Notes on the beautiful game by Donavan Hall (@theangler)


16 November 2011. Globalization of the heart. A few years ago I started writing about craft beer and brewing. I had just moved to Long Island and I wanted to find out what my new home had to offer in the way of local flavor. The global brands were present on the shelves and a few local offerings could be found, but it was slim pickings back then. I decided that someone needed to do something to encourage the local brewing culture on Long Island, so I started writing about local craft beer. I tried to convince my fellow beer enthusiasts that drinking imported beer (from California, Colorado, and Europe) was bad for the local beer culture. “Support the local brewers” became my mantra.

Switch gears to my other interest: soccer, or football (as most of the world calls it). Moving to New York also put me within cheering distance of a Major League Soccer team (then called) the New York / New Jersey MetroStars. I wasn't a soccer fanatic back then, so I confined my support for the MetroStars by meeting up with another soccer-loving friend and watching as many of the matches on TV as I could. All MLS matches streamed over the Internet for free, so I could watch any MLS match I wanted, but I stuck with the MetroStars since they were the local team.

My soccer-loving, or should I say, football-loving friend, Franz, is an Arsenal supporter. Franz is Swiss, and is so cool that everyone has taken to calling him “the Franz.” The Franz lived in London for ten years, so he has a legitimate claim to being an Arsenal fan. Because of the Franz, I started watching Arsenal and other English Premiership matches. And from the Franz, I learned to hate Manchester United because they were the enemy and evil. Actually, I didn't really feel enmity for Man U except when they played Arsenal and I was with the Franz in the pub cheering on the Gunners. I supported Arsenal when I was with my friend, because Arsenal was (in a way) his local club. And without realizing it, my support of Arsenal was the beginning of my transformation into a global fan.

For three years the Franz and I enjoyed our football bonding activities. He had someone with whom to share his enthusiasm for Arsenal, and I had someone willing to watch the MetroStars with me. But our time in Eden was doomed to end. When the Red Bull beverage company purchased my beloved MetroStars (9 March 2006), they “rebranded” the team with the corporate logo. There was no way in hell that I was going to root for a team named after a vile canned drink. I still tried to catch the odd Arsenal match with Franz at Global Sports Cafe, but Franz had met up with another bloke from England, and an Arsenal supporter, who was just as fanatical as Franz so Franz didn't need me.

By that time I was in full time beer writing mode, blogging and freelancing about craft beer, so I didn't miss soccer that much. When I wrote about the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, I did so with more attention to the beer served at the venues than about the level of play. Besides the US performed dismally that year (aside from a 1-1 draw with Italy in the Group stage), winning no games and flying home before the Round of 16.

Today, I reluctantly support the Red Bulls (more about this later) following them casually throughout the regular season and then trying to catch as many playoff matches as possible.

The US National Team is one I've supported since the 1994 World Cup when the US played Brazil on Independence Day in the Round of 16 and lost 0-1. Despite the result (which wasn't unexpected -- Brazil went on to win the World Cup that year) the fact that the US Team made it through the Group stage and then performed well against the world's top team energized not only me, but new soccer fans across the country. Building on the US Team's success, the fledgling MLS took off soon after that -- a story that's been told elsewhere.

My European friends all agree that the MLS is a second or even third tier league with the top leagues in the world being the English Premiership, Italy's Serie A, and Spain's La Liga. Steadily (and quietly?) the MLS has been raising the level of its game, drawing top name European players like David Beckham (LA Galaxy) and Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls). Still there's the stigma that the MLS only gets these big name players after they've peaked professionally. That might be the case, but their presence on American clubs is changing how the game is played in the US.

Recently, I was able to watch the two leg conference final with the Red Bulls against the LA Galaxy. The second match was a corker. An excellent showcase for MLS soccer and a demonstration that professional US soccer won't remain a second class league for too many more years. However, transformation of the MLS from a league of farm and retirement clubs to one of the top leagues in the world will come at a cost. And I'll be writing about that transformation over the next few of years (leading up to 2014). [Hint: The authors of Soccernomics cite as a reason of soccer's success in the US the absence of a strong major soccer league. A stronger MLS might hurt amateur interest in the sport.]

The National Team and the World Cup are extremely important events in the US. When the National Team does well in the World Cup, soccer blooms at home (for a time, good performance translates into a positive boost for the sport). We saw what the success at the 2002 World Cup did for MLS attendance. And, last year's performance in South Africa by Team USA gave another boost to soccer in this country. That's why the National Team's performance is important to anyone in this country who loves the sport.

I watched the US vs Slovenia match yesterday and was both pleased and concerned by what I saw. Jürgen Klinsmann took over as head coach of the US team on 29 July 2011. I've always liked Bob Bradley, the former head coach (now coaching Egypt's national team), but I think some new ideas are good for the US team as they get ready for 2014. During the first half of the match against Slovenia the US played an impressive attacking game, but lagged on defense. During the second half, the defense improved a little, but the US attacking strength dissipated. The fact that the US held on to win 3-2 felt more like luck than dominance. Slovenia never gave up control of the match and looked dangerous throughout.

Klinsmann's US Team is 2-4-1 since August. I'll be waiting patiently to see what happens when the US Team has to play their World Cup qualifying matches next summer. [Note: Because of the important MLS Cup match, Landon Donovan didn't play in the matches against France or Slovenia.]

