Tuesday, March 17, 2015

NYCFC: Soccer in New York and the Birth of a New Fandom

I can't remember anything of note in the first soccer match I went to in my life. It was some time around the summer of 2006 or 2007 and the Red Bulls had a home game against then powerhouse DC United. At the time, Red Bulls were playing their home games at Giants stadium and gaining barely a crowd. It looked even sparser in the gigantic football stadium with the entire upper decks blacked out. The biggest storyline was seeing a young Freddy Adu in action. The final score was 0-0. Or maybe it just felt like a 0-0 game. 

Soccer was an after thought back then. For me personally, and most of the country. In 2006 there was a mild excitement over the World Cup, but it didn't quite take the country over. In 2010, the World Cup and American interest in the event seemed to finally become something substantial. MLS had continued to grow as a league. American players were gaining success in European leagues and bringing that back to the national team. The US also had a defining national soccer moment with Landon Donovan's extra time goal against Algeria propelling them to the knockout stage of the tournament. 

By the 2014 World Cup, soccer craze in America was at an all time high. The US Men's National Team had an upsurge in popularity. Their first group game against Ghana broke TV ratings records for audiences in the US. Soccer had finally "arrived" in the US. But was it here to stay? 

The long standing argument about soccer in America, which is probably accurate, is that it will never surpass the four major leagues in terms of popularity. NFL has become the most lucrative sports league in the US. The NBA has a stronghold on it's fan base, creating some of the sports world's most popular celebrities (despite being the most predictable league with little balance from the top teams to the bottom). Baseball will always be America's past time. And hockey has rebounded to become the sport for the diehard fans. Underappreciate by ESPN, but never by local fans. 

So where does soccer fit into this equation? First, for soccer to survive long term as a popular sport in America, MLS will have to continue to succeed. And I would argue that MLS is at it's highest point of popularity ever. American stars formerly playing in Europe are returning to the MLS to continue their careers (Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore who all had good runs in European leagues are now stars in MLS). MLS attendance continues to flourish in its most popular markets, with much of the league gaining 15-20,000 fans regularly. In cities like Seattle and Portland, the atmosphere could easily be compared to some of Europe's league. New TV rights for MLS have soccer on American television more than ever. And the MLS has expanded to 20 teams, with the addition of a franchise in Orlando, and a second in New York: NYCFC.

This all leads me to this past Sunday  March 15, 2015 at Yankees Stadium, where I attended my second professional soccer game of my life. It was the home opener for New York City Football Club. Walking toward the stadium synonymous with championships and baseball history, you couldn't help but feel like you were apart of something special. And it wasn't a Yankees playoff game or a Yankees-Red Soc rivalry game. It was for a soccer match. The crowds were filled with the blue and baby blue colors of the new soccer team. Yet to play a game in their home city yet, and the crowd was buzzing with excitement. These weren't just people here to check out how this whole new soccer experiment might work. These were FANS of the team. 

The stadium was packed getting in. The crowds were bigger than any recent Yankee game I remember. Or that's how it felt getting in. Maybe because we were all piling in about ten minutes before start time. We got to our seats during the sixth minute, not missing much action. Early on, the game was reminiscent of a lot if the action you see around MLS. There was little fluidity to the game, wih a lot of broken possession and a back and forth style of play. The New England Revolution were pressing NYCFC a lot, preventing much offense from the home team. The Revs had a few chances, but nothing they could put away. They were exposing lots of problems in New York's defense, crossing balls with ease toward the middle. The best early chance was still for the home team, when Spanish superstar and captain David Villa broke away from his defender and tried to trickle a ball past the Revs Keeper, who got just his finger tips on it enough to deflect it away from goal. It was a great chance, and the crowd was loving it. Finally, a few minutes later, the home team broke through and gave the crowd what they wanted. After a beautiful give and go, Villa was left alone with only the keeper to beat and finished with ease, scoring the first home goal in NYCFC history. 

