colours by selling naming rights and moving the semi-finals to Wembley Stadium, scheduling kick-off times when fans can’t use public transport to get home.

Many fans don’t know that the tournament actually starts before the Premier League kicks off in August.  Why would hundreds of thousands of fans want to know that?  After all, they are only interested in when their team plays – which for the most part is the Third Round on the first weekend of January.  By then, on average, there will be one “plucky” Non-League side left in the competition.  This season 736 teams entered the cup, with the first game being played on Friday 15th August when Hebburn Town kicked off against West Allotment Celtic.  The 182 winners in the Extra Preliminary Round back in August all received £1,500, whilst when Arsenal scooped the trophy in May they walked away with a cumulative sum of £3,737,500 which is not quite a drop in the ocean to them but enough to keep Jack Wilshere in tabs for a few more weeks.

Our national treasure is slowly becoming blighted by the same disease that has tainted the top-level of football in this country – money. Whilst the winners of the tournament pick up a cheque for £1.8million for lifting the trophy, Emirates will sponsor the tournament from next season for £10m.  Does the world’s oldest football challenge cup really need a sponsor?  As with most of football, if it has public recognition, then it can be sold.  FA Cup semi-finals are now played at the convenience of the global TV audience rather than so fans of the teams involved can actually easily get to and home again.

As luck, or more precise, work would have it, I was back in New York this week.  Of course I did my research into what sporting events I could attend post work.  I seemed to have chosen a good week – The Mets and Yankees were both at home, but more importantly it was the Fourth Round of the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup, the American equivalent of our FA Cup.

Now in its 102nd year, it is an older competition that the Super Bowl and the NBA Championship Play-Offs.  Whilst early winners such as Bethlehem Steel and St Luis Simkins-Ford are no longer around, it was the first tournament that united “soccer” in the country.  Last seasons winners, Seattle Sounders pocketed just $250,000 for winning the trophy, but they had already kissed goodbye to this year’s challenge, losing 3-1 at home to bitter rivals Portland Timber, finishing the game with just seven men.  Even better was the sending off of Clint Dempsey who then proceeded to snatch the referees notebook and rip out the page featuring his misdemeanour.

I had the choice of two games.  Tuesday had the New York RedBulls hosting Atlanta Silverbacks and Wednesday saw moneybags Manch…sorry, New York City travel to Long Island to play the legendary New York Cosmos.  Alas, whilst I would have loved to have seen both, I promised to be a little bit social and go out for dinner with the team in New York so it came down to a coin toss (which is ironically how they decide who will play at home in the US Open cup).  The RedBulls won.  Part of me was a little disappointed but in terms of logistics it was the better choice.

18852242056_a32ecb4972_kWhilst New York Cosmos actually play in New York State rather than the RedBulls in New Jersey, it is a pain to get to.  Subway, then train into the heart of the ‘Burbs of Long Island then a school bus to Hofstra University where the James M. Shuart Stadium is.  Tickets were selling for over $50 on StubHub, which would get you a small place to park your bum on a metal bench, with no shelter from the forecasted storms heading in from the Atlantic.  You could also bet that Man…sorry, New York City wouldn’t be fielding “designated” players David Villa or Frank Lampard for the game.  Instead I paid the grand sum of $7.77 for 3 tickets for the RedBulls.  It was only fair that I treated Luge Pravda (of course) and TBIR rookie Tom Wells, who for those of you who want to be nosy, is the 13th different picture of “Tom Wells” on a Google Images search.  Generous to a tee.

RedBull Arena sits in Harrison, New Jersey, a twenty-minute train ride from Manhattan.  I’m not sure what else would bring people to or from Harrison as alighting from the train all you can see is derelict buildings and parking lots that were once derelict buildings.  Since the 25,000 capacity stadium opened in 2010 the area around the stadium has remained, to put it politely “undeveloped”.  Whereas new build stadiums in this country always seem to be quickly surrounded by bland, uniform retail parks, the Americans, who love an out-of-town mall, seem to be missing a trick here.  There’s not even a spot to have a beer.

