It's hard to sugarcoat what happened at the end of the Red Bulls' 2010 season.
Not saying their breakout regular season and Eastern Conference title wasn't impressive. It was. But at the end of it all, you had a team in a new arena, a goal up heading into the second leg of the conference semifinals. You had a team needing only a draw to set up a conference final in the best stadium MLS has ever seen.
And the Red Bulls fell on their faces, losing at home to a San Jose team they should have swept aside with ease. No conference final at Red Bull Arena. An offseason to reflect.
Saturday night, we get a first glimpse at what should be the best season in the history of the franchise that used to be called the MetroStars. Let's kick it off with two words:
No excuses from a team that's got Rafael Marquez and Thierry Henry, without a doubt the best tandem in league history when it comes to big-game experience and trophies won.
No excuses from a coach, Hans Backe, who's fun to be around and as quotable as anyone I've ever interviewed whose first language is not English. Backe has already said he's more interested in winning the Supporters Shield for the league's best record than the MLS Cup, which is the title the league puts the most stock (and money) in. Personally, I don't have a problem with Backe saying that the points title is the true indicator of who's got the best team. I happen to agree. What I do say to Backe is, "Go out and win it."
And, finally, no excuses from the fans who clamored for years and years that if you built them a great stadium in an urban environment -- a stadium that would be more accessible by train than by car, a stadium with great acoustics, a roof and a grass field -- they would come out and support this soccer team in the nation's toughest market to crack.
So far, quite frankly, as much as I've heard nothing but rave reviews for Red Bull Arena (aside from the normal Year 1 glitches), I have not been impressed with attendance.
In 15 years in MLS, no fan base has moaned and groaned more about the lack of star power and lack of attractive football and lack of winning (OK, maybe that's justified) than the fans in my native metropolis. If you are as true to the game as you claim to be, here's some novel advice: Support this team beginning this weekend. Don't wait around.
Seriously, when you look at the buzz that expansion teams have created, and the big-time atmospheres we've seen in places like Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia -- and what we're going to see in the coming weeks from Vancouver and Portland -- it certainly makes New York/New Jersey fans look like a bunch of entitled snobs.
That needs to end.
But will this team deliver? It should. The 10 field players are as good as any in MLS. You've got Marquez and American Tim Ream in central defense. You've got a nifty midfield distributor in Joel Lindpere, probably the fastest winger in the league in Dane Richards, and with Henry and youngster Juan Agudelo, an exciting strike force. In fact, if Henry is on, and attracts the attention of defenders, Agudelo could simply explode. It helps that Lindpere and Richards have shown a knack for scoring out of the midfield, because that keeps opposing back lines even more honest in the way they set up.
Choosing between keepers Bouna Coundoul and Greg Sutton probably won't be easy for Backe, but steadiness is really all that should be required from the Bulls' keeper. If the winner of the keeper battle can avoid the egregious mistake, all should be fine.
It all starts Saturday, and the Red Bulls are thrown a favor immediately, as they face a Seattle team that opened its season on Tuesday and had to fly cross-country. I would cut Sigi Schmid's Sounders a bit of slack because that turnaround is a legitimate excuse.
The Red Bulls are afforded no such luxury. No excuses this season.
So, Fernando Torres said he won't celebrate if he scores against Liverpool this weekend, and folks are acting like that's "respectful" and "classy." Chalk this up as one thing this American sports writer just doesn't get.
I go back to my story on Giuseppe Rossi before last year's World Cup, and I remember reading message-board rants from fans who felt it was "disrespectful" that Rossi celebrated his wonder goal against the U.S. in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. I went back and watched the goal again and again, and all I saw was Rossi running, pumping his fists and jumping into the arms of his teammates. I didn't see him flip off the U.S. bench or anything. What ticked people off about that?
Honestly, were I fan of Liverpool, I would probably find it more disrespectful if Torres scored and simply trotted back to the middle of the park like it was nothing. If I'm sitting in the Kop, I'm more ticked off if he treats a goal against my club like it's no big deal.
MLS draft revisited
Opinions are like
In the early days of ESPN The Magazine, we were handed T-shirts with those words on the back. The message we were trying to send to our readers was, sure, we've got opinions, you've got opinions, doesn't make either one of us right.
Of course, the opinions of sports fans are typically fueled by passion, so it's not realistic to think there won't be heated disagreements from time to time.
But I'm here this week to confess, when I offer up an opinion on what's right and what's wrong with Major League Soccer, it always should be read with a disclaimer: "I'm not claiming to have all the answers."