Tuesday, 22 November. The MLS Cup narrative. Last Sunday evening, the LA Galaxy won the MLS Cup, beating the orange-wearing Houston Dynamo 1 to 0 off a Keane / Donovan combination in the second half. Before the match, the commentators delighted in telling the story of one man, David Beckham, and how the 16th MLS Cup would be Beckham's crowning moment, the highlight in his already star-studded career. Will this be Beckham's last match with the LA Galaxy? The ultimate in a five year stint with the MLS's top club?

Prior to the match, former soccer star cum commentator Alexi Lalas wrote, "…Sunday will be about David Beckham. It may be his last MLS match --- and his most important. Fair or not, his legacy in America will go a long way to being defined by those 90 minutes." But what we saw during those 90 minutes was an LA Galaxy side that failed to dominate, a fatigued Robbie Keane who just couldn't seem to stay on-side, and a rickety Beckham (apparently nursing a torn hamstring, but on the field anyway because he had to -- his legacy at stake). To be fair the Galaxy did control the match, but the Dynamo (with better luck) could have walked away with it. The real story was about the electric Landon Donovan who (after playing quietly in the conference finals) burst onto the field and put on a masterful display of truly world-class football. The MLS and the Galaxy got their happy ending, but it wasn't a storybook finish where the crowned prince unambiguously triumphs.

The sub-text to the Sunday's MLS Cup narrative is that since Beckham's arrival in the US, the MLS has become a respectable soccer league with world class teams. "The LA Galaxy is a global brand," said Alexi Lalas in the pre-match commentary. In the soccer world, being a global brand means that you're up there with Man U, Chelsea, AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Arsenal. A few voices protest that it was not Beckham who single-handedly carried the MLS onto the stage of global football, but the temptation to over simplify the story is too great to resist. American soccer needed a messiah and Beckham is the chosen. And clearly the MLS wants to vault one (or several) of its clubs into the realm of global brand.

Thursday, 24 November 2011. The writing life. Since mid-October I've been working on a set of four interrelated novels, my Eden Quartet. So I shelved the blog writing. And writing for The Angler just wasn't happening.

Since last May I'd been testing out a few ideas for Donavan's Brain. First, I thought I'd write an unfolding, continuous novel, but what happened was that I started writing two books, one about cultural identity and storytelling and another about French film. The first book, Red Neck, is mostly done. The one about French film is still in the works, but on hold at the moment while I finish up a few fiction projects, and lay the groundwork for a new project, a book about soccer, the sport that most of the world calls football.

A spectator's guide. Books are a way for me to organize my life. When I am interested in a subject, I naturally seek out books on that topic and read. When I want to understand the subject of my interest, I naturally start to outline the book I'm going to write.

The other day I decided to write a book about soccer. I've got a working title and several thousand words already. The process of writing about soccer has given me an idea for this web site, my blog and my magazine --- I could write a book called The Complete Footballer. Basically, the book will be a spectator's guide to the game and to world soccer.

The Complete Footballer wouldn't be a dry reference book. I'd want to tell a story, to construct a narrative that will introduce the average American (who knows little about soccer) to the world's sport. I would follow a few narrative threads which will culminate in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Given that the 2014 World Cup is the destination, obviously the first thread will be the US National Team. The US National Team and its run up to the World Cup has the potential to give the sport another, much needed boost in this country. A second thread will be the story of the New York Cosmos.

Fan-cosmo-goric. Not that I followed soccer much in the 70s and early 80s (I didn't), but I did read the sports page in the newspaper every day. I was probably 8 years old (the same age as my son is now) when I decided that the New York Cosmos were my favorite soccer team. When I was 8, I thought it was important to have a favorite team in each sport. While my father was reading the national and world news, I would study the sport page diligently, checking all the box scores, and reading the league tables. When I saw the New York Cosmos at the top of the North American Soccer League's league table, I'd smile contentedly. I'd never seen them play a single match. I'd only seen match highlights and clips of Pelé (the world's greatest soccer player) on TV programs like the Wide World of Sports and PBS's Soccer Made in Germany. But the Cosmos were my soccer team.

When the MLS got going as part of the US's bid to host the 1994 World Cup I was sad that the Cosmos wouldn't be part of it. I didn't have any attachment to anything other than the name.

I didn't start following the MLS until 2003 after I'd moved to Long Island. I decided that I should support the "local" team, the New York / New Jersey MetroStars. When the MetroStars were rebranded as the "Red Bulls" I lost interest in the club and stopped watching their matches.

My aversion to the Red Bulls brand was mitigated (somewhat) by the arrival of Thierry Henry, the former Arsenal footballer who I knew from my days of watching English Premier League matches with Franz at the pub. I decided that I would watch Thierry Henry play football and just ignore the fact that he was wearing the logo of a nasty-tasting beverage.

It was Franz who told me that the Cosmos were back and that they had their sights on being one of the MLS expansion teams.

I thought it was a little premature to declare myself a Cosmos fan, especially since the date I'd heard for their MLS entry was the 2014 season. However, I just realized this morning that the Cosmos U-23 team will be one of the 2012 expansion teams in the USL-PDL. The what? The United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League (or just PDL).

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