Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Soccer Gods Spare Timbers International Humiliation

It is rare for any media outlet to take note of the United Soccer Leagues' First Division—the 12-team, three-country (if you count Puerto Rico, which FIFA does) loop of anonymous-to-the-wider-world clubs in which the Portland Timbers ply their humble (especially this season) trade. It is unheard of for the august international sport media to pay any attention to the competition. But, lo—The Guardian's new Sportblog suddenly swoops in today with a story dealing with Miami FC, Atlanta Silverbacks and Minnesota Thunder, a full quarter of the Division!

The hook for the story is, of course, Romario, the aged, fertile-in-more-ways-than-one Brazilian superstar who is slumming in Miami in his quest to pile up an alleged 1,000 career goals. Romario skipped his slated appearance in Portland earlier this year—and how fortunate for the Timbers that they're not on Miami's remaining fixture list as their horrible season winds down. Otherwise, writer Paul Doyle would likely have slapped Portland's beloved Men of Green with one of the uncomplimentary adjectives he applies to Miami, Atlanta and Minnesota: "rubbish," "even more rubbish," "pungently awful."

Speaking of the Timbers, their match against Impact de Montreal tomorrow night will likely be a festive occasion, despite Portland's ever-more-statistically-remote hopes of making the play-offs. The Timbers Army nurtures a rich hatred for the Quebecois club, which styles itself (with some justification) as the Class of the League. When you get that many former liberal-arts majors harboring a partisan grudge and throw in the French language, hilarity ensues.

And speaking of nice-round-number milestones, I notice that the very next XIDevils missive will be the blog's 100th post! How shall we celebrate, kids?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Continental Op

The Champions League draw: international intrigue abounds.

Group A: Barcelona (Spain), Chelsea (England), Werder Bremen (Germany), Levski Sofia (Bulgaria).
—No free pass for either Chelsea or Barca: Bremen is 100-percent for reals.

Group B: Inter (Italy), Bayern Munich (Germany), Sporting Lisbon (Portugal), Spartak Moscow (Russia)
—What a sweet group! This batch wins the Old School award. How rad will it be if Spartak and Sporting dominate?

Group C: Liverpool (England), PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands), Girondins Bordeaux (France), Galatasaray (Turkey)
—A chance for DaMarcus Beasley to polish his resume a bit after a weak World Cup.

Group D: Valencia (Spain), AS Roma (Italy), Olympiakos Piraeus (Greece), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)
—C'mon Roma and Shakhtar! The Ukrainian club has been on the rise for a decade and is due a breakthrough.

Group E: Real Madrid (Spain), Olympique Lyon (France), Steaua Bucharest (Romania), Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine)
—If Dynamo can humble the over-rated Galacticos, the vodka's on me. Olympique Lyon seems to think it's a world-class club. Well, mes amis, now's your chance.

Group F Manchester United (England), Celtic (Scotland), Benfica (Portugal), FC Copenhagen (Denmark)

Group G Arsenal (England), Porto (Portugal), CSKA Moscow (Russia), Hamburg SV (Germany)
—Smooth sailing for The Arse. Who will be the second survivor? As with Dynamo, Spartak and Shakhtar, the Slavophile in me always wants to see ex-Soviet clubs do well.

Group H AC Milan (Italy), Lille (France), AEK Athens (Greece), Anderlecht (Belgium)
—Huh. Silvio Berlusconi's club ended up with a dead-easy draw. Weird.

Kup Krazy!

Now, I know that a lot of y'all soccer fans prefer to concentrate on the Vegas show that is the Premiership—you prefer your matches lightning-fast, your clubs steeped in tradition and cash, your championships for sale to shadowy Russian oligarchs. Understandable. Who doesn't love a shadowy Russian oligarch determined to ruin any semblance of competitive integrity? Huge fun.

But the United States does have, lest we forget, what you might call a "domestic game," and not only because many of the players are paid wages that illegal-immigrant maids would scoff at. (Recent reports suggest that some MLS developmental players earn less than $7 an hour.) And even as the European championships spin into gear, our homegrown competitions are reaching their climax. Last night, the US Open Cup—our simulation of the FA Cup, which just happens to be one of the most historic such tournaments on Earth—cut its field to four.