Take, for example, my blog a few weeks ago that I want the see the MLS SuperDraft abandoned. I tried to let you all know that's my feeling across all sports. Well, maybe not the NBA, where one player can change a franchise completely around. But, in general, I do not like the idea of players being told where they have to play. I especially do not like the idea in baseball, where I think a good college pitcher should be able to find a major league team in need of a pitcher, rather than be at the mercy of the draft.
This also goes for MLS, where entry-level salaries are so low that it seems to make sense that players should be able to choose the team that best suits them, as opposed to the team that may want them, or may just want to keep them from another team. It's my opinion that the system would balance itself out over time. That a free and open market would clear the way for teams to seek what they need and players to seek what they want.
What I failed to point out in that post, however, was that MLS has taken a great step with its homegrown players initiative, where clubs are allowed to sign a player to his first professional contract if he has played at least one year in their youth system. I think this could well be the first step toward eliminating the need for a draft.
Call me Dr. Killjoy.
Or just call me a soccer pragmatist. Because each day when I hear or read about another MLS coach promising to play "attractive, attacking soccer," I laugh to myself.
It's all lip service. Sorry to new Portland boss John Spencer, who said it here.
And sorry to new Vancouver coach Teitur Thordarson, who said it here.
And again, to Aron Winter, who promises to bring AAS to Toronto. He said it here.
About the only new man in charge I've been able find with a realistic view on AAS is Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser. "I've never heard a coach hired in this league who didn't say, 'I'm going to play attractive, attacking soccer,'" Fraser said. "But I think there are some keys to how you get there. You don't just wake up and play attractive, attacking soccer."
No, you don't just wake up playing AAS. And you may go into a season intending to play AAS, only to realize after your team has lost so many games trying to play AAS that you have no choice but to do something completely crazy. What's that?
For whatever reason, soccer fans and journalists alike seem to think that AAS is something you can create with a formation or a philosophy. New coaches love to talk the talk to appease those two parties.
Sorry. To play AAS, you need players. And even players who are told to make the good passes, to love the ball and to get forward are not going to keep attempting to do those things if they are failing. Why would they? There is a scoreboard for a reason. Winning matters.
It's a part of soccer I've never understood as a writer who's covered other sports. You wouldn't expect a baseball team without power hitters to hit home runs. You wouldn't expect a basketball team without good outside shooting to launch a bunch of 3s. And you wouldn't expect a football team without a good quarterback to pass often. But in soccer, we think there needs to be a mandate for all teams to play AAS.
It ties into our love of the creative player. Everyone wants players they perceive to be creative on the field, but no one ever seems to assess if those players are able to create in the face of high pressure, at top speed. It's one thing to create in friendly matches, or against inferior opponents. It's something completely different to create plays in matches where the defending is fierce and the speed is blinding. What's a creative player who cannot make plays in those types of games? The word that comes to mind is "useless."
So, good luck to all the new MLS coaches and their pledges to play AAS. But remember: If you keep trying to play AAS without the players, you'll soon be unemployed.
Call me Dr. Killjoy.
It is, quite simply, the most interesting team in MLS.
The Galaxy, I'm talking about here. And they've cemented that status with me with the official signing of Juan Pablo Angel this week. Coach Bruce Arena and the Galaxy are all-in now, three designated players on the field, and will be the team to watch in 2011.
Of course, a team that looks good on paper still has to prove it looks good on grass (or FieldTurf when it plays in Seattle or Foxborough) before it can say it's for real. And, for Arena, the challenge is going to be the same as it ever was.
To get the best out of Landon Donovan.
Because we learned last year that while David Beckham will hit the best dead balls in MLS until the day he hangs up his boots, the Galaxy were just fine without him. I could probably argue that the one move that didn't go in L.A.'s favor this offseason was that Beckham didn't find his way back to England, not just on a transfer, but for good.
For me, Beckham's time in MLS has run its course. He came, he sold shirts and tickets, he scored from the midfield line, and I don't think there's much left for him to give to L.A. or to MLS. Don't take that commentary as "Beckham is a dog," because I don't feel that way at all. I've always felt that for all the star quality Beckham brings off the field, on the field he's pretty much a blue-collar player. It's just that L.A. might be better off with a guy in Beckham's spot who's capable of covering more ground and is just a bit hungrier.
I could say it's Beckham's age, but he and Angel are both 35. Which brings us back to Donovan.
At the time of the Beckham signing, I was pretty well ridiculed for writing that as big of a signing for MLS as Beckham was, Donovan was still the best and most important player on the Galaxy. All these years later, it's still the same for me. I like Arena's acquisitions, including 36-year-old Frankie Hejduk. And I think Chad Barrett is a great project for Arena and assistant coach Dave Sarachan. Barrett has some talent. I like Adam Cristman.