The second half had significantly better action. NYCFC held into possession easier and were more confident in their attack. Also, their defense showed less vulnerability. Villa had a few more chances he couldn't finish early on in the half, thanks to great saves by the Revs Keeper. When rookie Khiry Shelton came on as a sub in the 65th minute, he immediately made a difference, earning his team a free kick, after a Revolution defender tackled him near the penalty box and was sent off with a red card. Another sub, Patrick Mullins sealed the game with a late goal in the closing minutes, off a fantastic pass from Villa. The NY crowd was excited the whole way through. Both goals garnered great enthusiasm and loud chants. The Third Rail chanted and cheered in the bleachers the whole game, proving even a new team could have a loyal and die hard fan base. 

The new soccer team in NY is quintessentially more "New York" than the Redbulls. Playing in famous Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, only a train ride from three other boroughs, they're infinitely more connected to the city than the Red Bulls who play in Harrison, NJ. Nothing against the Red Bulls, but they just never connected with the actual city fans in the New York area. Maybe it's the location of their stadium, or just a bit of a stagnancy in the MLS's marketing of the team. But NYCFC felt like something to be a part of. I feel like a fan already, and that they're my new team. As much as I followed the RedBulls in the past and tried to root for them, it just never felt right. If the future of soccer in America is linked with the success of MLS, the fate in New York is looking awfully bright. 45,000 fans in the Bronx saw it on Sunday, and thousands more will be a part of it this season.


Friday, June 6, 2014

June Boxing Preview

I think this monthly boxing preview will become a regular thing, where I'll highlight 3-4 fights a month that are exciting and I'm looking forward to. May was a great month for boxing, and many of the fights definitely lived up to the hype. Mayweather/Maidana exceeded expectations by being a competitive bout where Floyd was actually in trouble at times, especially early when Maidana used his strength and physicality to make it an extremely uncomfortable fight for Mayweather. Floyd eventually got a split decision victory he earned, but it was his most entertaining fight in years. In another of the fights I highlighted last month, Juan Manuel Marquez showed his class and completely dominated Mike Alvarado, save for maybe one or two rounds. It's always easy to forget just how great a boxer Marquez is, because of the fact that he's always in the ring with the world's best. Losses like Mayweather, Pacquiao, and more recently Bradley are easy to remember. Marquez continued his excellent career by making Alvarado look completely out of his class, and slow. Finally, Froch set the boxing community straight with an impressive knockout victory over George Groves. He lose the early rounds, but stayed to his game plan, and came alive in the 6th and 7th rounds to turn the fight in his favor. In the 8th, he landed a HUGE right hand that put Groves down, and ended the fight. It answered the questions about the controversial first ending, and set up Froch with a big fight showdown with potentially Gennady Golovkin, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., or even a rematch with Andre Ward.

Here's the June preview:

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Road to Brazil: US Soccer and the World Cup

Tonight, the US Men's national soccer team will face Azerbaijan in the first of three friendlies before the 2014 World Cup begins in June. A lot of questions remain for this squad, and coach Jurgen Klinsmann's selections for the final 23 man roster for the World Cup has created even more uncertainty. Klinsmann chose a mix of hard working veterans and young rising stars. Most notably, he left off a number of players who over the past few years have felt like essential members of the US team. First, Landon Donovan was left off the team, shocking the soccer world. The most famous and most successful US soccer player in history, Donovan seemed almost a shoe in for the World Cup squad, even if he would no longer have a starting job. His past goal scoring abilities, combined with his ability to create chances, could have definitely made him a threat as a sub late in the game. However, his recent performances have been lacking, so it's a little understandable that Klinsmann left him off the team. Equally surprising was Eddie Johnson's omission from the roster. Johnson has not always been consistent in his MLS play (better last year with Seattle than this year with DC United), but for the past few years, it seemed like he always showed up big for the national team. He scored a number of goals during qualifying, and at times looked like the second best striker for the US. Jozy Altidore had a great stretch of games in 2013 for us, but when Johnson got into the game, he almost always seemed to make a difference. It always seemed as if Johnson had a place under Klinsmann's rule, being utilized often over the past two years. The third omission which was surprising was Brad Evans being left off the team. A player who had under Klinsmann played mostly at right back, but could potentially move to midfield (unlikely with the talent the US has there) or even center back (not a natural position for him), Evans looked almost a definite to make the final squad. While the back four of the defense for the US has often been uncertain in the past year, Evans made a strong case for the starting position at right back. However, his lack of speed may have cost him a chance at the World Cup.

