Monday, October 30, 2006

Zach's Wide World of Football

"It's a narrow, cloistered existence that I'm not proud of."

So sayeth Bill Parcells, itinerant NFL genius, in the latest of Michael Lewis' excellent articles on gridiron for the New York Times magazines. The Tuna was talking about his own (as Lewis makes plain, dreary, obsessional and unpleasant) life as a 24-hour pointy-ball nutcase. But he could just as well have been talking about XIDevils' weekend, sardine-packed with that other form of football. Who needs reality—which is becoming more and more overrated all the time—when you have soccer?


Saturday morning, desperately hungover after a night mis-spent in the company of a couple hundred drunken Russians (another story; nay, another blog entirely), I crawled over to my futsal teammate Liverpool Mike's lair to watch the Reds' tilt with Aston Villa. Okay—now *this* was the side I signed on to with every ounce of fairweather, dilettantish enthusiasm in my corpuscles at season's dawn. Liverpool zipped the ball through midfield with lusty confidence, and a couple of the three tallies conjured by Li'l Stevie's gang in a bury-the-needle first half glowed with that world-class lustre.

Peter Crouch, the Elongated Man, continues to conjure tricks both amazing and improbable with his biologically unfortunate body; Alonso and Hyppia and the whole bunch bore little resemblance to the side that's stumbled through about half its games so far this season. Not a moment too soon, either, as it will already take a minor collapse on the part of the Big Two for Liverpool to punch its way into the championship tussle. Still, if they can play football this fluid and lovely and committed—the tackles were flying around in ways that had the old-school Brit commentators reminiscing fondly and stereotypically about when they themselves used to break legs at Nottingham Forest ("Twice Champions of Europe"[tm]) back in the early '70s—against one of the Premiership's tougher sides-on-the-rise, it can only portend good things.


Shortly after the final whistle blew on the DVR'ed Liverpool match, we passed on Watford (call us crazy) and dialled up the Milan derby. Zooks! I've already waxed on this nervy, plot-laden haymaker exchange and the strange, definition-eluding magnetism of Serie A in a comment here. Suffice it to say that my Life Goals list now prominently features "get wasted at a strip club with Marco Materazzi." No worries—I know a good lawyer.


Sunday morning proved a lot less stirring, because the XIDevils editorial staff itself was in action at Beaverton's Soccerplex. I put in a pretty disheveled, out-of-it and ineffective performance for The Muckrakers, the all-journalists indoor team I've played with off-and-on for the last few months. It was one of those games one plays with a head wrapped in invisible gauze and a stomach increasingly determined to issue a refund on one's eggs and toast. Hey, man—that's why they call it The Beautiful Game! Ugh. I hold myself individually responsible for only a few of the flurry of goals our opponents knocked in.


I would have liked to see DC United's decisive second-leg playoff against the New York Red Bulls, if only because anytime 20,000-plus show up at RFK, it actually looks, sounds and feels like a proper football match. But, alas, there's more to life than soccer. Or at least I am obligated to pretend that's the case.


Only football could make me drive to Beaverton not once but twice in one day. The frigid hour of 8 pm last night found me on the austere Soviet-style concrete terraces at the Tualatin Hills Recreation Center (ah—a legendary ground!), soaking in the Oregon Premier Soccer League match between Westside Metros and FC Portland. As the faux-Eastern European goon in those new credit-card commercials bellows, it was VERY, VERY, VERY REWARDING. The local leagues are tough for even the most insane inmate of the Portland Soccer Asylum to follow—their websites are crap, the schedules are odd and the games are stashed in the most remote corners of the metro area. If you can make it out for an OPSL match, though, do. This night saw stalwart Portland Timbers defender Scot Thompson—a player linked to both Premiership and Championship clubs in recent seasons—in action for Westside. What other sport can you see top-notch pros play for free against local bhoys on a Sunday night? And freeze yourself to death in the bargain?

Friday, October 27, 2006

From the Propaganda Ministry

My benevolent sometimes-bosses at the Associated Press indulged my on-going agit-prop efforts on behalf of the game: a quick/dirty Cliff's Notes to the MLS playoffs. I see only a couple of glaringly obvious mistakes. A caption identifies the great DwaDeRo as a "San Jose" player (not my bad). And the longish passage on the New York/DC United rivalry calls the match-up the "closest thing MLS has to a Euro-style 'derby'." Uh huh—Galaxy and Chivas USA fans would be surprised to learn that. (Definitely my bad.)