But the Galaxy in 2011 go as far as Donovan carries them. It's a decade-old song now, but no one in this league creates as much as LD -- when he's right. No one in this league ignites a team like LD -- when he's right. And what about when he's just a bit off? That's when the Galaxy start to look a lot like the rest of MLS.
And not nearly as interesting.
Thoughts on the MLS Draft? I hate the draft. I want the draft abandoned.
Not just in MLS, but in all sports. I think it's an idea that's come and gone. If I were the sports czar, it would be a free market for all athletes in all sports.
The obvious argument against eliminating the draft is that only the teams with the most money would get the good players. But I don't see it quite that way. I think if teams were allowed to recruit and sign amateur players, it would put a greater emphasis on scouting. I think we would see a lot less consensus opinions -- a.k.a. "shared notes" -- on players. We'd see a lot more hometown heroes than we see now, because I think it would be worth a lot of money to a lot of young players to be able to play for their hometown team.
In MLS, we see a bit of this with the youth academies. But I wonder if, down the road, the league that had always deemed it necessary to use an American sports model would ever consider abandoning the draft? It could work.
Of course, this would require coordination between clubs and the league office. I'd propose that the players who are now draft-eligible would sign an MLS contract, but the dollar figure would not be set. So if the Red Bulls, for example, have a player they really want because they think he's either a guy who can help them right now, or that he's a player who will be ready to replace an aging starter in two years, they can come up with the amount of money they want to pay that player, so long as they fit him under the cap. It's a pipe dream, I know, but it's an idea (I have been telling my baseball colleagues for years) that I'd love to see seriously broken down and analyzed.
As for the MLS Draft, I've never been one to partake in the mock drafts, or the post-draft grades, because I've yet to find an expert. More than any other sport I cover, evaluations of soccer players are subjective. The best coaches and technical directors have a clear picture of what they want and need in a player, and how a player will fit into their team, and runs counter to what the observers see. Through the years in MLS, many of the best draft picks have not been players who impressed at the combine, or players who put up gaudy stats in college, but players who had that "something else" that no one noticed.
So I'll leave the "winners and losers" talk to the guys who have to fill the airwaves and the column space and, as I've done for 15 years now, wait and see how things play out.
And hope that some day the whole exercise will be abandoned.
Two different approaches on display in two different MLS coaching announcements today. It will be fascinating to watch which philosophy pays off in the end.
For Chivas USA, which took forever to name a successor to Martin Vasquez, Robin Fraser will be introduced as the head man. Unless you believe a head coach must have head-coaching experience, it's difficult to find fault in this hire. Fraser was not only an excellent and cerebral player in the league for 10 years, but he also paid his dues as an assistant coach under Jason Kreis at Real Salt Lake for the past four seasons. He is a student of the game and exactly the type of hire that makes the league look good.
The bigger question with Chivas USA is going to be its game plan for making a truly bad club better in 2011. All the hopes and dreams that this could be a team with a real Mexican identity seem to have been lost since its inaugural season, when a group of players was forced upon then-coach Thomas Rongen.
The best hope for the club would be to find two or three significant impact players from Mexico and structure the rest of the team as any other club in MLS would structure itself. That is, with the best available players from wherever they might come from.
In Toronto, the appointment of Aron Winter must have been inspired by the success of Hans Backe with Red Bull New York this season. Because, before Backe, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a coach with no background in the American game who had come into MLS and embraced the league's unique setup and succeeded.
I'm leery of Winter not because of anything other than what I read about Toronto FC's plan to mimic the Ajax system. I know this will draw the ire of our Style Council, but I'm a believer that you have to play the style that suits your players. And you have to play a style that is going to put up points. Saying you're going to mimic any one system is nothing but lip service until that style results in points.
The fans of TFC certainly deserve a winner and Winter was, without a doubt, a great winning player. I remember visiting Inter Milan in 1998 when I was writing about Ronaldo and watching Winter run that team's midfield. He was certainly a coach on the field. If he can surround himself with the right people to help him put together a solid roster on MLS terms, and be adaptable -- applying the same leadership skills he used as a player -- there's no reason Winter can't be a successful coach.
Two different approaches for two teams that need to take a step forward in 2011.
The following is my final blog post on remembering 2010. It's actually a story I wrote for The Magazine some time ago that never ran. I've updated some of it, but rewritten very little. Happy New Year to everyone who loves the Beautiful Game.