Now, let's move on to the guys who made the team. Here's a quick rundown of the final World Cup roster:

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando

Defenders: Demarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Timothy Chandler, DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson

Midfielders: Michael Bradley, Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi, Mix Diskerud, Brad Davis, Alejandro Bedoya, Julian Green

Forwards: Clint Dempsey (C), Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson, Chris Wondolowski

Despite some of my favorite US players not making the team (Brek Shea, Eddie Johnson, for example), this is still a really strong team that excites me. The biggest remaining question mark is the defense. They've looked shaky recently, and the team has had trouble at times when they shouldn't. Part of the problem is that there hasn't been a consistent back four, meaning they haven't built any chemistry back there as a team. There are a lot of rumors about who the starting four in the defense will be. Right now, it looks like Fabian Johnson is looking like a good chance to start at full back. However his natural position is on the left side, and Demarcus Beasley has done really well in his time at left back. It's possibly that Johnson moves over to the right side (where the US will face fast and talented players during the World Cup, such as Ronaldo). Even the middle of the defense is looking unsure right now. Throughout 2013, it seemed inevitable that Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez would be starting there in the World Cup. However, while Besler has continued to impress, Gonzalez has seemingly gotten more inconsistent. It's possibly that Cameron starts there. Cameron is a versatile player who can play pretty much anywhere on defense or even in the midfield. The questions about the defense will begin to be answered in tonight's friendly, as well as the two next week.

The midfield is perhaps the US's greatest strength. Michael Bradley is truly an amazing midfielder. He's able to play the defensive midfielder role perfectly, but when given the chance to move forward in the attack, he has an amazing ability to create chances. In his first season back in the MLS, he's already begun to make an impact for Toronto. He will be the most important player for the US during the World Cup, and his work rate will keep them in games against tough opponents like Germany and Portugal. Zusi has earned his starting position over time, and I think Beckerman will continue to play an important role in the central midfield. Right now, it is Jermaine Jones's position that is uncertain. The team seems to excel when Bradley is given free range to move forward and attack. However, Jermaine Jones can't play the same kind of defensive role as Kyle Beckerman, creating a dilemma for coach Klinsmann.

In the attack, the only concern is whether Jozy Altidore is at his best. He had an amazing season just a year ago in the Dutch league. But upon moving to Sunderland in the English Premier League, he struggled mightily. He still had some great moments in 2013 for the US national team, so I think he should be okay. Clint Dempsey playing behind him will create more chances for everyone. Dempsey has been phenomenal this season for Seattle, scoring a number of goals early on in the season. I am perhaps most looking forward to these two players, and seeing if they'll be able to have goal scoring success in the World Cup.

Tonight's friendly match up against Azerbaijan will be crucial for a few reasons:

  • We will get an idea of what Kilnsmann has in mind for the starting 11 come the first World Cup match.
  • Players can still earn a starting spot. Or lose it.
  • What will our defense look like? And how will they play together?
  • The team needs to have chemistry. There are only three games left before the World Cup. It is so important for them to not only look good, but to have good results. Momentum will be so important going into such a tough group in the World Cup. For the US to advance, they need either Portugal or Ghana to go home (I'll assume Germany advances). That's a challenge that will be made easier by a team with confidence, coming off of some good wins. 

Finally, here's a predicted starting 11. It's really so uncertain, so who knows what Klinsmann will do (By the time this is published, he might have already announced it, and I might be way off). 