The semifinals, slated for 6 September (the USSF finally managed to carve out fixture dates for its supposed showcase tournament—one small step for man, one giant leap for Soccer House bureaucracy) look pretty tasty. Sadly, there are no lower-division giant-killers in the pack, but the four surviving MLS sides represent the best the league has to offer.

The Chicago Fire will take on DC United, a match between the two best-supported clubs in the league. (I'm not talking about raw numbers, here, but rather the crazed & creative passion of Section 8 in Chicago and DC's La Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles.) These two teams have come the closest, in the 11 years of MLS, to establishing bona fide club traditions worthy of comparison to European and Latin American football culture. If the league were judged on authenticity alone, these two sides would play for the championship every year. They also happen to be the only Cup teams I've seen play live. DC is in electrifying form—and seeing them draw Real Madrid only confirmed my admiration for Petr Nowak's boys in black. Chicago is having an up-and-down season, but is very, very dangerous, especially when Portland lad Nate Jaqua fires on all cyls.

I know much less about the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo (formerly Houston 1836, the San Jose Earthquakes and the San Jose Clash). The Galaxy are thoroughly mediocre defending MLS and Cup champions, but this is probably the best chance for Landon Donovan et al to win a trophy this season, so they'll bring it. Dynamo seems streaky, but has also been the most consistently excellent team over the last few years of league history, despite loads of organizational instability. Dwayne De Rosario, all by himself, lends a singular menace to the Big Orange Thing.

(Isn't it awesome how you can freely interchange singular and plural usage when discussing football teams?)

The US Open Cup is a very cool tournament, but also a sad case of US Soccer failing to take full advantage of its assets. The blazers need to figure out how to put this competition in the spotlight a bit. Until they do, it's up to us nerds to pay attention—to love this little trophy with all our dorky hearts. C'mon! It's worth it!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Who Likes Money? We Like Money! Who Likes Money? EVERYONE LIKES MONEY!

Liverpool's multimillionaires have saved their future paychecks by fending off a hellfire challenge from Maccabi Haifa, clinging to a 1-1 draw in Kiev that yields a 3-2 series win. That means the Big Payoff that the Merseysiders cleverly wrote into their season budget—a Champions League windfall estimated at 16 million pounds—is secure.

However, the Reds have ample reason to worry on the jet flight home: Sissoko, the brassy midfielder from Mali (!) who's provided the best moments of Liverpool's shaky early going, got a stretcher ride to the locker room. That's a cool 5M of the best right there...

Thoroughly Glazered

XIDevils is decidedly lazy in its reliance on the Guardian football site to spark the barely detectable synaptic crackles that pass for inspiration around here. But as I sit anxiously trying to "work" while awaiting the minute-by-minute commentary on the Liverpool v. Maccabi grudge match (it's like the World Cup is on again!), I find myself very amused by two contrasting items:

First, it seems like the brothers Glazer provoked a bit of trouble in Londontown. Everyone knows that all sensible Man United supporters (oh the poor lambs!) went Rebel last year under the scarlet non-league banner of FC United of Manchester. But a "vocal minority," shall we say, appears determined to continue resistance. The Manchester Education Committee? Sounds positively Maoist.

Meanwhile, in Birmingham, it seems Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner is being "greeted as a liberator," so to speak, by Aston Villa fans:

"The Villa supporters may be less than a month away from their own big change. 'USA, USA,' they chanted in support of the imminently expected new owner, Randy Lerner. 'It's not quite an Abramovich-type takeover,' said Villan Tom Downie, 'but getting rid of Doug Ellis is monumental in my lifetime of supporting the club. And I think the biggest surprise to Villa fans was that someone of Martin O'Neill's calibre - the best available manager on the market - would want to take on the job.'"

Could the two very different receptions serve as a how-to guide for future American investors in the Premiership?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Rendezvous in Kiev

A lovely swirl of shady cosmopolitan intrigue surrounds tomorrow's crucial Champions League qualifier pitting Liverpool against Maccabi Haifa. Haifa nicked an away goal at Anfield, meaning a crafty 1-0 win would send them through to the cash-crazy group stage. That would be bad, bad, bad for Liverpool, who are apparently "skint," as the Englandistanis like to say, and prudently budgeted their off-season expenditures assuming they'd bag a League berth. Brill! Absolutely brill!