How could I have known my brother and his only son would cause my family such pain and suffering? I ask myself this all the time. Were there warning signs I missed? Things I could have done to stop them? Is there something I could have said? All I know for sure is my brother and my nephew continue to subject me, my mother and father, my wife and two sons, my other brother and his wife and three boys, to an agonizing, emotional hell.
Two and a half years ago, as I sat on the outskirts of London, watching them through binoculars from several hundred yards away, it was particularly bad. I squirmed in my seat, wondering what my brother was thinking. I threw my head back in disgust when my nephew made yet another bad decision. I tried to remain calm, but couldn't. I felt sick.
Even though my brother Bob is six years older than I am, I often wonder, should I have intervened in the early 1980s? That's when he decided to squander his Princeton degree, quitting Proctor and Gamble's executive training program -- not to mention the opportunity to help market a really phenomenal instant cookie mix -- after less than a year to become, of all things, a college soccer coach. He started out at Ohio University at 22, when he was a grad student in sports administration and Ohio University needed a coach. He was an assistant at Virginia a year later and, at 24, returned to Princeton to coach a team that included guys he'd played with. We figured it was just a phase.
But after a dozen years of coaching at his alma mater, when you figured coaching soccer would clearly be out of his system, what did he do? He packed up his wife, his son, Michael (then all of nine years old), and two young daughters and headed down to Washington, D.C., to become not a head coach, but an assistant for a team that would be called D.C. United in a league that would be called Major League Soccer. A league, by the way, that was expected to survive about as long as it takes to play the first 0-0 game. At least at Princeton he had security and his family was surrounded by academics.
Looking back, that's kind of funny. Academics. Now, obviously Bob is a smart guy. Banged the SATs, highly ranked in his class and all that. But the only subject that ever really moved him was something most considered a foreign language -- soccer.
Bob, known as "Rob" to family, spent two years in D.C. and we did not see much of each other. But, from what I heard, Michael did nothing but hang around the D.C. United team, picking up stray soccer balls, polishing players' shoes for a buck a pair, joining in the drills and keep-away games from time to time. The only time I ever got to see him play soccer was when he was nine, when he visited our family for Thanksgiving and was asked to guest-play in a youth tournament in New Jersey. All I remember from that tourney is that Michael missed a penalty kick and Bob laughed, saying Michael had been working on bending the ball with DC United's Bolivian midfielder Marco Etcheverry, and, hey, why not try it in a game? With two boys of my own now -- both youth soccer players -- I cannot say I have seen too many dads who laugh when their son experiments with something tricky and misses a penalty kick in a tournament. But that only begins to explain Bob and Michael's unique relationship. And the pain it has caused us.
OK, I'll lose the sarcasm for a bit. The truth is, my brother and nephew have brought me and my family more thrills and proud moments than anything, by a long shot. For those who haven't figured this plot line out yet, Bob is the head coach of the U.S. national team. His son Michael is a 24-year-old midfielder who has been playing professionally since the age of 16 and currently earns his living playing for Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany.
From where I sit most days, they are a true American soccer success story. My brother, now 52, fell in love with the game as a boy, even though my father was a former college baseball and football player who knew nothing of the world's game. Bob passed along that passion to his son, and together they've made the game their life's work. We've got this home video from Christmas Eve 1991, and there's three-year-old Michael staring into the camera, telling us what he wants Santa to deliver the following morning. "I want a soccer ball," he says, actually pronouncing soccer as "shocker." Then, he adds, "I want soccer shorts, soccer shin guards, soccer socks, a soccer goal " When the video cuts to Christmas morning and Santa has answered his wishes, he immediately dons the gear, abandons countless other wrapped boxes under the tree and heads outside on a frigid morning to take shots on Uncle Jeff, the goalkeeper. To see him now, whether it's watching him play in Germany on my laptop, or playing for the U.S., matching up against the likes of Italy, Brazil and Spain, how could I not be proud?
But with pride comes pain and suffering. Returning to the opening scene, at England's Wembley Stadium in May 2008, I realized that I could no longer write objectively about American soccer, which I had done for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com since 1998. Even though I sat in the press box with a press credential, my heart, my head and my stomach told me I was out of place. The press box is a place for journalists to not only watch the game objectively, but also to crack wise with one another about what's happening on the field, on the sidelines and such.
From covering four World Cups before 2010, I am friends with many writers who cover the national team regularly and they should be allowed to partake in the usual rips and jabs without worrying about what they're saying in front of the coach's brother and the center midfielder's uncle. The 2008 friendly against England -- a 2-0 loss -- was not a good one, for Bob or Michael. The U.S. team looked disjointed, Michael made a number of poor passes. At least that's what I remember, because I spent much of the night with head in hands.
