Friday, December 30, 2011

Favorite Songs of 2011 - Songs 1-10

And now the Top Ten. Happy New Year all!

1. Calamity Song by The Decemberists.

"Had a dream.
You and me and the war of the end-times.
And I believe; California succumbed to the fault line.
We heaved relief.
As scores of innocents died."

The second "new" song that I heard in 2011 (the second track on "The King is Dead") and still my favorite 11 1/2 months later. Only Colin Meloy (okay, and maybe Michael Stipe and Florence Welch) could write such a bouncy, upbeat song about the apocalypse.

2. Bushwick Blues by The Delta Spirit.

"So maybe I'm the fool
for feeling used.
Well, the way we kissed that night -
I thought you knew.
Because my love is strong.
And my heart is weak.
After all."

 Thanks to my brother Jeff for turning me on to them. I'm sorry I missed them at Mountain Stage last year.

3. Yer Spring by Hey Rosetta!

"Oh man I hate this part -
When the car sails off the bridge.
Am I the knuckles white inside?
Am I the water rushing in?"

 Probably my favorite lines from any song all year long.

4. Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars.

"Ain't going back to Barton Hollow;
Devil gonna follow me 'ere I go.
Won't do me no good washing in the river;
Can't no preacher man save my . . . soul."

The video HAD to be black and white, didn't it? I love the way the singers' voices blend.

5. We Will All be Changed by Seryn. 

"We can write with ink and pen,
But we will sow with seeds instead.
Starting with words we've said.
We will all be changed."

I think I first saw mention of this song this summer on someone's "Best Songs of 2011 So Far" list.

6. Smart by Girl in a Coma.

"Hold your head up though you're shaking.
I've never felt a rush like this; not quite like this.
You were never one to fake it.
I've never felt a lust like this; not quite like this."

Just love the vocals on this song.

7. 100 Other Lovers by Devotchka.

"I know it's coming;
I can feel it in my bones.
This is information you already know.
Even if it's only temporarily;
Give the illusion tonight you belong to me."

I saw them at Bonnaroo too, and while they were great, they, somewhat disappointingly, didn't play this song.

8. Under Cover of Darkness by The Strokes.

"Get dressed, jump out of bed and do it best.
Are you OK?
I’ve been out around this town
And everybody’s been singing the same song, ten years."

I wanna be Julian Casablancas when I grow up.

9. Too Dramatic by Ra Ra Riot.

"Don't listen when you're weary.
Oh, but I wanna talk about it.

You and me weren't made for that, I'm sure."

Love the strings; not crazy about the video.

10. Down in the Valley by The Head and the Heart.

"Call it one drink too many; call it pride of a man.
But it don't make no difference if you sit or you stand.
'Cause they both end in trouble and start with a grin.
Yeah they both end in trouble and start with a grin."

The only group with more than one song in the Top Thirty other than The Decemberists, The Head and the Heart is a must-see in concert if you get the chance. Even if it's under a tent in 95 degree heat in the middle of a dusty field in Tennessee.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Favorite Songs of 2011 - Songs 11-20

The middle ten of my favorite songs from this year (or, in some cases, last).

11. Down by the Water by The Decemberists.

"All dolled up in gabardine
The lash-flashing Leda of pier nineteen
Queen of the water and queen of the old main drag."

I don't pretend to understand what Colin Meloy's getting at here, but I like it just the same.

12. You Are a Tourist by Death Cab for Cutie.
"When you find yourself the villain
In the story you have written,
It's plain to see.
That sometimes the best intentions
Are in need of redemption
Would you agree?"

Saw them live this year too, at Merriweather Post Pavilion along with Frightened Rabbit.

13. Faster by Matt Nathanson.

"You bite my lip.
You spike my blood.
You make my heart

 A ridiculously sappy-sweet love song. But (every once in a while) there's nothing wrong with that.

14. California (Hustle and Flow) by Social Distortion.

"Well, I was born, babe, with nothing to lose
But the black man taught me how to sing the blues
Made a little life outta rock ‘n’ roll
And that crazy California hustle and flow."

Another ol' fashion rock 'n roll song.

15. Boeing 737 by The Low Anthem.

"I was in the air when the towers came down
In a bar on the 84th floor.
I bought Philippe Petit a round,
and asked what his high wire was for.
He said, 'I put one foot on the wire,
one foot straight into heaven.'
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
on the Boeing 737; Lord, on the Boeing 737."

An angry, cacophonic (is that a word?) song about 9/11. But why a 737 when the planes were 767's?  There's an artsy video too, but I like this one better.

16. Heart in Your Heartbreak by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

"She was the heart in your heartbreak;
She was the miss in your mistake.
And no matter what you take,
you're never going to forget."

Sounds like '80's pop punk to me.

17. Walk by Foo Fighters.

"I'm dancing on my grave.
I'm running through the fire.
Forever, whatever;
I never wanna die."

If Kurt Cobain had lived, I have to think that musically he'd be more like Eddie Vedder than Dave Grohl these days. Not that there's anything wrong with Vedder's music, but thank goodness that Grohl's still rockin'.