18690660598_6a98567ab8_kThe tickets I’d procured were in the name of Joey Levensberg.  As we entered the stadium we got a very warm welcome – “Welcome back Mr Levensberg.  Enjoy the game” – either he was a known name in these parts or the staff were simply very happy to see someone, anyone come to the game.  I had a feeling that based on previous experience that the crowd would be on the sparse side.  Back in 2012 I made my first trip here to see the RedBulls take on “rivals” DC United.  The place was rocking and both sets of fans gave a great account of themselves.  A few months later I returned and saw Sporting KC visit.  The official crowd that day was 11,000.  I’d estimate there was around a tenth of that in the stadium.  Apparently, the crowd was so low because the Yankees were playing on the same night.

Last year I was lucky to get a ticket for the World Cup Warm Up game between USA and Turkey – once again, superb atmosphere.  For this one we could choose which section we could have to ourselves.  I appreciate that the cup doesn’t hold the same interest as the league – that is a reserve of Germany and Germany alone it appears these days and that the Atlanta Silverbacks, who had just finished the Spring Season of the 2nd Tier NASL rock bottom weren’t the biggest draw, but surely the club could have given tickets away to local schools or community groups to boost the attendance?

18255958174_51fc4905a0_kThe visitors were managed by the English duo of ex-Enfield, Aylesbury and Welling United player Gary Smith, ably supported by ex-Leicester City winger and one-cap England wonder Steve Guppy.  However, with miserable league form had only been brightened up by an extra-time win away to NPSL (Third Tier) side Chattanooga in the previous round.  The RedBulls weren’t taking any chances and whilst across the Hudson and the East River, MLS rivals  New York City would be resting “designated” players Villa and Lampard, and Steven Gerrard wouldn’t be included in the LA Galaxy’s squad for their game against PSA Elite, their English star would be starting.

Many people may be surprised to hear that alongside the English duo, plus global stars Villa and Kaka, the MLS also features Bradley Wright-Phillips.  Son of Ian and brother of Shaun, it is fair to say he has been a bit of a sensation since he pitched up at the RedBulls in 2013 after leaving Charlton Athletic.  33 goals in just 51 games tells its own story.  Wright-Phillips can arguably call himself the most valuable Englishman in the MLS at the moment.

We waited for kick off which was supposed to be 7.30pm, but as usual in US sports when the time arrived, nobody was where they should be.  Luge had gone to sniff out some IPA whilst a small group of the RedBulls hardcore fans at the far end struck up a version of Twist and Shout.  At 7.39pm we got underway.  A couple brazenly came and sat in our section, although quickly apologised.  Apparently the low crowd was partly due to the Mets being at home and a new episode of Orange is the new Black on TV.

New York RedBulls 3 Atlanta Silverbacks 0 – RedBull Arena – Tuesday 16th June 2015
With fifteen minutes on the clock, Ronald Zubar tapped in from close range to put the home side 2-0 up and effectively end the tie.  The RedBulls had come out of the traps flying and dominated the opening exchanges with another ex-Charlton Athletic player, Lloyd Sam stroking home on 7 minutes after great work from Wright-Phillips and then Zubar in the right place at the right time.  It could have been an embarrassing night for the Silverbacks but the home side took their foot off the gas until the closing stages.

Bizarre licensing laws meant that despite even our poshest English accents couldn’t get us a beer after the 67th minute and our last cheer of the evening was reserved for Sean Davis (not that Sean Davis) scoring his first ever professional goal with just under twenty minutes to play.  It was time to leave and head back to the big city.  The official crowd had been announced as 5,585 – even the most ardent Red Bull fans would have scoffed at that number.  But it is what it is.  The US soccer fans seem to have the same attitude to the cup as those football fans in England, Italy or Azerbaijan.

Two days later the draw was made for the next round and what would you know, the Cosmos, fresh from beating New York City on penalties who make the trip to New Jersey to play the RedBulls. Let’s hope there are a few more fans in the stadium for that one.