I would suspect that diehard, lifelong fans of teams can relate to about 1/100th of what I'm describing here. I'm a Red Sox fan and can remember when the Yankees beat the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS, I couldn't sleep for three nights. But I could laugh at myself and ask, "Why do I care so much about a bunch of millionaire ballplayers who have no idea who I am?" Try mixing a little blood into your regular, diehard fandom. Read a few Internet message boards, where fans are repeatedly accusing your brother of nepotism. Enter the blogosphere where writers are calling for your brother's head on a platter -- after a win! Heck, go to ESPN.com's own soccer coverage, where the consensus has always been that Bob was a bad choice for U.S. coach in 2006. I'm in the business, so I understand the nature of this stuff, but I can't explain it to my 78-year-old parents, much less to my 14- and 12-year-old-sons. It can be brutal.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesEver since he was three years old, Michael has wanted to do just one thing -- play soccer.
I do draw solace from knowing both Bob and Michael are different than I am. While I cannot make it through a U.S. game without downing half a bottle of Maalox, Bob seems no different to me now than when he was preparing Princeton to play Brown or Dartmouth in the 1980s and 1990s, or coaching in MLS from 1998-2006. He's always been serious and intense about his profession. His buzz phrase to the media, and to me as well, has always been about what happens "on the inside" of his team. It's work, it's day-to-day conversations with players, it's brutal honesty. And, most of all, it's private. I respect that privacy and rarely ask him questions about the team or about players. Bob knows what I do for a living and, really, I don't need to spend the rare night when we can sit down for dinner asking him to go on and off the record with what he's saying.
And Michael? Well, I always remember going on a Princeton road trip to the NCAA Tournament in 1995 (Michael was eight) and trying to introduce him to a fried Chick-Fil-A sandwich and waffle fries. Michael opted for a grilled chicken sandwich and a fruit cup, saying, "This is better for a soccer player, Uncle Jeff." Michael played in MLS at 16 and moved to Holland at 17, where he played two seasons in the Dutch First Division for SC Heerenveen. When I asked him what he did for fun, he basically answered, "Play soccer and watch soccer." He lived in a condo close to the team's training ground and ate at the same two or three restaurants every day.
Michael also learned to speak enough Dutch so he could understand the dialogue and jokes inside the dressing room, and even conduct a postgame interview. During his second full season at Heerenveen, playing midfield for an up-tempo team, Michael scored 16 goals in the Eredivisie, more than any American-born soccer player had ever scored in a European first division. When he played against England last year, the British papers were full of stories about Michael making the move to the English Premier League, perhaps even to a big club like Manchester United. I asked him if he really wanted to do that, to leave a place like Heerenveen where he was playing a lot and scoring a lot. "Of course I do," he said. "A player only has one shot at a career. If I get an opportunity to go to a big club, I have to take that chance, even if it means having to prove myself again."
The move that came was not to the EPL, but to the German Bundesliga and Borussia Monchengladbach. Again, he set up near the team's training center, found a rotation of restaurants, started to learn German and continued to study the game of soccer. This past year, he did get engaged, which makes us all happy. There is more to his life than soccer.
In the time since I sat in the Wembley press box, Bob and Michael have been on a ride that probably should've convinced me to switch from Maalox to Dramamine. There were ups -- the U.S. moved through the first stage of World Cup qualifying with a 7-1 record and opened the second and final stage with a 2-0 victory over Mexico, a game in which Michael scored both goals. And there were downs -- a 3-1 loss in Costa Rica and losses to Italy and Brazil to begin the Confederations Cup in South Africa. There was the Perfect Storm escape -- a 3-0 U.S. win over Egypt that, combined with Brazil's 3-0 win over Italy, moved the U.S. into the final four. There was the thrill of the U.S. defeating Spain, the No. 1-ranked team in the world at the time, to advance to the final. But that win was bittersweet because in the 85th minute Michael received a straight red card for a tackle that -- to my eye -- wasn't even a foul. In the final, with Michael in the stands, the U.S. took a 2-0 lead over Brazil into halftime, only to surrender three unanswered goals to lose, 3-2. Friends who'd never watched a full soccer game in their life were calling me, e-mailing me, telling me they were gutted. And they were proud.
But nothing compares to what they put me through in 2010. This time, however, I have a feeling more American fans know what it feels like to be on such a ride.
And for that, all I can say is thanks.
This is the third part of my Remembering 2010 blog. It's a very personal story.
It was May 19 and I'd put all the finishing touches on my travel plans for South Africa. All that was left was, well, all the things that go along with preparing your wife and two sons for the reality that you're going to be far away from home for five weeks.