Johnson, F                                          Bradley                                                 Zusi


Beasley                       Gonzalez                                       Besler                      Cameron


Okay, so maybe that's a little weird and may not look right depending how you're reading it, but it's something of a 4-4-2 with Dempsey playing behind Altidore, Bradley playing in central midfield with Beckerman playing behind him in true defensive midfielder position. I have Fabian Johnson starting as left midfielder, because I felt like making a bold prediction, and it also seems like something Klinsmann would do (and I think has done). I have Beasley starting at left back, Gonzalez and Besler starting in the middle, and Cameron at right back. That's really just a crazy guess, because I think only Besler's a definite there, and can definitely imagine a few different versions of a defense. Not sure if Yedlin has done enough to get a start, but I'm sure we'll see him off the bench in tonight's match. DeAndre Yedlin might be my favorite young US player. He's only 20 years old, but has already made an impact in the MLS. He's a ridiculously fast defender who has shown an ability to come forward and create some attacking chances with his speed and ability. He may not have enough experience to get a start or a big role at the World Cup just yet, but hopefully we see a lot more of him in the future. Watch a Seattle Sounders game if you don't see him this World Cup. He's the guy with the fun hair in the back right, and I'm sure he'll do at least one thing in a game to impress you. 

Here's the upcoming schedule for the men's national team


Tuesday May 27, 10 PM against Azerbaijan 
Sunday June 1, 2 PM against Turkey
Saturday June 7, 6 PM against Nigeria (a tough match that will tell us a lot)

World Cup: Group G

Monday June 16, 6 PM against Ghana. 
Sunday June 22, 6 PM against Portugal
Thursday June 26, 12 PM against Germany

Let's fucking go! I'm excited for this World Cup. Every cycle I am following soccer more and more, and I have been a very devoted fan of the US national team for the past few years. Nothing would please me more than an impressive performance in this World Cup, especially coming out of this tough group of death. June 16th against Ghana, I know I will be wearing my Clint Dempsey jersey and ready for a win. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Best Shows on Television: 10-6

The following is beginning of my top ten shows on television right now, with numbers 10-6 on the list. I previously posted some honorable mentions a few days ago. Also, notice the difference from the list from two years ago. I am definitely watching more television than I was two years ago, and I'm probably keeping up with more shows than I ever have before. I had plenty of shows that had to be left off the list that I really like, which is why I decided to write about a few of those in my honorable mentions. I can see this list changing in the future, of course, as certain shows get better and others even out. But I think this list is a very accurate depiction of where my TV tastes are right now, and what shows I truly love. Also, I think after writing about television almost exclusively lately, this list can serve as something more definitive to look back on, because I might be burned out with TV talk for a while... So here's numbers 10-6 and the top 5 will be posted within a few days. 

10. The Walking Dead (AMC, 4 seasons)

The Walking Dead recently finished up its fourth season, which may have been its strongest yet. After an inconsistent third season, it looked like this show was destined for the position of highly entertaining yet not quite amazing show that will be on for years to come. However, it seemed to find its footing a bit better in season 4, telling a few good arcs, while maintaining very good episodic character pieces. The Walking Dead tells the story of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) as the leader of a group of survivors in zombie apocalypse Georgia. At its best, The Walking Dead is a poignant look at survival and the loss of humanity in grueling times. The show constantly asks the question of how far people can go to in such horrific times, and still maintain their humanity. At its worst, The Walking Dead is an okay written action zombie killing fest. What the most recent season did best was mix in great character episodes (that made us care about secondary characters that in the past felt like background scenery), while still providing plenty of action that finally felt like the stakes could get no higher. In my favorite episode of the first part of the season, Hershel is racing against a flu virus to save many in their camp. “Internment” is a truly tense episode of television that excels on the strength of Hershel, who developed into perhaps the show’s strongest character. Without revealing any spoilers, the mid season finale gave us a devastating moment that changed the course of the show. With many of our main characters separated into smaller groups for this second part of the season, the show finally found a more consistent rhythm, telling character based stories. Characters like Bob, Sasha, Tyreese, Carol, and Beth became the center point, and as important to our enjoyment of the show as the constants of Rick, Carl, Glenn, Maggie, and Daryl. The show worked really well as a more ensemble driven story, and I have faith that the current direction of the show will continue to succeed. Although I might consider a few of my honorable mentions to be “better” shows (whatever the fuck that means), The Walking Dead deserves its spot on this list because of how entertaining it can be, and because it seems to be at the best point of its run right now.