Twice in a night time

14872309423_d2ca07abff_zIt’s not often you can tick off two things from your “bucket list” in one evening without it involving whipped cream, a private room at Spearmint Rhinos or Holly Willoughby but last week I managed to achieve it without really breaking into a sweat.  It’s also not often that many visitors to New York would even think of trying to get to see one of the 50 Teams That Mattered (An excellent read from the pen of David Hartrick) in the development of the beautiful game. The New York Cosmos’s impact on the global game we see today cannot be underestimated.  They were the first global marketing machine, realising the pot of gold that was on offer when selling football in the domestic market and abroad not as a ninety minute game but as a two to three-hour event.

The North American Soccer League, formed in 1968, was designed to try to win the hearts and minds of the attention-deficient Americans.  The 1966 World Cup in England had surprisingly fueled interest in the game in the US, coupled with the strange United Soccer League which had seen European teams such as Stoke City, Hibernian, Sunderland and Cagliari imported into the US to play under the names Cleveland Stokers, Toronto City, Vancouver Royal Canadians and Chicago Mustangs respectively.  The concept of Franchise Football was copied straight from the models adopted by the National Football League, Hockey League and Major League Baseball with 17 teams ranging from Atlanta to Vancouver taking part in the first season. The franchise from New York, “The Generals” lasted just one season, playing at Yankee Stadium, thus leaving the biggest city in America without a team.   Three seasons later in 1971 the league accepted an application for a new team, paying the princely sum of $25,000 entrance fee.  And so the legend of the Cosmos was born.

14665808209_1bdf60aab4_zThe NASL still needed to sell football to the North Americans, which was then completely foreign to the majority of them. A number of rules changes were made in those first few years to try to keep the fans attentions.   A clock that counted time down to zero as was typical of other timed American sports, rather than upwards to 90 minutes was standard at all grounds.  In 1972 they implemented the 35 yard line which meant that players couldn’t be offside unless they were in that final zone.  But the most famous rule change was the introduction of the Shootout in 1974.  The US didn’t do “tied” games – the concept that you could play for a couple of hours and still not have a winner was just as alien as referring to underwear as pants or not pouring porridge over bacon for breakfast.  The concept of the shoot out was that a player had a five seconds to score from running from the 35 yard line.  They could take as many touches or rebounds as they wanted but as long as it happened within 5 seconds.

The Cosmos became the NASL to many youngsters like me.  They realised that the way to market the team overseas was to bring in the players everyone knew.  Queue Pelé, Beckenbaur, Carlos Alberto and England star Terry Garbett (of course, Terry Garbett, ex-Watford and Middlesborough star midfielder) arriving to a great fanfare in the city.  For a short period of time, they became the most talked about sporting team not only in New York but also the whole of America.  But just like the dreams created by Pan-Am, TWA and Ronco, the NASL and consequently the Cosmos burnt itself out.  By 1984 the dream had died.  If you want to understand the who’s, the why’s and the wherefore’s of the Cosmos and NASL then grab a copy of Gavin Newsham’s excellent book Once In A Lifetime.

Ironically, the new reformed Cosmos would return to Long Island, forty years after they left in 1973 having won their first Championship (of five) in 1972.  Their home would again be the James M. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University, some 45 minutes east of Manhattan.  Now you can understand why Andy and me are sitting on one of those yellow School Buses, winding its way through the ‘Burbs of Long Island.  Tick one – Seeing the Cosmos, tick two – a ride on an American school bus. I felt like I was on the set of Charlie Brown, Forrest Gump, American Pie and every other American film, although the fact we were sitting on it drinking bottle of Honkers Ale meant we were probably breaking a thousand laws.

14665803359_bd4ebca731_zIt is fair to say that the announcement of a new franchise to be created in New York City a few years ago set pulses racing in the Cosmos camp.  With the New York Red Bulls actually being camped across the Hudson in New Jersey (ditto the New York Giants and Jets), the opportunity for the re-birth of the Cosmos was never more alive.  The club had been reformed through the efforts of ex-Spurs director Paul Kemsley, ex-Liverpool CEO Rick Parry and of course, Pelé in 2010.  However, without a stadium, a league and more importantly a squad, the only hope the Cosmos had of playing was on FIFA 11.

The significant event in their re-birth was the decision that the Cosmos would be the opponents in Paul Scholes’s testimonial game at Old Trafford in August 2011.  By that time Eric Cantona had been appointed as Director of Football, and although his squad for that first game included the likes of Viera, Neville, Pires and even Robbie Keane (obviously playing for the club he supported as a child), the Cosmos were back.