Still, check it out if you want.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

C'mon Hare on the Hill! C'mon Luccombe Garage! C'mon Cotham Old Boys!

Amazing, the footballing riches one discovers with a few idle Wikipedia clicks. This week's League Cup action in England—in which a few minnows managed upsets, and mighty Crewe Alexandra pushed Manchester United into extra time—led me to seek out an exhaustive inventory of England's football Pyramid. Naturally, I scrolled to the very bottom, there to find...

The Bristol Downs League. The absolute lowest echelons of competitive football in England, with its lower divisions having the bottom-most tiers of the Pyramid all to themselves. The Downs League apparently plays all its matches at a local recrational ground, and is home to a collection of incredibly suh-weet sounding clubs. Sneyd Park! Retainers FC! Bristol Dynamos! Cliftons St Vincents! Sporting Greyhound, which may just possibly be the greatest football club name ever...

The best thing about this obviously totally awesome league is that the Bristol BBC site (click that link up there) devotes extensive coverage to its weekend fixtures. Colo(u)r pictures, full team profiles, hilarious and touching player blogs—in short, the kind of respect and bandwidth that we mere gentlemen-sportsmen rarely receive but so, oh so richly deserve. Were the Moscow stock market to crash; were Interpol to arrest half the chairmen in the Premiership; were the Italians to discover that every single Serie A match in the last 50 years was fixed—football would be in good hands with this bunch. They know what the game is really all about.

Now, wait 'til my teammates on Albina Going FC hear the details of my exciting Bristol relocation plan. I always did like Portishead.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Down the Valley

In the course of some semi-random, work-related (I swear to Almighty God, aka Pele, or Diego Maradona if you're trying to wind up an Englishman) research, I stumbled on this opinionated blog on soccer in Corvallis, Oregon. Some fairly interesting tidbits can be gleaned amongst all the bitching about Oregon State's soccer program, particularly the entry about the 30-year-old Willamette Valley Soccer League. Who knew?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Siberian Oil v Unicef All-Boys // It's a Unicorns Universe! // Who Will Fix MLS? (Hint: Me)

Yes, there was "work" to be done. And yes, Liverpool played a very good bottle of French wine in the Champions League. But Chelsea v. Barcelona? That's a cultural event of global significance (sort of like if the 1965 Beatles and 1967 Rolling Stones could play a show together—scientists, can I get a wot-wot?). So no doubt as to where the entire XIDevils editorial staff was bound at 11.30 PST today: bar-side!

I met two-thirds of A Pretty Move along the rail at the Thirsty Lion in the heart of Portland's historic Skidmore Fountain district, conveniently located near a couple puking tramps. It felt good to be back in the glare of huge, flat-screen TVs and in the company of mid-day drinkers again, so long after the World Cup.

Our hearts were with Barcelona—well, duh—and we were joined by a polite lone Chelsea fan, a suited-up young stockbroker-type with a shiny tie who could probably buy and sell me and my soccer-blog empire. (I swear I am not making that up. Apt, eh?) Sadly, the Londoners decoded the Catalans with ease. From the first minutes, when Barca was forced to play chase like a pack of toy dogs, to the last, ditto, Chelsea was better as a side and man-for-man. Ronaldhino has officially been solved—he was the definition of useless today: bobbing, weaving, shucking and jiving to zero avail against The Cannibal's dead-simple but ruthlessly effective jabs. Messi seemed a little out of his depth on the other side, though he did provide the rare glimmer of a chance.

Deprived of wings, Barca had to try to pummel through the center, where they invariably met a wall of pricey Russian-grain-fed beef. Chelsea didn't have much nuance; the Special One devised a clever plan consisting of A) tackle the ball away and B) run like hell at the goal. After Drogba incinerated the Barca net at 47', they didn't need any fancy tricks. The Blues contentedly watched Barca bollix up one increasingly misbegotten attempt at beautiful-game silkiness after another, though just for sport they occasionally gave Shevchenko a run forward so he could fall down, stand up and make that face at the referee.

1-0. A deflating experience all 'round, like a four-game Yankees sweep in the series. The group-stage format gives Barca a chance to right the ship, but they just didn't have much today at all.


Albina Going FC, on the other hand, transformed into the very picture of free-flowing, gun-slinging Total Futsal last night, putting 16—this is not a typographical error—past some pretty quality opposition in our Second Division match. Weirdly enough, the bulk of our scoring came after I stopped playing the field and went in goal. (?) I did okay back there, though I did suffer the indignity of deflecting a corner kick into my own net.

