Archive for soccer

You Can Become Anything

Posted in beer, sports, sports and society with tags , , , , , on November 21, 2014 by cueball

I have 3 things in my life I really like to read about, talk about, and write about:  craft beer, college sports, and US soccer.  As it happens, we are in very interesting times for all three of those things.  They are all in places that could be called adolescence (for craft beer and US soccer) or midlife crisis (college sports).

40 Years In The Wilderness

I remember the 40 years in the wilderness.  The 40 years for US soccer between World Cup appearances.  In international soccer, not playing in the World Cup is the wilderness.  It means you are irrelevant.  Those days saw the NASL burn out like a wayward flare and youth soccer and college soccer become the apex of soccer achievement for players and coaches.  Then, in 1989 Paul Caliguiri scores the goal against Trinidad and Tobago (I watched in a friend’s basement as ESPN showed some borrowed feed with Bob Ley and Seamus Malin calling the action from Bristol) 25 years ago.  That goal put the US in the 1990 World Cup, the last they could qualify for before hosting in 1994.  Without that goal, there is no Major League Soccer, no quarterfinals run in 2002, or the heightened expectations of a country used to winning and dominating at everything it does.

That is why I call this period an adolescence for US Soccer.  Modern US Soccer did not begin until the late 1980s.  In terms of soccer history that less than 30 year period is a blip.  Soccer in this country has taken its first steps, World Cup qualifying and quality professional first division, now it is trying to move from the callow youth with all this untapped potential to a successful adult taking the world by storm.  That has led to a lot of the problems that come with adolescence.  In that period from youth to adulthood, your adolescence is spent trying to figure who you are, what you believe, and what is your voice.

That is what US Soccer is doing right now. Its constituent members, its fans, and the media who cover US Soccer are all asking questions right now.  Should a young player go abroad to play, or stay and work through the US/MLS development system?  Should the national team play a more possession based system that values keeping the ball or should it play or a more counterattacking system that absorbs pressure from the other team? How do we get more athletes access to quality coaching and playing in a country this vast geographically?  Throw on top of that the inevitable jockeying for primacy and power within the structure of US Soccer and a lot of silly things are being said from anonymous sources to the media.

Just as it takes time and missteps to work through those fundamental questions as an adolescent it will take time and a lot of pain and hurt feelings for US Soccer to answer those growing pain questions.

The beer industry in the US spent its own time in the wilderness with the passing of Prohibition on through the 1970s.  That puts modern existence of craft beer in the US in much the same position as US Soccer.  What it means to be a craft beer brewer is one of those internal debates that most consumers don’t notice or care about, but is actually important to the future of the brewing industry in this country.

On one level (the level most consumers see it) it doesn’t matter where your beer comes from or who makes it as long as it is good.  On the second level it matters immensely.  The vibrancy and growth of craft beer in the US is primarily attributed to the idea of the independent brewer making good beer apart from and in many cases in spite of the big brewer’s influence/interference.  That is what takes it from merely an industry into a craft.

The oft cited numbers from the Brewer’s Association are this:  in 1932 there were 0 brewers in the US, in 1980 there were 92 brewers in, by the end of 2013 there were almost 3000.  The fear among many within the craft beer world is that the growing trend of the big brewers buying regional and local breweries will lead to stifling the creativity and therefore the growth of the industry and fundamentally change it at the same time.

This fear is well founded if you look at an industry like movies.  The reason most of the movies you see and read about are comic book movies, adaptations from television or books, remakes of previous movies, or sequels/prequels is that there is almost no American independent movie movement anymore.  Today the movies that get made are either micro-budgeted shorts that the director puts up on YouTube in hopes of attracting a studio’s attention or a superhero yarn that costs triple the GDP of a third world country to make.

However, just as I think some kind of market correction is coming to the movie industry where enough people will get tired of seeing cities and planets destroyed by aliens and go back to movies about people talking, I don’t think independent craft brewers will ever disappear.  We are just in a period where the big multinational brewers (or beverage companies/conglomerates) will figure out how to tap into that market and the independent craft brewers will figure out how to leverage those multinational’s interest into making better beer.