Alas, the dream of a return to the top tier of US football was dashed in May 2013 when the MLS announced the new franchise team in the city would be New York City FC, a joint venture between Manchester City and the Yankees.  The Cosmos would stay forever in the second tier of US football, ironically now called the NASL.

In their first season at this level the club won the Soccer Bowl.  With the season split into two halves, the Cosmos won the “Fall” championship and then beat the “Spring” champions Atlanta Silverbacks to claim the title. Building on the success from last season they claimed second spot in the Spring championship.  However, it was in the US Open Cup (the US version of the FA Cup without any need for sponsorship from poor brewers) that the club have once again grabbed the nation’s attention.  In their first season in the competition they drew the RedBulls out of the hat and proceeded to smash their richer, more caffeine-boosted rivals out of the park.  They then took MLS Philadelphia Union to extra time before they lost 2-1.

Being in New York for business, it was a 100/1 shot that the Cosmos would be at home (honest) but once I saw they were, I had to be there.  This would be like finding a Bejams or a Berni Inn, a chance to revisit something from my childhood.

New York Cosmos 0 FC Edmonton 0 – Shuart Stadium, New York – Wednesday 6th August 2014
Our big yellow bus arrived at the Shuart Stadium at 7.30pm, kick off time.  Of course, being in America meant that the game didn’t actually kick off at the official time, but some 7 minutes later once the faffing had been completed.  Whilst the official attendance was announced later as 4,524, there seemed barely half of that in the stadium.  With the sun setting over Manhattan in the distance, the majority of the crowd’s applause was reserved for the impressive sunset rather than anything happening early doors on the pitch.

14665737820_72b4396e41_zA handy guide produced by the Cosmos Media Team meant we understood the players from the visitors from Edmonton, with full pronunciation guide (Tomi Ameobi is:- Am-E-O-Be for your information), although every single event that happened on the pitch was announced to the world by the PA.  He didn’t have a lot to talk about though during the ninety minutes as neither team could break the deadlock.

In the first half the highlights were three yellow cards and then the pint of Samuel Adams beer in the Beer Garden (a roped off area behind the Main Stand where we still had to prove we were adults.  The second half  saw the Cosmos try to break down the stubborn Canadians, having fifteen shots although the main talking point was the missed penalty in the 50th minute by the Cosmos when Senna saw his spot kick almost take out a flight departing from JFK.  With the clock ticking down, Tomi Ameobi, the middle of the three Newcastle United Ameobi brothers, put in a two-footed challenge on Szetela which saw him red-carded.

The draw was a disappointment for all involved.  The Cosmos fans including the Borough Boys behind the goal had kept up the beat during the game but even they had to admit defeat in the entertainment stakes.  But football is never about just 90 minutes on the pitch.  The evening was about catching up with old friends over a beer and taking a step back to my childhood and imagining what could have been.


Landon who?

Remember the media outcry back in the run up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa when Fabio Capello made it very clear that David Beckham wasn’t in his plans?  Well, take that and times that by a hundred for the mood in the US regarding coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to drop Landon Donovan from his final squad of 23 to travel to Brazil.

14327452612_fda668a0aa_bWhilst Beckham was one of the biggest brands (since when did they stop being just players?) in world football in 2010, he had peaked as a player in 2010 and public sentiment was the main driver behind the emotion for his inclusion on his fourth World Cup.  However, in the case of Donovan, his impact on the US game can never be overlooked even today.  He’s got 156 caps, 57 international goals and has scored as often at World Cups as Ballon d’Or winners Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo combined, as FourFourTwo wrote.  There has been previous between Donovan and Klinsmann which stems from his unsuccessful spell playing for Bayern Munich when the German was in charge in 2009.  In his place, Klinsmann drafted in 19-year-old Julian Green who had been playing for the past few years for Bayern Munich reserves.  That’s, reserves…not first team. Armed with these facts you can perhaps understand the outcry even more.