I was about two weeks away from my departure. The U.S. national team had just arrived to Princeton for training. This was great for me, as it's only an hour from my home. And while I wasn't going to be covering the U.S. in South Africa, it was convenient to have the team nearby and accessible. It was really going to get me into full-on World Cup mode.
But as I was preparing to go to bed, I received an e-mail on my BlackBerry that shook me to the core. This was the day I learned that my friend, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, had been killed in Afghanistan. In an instant, my World Cup mood had changed.
This is a soccer story because John McHugh loved the game, probably more than anything in his life except his family and his country. In the weeks before his departure for Afghanistan, John had asked me jokingly if I needed anyone to carry my bags around South Africa. He told me he was going to be locked in watching the games the entire month. I know he also would've spent the between-games hours kicking the ball around with his 5-year old son, David, and his 18-year-old daughter, Kelly.
Last month, I heard Bill Clinton talk about how his daughter Chelsea's generation was the first group of Americans who fell in love with the game. Seeing that Chelsea is 30 years old and I'm 47, the former president is off by a generation, at least.
Then again, Clinton isn't from New Jersey, like me and John McHugh. Because if you were born in or around 1963 in the Garden State, there's a pretty good chance you fell in love with soccer. John and I played against one another throughout our childhood. And in the summers, we attended multiple camps together. John was always a goalkeeper.
As we went through high school (at rival schools), I don't think I ever played against a better keeper. He was perfect for the position because he was simply born to be a leader. No amount of confusion in the box could get him rattled. It was no surprise when he told us he'd be attending West Point. At Army, he still holds the record for saves in a season.
I found out after he was killed that, after 24 years of service to his country, John was talking about retirement. And what he planned to do next was coach -- specifically, train goalkeepers. Just a few months before he left for Afghanistan, John attended a U.S. goalkeeper training school.
The first people I called when I got the horrible news were my parents. Second was my brother Bob. The next morning, before the U.S. took the field to train, Bob took the time to mention Colonel McHugh's passing to his team and to the media in attendance. I can only hope that some of those words registered with the team as the players put on their U.S. jerseys. No one was looking forward to the World Cup -- and especially the U.S. games -- more than John, but this was a brutal reminder that these are just soccer games.
However, I must admit, as the U.S. scratched and clawed its way to draws with England and Slovenia, and won on Landon Donovan's walk-off goal against Algeria, I felt the Americans had played with a spirit that my friend, Colonel John McHugh, the highest-ranking American officer to be lost in Afghanistan, would have admired greatly.
This is the second part of my Remembering 2010 blog, as I look back on a story I wrote about the rise of African soccer.
The idea was hatched over beers in the East Hotel in Hamburg during the 2006 World Cup. I sat with my friend and colleague Luke Cyphers discussing soccer stories we'd like to write. "Something I've always wanted to cover," I told Luke, "is the African Nations Cup." I was serious, but it was probably 3 a.m., and I couldn't tell you another idea Luke or I came up with that night. But I do recall Luke saying, "That would be incredible."
Issoue Sanogo/AFP/Getty ImagesSupporters voice their support during the Africa Cup of Nations final between Ghana and Egypt.
Fast-forward three years. The Magazine staff is discussing how we should preview the 2010 World Cup. I say we should focus on Africa and how the game has evolved on that continent since the first World Cup in my memory, 1974 in Germany. For some reason, though I was only 8, I had vivid recollection of Zaire losing 9-0 to Yugoslavia. When I thought of the progress countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana had made since then, and with South Africa set to play host, I loved the story.
"Didn't you want to cover the African Nations Cup?" Luke asks, remembering Hamburg, apparently. He then makes a case for me, saying how better to write about the rise of African soccer than by being there for all the sights and sounds of the Nations Cup.
"Well, yeah," I say. "I'd love to cover the Nations Cup."
What happened between that meeting and the day before I left for Luanda, Angola, to watch the final three rounds of the African Nations Cup (or Cup of Nations, as it's sometimes called) is really blurry. I applied for credentials and did not get a response for the longest time. I'd gotten some vague reply about how I should take care of it online (I tried) and given three or four phone numbers and names, none of which seemed to work.
There were moments when I told our soccer editor, Brendan O'Connor, "I don't think it's going to happen." But I kept plugging along, getting a half dozen immunizations, booking flights, trying to book a hotel only to find out that Luanda is the world's most expensive city for foreign business and that hotel rooms were scarce.
And then came the matter of the visa.
ESPN has a service that handles this type of paperwork, but when I said "Angola" to them, there was a hush on the other end of the phone. Then, I swear I heard a gulp. "One of the hardest visas to get," the fellow from the service said. "You need it when?" I think I had about two weeks until I was supposed to go, and I was told this was definitely not a slam dunk. "It's going to take every bit of that," I was told. "It may be too much to ask."