Again, it is that adolescent process of figuring out who you are in a big complicated and convoluted world.  There are no easy answers and no quick solutions.

The Midlife Crisis

The NCAA and college sports have been around since the turn of the 20th century.  Almost since the beginning it has had to endure a push-pull between providing athletes the opportunity to gain education and making money off the on the field efforts of those athletes.  However, I think now the NCAA and its member institutions have entered a time that the money is so great (for two sports: football and men’s basketball) that coaches, administrators, and institutions are compromising their primary responsibility, to educate, in order to keep making money.

Much like adolescence a midlife crisis is a moment when you step back and assess who you are and what you believe in. Usually, people who go through midlife crises have been successful, but they see the end is closer than the beginning.  Whereas the adolescent is asking, “What can I do with this unlimited future,” the middle aged ask, “What legacy am I going to leave behind?”

The midlife crisis questions are harder because they often require a change in mindset and a change in path.  The adolescent is discovering their path while the middle aged are often creating a new one from an already heavily traveled road.

The road the NCAA has traveled down took a wrong turn somewhere.  Maybe not a turn, but it veered to the left fork instead of the right one.  At some point the NCAA took its eye off the primary mission of its members, to educate, and became more about sports-entertainment.  (This blog post at The Classical does a better job explaining this then I can.) I don’t think it was intentional or done out of greed or malice. Nor do I think it was any one decision that set this path.

Regardless of whether you think amateurism and the concept of the “student-athlete” are arbitrary creations to hold on to money, power, or status or you think they are the bedrocks onto which a whole belief system and way of life that should be protected is based, you must agree that the NCAA cannot go on as it currently is.  The NCAA has incentivized a system of graft and cheating by hording all the money it makes into the hands of a very few and none of those being the actual athletes.  This money comes from both the NCAA Tournament television contracts, the television contracts the individual conferences have all signed, and the College Football Playoff contracts.  Those last two categories are actually outside the purview of the NCAA proper, but everyone who participates in those contracts are members of the NCAA.

Intercollegiate sports will not exist as we know it in 20 years.  I believe athletes will have contracts. They will sign for a certain amount to go their education and perhaps bonus money that will probably (at the very least) include money from any ancillary sales produced by their name or likeness (i.e. jersey sales).  Athletes will be allowed to do endorsements outside of the school and sign merchandise and memorabilia for money.  Now, the schools will include a non-compete clause with penalties in the contract so that the athlete can’t just jump from school to school and they would have minimum academic requirements (probably the same as the rest of the student body) in order to remain eligible to play.  I stole most of this from Jay Bilas.

∞∞∞

The most complicated and sometimes painful part of life are those moments when you have to stop and truly look inside yourself and ask, “Who am I and what am I doing here?” US Soccer, craft beer, and the NCAA are all in that place. This time is full of opportunity and hope. It is also filled with fear and trepidation.  Yet, these are the most interesting and fun times because they are full of possibility. You can become or do anything.

Why So Serious, Part 2

Posted in art, soccer, writing with tags , , , , on August 27, 2014 by cueball

It started with Eric Cantona.  Actually, it really started in third grade when I decided to play soccer instead of football like all my cousins.  My contrary nature and need to find my own path rears its beautiful head again.

It was Cantona who really turned me into a soccer fan though.  At the point that he was at his Manchester United height (and depths) I was in college. I had stayed a soccer fan and occasional player throughout and then this, quite honestly, insane soccer angel entered Manchester United’s line-up and my life. 

King Eric was one of the players who embodies the magnetic draw soccer can have.  On one hand he was a mesmerizing and brilliant player.  On the other hand he did this.  The list of red cards, other sundry offenses don’t obscure why we are drawn to him. 

For me, Cantona represents everything I love about soccer and sports in general.  The magnetic unpredictability of the whole enterprise.  It is players like him and currently Mario Ballotelli and Luis Suarez in soccer or a Johnny Manziel in football that draw us to the games.   