But that's all the proverbial sub-pontine water. After an extremely rocky start, the Unicorns have now won two "on the trot" (as they say, hee hee). If we win our last game of the season (and, basically, if every other team figures out a way to lose) we could go as high as third in the nine-team league. Forza Albina! Allez les Unicorns!


The Major League Soccer play-offs are upon us. And if you don't exactly feel the earthquake of excitement (sorry for the Proustian pang of regret there, San Jose fans), you are not alone. The American top tier's championship format—eight teams, home-and-away first legs and then knock-out play—manages the neat trick of making both the regular season and post season seem irrelevant. As this perceptive and fair-minded article points out, no one really likes it. And yet the notion of settling the title with some kind of tournament seems here to stay.

And in all fairness, the play-offs have produced the only truly memorable moments in MLS, ever. DC United's golden-goal victory in the first-ever Final, played in an apocalyptic downpour outside Boston, remains my favorite league game. San Jose's fluid demolition of Chicago in a six-goal clash a few years back was pretty sweet, too. (Last year's Final, a dire 1-0 AET win by the LA Galaxy, provides a counter-example of what you risk when you stake a whole season on a single game.) So what to do?

As usual, Eleven Devils has the solution. Eight teams make the playoffs—whether through regional conferences or a single table, doesn't matter. Those eight teams are seeded into two groups based on their regular season performance. This year, using two conferences, the groups would be:

#1 DC
#2 New England
#3 Chicago
#4 New York

#1 FC Dallas
#2 Houston
#3 Chivas USA
#4 Colorado

Every team plays every other team in its group in a three-round series. Three points for a win, a point for a draw, just like always. The top-seeded team in each group plays *every* game at home; #2 plays two home games and away vs. #1; #3 hosts only its game against #4; the poor bottom seed must play every game away. Then, you can either have a one-game semi between the top two, or send the top-of-group sides directly to a Final. Either way, you put a huge premium on regular-season performance, yet maintain the excitement of the play-offs.

Don Garber, you fucking owe me, son.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

It's a Man's Life

In what sounds like one of the more bizarre games in history—well, scratch that, considering the competition, but a very, very odd game nonetheless—Chelsea saw not one, but two goalkeepers taken to the casaulty ward with nasty head injuries during its away date with mighty Reading. Ultra-stud defender John Terry finished the match between the sticks.

This being the fabulous 21st Century, YouTube already has all the grisly footage: this clip shows Terry taking over the gloves and the improvised MASH unit treating the Blues' fallen second-choice portero. Aiyiyi.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Bring Us The Outlaw Giorgio Chinaglia—Dead or Alive!

Can one person both score a championship-winning goal at Portland's Civic Stadium AND be an international fugitive, all in the same lifetime? Apparently, the answer is yes.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Unicorns Ride High & Proud Across the Golden Plain

Big week in football. England lost. Scotland won, then lost. Wales and Ireland are just about to dissolve into nameless atoms. In fact, Northern Ireland—yes, we are all experiencing the same strange reality—is by far the healthiest of the five British Isles teams in Euro 2008 qualifying. (Why doesn't the Isle of Man have a team? I saw that the Channel Islands might be stepping up soon, and Gibraltar just got provisional UEFA status, so where is the Isle of Man? Some think it's unfair for the United Kingdom to be represented by four—or five or six or however many—national sides. But on present evidence, I'd say they need all the help they can get.)

But we all know that the really big news—THE REALLY, REALLY, REALLY BIG NEWS—is this: Albina Going FC won a game. For the first time ever. In a gripping Second Division encounter at Portland Futsal, my Mighty Unicorns held on for a white-knuckle victory over Real Sur. In a game "rich with incident," as they say, highlights included yet another half-court missle from Jan (The Croydon German) and my concession of four (4) goals in a single half as 'keeper. By my calculations, that's a goal every six minutes or so; you can't accuse me of failing to do my part to make football more attractive to American fans.

My chief fear right now is that the four Going players who could technically play for England might all be called up. (Of course, I'd be willing to consider the manager's post...) At the moment, however, we're content to bask in victory's tawny glow.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Soccer Bowl '77!


Lost on Earth

Eleven Devils would probably cease to exist if it weren't for Du Nord (see the blogroll), a fanatically all-encompassing, near-daily aggregator of American soccer news. I don't know how (or when) he does it, but The Wolf's compendium of all the football news that fits is an invaluable resource.