9. Orphan Black (BBC America, 2nd season currently airing on Saturday nights)

This is perhaps one of the most original and fun shows I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. It’s actually a pretty difficult show to explain in merely plot details, but to get the idea of it, it’s a sci-fi show that may or may not have clones. Now that completely short sells what Orphan Black is all about. Tatiana Maslany stars in multiple roles including Sarah, an English grifter; Allison, a suburban soccer mom; Cosima, a young scientifically minded student, and Helena, a crazy religious murderer. I know, this sounds like a lot to take in. But Orphan Black is just amazing. It succeeds not only on its star performance from Tatiana Maslany, who is of course fantastic. But it is also an interesting concept, that takes many twists and turns along the way of its 10 episode first season. It is about as fun a show I can think of to binge watch. We begin the series with Sarah Manning, an English grifter who sees a young woman, who looks identical to her, commit suicide in front of a train. As she investigates just who this woman was, with the help of her foster brother Felix, she begins to unravel a mystery deeper than she could have imagined. Part of the exciting first season has her impersonating Beth, the dead woman whose identity she steals. It turns out that Beth was a police officer involved in her own complicated case. Some of the fun of the early episodes is seeing Sarah working on her American accent to properly fool Beth’s partner Art. Again, I find this show difficult to talk about without giving away too much plot, but it is a severely underappreciated show. While having a presence online, especially among sci-fi fans, I’ve heard little about it elsewhere. Tatiana Maslany was entirely overlooked at last year’s Emmys, and she is continuing to dazzle in the current second season. She is perhaps giving television’s best performance right now. And yes, I can say this with a bit more confidence with Matthew McConaughey’s run on True Detective over. How Maslany can so easily go from the complex and different emotions of multiple characters is fascinating. This show is pretty easy to catch up on, with a short first season that is currently available on demand and also on Amazon Prime. I highly recommend, as it is truly one of the most enjoyable first seasons out there.

8. Veep (HBO, 3rd season currently airing)

This is the first of two comedies on my list, and very much deserves this spot. Veep tells the story of Vice President Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis Dreyfuss, who is so hilarious in the role) and her staff as they navigate the world of Washington politics. The first season mostly sees Meyer and her staff trying to maximize their power in Washington, handling any responsibility the president throws their way. However, by the current season, the landscape has changed as Meyer is in the running to become the next president. The idea of a campaign has provided plenty of new laughs. Meyer is somewhere between a charming and cunning politician, and a walking gaffe waiting to happen. She’s obviously knowledgeable in the political game of Washington, yet sometimes still seems like she doesn’t entirely have a handle on it. Most of her operation is handled by her chief of staff Amy. Mike, her communications director, and Dan, her deputy communications director also round out her more important advisers. The world of Washington in Veep doesn’t seem far too off from how it may really work. However, it is clearly an exaggerated and vulgar version of it. Every single person in Veep’s Washington is capable of a brilliant insult or comeback. And that’s what makes the show so fun. You won’t go a scene without hearing a fuck or catching a hilarious insult. I don’t think there’s a show on television right now that makes me laugh out loud as often per episode. Many of these laughs come at the expense of Jonah Ryan, the White House’s liaison to the Vice President’s  office. He is a tall, awkward, and extremely annoying man who over emphasizes his importance to everyone else. Many of the funniest moments on the show seem to revolve around Jonah, especially when he’s in a back and forth with either Dan or Mike, or when Selina puts him in his place. Veep is a perfect show for our current political climate. It doesn’t try to take a heavy handed look at the stagnancy there, or even try to moralize any issues. Instead, it just accepts that politics is politics as usual, so let’s just make fun of the whole thing.