As much as the sports moralists like to rail against these players because they are “bad influences” (“Think of the children!”), these players represent the reason we love sports.  They are all unpredictable.  Unfortunately, they are unpredictable both on and off the field.  We don’t know what is going to happen with them.  As much as people search for sure things when they gamble on sports, they gamble because of the rush of not knowing what will happen next and having some kind of wager riding on the outcome. 

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Why do we become obsessed with sports or novels or movies or craft beer or comic books?  What is it that these things provide us?  In my opinion, and in the opinion of Albert Camus (someone infinitely smarter than me) it is because they are created worlds that provide us with unity and coherence. 

These things all have some type of internal logical framework.  They always follow that framework making it easier to comprehend and grasp the workings of what is happening.  This is different than life.  Our everyday world and everyday life is to a great extent full if illogic.  It rarely makes consistent sense and it rarely pays off the way we want it. 

Homebrewing gives you a sense of control.  From the initiation of the idea of the beer you want to brew, to the ingredients you choose, to the actual brewing, to the finished product, you as a brewer control everything in this universe.  It is the same with writing a novel. You create and control the universe from beginning to end.  These things become almost acts of Zen meditation.

In part Zen is the study of the way to give up the illusion of control of those things outside of you. Completing the tasks of art is a way of replicating that.  You control the universe of your tasks even if you cannot control the outcome.  You may have an idea of what beer you are trying to make and if you do everything right you will probably get very close, but then again you may not.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t because the idea is to keep replicating the actions you can control.  That means more times than not you will get the beer you set out to create. 

Creation and creativity is not about creating the thing you want.  It is about the act of creating.  The joy is in (here is that phrase again) the process.  The joy is in doing the thing, because if you do it right, you will get a harmonious outcome even if it isn’t the one you envisioned to begin with. 

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

Posted in life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2013 by cueball

I am sitting watching soccer and drinking a good loose leaf tea.  These are two of my favorite things to do.  Then that song started going through my head.  The Supremes version from Merry Christmas: The Supremes.  So I started thinking, what are my favorite things?

Here we go:

A good cup of loose leaf tea.  Preferably, Earl Grey.

I like loose leaf tea partially because it tastes better, but also because of the act of making the tea makes it a little more special.  It is a process and it allows you to make it as strong or as weak as you like.  As an aside drinking tea without a little milk/cream is wrong.  As an aside, the reason I gravitated to Earl Grey, Jean-Luc Picard.

Soccer on a Saturday (or any other day)

Whether it be a three-game run of Premiership matches or a Saturday afternoon to Saturday night of Major League Soccer matches, the Monday Night Soccer on in the middle of Monday afternoons from England, FA Cup games on the weekdays, CONCACAF Champions League on random weeknights, and UEFA Champions League matches on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, soccer is part of my DNA at this point.

A good barley wine on a cold winter night

Beer may be my favorite thing on this Earth.  I love beer in all of its forms.  I even love lager when done well.  However, when the days turn short and the nights cold, a big barley wine is one of my favorite things.  They are big, sweet, thick, and have the heat and touch of alcohol that warms you to your core.

Bourbon

Speaking of alcohol, those same cold nights are enlivened with a good finger or two of bourbon.  My preferred way to drink it is neat.  The unadorned alcohol and caramel sweetness makes the nights go faster, the books read better, and the music sound finer.

A good song

I love singer-songwriters who can make you feel everything that went into their songs.  Right now, I’m still loving on the Jason Isbell album Southeastern.  There is so much to unpack in the lyrics on that album that I find new things each time I listen.  If you just listen to the song “Yvette” you will hear one of the best short stories you have ever read.

A good sentence or paragraph that changes how you see the world

I’ll close here with what may be my favorite passage in the English language.  The Great Gatsby is my favorite piece of fiction and this is the paragraph that inspires and cows me on a daily basis:

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

A lot about soccer and with a dash of Breaking Bad (no spoilers)

Posted in soccer, television with tags , , , on August 26, 2013 by cueball

67,000 people.