Today, for example, Du Nord tabs two pieces that between them say a lot about both the potential of American soccer and the baffling oversights and shortcomings that seem to hold it back. In a recent interview, former US National Team coach/newly minted New York Red Bulls capo Bruce Arena scoffed at the notion that there are any significant veins of hidden talent out in the vast, tangled, often-unexplored universe of the American game. Specifically, he belittled a reporter's suggestion that there might be unscouted pro-calibre talent lurking in urban ethnic leagues, for example. (Arena has also been heard to say that he thinks MLS was actually *better* back in the '90s, when he managed DC United; is he on something?) Apparently, the all-seeing eye of Major League Soccer's scouting apparatus and the US national team development program are sufficient to identify all the quality players in the United States.

Meanwhile, US Soccer insists it is determined to win over Latinos and tap those communities' talent resources. Well, okay. By my count, our World Cup squad included a total of *one* Mexican-American player, Carlos Bocanegra. The remainder of the side's extremely limited "Latin flavor" came courtesy of Reyna and Mastroeni, both of Argentinian extraction.

Today, via Du Nord, two very interesting articles. First, always-excellent Sports Illustrated soccer specialist Grant Wahl raids the journalistic gold mine that is Watford FC defender Jay DeMerit. Here's a guy who graduates from college and gets completely dissed by MLS and the United Soccer Leagues. He's never been called up for the national team at any level. He ends up playing for free for the Chicago Fire reserve team, then literally tending bar. He goes over to Europe on his own dime, paints houses for spare change and plays in London pub leagues.

Now where is he? The friggin' Premiership. He's already scored one legendary goal and is acquitting himself nicely in Watford's long-shot bid to survive in the top flight; it would seem that if the Hornets get relegated, DeMerit will swiftly move to a bigger club. He's *still* never been capped by the USA—in fact, it's starting to seem like we better get on that, before Denmark beats us to it.

So, wait a minute. We're supposed to believe that, even though MLS proved utterly oblivious to a white middle-class dude playing NCAA Division I soccer IN A CITY WITH A MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER FRANCHISE, it has every ethnic league in the country wired? DeMerit may be the most high-profile Yank to back-pack his way into a European contract, but there are many other guys trying the same thing. It beats waiting around for an obviously anemic system to catch up to you.

Meanwhile, Soccer America weighs in with a brief look at a few Mexican-American players currently with MFL first-division clubs. None of these guys is exactly ripping it up south of the border, and it does seem like a couple have been involved with US Soccer developmental programs. But if they're good enough to play down there, why aren't any of them in our national team picture? Any time a 17-year-old scores in MLS, he's immediately hailed as a World Cup prospect. These kids—all of whom are Americans—seem like they're slipping through the net.

Okay, end of rant. Hey—what else are blogs for? Time to limber up for Albina Going's crucial futsal clash with Real Sur, 9 pm tonight. SEE YOU THERE, SOCCER FANS!

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Feast of the Goats

Say what you will about the millimeter-deep tradition, crazy competitive format and overall lack of identity in Major League Soccer—at least it's not predictable. I'm reasonably certain I could name the next 10 Premiership winners, in order, plus runners-up, with at least 50 percent accuracy (pending future transactions on the Moscow stock exchange, professional assassinations, etc.). Meanwhile, nobody has any idea who will boss the show in MLS next year, or even next week.

The "defending champion" Los Angeles Galaxy? Out—done before the league's brutally short play-off tournament even begins. Cross-corridor rival Chivas USA? Just over a year ago, Los Goats Yanquis looked like a bad marketing ploy in search of a team (and a hairdresser), but they're in the playoffs this time 'round. Formerly untouchable DC United? They are, shall we say, now decidedly touchable. Cup-winning Chicago? Just got nuked 4-1 by wretched Columbus. At home.

So who will wear American soccer's tin'n'plastic crown? We just can't wait, can we, to find out!?!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Fixture Congestion

Well, I ask you—could YOUR team hold Juventus to just nine goals, meanwhile knocking in a nice little collection of your own? For that was indeed the challenge faced by Albina Going FC in a Tuesday-night match at Portland Futsal. Strangely, I didn't recognize any of the Juve players; the squad that turned up consisted of six Hispanic guys. No Buffon among them. But in any case, they pasted us properly. Among the few consolations: I actually scored a goal! For the first time in like years! Despite my consistent habit of running forward when I'd be of more use in the back or, truth be told, on the bench!

Just 24 hours after going up against Juventus, the Mighty Unicorns faced yet another match, this time against a team with the delightful name Gardeners. We couldn't really tell if they were really gardeners, but I'm guessing not. The lads were up against it—as striker Jimmy "The Stag" so aptly put it, it was just like the old days, when we had to play in the League, in Europe and in the FA Cup, all in one week! We managed to add another defeat to the trophy case, but one of our new boys, the Croydon German, scored a wicked Xabi Alonso-style bomb from deep inside our own half.