As luck would have it (no, seriously it was a complete coincidence) I was in New York for work at the very time when the USA would be playing one of their final warm up games for Brazil.  The visitors, no doubt on a Nike-sponsored tour of America to do some shopping, see some sights and pretend to play 90 minutes of football were Turkey, ranked a rather harsh 39th in the latest Coca-Cola World Rankings (is nothing sacred from corporate sponsorship these days???).  Of course I wanted to go – it would be a travesty if I couldn’t get to the game, especially as it was just a 15 minute train ride away from my hotel in Lower Manhattan.  However, tickets apparently were like gold dust.  And here is one of those bizarre logics of football in the USA.

The RedBull Arena is a tidy, if a little “unfinished” in design, 25,000 all seater stadium.  Perfectly adequate for the home team, the New York RedBulls (don’t get me started on the fact they don’t play in either New York as a city or as a state!) average around 19,000 each week, although on my last visit in September 2012 I could almost count the crowd on one hand, but wasn’t it lacking a bit in ambition not to host this game just a few miles north at the 82,000 capacity MetLife stadium?  That was a question for debate for Andy Mack, Mr Team Sport USA and procurer of the Willy Wonka Golden tickets for this sell out game.

14142706160_eaa4b590d8_b“Hmm…well if you held it there then you’d perhaps get 40,000” was his initial answer.  Surely that is dependent on the ticket pricing?  Our seats for this game were $51 each, some of the cheapest on offer in the top tier in the corner.  Perhaps if ticket prices were lowered, then they would sell more and could justify moving it to a much bigger stadium?  My pricing theory once again raises it’s head – “no football tickets should cost more than 4 x the average pint of beer in a pub in the city centre” – so whilst drinking a very pleasant Union Jack IPA in the Rattle ‘n’ Hum on 34th Street I calculated that this was $36.  The one thing that the FA should be applauded for (and there aren’t many things) is keeping the cost of watching our national team at Wembley reasonable, if not a bargain when compared to watching a game at The Emirates or Stamford Bridge.

My plan had been simple.  Arrive in New York at 10.30am, taxi to hotel, walk across the street to the PATH train at the World Trade Center, 15 minutes later I would be joining the American Outlaws at their tailgate party and march to the ground.  Simple.  Alas, two things got in the way.  Firstly, I was distracted by Nicole Sherzinger in the arrivals hall at JFK.  A baseball cap and dark sunglasses were supposed to dumb-down attention but the fact she was wearing what could only be described as a ripped body stocking only covered with a pair of hot pants sort of gave the game away.  That and the fact she was with Lewis Hamilton.  A moment’s distraction caused me to miss my case going round the carousel, meaning by the time I got out of the terminal all the taxis were gone.  Finally I got to Manhattan, dropped my bag and went to the PATH.  No trains at the weekend.  WTF?  There’s a major sporting event on and one of the main transport links is closed for engineering work.  Obviously been taking lessons from London Underground on that score.

14306051276_7a50d03a24_bSo my plans for tailgating and marching were dashed.  Instead I met up with Luge and Andy for a swift beer in the shadow of the Empire State Building before getting a train from 33rd St.  We were joined en route by Andy’s mate Alexi who had come prepared for the short journey with a Starbucks cup full of Sambucus, as you do in these parts and were soon making the short walk from Harrison station to the RedBull Arena.  Now, I have been chastised in the past for being rude about Harrison, New Jersey, home of Daisy Fuentes, everyone’s favourite Cuban (or is it just me), but it really is a desperate place on the eye.  I’m sure it has some nice bits, but it’s no Hoboken.  For now it is simply the alighting point for thousands of football fans.

The fans were certainly out in force.  I was very disappointed not to see anyone dressed as Uncle Sam, Bill Clinton or The Statue of Liberty and as we entered the stadium nor being given big foam hands with “USA, Number 1” on.  Instead we were faced with queues a mile long for beer on the concourse.  The US population is wising up and their palette is maturing.  We could have bought our 2 pints of Coors Lite (with ID of course) without any queue at all but who wants that these days?  It’s all about Goose Island, Honkers Ale or Patriot Ale.  Twenty minutes later, and three Nathan’s hot dogs later we had our beers and headed up to the seats just in time to see the teams emerge at 2.03pm (once again, kick off time in the US simply means what time the teams may come out of the tunnel).