Last night I watched a soccer match in the United States that had 67,000 people in attendance.  This wasn’t a World Cup match, a US/Mexico World Cup qualifier, or two European club teams playing an exhibition.  This was a regular season match between Seattle and Portland in the Major League Soccer.

If you had asked me low those many years ago when I was playing high school soccer on football fields and glorified cow pastures if such thing as 67,000 people going to see a regular season soccer match were possible, I would have thought for a moment and not be able to conceive of the circumstances that led to this.

Somewhere, someone right now is writing on a message board how this means soccer has arrived in the United States and will take over as one of the big three sports along with football and basketball in a few years.  They may even write how soccer could replace football because the concussion issue will eventually bring football low.

There is also somewhere on the Internet writing how this huge crowd was an anomaly, the result of Clint Dempsey’s return and ESPN and NBCSN making us think we care about soccer because of all their commercials.  They will point out that big attendances like this occurred all the time with the New York Cosmos in the early-70s and soccer is still at best a second class sports citizen.

As is my wont, I think they are both right.

Winston Churchill once said, “This isn’t the end.  This isn’t even the beginning of the end.  However, this is the end of the beginning.”  That works as guidepost here because this isn’t soccer overtaking baseball in the American sports consciousness nor does it feel like someone off made for TV bit of pop culture phenomena.  However, I think it represents the moment when soccer said it isn’t going anywhere.

Throughout its first 15 years Major League Soccer always seemed to be on the verge of collapse.  In fact, 2001 was almost the year the league died.  It contracted two teams and the majority of the league was owned by one person, Phillip Anschutz.

However, from the low-ebb the league has survived and I think with the signing of Clint Dempsey has started to show its willingness to pay players still capable of contributing to big clubs in Europe a competitive wage.  I am talking about the 27-30 year old player still in their physical prime like Dempsey.  The real test will be after the World Cup in Brazil next summer.  Will the league pony up the money and can it sign players from the World Cup in that age group?  These are the players still in their national team’s mix and still capable of playing in the Premiership, La Liga, or the Bundesliga.

Yes, a lot of the hype for the match was built around the home debut of Dempsey in a derby match, but it didn’t matter that the game winner was scored by Eddie Johnson and not Dempsey.  Let’s put it this way, this wasn’t like going to see the Cosmos in 1975 hoping to see Pele score and instead seeing a game winner form someone like Jorge Siega or Joey Fink.  That is the difference between this league and the NASL back then.

Last night’s match felt like a celebration of everything that the league and US Soccer has achieved so far.  It felt like a moment when all of it supporters could exhale and say, “OK.  We’re not going anywhere.  We’ve built this and its foundation is strong.  What’s next?”

For all the fans of Breaking Bad out there, stop trying to guess what will happen next.  We, like Hank, are playing checkers while Vince Gilligan and his writers, like Walter, are playing three-dimensional chess.

Real Madrid v. Manchester United and Duke v. UNC Diary, Part 1

Posted in soccer with tags , , , , , , , on February 13, 2013 by cueball

1:00 pm

First beer, Lagunitas Brewing Hop Stoopid and half a frozen pizza.  Lunch of champions.

1:30

Pot of Earl Grey tea to combat the 8% ABV of Hop Stoopid.  Must slow down to get through this match.  Plus, if the Duke/UNC turns out the way think it will, I will need a lot more beer to stay sane.

2:06

First Gus Johnson sighting.  He gave a great interview on the Men In Blazers podcast.  Seems to understand the enormity of what he is being given and honestly wants to do a great job.  He doesn’t come off as bombastic as American soccer fans seem to worry he will be during games.  I think he’ll be fine.

2:30

New shoes  just got here in time for the game.  Old school Adidas Sambas.  Ah yeah.  I’m reverting to my high school self in some ways as I get older.  Don’t know if that is a good thing.

2:52

Just saw photo of Duke mascot on a pike at UNC Student Stores.  We may lose the game, but we will win the Twitter war.

2:59

Manu’s defense has been a mess all season.  Ronaldo will exploit that at some point.

Every soccer fan agrees:  Ronaldo is douche, but if you were to create a player from scratch, this is what he would look like.