Is it true? Will the United States Soccer Federation actually hire Jose "Truth in Naming" Pekerman to guide our national side, as rumors suggest with increasing persistence? The man comprehensively out-coached by chain-smoking playboy Ricardo La Volpe in the World Cup Round of 16? The man who singlehandedly steered a fine Argentina to elimination with his basalt-headed substitutions against Sexy Jurgen's men?

Say it ain't so! However, this being the USSF, it probably is so. We'll hire Pekerman; Mexico will hire Sexy Jurgen; two weeks after Pekerman's unveiling, word will leak that he only got the job after Sven turned us down. Don't book that South African vacation just yet, eh?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Galeano! Liverpool Sucks! Trophies! My Alma Mater! And Futsal!

That's right! Your humble correspondent can come up with no fixed theme for a post, so it's time for....AN ELEVEN DEVILS RANDOM ROUND-UP! (tm)

ITEM: A writerly acquaintance in New York City, one Dan Kaufmann, belatedly forked over a piece sure to delight my sokkahblagging pals at A Pretty Move: an interview with Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Galeano is a sort of Chomskyian figure in Latin American verbiage, but for my money, his limpid and passionate prose is at its best when he turns it to The Beautiful Game. If you don't own his slim but inexhaustable 'Soccer in Sun and Shadow,' consider it a mandatory purchase and a long-term bargain. Nearly a decade after I acquired my copy, I still pick it up a few times a year.

ITEM: "Utterly gash." That's how the Guardian's minute-by-minute summarizer described Galatasaray as the Turkish side surrendered a couple early goals to Liverpool during last week's Champions League encounter. And what a horrid, disgusting and splendid description it is—for Liverpool's own form. A 2-0 loss to Bolton Wanderers confirmed what I've feared since watching the Reds meander around on opening day against dreadful Sheffield United: I cursed Liverpool by choosing them as my Premier League club. Well, too bad for them, and too bad for me, because we all know you can't undo that sort of thing. I let myself pull for multiple teams in the Italian and Spanish leagues, but that's just "not on" where the Premiership's concerned. So LFC and I are stuck with each other, and now that Community Shield they bagged back in August may be their last trophy. Ever.

ITEM: But, on the other hand, how 'bout them Reading Royals? The club once known as the Biscuitmen nailed down three crucial away points, beating West Ham 1-0 on a second-minute goal. The assist came courtesy America's own Bobby Convey, while yanqui netminder Marcus Hahnemann helped preserve the win. Meanwhile, West Ham deployed USA defender Johnathan Spector. Imagine that—three Americans play in a Premiership match and hardly anyone even notices. Once, that sort of thing would have been the ultimate Man Bites Dog, Pigs Fly story.

ITEM: While the Euro leagues are still just unpacking their medicine shows for the year, we're handing out trophies and getting ready to shut down for winter here in North America. Chicago Fire claimed the US Open Cup. DC United, a truly fantastic team that's been in a relative slump lately after an unbeatable first two-thirds of the campaign, clinched the MLS Supporters' Shield, awarded for the league's best regular season record, last night. (Why isn't it called the Supporters' Cup? Oh.) And the Vancouver Whitecaps won the United Soccer Leagues First Division, the 12-team circuit that includes our beloved (but, yes, utterly gash) Portland Timbers. The 'Caps—which, though they are the Timbers' second-most-hated rival, are one of the best-run clubs in the oft-dodgy First Division—grabbed the hardware with an emphatic 3-0 away win over Rochester.

ITEM: In that *other* form of football we all know and love—the one where you get to use your hands all the time—my Mighty Montana Grizzlies invaded PGE Park and beat Portland State last night. Huzzah! Now I don't have to pay attention to that sport again until December.

ITEM: The USL just announced a new affiliation with something called the Super-F League, which seems to be trying to become the primary national futsal competition. While the SFL looks more like a sanctioning body than an actual league right now, I guess this deal could portend some kind of off-season existence for the Timbers. With First Division franchises in Vancouver, Seattle and, thanks to expansion, San Francisco all sitting idle through the winter, wouldn't it make sense for those clubs to field futsal squads for some kind of short-format league? Each city could host one two-day round-robin tournament for all four clubs in, say, December and January, with a point system determining the overall champ at the end. Gavin Wilkinson, can ya holla back?