The Cup of Nations, meanwhile, was under way.
That's when I got an e-mail from an old friend, a fellow named Nick Gates, who runs a program called Coaches Across Continents, a non-profit that's done extensive work in Africa. Nick asked me, "Are you still going to Angola after today's news?" No sooner did I go online that I saw that the team bus from Togo had been strafed by gunfire on its way to a training session. I'd been told by many that Angola was not entirely safe, but this was more than I expected to hear. My wife pleaded with me not to go.
As I awaited further word on my paperwork, I got assurance from a lot of folks that I'd be safe in Luanda. ESPN Worldwide Security took special notice of my travel plans and said it'd set me up with security for my stay. But time was slipping away.
It was not until two days before my scheduled departure that I got word that I could go to the Angolan Embassy in New York City and get my visa. And so it happened. I went into the city, got my visa, secured a hotel room (about $350 a night for a room in a guest house), and finally, got word that my credentials to cover the games were in order. The very next day, I was flying from Newark through Brussels to Luanda. It was close to 20 hours all told. When I arrived at around 10 p.m. local time, my security was waiting for me. I was exhausted, but I was told that a meal was waiting for me at my hotel. I had no real interest in anything more than going to sleep. But sure enough, before I could even go to my room, the hotel (eight rooms in the hotel) sat me down at one of the three tables and threw what was supposed to be a steak and some fries in front of me. It was so bad, all I can say is that I lived the rest of my two weeks on rice and beans and things I'd packed from home (granola bars and Swedish Fish, mostly).
Over the next two weeks, I experienced something unlike anything I'd ever covered, or anything I expect to cover again, in my life. The poverty in Angola is unspeakable. The traffic in Luanda never seems to subside. I wrote in my story that "hundreds" of cranes dot the skyline, each representing another unfinished project. The Magazine fact checker asked me how I knew it was "hundreds" and I said he'd have to trust me. He said that unless I could prove there were more than 200 he'd have to change it to "dozens." When the issue came out, I saw it had been changed. Trust me, it is hundreds.
But they did manage to finish the four stadiums to host the Cup of Nations. The only one I visited was on the outskirts of Luanda, in the middle of nowhere. It was about 15 miles from my hotel, but it took us a minimum of three hours to get there because of the traffic. Each day, with the help of my driver, Ricardo, I was able to do exactly one thing. One training session or one press conference. Or one side trip to take video for a short piece to accompany the story. One day, I said my goal was to get to both Ghana's and Nigeria's training sessions. We didn't even come close to getting to both.
I made fast friends with the folks in the Ghanaian media. They were extremely helpful, introducing me to players, coaches and team officials. By the time the World Cup came around, I had a pretty good grasp on the Black Stars (but that's a blog for another day). Turns out, I saw Ghana play three times. Saw them defeat the hosts from Angola in the quarters and Nigeria in the semifinals -- each 1-0, each on a goal from Asamoah Gyan. And I saw them fall 1-0 to Egypt in the final. Truth be told, the soccer was shockingly bad. Perhaps familiarity with the opposition can lead to stalemates, or perhaps it's just that trying to play matches in 100-degree heat on lousy pitches is not conducive to good soccer.
The soccer was the least part of the trip, which is what I ultimately tried to convey in my story. The images that endure are of kids playing barefoot in back alleys, street vendors hawking counterfeit shirts, rice and beans, and more rice and beans.
But mostly, I remember Angola for Ricardo. My driver, a native Angolan who lost his dad to the long civil war and who'd just lost his mother (who was about my age) to a disease he could not name. Ricardo was, at one time, a competitive fighter in the martial arts. But he had to give up that dream to make money. He was just an awesome dude.
One day, while we were stuck in traffic, I told him I wanted to buy an Angola jersey. They were very stylish, I told him. We pulled over to a few street vendors, but each time Ricardo would tell them in Portuguese that the price was too high. Then one day, when he picked me up at my hotel, Ricardo handed me a shirt. "Here, Mr. Jeff," he said. "I said, 'How much?'" And Ricardo said, "It is a gift. I am so honored that you would like to wear the shirt of my country." It's one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for me.
Looking back, I laugh when I was told that covering the World Cup in South Africa would be difficult, because it was not. Covering the Cup of Nations, an idea that dated to a long-ago night in Germany, now that was difficult. But so worth it.
If you'd like to read more about the adventure (the non-soccer stuff), I invite you to my blog.
"See you in South Africa."