But those are merely the atmospheric shadows. The real plot centers on the decision to play the match in Kiev (of all places) on the home ground of mega-historic Ukrainian club Dinamo. The Israelis claim Tel Aviv would have made a perfectly jolly host for this fixture, despite their country's continuing involvement in expeditionary military action in Lebanon. The Maccabi manager further claims that the Reds are dirty—reliant on their political muscle with UEFA and physical tactics on the pitch. (I know nothing about the Israeli league, but I'm *sure* it's the acme of graceful, free-flowing football, with nary a cynical tackle to be seen, and upright business dealings.)

Then you have Gerrard out with a stomach complaint...the club's luggage lost for a solid hour in what must have been, if my brief but vivid experience with Soviet airport construction and management are any guide, decidely grim circs...a pretty bad outing against Sheffield United on Saturday...Peter Crouch's strange body...

This thing is looking like an Alan Furst thriller. How many Ukrainian fans will take advantage of this strange drama? Would that the Royal We could be there...

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Mediocrity Erupts!

Ah, sometimes indifference makes all the difference. I watched Liverpool, to whom I've sworn provisional Premier League allegiance, play a thoroughly forgettable opening day draw against newly promoted (and, really, on a man-for-man basis, shockingly ugly, and I mean physically) Sheffield United. I saw my two fantasy league teams launch what promise to be drab simul-seasons. I'm set for another poor performance with my so-far-not-so-victory-rich indoor team tomorrow, and also contemplating starting a futsal side with a bunch of dudes who have never played that reputedly very difficult game.

And meanwhile, lurking in the deep background of my football existence, the Portland Timbers—who I have done a terrible job of supporting this year. If you remember the last scene of cinema classic 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' you're familiar with the Timbers' general situation heading into their final games of the season. It is, essentially, mathematically impossible for the Timbers to make the First Division play-offs, except not quite: every other team in the league could collapse, suddenly fold (it is the USL) or be wiped out in a mysterious lightning strike. Yes, Chris Agnello's men have put together just that kind of awe-inspiring campaign.

But you know what? I'm thoroughly enjoying all of it. How upliftingly pure and old-school! Eh?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Enter the Dragons!

Not much to report after holing up in a former brothel in a dull Northwestern timber town for five days for the purposes of work and seclusion. For some reason, the citizens of Centralia didn't seem as excited about the English Premier League kick-off as many of my comrades in the football underbelly.

To me, the forthcoming Premiership season is not merely an impersonal entertainment; it's very, very personal. See, I'm debuting not one, but two fantasy sides tomorrow. CITADEL OF BLOOD FC has a very strong Liverpool flavo(u)r, and given that the Reds are *certain* to have a blinder all season on their way to offing Siberian Oil FC, the Citadel is likely to entomb its rivals in its Yahoo! sponsored league beneath a ziggurat of severed heads and well-earned points. Meanwhile, over on the official Premier League site, CANNIBAL ISLAND FC tangos to a distinct New World beat.

I've never engaged in this faaaaaan-tas-eeee tomfoolery before. Since I suck at almost all competitive endeavo(u)rs, I'm sure I'll suck at this, too. But at least I have the greatest team names of all friggin' time.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Big Slow Down

Not that you'll be able to tell given how infrequently posts have been, er, dribbling out of late, but Eleven Devils will be on hiatus for the week.

And I'm sore as hell following a 6-2 shellacking on the indoor pitch. Yeeee-ach.

Alright, everyone, in your fake British accents, all together now: LATERS!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

It's...The XIDevils Real Madrid v. DC United Match Report!

While it may pale in significance compared to, say, major terror plots against a fleet of trans-Atlantic planes, the friendly (mostly) encounter between Major League Soccer pace-setters DC United and international club of glamour Real Madrid was quite an occasion. A crowd of over 66,000 filled Seattle's Qwest Field to worship at the hair-gel-smeared altar of Los Galacticos—with the unexpected-by-most added treat of a spirited stand by our own national capital's team.