USA 2 Turkey 1 – RedBull Arena – Sunday 1st June 2014
In the grand scheme of events this was just a win in a friendly game against a team significantly lower in the FIFA rankings.  I’m sure Turkey fans or observers would point out it was the end of a long European season, it was a hot day and they had flown thousands of miles across the world to play three games, of which this was the last.  In other words, could Turkey actually be arsed?  But that would be disingenuous on the US who tried to take the game to the visitors but were often frustrated by their delaying and unsporting tactics.

14327579642_e43ba1bd30_bI have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  The US team had pace, played good football to feet and used the modest strengths of certain players.  None more so than Jozy Altidore up front who has had a relatively disappointing spell at Sunderland with just one goal in 30 performances yet put him in an US shirt and he is a world beater.  “Like a good Emile Heskey” suggested Andy Mack.  I’d probably not go that far but the Turkish defence had no idea how to handle him.  He had a goal disallowed for a non-existent foul on the keeper and created havoc when running at the defenders.

But it wasn’t the physical approach that led to the opening goal.  A smart one-two between Fabian Johnson and Michael Bradley in the 26th minute saw the ball bounce kindly to Johnson and he volleyed home.  Queue some wild celebrations, fist pumping and “Turkey, you suck my balls” shouts from the fans around us.

At the far end Everton’s Tim Howard was rarely troubled and had to deal with the continuing threat of Turkey players throwing themselves to the floor in the area rather than shots on target.  Before he collapsed with boredom he was replaced at half-time by Villa’s Brad Guzan.  At the other end, the Turkish keeper, Kivrak seemed to be flapping at everything and was at fault for the second in the 52nd minute when he failed to intercept a ball across the six yard box and the ball hit Dempsey rather than the other way round and rolled into the empty net.

We made the call to go and get a final beer.  Perhaps we delayed our venture downstairs by a minute too long because “beer marshals” had been deployed to stop anyone new joining the queue.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the need to have such people.  I could rant on here about it is harder to buy a beer than a hand gun in some places but that’s not for this blog.

14327567922_5bf4f4f5b8_bTurkey did get themselves a consolation goal in the 90th minute although to me the decision to award a clear penalty for handball on the line by Cameron summed up the ridiculous performance by the referee.  Since when has deliberate handball on the goal line not been a sending off offence?  Since when did the line “well, it is only a friendly” been a new FIFA rule?  Denying a goal scoring opportunity is still a straight red card offence, yet it seemed the referee either didn’t know the rules or couldn’t be arsed.  That probably explains why he was refereeing this game and not on the plane to Brazil.  Inan converted the spot kick but it was too little, too late.

The crowd headed out into the scorching New Jersey sunshine pretty happy.  Two wins in a week, with one more to come before the team headed down to Brazil with their heads held high where they will be facing the small matter of Germany, Portugal and up first Ghana in what is seen as the must win game.  Will they proceed from the group?  Well, compare it to England’s group of Italy, Costa Rica and Uruguay and I think they are on a par.  There shouldn’t be any shame in coming home with a positive result against one of the European giants and with Klinsmann at the helm, they may just have enough direction to just do that.

“When the chips are down…

…I’ll be around
With my death-defying love for you”

Three months ago I made my first trip west from New York to the barren lands of Harrison, New Jersey where the shining beacon of the Red Bull Arena lit up the decaying industrial landscape of an area of New Jersey that was desperately in need of investment, inspiration and excitement. On that day, the New York Red Bulls won a pulsating game against rivals DC United in a matchday atmosphere that really surprised me. I stood corrected in my view that the Red Bulls had no fans or identity and thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Three months on and I was back in New York for work with the Englishman in New York, Luge Pravda. As luck would have it, the Red Bulls were at home again, this time against those Wizards from Kansas. Or, the team that used to be called the Wizards. It appeared that a PR agency, probably headed by a Siobhan Sharpe-type decided that “The Wiz” wasn’t a MLS-type name anymore, so they were rebranded as “Sporting Kansas Club”, or SKC for short. Another “franchise” struggling to know who it really was. Continue reading