Those were the last words I spoke to Giuseppe Rossi, last year right around this time, as I departed from his home in Castellon, Spain. Turns out I didn't see in him South Africa, and although some American soccer fans took delight in that, I did not.
This will be Part 1 of my Remembering 2010 soccer blog. Not sure how many parts there will be, ultimately, but the year that's winding up for me was pretty amazing.
It all started with a trip to Spain to see Rossi at Villarreal. It was a story I had wanted to write for several years, about the kid who was born in Clifton, N.J., but made his way to Italy at age 12. At first, the story was going to be about whether he'd decide to play for the U.S. or Italy, but that storyline went by the wayside when he made his announcement that he'd play for Italy.
All along, it was sort of an on-again, off-again deal for me. At one point, his agent said Rossi would like to do the story, then I stopped getting my phone calls returned. But when Rossi came off the bench and scored two goals to lead Italy to a 3-1 victory over the U.S. at the 2009 Confederations Cup, Brendan O'Connor, my editor at The Magazine, asked me to pursue it again. So I did, and arrangements were made.
As you probably know, I avoid writing about U.S. soccer because my brother Bob is the coach of the national team, but before I got on my flight to see Rossi, I asked my brother what he knew about him. All I remember him saying is, "He's a very polite kid."
Turns out, that's about all I was able to get out of five days with Rossi in Spain. Rossi is, indeed, a very polite kid. Any hope that he'd say anything volatile or derogatory about anyone was immediately abandoned. That's not to say I did not enjoy my time over there, and honestly, I've never been around a more accommodating athlete.
Our Magazine photo shoot with him must have taken four hours, most of it outside with a photographer asking him to change uniforms, try different movements. The whole time I was thinking, I'll never get any time for an interview, but when the photo shoot was over, Rossi suggested a tapas restaurant where we went and spent more time. He ended up driving me all over the place, picking me up at my hotel, basically looking after me the entire time I was there. I've never been around a nicer athlete.
The story was not to run for a good bit of time, so I put off setting up an interview time with the man who was most instrumental in Rossi's career, his father, Fernando. I live in Jersey, so I figured it would be easy to drive up to see Fernando. No rush.
Little did I know.
Week to week, I was following Rossi's season with Villarreal and began to worry that he wasn't scoring many goals and wasn't even starting in some away games. Then came an announcement in late January that he was leaving his club for "personal reasons." I tried e-mailing and texting him. Tried getting back in touch with his agent. Finally, one day, I got a text from Rossi, who said, "I'm OK." Every day I checked the Internet to see whether there was any news about Rossi's leave, and there was none. I was totally in the dark. Then, in the middle of February, my brother texted me, "Fernando Rossi passed away."
I was in shock. I had no idea. Turns out the personal reasons were indeed very personal. Fernando Rossi had been battling cancer for a long time, but Giuseppe wanted it kept in the family. My respect for this young man grew exponentially.
When I got back in touch with him, I told him that when he was ready, I wanted to talk to him some more about his dad. We did. It was so obvious that by playing for Italy, Rossi was making his dad's dreams come true. And the one thing everyone in U.S. Soccer, including my brother, told me was that Giuseppe never misled anyone. Although he'd been to one U.S. camp with the under-14s, he'd been all-Italy ever since.
But without some sort of conflict, there was probably not going to be a magazine story. So I went with the angle that with his two goals against the U.S. in the Confederations Cup, he'd salted the wound felt by many U.S. fans who'd been following his career. And then came the cover line. "America's Best Hope at the World Cup." I took a deep breath.
From the day Rossi took his leave of absence from Villarreal, I was concerned that Italy coach Marcello Lippi would leave him off Italy's final World Cup roster. But my Italian sources kept telling that Lippi was undyingly loyal and would keep Rossi simply because of the way he filled the supersub role during the Confederations Cup.
And so, he became our cover boy. Obviously, that didn't go over well with the folks at U.S. Soccer (bro included). I don't think the headline fit the story, but a headline is meant to be provocative. So, when Lippi's final roster was posted and Rossi's name was not included, I heard it from a lot of folks. I had no response. What could I say?
When Italy failed to advance out of group play (out of arguably the weakest group in the World Cup), I heard it some more, and that's fine. I would like to point out that Rossi sent my brother a note of congratulations on the U.S. team's advancement. Ever polite.
In recent games, Rossi has earned his place back into the Azzurri, even wearing the captain's armband in a friendly against Romania. He's had an awesome first half to his season in Spain, scoring 13 goals for Villarreal in all competitions. He will turn 24 on Feb. 1, so he has plenty of years left to make his mark for Italy. Here's hoping he does.