The XIDevils National Desk, comprised of Yer Correspondent and his immensely patient wife, occupied two seats in the lower tier, with a lovely view of David Beckham's taut legs and male sport manicure as he patrolled Real's right wing through the opening stanza. But while Spice Boy Mania seemed to rule the passions of most, I was just excited to finally clap eyes on United, which has quietly spent 11 years becoming the Best American Soccer Club Of All Time. (A category that is, admittedly, not crowded.) Ruud Van Nistelrooy—meet Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskanderian! Mr Beckham, may we present Young Master Adu! Everyone, please welcome Ben Olsen—he'll be the guy pummelling the bejesus out of your shins for the next hour and a half.

By now, everyone in the Calcio Conspiracy knows the result and has probably read some of the usual crop of "Shazam! Soccer IS Popular Here After All" coverage that always blooms after these occasions. So I'll make do with a few shots of observation in (more or less) no particular order:

ITEM: Ben Olsen rocks. The terrier-like, weird-bearded DC midfielder signalled his intentions early, when he tried a sneaky run through the heart of Real's defense. It came to nothing, but it was one of those little, subtle moments that tell you a player plans to get it on the right way. Olsen spent the entire evening stuck in Real's craw, relentlessly chasing balls, thwacking millionaires, launching attacks and otherwise acting as United's engine. He got up in Cassano's face; he got up in Robinho's face. After years of blue-collar labor for light MLS paychecks, the one-time wunderkind is now a wily, hardened soldier, one of the best we've got. If he were a little younger and a little more consistently included in the national team picture, I'd rate him the obvious choice to replace Reyna as Captain America.

ITEM: It's time to give Freddy Adu a break. It sometimes feels like everyone is dying for the Ghanian golden boy to fail. At the ripe young age of 17(ish), he's already had the New Yorker condescend to him in a lengthy feature that more or less implied that he's both washed-up and kind of dumb. He's been the subject of who-knows-how-many hit pieces on various on-line boards. But you know what? He's good. He made all kinds of useful, smart runs. He squared off against Roberto Carlos—which naturally involved a few embarassing moments—and took it like a man. He created DC's splendid equalizer with an enterprising thrust down the right flank an a highly counter-intuitive cross all the way to the other side of the box, where he found Gros (I believe) thundering along. Gros-Moreno-Eskanderian———GOOOOOOOL! But it was Adu's baby at the start.

ITEM: Fabio Cannavaro. The Italian captain received a huge ovation from the Seattle crowd when he entered at half-time. And while he only occasionally displayed the evil cunning with which he guided the Azzurri defense (frankly, the second half was a ragged mess, thanks to battalions of subs), he showed his steel a few times. Of all the Galacticos, I was most excited to see him and Robinho.

ITEM: Troy Perkins' save from a Roberto Carlos free kick. A man who works part-time at a bank to make ends meet vs. perhaps the most famous direct-kick taker in the world. A ballistic shot. A death-defying save, leading to a heroic goal-line scramble to preserve the draw. C'est magique!

ITEM: Robinho. Didn't show a ton, and when he did it was mostly to argue with Ben Olsen, who was clobbering him. But a few classy, hydraulic, futsal-inspired touches were enough.

ITEM: Van Nistelrooy. An annoyingly good, persistent striker, but DC shut him down, snaring him in the offside trap numerous times.

ITEM: Petr Nowak. The salty Polish manager should, on the strength of DC's performance this year, be in the picture for the US national team slot. Adu aside, United is hardly studded with international blue-chippers, but Nowak has molded DC into a stylish, confident, crafty unit. He could do the same with roughly the same calibre talent for the White Buffalo.