3:04

1-0 Manu.  Welbeck scores a header.  The definition of an “against the run of play” goal.  If you are on the post, you stay on the post until the ball is cleared.  I learned that in junior high.  Apparently, Real players have forgotten that.

3:14

Again, he is how you would build a soccer player. 1-1 on Ronaldo header.  Basically, he levetated over Evra, hung for a second, and headed the ball into the net.  Ridiculous athlete.

3:22

It took about 35 minutes, but Gus is getting warmed up now.

3:49

United appear to have gotten the hair dryer treatment at half it appears.

3:53

That didn’t last long.  Real Madrid has complete control of this match.  They are dominate in midfield.

4:00

United hanging on now.  No possession of the ball, crowd in full voice.  Too many players holding on to the ball in midfield too long.  Must move the ball quicker or go down 2-1 with the accumulated pressure.  I understand they want to absorb pressure and attack on the counter, but at some point you need to get control of the ball for an extended spell.

4:01

De Gea makes some of the weirdest great saves in the history of the sport.

4:06

Giggs is on the field now.  I am happy.  He has been on United’s first team longer then some of his teammates have been alive.

Real dominating the proceedings but a goal doesn’t feel inevitable.

4:13

Swing and miss by RVP.  There was so much going on that sequence.  First, a great shot and save, a complete defensive nap, followed by RVP missing a sitter.

4:37

A good match.  Exactly what you want out of the road leg of the Champions League.  Take your 1-1 tie and get home.

David De Gea plays like a performance artist just learning how to be a goal keeper.  To say he is unorthodox is a major understatement.  Perhaps he is a genius creating a whole new style of goal keeping.

Gus did well in his first match.  As it went on he started to get more comfortable with the rhythm of the game.  He had a good feel of when to let the crowd do the work, when to talk to move things along, and when to exclaim.  I like what FOX is doing giving him time to learn how to call soccer matches before the World Cup.  This is much better than ESPN throwing Dave O’Brien into the deep end with only a few months to learn.  Also, American soccer fans (In all honesty, we can be a bitchy lot.) need to relax and not worry that Gus is going to sound like a buffoon.  If this match teaches us anything, a lot of what Gus is famous for is shtick.  He does get excited and it does come through, but he is a professional and understands people are there for the game and not him.   A good review of the game and Gus on SB Nation, right here.

Part 2, will start later and it may be a live blog that ends with me drunkenly typing away about Sudoku if the game gets out of hand.

Why Do We Believe Our Games Aren’t Fixed

Posted in sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2013 by cueball

Brian Phillips wrote a wonderful synopsis of everything we know about the soccer match fixing scandal that Europol outlined earlier this week.  If you haven’t read it you should go right now.  I’ll wait.

Done.  Good.

The way he lays out the ease in which these games are fixed is fascinating.  Aided by the amount of games, the number of jurisdictions this Dan Tan Syndicate crosses, and number of bets placed any one game gets lost in the maelstrom.  This makes me wonder two things.  First, a 34 minute black out in the stadium where the Super Bowl was in the 3rd quarter in New Orleans.  Yeah, that isn’t fishy or anything.  Second, it seems it would be pretty easy to fix college basketball games.

I’m going to write some fictional account of what may or may not have happened in New Orleans a little later.

Now, for how it would be easy to fix a college basketball game.  Think of how many games there are on any Saturday.  According to the ESPN schedule, there are 146 games this coming Saturday, both great and small.  If you were going to point shave a game, you wouldn’t touch the UNC/Miami game at 2:00 on ESPN or the Louisville/Notre Dame game at 9:00 on ESPN.  You would look towards the Cal State San Marcos/Cal State Bakersfield game tipping off at 10:00 Eastern time.

You want a game with little national consequence and as little media exposure as possible.  You also want players who have nothing to lose.  A game between two major conference teams has too many players who want to be in the NBA.  They have too much to lose, but a kid on scholarship at some small school is just hoping to play some ball, maybe get a look with a NBA or NBDL team or play a couple of years in Europe or Asia.  Mostly, he is just trying to use the fact that he is a basketball player to get laid (“Every team in every sport on a college campus has groupies,” Terry Lankford, aka Eightball) and get a free education.  A $2000 offer to shave points might seem like a good business proposition to him.