7. Justified (FX, 5 seasons)

This is the part of the list where I think the order can be pretty interchangeable. I would say spots 5-7 on this list can all move a little, depending on how much I like the current season of each. Justified is one of the most fun shows on television. It stars Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a deputy US Marshal who is quick on the trigger and plays by his own rules. Set in Harlan County, Kentucky, it is a great look at a different kind of community than those normally seen on television. Our characters are either members of the Marshal’s service, or those whose actions have them in direct opposition to them. For example, Raylan’s biggest nemesis is Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, who since his days as Shane on The Shield is television’s most underrated actor), one of television’s more interesting characters of the past few years. He doesn’t entirely act as an antagonist, because we often find ourselves rooting for Boyd to prevail in one way or another. The show’s strongest seasons are ones with defined and fulfilling season long arcs, such as the second and the fourth. The second season has almost a feel similar to The Wire, as Raylan and company are dealing with the the Bennett clan, led by mother Maggie, who leads the marijuana business in the area, and also strikes a deal with a large mining company that can negatively affect the entire community. We get an understanding of these country people in Harlan in this season, similar to how the streets of Baltimore gave us so much insight on The Wire. What makes Justified stand out when it’s at its best, is just how funny the show is capable of being. Despite its season long stories, Raylan also often finds himself involved in minor comedic encounters, normally with idiotic residents of Kentucky. When these two aspects of the show are working together, it’s about as entertaining as television can get. We’re never too far removed from a dramatic moment, yet can find ourselves completely amused and laughing throughout almost every episode. Raylan’s boss Art, played with ease by Nick Searcy, also provides plenty of the show’s wittiest lines. The most recent season was not the show’s best (but still great), which is perhaps why it is a bit lower on this list than it could have been. Still, Justified is capable of being television’s best crime show, and hopefully its final season next year can elevate it.

6. The Americans (FX, 2nd season currently airing)

This is a perfect example of a show’s current output elevating its status on the list. While I really enjoyed this show’s first season, the second season has been amazing. The Americans is about two Soviet spies who are deep undercover in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s America. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are two KGB agents who have been living in the country for years, pretending to be a happily married couple. They speak no Russian, and have no discernible accent. To all the world, they are merely a suburban couple who run a travel agency. Further embedding themselves in their cover, they even have two children together, who are completely unaware of their parents’ secret lives. In the pilot episode, an FBI agent who works in counter intelligence, moves across the street from the spies, complicating their situation even more. The show is an amazing character study, on top of being an exhilarating spy drama. The action is never excessive, and the story is truly about the two main characters, and the toll their secret professional lives has taken on both of them. Their entire life is a lie, including their marriage, yet how do these characters react when emotions begin to feel real, and their life has led to unintended consequences for not only them but also their very real children? It’s an amazing concept and provides an in-depth look at the troubles of relationships, even one that begins as a falsehood. The second season has completely upped the ante on the story, as we see our lead characters in more danger than ever. We begin to see the the cost of lost innocent lives from the the things that people do for their cause. This has also taken such a toll on our main characters. Furthermore, their children, Paige and Henry, could end up victims in their life of espionage, or even discover their true nature. One of the questions that the second season (and the show as a whole) asks is how well we can truly know people, even those we love. Paige knows that there are things about her parents she doesn’t understand, but there is no doubt about the devastation she would feel upon learning the entire truth. The second season also continues to deal with the politics and the Cold War of the 1980s, as Elizabeth and Philip are entangled in their most dangerous operation to date. The show, while excelling as a character drama, like I’ve said, is also a lot more. I find it to be extremely effective in the way it deals with plenty of themes that other television shows right now have handled. For example, I think I prefer The Americans’ portrayal of espionage, secrecy and family over that of Homeland’s, especially by the latter show’s third season. (Homeland’s first season might be stronger than either of The Americans, but inconsistency since leaves it off this list). Furthermore, as an extended view of American and Soviet politics in the Cold War, The Americans seems like a better political show than House of Cards. While these two shows have gained far more popularity and buzz lately, The Americans has quietly become one of television’s best shows. The first season is currently available on Amazon Prime, and its second has only a few episodes remaining. By the end of this season, I can only imagine thinking even higher of it. When 2014 comes to an end, I have no doubt that this show will be very high on any list I might create talking about just the best of the year. Do I like it more than the shows above it on this list? Not just yet, but its 2014 season might just be better than any of theirs.

Stay tuned for the top 5 of my list, coming soon.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Best Shows on Television Right Now: Honorable Mentions

I promised to write a revised list of my top ten favorite shows on television right now, and it has taken me a bit longer than I hoped, but I've narrowed the list down. So before getting that list out, here is the prelude to that list, where I mention a few shows that missed out on the top 10, but deserve a mention from me, as I truly do really like all three of them.