ITEM: The crowd. Though I've read some complaints about a lack of atmosphere, I thought it was fine. No, it was not a Saturday afternoon at Millwall by any stretch of the bean, but the knowledge, enthusiasm and diversity of this mob was very heartening. The turnout—on short notice, at premium prices—underscored how insane it is for MLS not to be in the Northwest. The league could have not one—not two—but three strong franchises in the Far Corner. Instead, 11 years on, it's still trying to make sense of Kansas City, moving heaven and earth to find a patch of parched Salt Lake exurbia to call home, et cetera. Oh, yeah—ownership, blah blah blah, stadiums, blah blah blah. What bullshit. Put teams in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver and let rip, I say! Get me Commissioner Garber on the Red Phone!

ITEM: Best memorabilia sightings:
—Zenit St Petersburg and Spartak Moskva scarves
—Multiple Portland Timbers scarves
—A Chico Rooks t-shirt.

ITEM: Worst moments:
—Half-time highlights montage of the Seattle Sounders' First Division championship last year. Even in victory, the Pod is pathetic to behold.
—Pre-game presentation of two typically hideous Dale Chihuly glass blobs to the two sides' captains. I'm sure Real Madrid's trophy case has some outre shit in it after all these decades, but what are they going to do with this thing? Is there a Spanish equivalent of Secretary's Day, so they can decently rid themselves of it?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Premiership, Schmiership...

...What's going on at FC United of Manchester? Plenty, it would seem: the Red Rebels have signed Ryan Giggs' brother; recruited a soap opera star to play for their Reserves; and seen their erstwhile star striker depart for Portland Timbers sister club Halifax Town. Knowing nothing about the quality of the North West Counties League's top flight, I can't predict whether FCUM will steamroll their way to a second straight promotion with quite the unstoppable fury they displayed last year. It does seem, however, that the likes of St Helens Town will probably find themselves out of their, er, league.

Okay, enough rebellious populism—I'm off to see Real Madrid!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Courtesy Du Nord (see the blogroll), another reason to love KC Wizards/USA defender Jimmy Conrad in the form of this quote re: his yellow-card offense against reluctant Chelski-ite Didier Drogba:

"So once the sideline play came I actually won the ball and I'm like, 'You know what? I'm going to hammer him anyway.' My friends back home will appreciate it. He was all high-fives after he kicks me, but when I kick him he doesn't want to give me a high-five."

This guy is so choice!

Sir Scarface Goes Great Guns

Exciting news for Arsenal fans, who've already enjoyed a *vigorous* close-season transfer frenzy: Ribery is coming. One of the most exciting players in the World Cup will undoubtedly thrive in Arsene Wenger's tres artistique set-up at the club's luxe new stadium. Note, though, if you click to the Graniad's story, that their correspondent reflexively refers to Wenger as "the Highbury manager." I guess "Emirates Stadium manager" will never have quite the same ring, eh?

Meanwhile, it looks like at least a couple other blue-chip moves are imminent before the big leagues kick off. I'm much more excited about following the Euro majors this season after the gripping soap operas of the World Cup, Zidane's skull, the Italian Job, etc. Should offer intrigue aplenty!

Friday, August 04, 2006

For God, Country and The Chicks in the Bikinis

I am to understand correctly that one of the four new Portland Timbers signings plays for the USA's national sand soccer team? I wasn't aware such an entity existed, but now that I am, I demand an immediate world championship! And where do I try out?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Timbers Do the Shake

Say what you will about Portland Timbers manager Chris Agnello—and people have said plenty about the former Utah Blitzz/Real Salt Lake import—but he's not content to surrender as the team's season threatens to implode. Portland has added four new players in recent days, and cashiered a pair as well. The most significant pick-up is once-and-future Timber Alan Gordon, a sweet dude and lethal target forward who moved from Portland to a fitful stint with the LA Galaxy two years ago.

Gordon scored what must be one of the quickest debutante goals in pro soccer world history, knocking one in about 20 seconds into his first match. That was in the season when we shoulda won it all—if you consider a First Division championship "winning it all"—after posting the league's best regular season record, so maybe the guy retains a fragment of lost Timberball mojo. The former Oregon State striker has been reasonably productive as a reserve and sub in Los Angeles, too, considering he's faced injury problems and never cracked the regular first XI. Gordon must be wondering where his pro career is going as he wanders into the mess that is the Timbers; on the bright side, we need a forward who both knows he needs to score to keep putting food on the table and then actually acts like it.