So, you approach him and say, “We don’t want you to lose the game.  Just don’t cover or miss the over.  We will route the money to you and it will be clean as a baby’s butt.  No one will know.”  That is why point shaving is the best form of sports gambling corruption.  First, it is hard to prove without someone admitting it or getting caught with a bag of money for doing it.  Second, it allows the person shaving points to believe they aren’t really doing anything wrong.  You still win the game, just by not as many points as you should.

For me the question isn’t, “Why doesn’t this happen?” but, “How often does it happen?”  How many of us, college basketball fans look at the scores of the games at the bottom of the schedule on a Saturday night.  Do you think anyone not in the Cal State San Marcos Cougar family is going to notice this game?  The computer safe-guards the betting houses have can be skirted just by keeping the betting volume and amount under a certain level.  As long as you don’t get greedy with any one game and spreading your bets between multiple bettors, you can avoid that trap.

Look, maybe I’m a guy who always thinks about the absolute worst thing that can happen.  I did write a blog post about the nightmare scenario of a player getting killed during the Super Bowl.  But, if sports has taught us anything over the last ten years, the nightmare scenario maybe far worse then anything we can imagine.

Only Heysel Like Pain Will Kick Racist Behavior From Soccer

Posted in soccer with tags , , on January 4, 2013 by cueball

Yesterday, during a friendly match between AC Milan and Pro Pratia, Kevin-Prince Boateng kicked the match ball into the stands and walked off the field followed by his AC Milan teammates.  The reason, for the 25 minutes they were on the field a very vocal minority of Pro Pratia fans racially taunted the black AC Milan players until Boateng had enough and lead his teammates off the field.

Unfortunately, this is not something new to European soccer.  In fact it happens with enough frequency that UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, has a program called Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE).  FARE’s sister organization Kick It Out, based in the Barclay’s Premiere League, has come under recent scrutiny for what many black English players see as ineffectiveness.

If Kick It Out, FARE, or UEFA really want to deal with racism in European soccer, organizing protests and wearing t-shirts is not going to help.  Neither is having the players of a major power like AC Milan walk out of a friendly (exhibition) match against a fourth tier Italian club.

To make any real dent into racist actions taken by fans, UEFA needs to step back in time and repeat what it did on June 2, 1985.  That day, after the Heysel Disaster/Riot occurred because of Liverpool hooligans ostensibly in Heysel to cheer for Liverpool against Juventus in the European Cup Final, UEFA said enough.  The continent as a whole was tired of drunken English hooligan armies rampaging through the European.  So, they banned all English soccer clubs from any international competition for five years and Liverpool for ten years.

During that time the English Football Association and the British government fixed English soccer (improving playing grounds and tracking hooligans like terrorists) and laid the groundwork for what has now become the biggest sports league in the world.

If UEFA and FIFA really wanted to keep racist taunts from fans out of the sport, they would implement Heysel level punishments for the teams and soccer governing bodies involved.

For American sports fans, think of it like this: If a college football/basketball team were caught in major violations, not only would that school receive a post-season ban, but all the other teams in that conference would receive a post-season ban.  Also, it isn’t just a post-season ban, it would be a ban from playing anyone outside your conference during regular season also.  So, not only would the schools lose out on post season money they would lose out on the ticket money from big regular season games.  Now add about three zeroes onto the amount of money those schools would lose and you get why this would be an effective deterrent.

A five-year ban for the other teams in the country as well as a ten-year ban for the offending club would make a real difference.  It would only take one for everyone in Europe to get the message.  The moment you start hitting people’s pocket books, they get real attentive real quick.  This is also, not about eliminating racism.  You cannot govern how and what people think, but you can govern how they act in public towards others.

Just so you don’t think that I have this idea that the US is past it’s racism, this was posted by Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) on Twitter just this morning.