18. Every Teardrop is a Waterfall by Coldplay.

"I turn the music up, I got my records on.
From underneath the rubble sing a rebel song.
Don't want to see another generation drop;
I'd rather be a comma than a full stop."

Yeah, they might rip off Radiohead (although this songs sounds more like U2 to me). Yeah, the lyrics may be "wussy" as the younger male member of my family insists. But I like it, and it's my list.

19. Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People.

"Robert's got a quick hand.
He'll look around the room, won't tell you his plan.
He's got a rolled cigarette, hanging out his mouth he's a cowboy kid.
Yeah, found a six shooter gun
In his dad's closet hidden with a box of fun things, I don't even know what.
But he's coming for you, yeah he's coming for you."


The song of the summer -- a bouncy pop treat -- until you listen to the lyrics.

20. The Ballad of Mona Lisa by Panic! at the Disco.

"Say what you mean.
Tell me I'm right and let the sun rain down on me.
Give me a sign - I wanna believe."

While the lyrics say he wants to believe, the video says he's already written her off.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Favorite Songs of 2011 - Songs 21-30

The last few years in November and December I've posted a countdown of my favorite songs of the past year on Facebook. Given the readership for my Bonnaroo post this past summer, I thought I'd republish the list here this year. Each will start with some lyrics from the song, sometimes followed by a brief comment about it or why I like it.

These are my favorite songs; not the "best" songs according to me or some critic. Some you may know, others you may not. The only rules are that it must be a song released in 2010 or 2011 and that I like it. I hope you enjoy them (or at least some of them) too.

21. Electrified by Ben Sollee.

"If your heart is unsteady, they can make it beat in time.
If you mind is confused, it can be clarified.
If you're old-fashioned, you will be modernized.
Everything is electrified."

Just a man and his cello, making great music. In what will be a recurring theme, I saw him at Bonnaroo, although not at this impromptu concert.

22. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes.

"I was raised up believing I was somehow unique.
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be:
A functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me."

A beautiful song about . . . withdrawing from the rat race? Giving in and becoming a "functioning cog"? Discuss amongst yourselves.

23. Block After Block by Matt + Kim.

"Eat when you’re hungry and
Sleep when you’re slipping like
Tired dogs rest their paws
Today we show our flaws."

A get-up-and-jump-around song if ever there was one. The whole joint was jumpin' when they played at Bonnaroo.

24.  99 Problems by Hugo.

"Looking for the prize but I don’t want blood
I order one drink then I drink the flood
Well, you can come inside but your friends can’t come."

Pretty much the antithesis of the next song on the list. Since Hugo apparently is signed with Jay-Z's label, I guess we can assume that Jay-Z approved of Hugo's partial appropriation of his song.

25.   One and Only by Adele.

"I dare you to let me be your,
Your one and only.
Promise I'm worthy
To hold in your arms."

More than this summer's ubiquitous Rolling in the Deep, I think this song really shows off Adele's great voice. Just a good old fashioned soul ballad.

26.  We Used to Wait by Arcade Fire.

"I used to write.
I used to write letters;
I used to sign my name.
I used to sleep at night.
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain."

This song would be higher except that it's really a 2010 song, and even though my rules allow 2010 songs here, it should have been on last year's list. Great song, just the same. GO SEE THEM LIVE!

27.  My Body by Young the Giant.

"Stop the train is riding down to the station where I lived
When I was a cool kid.
Hey, is it my fault that the fallen embers burn down in a spiral
Round your crown of thieves?"

One of the few genuine rock 'n roll songs on this year's list.

28.  Zorbing by Stornoway.

"Lying in your attic;
I can feel the static;
The storm has broken, heavens open.
So electrifying, oh I'm nearly flying;
Lost my heart between the sheets of lightning."

I have no idea what "zorbing" is but I like the song . . .

29.  Mine Smell Like Honey by REM.

"If the end comes faster than we had expected;
And predictions lead us to the final fall.
If the flowers crack the grave and leave the patterns of the pavement;
I can hear you shouting over it all."

Thanks, boys, it was a great ride.

30.  Rivers and Roads by The Head and the Heart.

"A year from now we'll all be gone
All our friends will move away
And they're goin' to better places
But our friends will be gone away."

One of my top five favorite performances at Bonnaroo this summer.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tough Act to Follow

Scott Hunter, Quincy Carter, Jay Fiedler, Bert Jones, Aaron Rodgers.

Any idea what those five quarterbacks have in common? Maybe this will help: Bart Starr, Troy Aikman, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Brett Favre.

Yep, that's right. Each of the first five was the starting quarterback who replaced those in the second group. Four of the first five faded into the realm of sports trivia, unable to fill the very large shoes of those they attempted to replace.

Which makes Rodgers' accomplishments the last two NFL seasons even more astonishing than they otherwise would be. And they are quite astounding by their own right. A Super Bowl victory, a Super Bowl MVP award, 16 straight NFL wins (a record in the history of the Packers' storied franchise), and a likely NFL MVP this season are the stuff of a budding legend.

That Rodgers has been able to so seamlessly replace a bona fide legend in Favre, someone who arguably was the face of the franchise more than any quarterback since Namath or Unitas, speaks volumes both for Rodgers and for the coach and front office personnel who first groomed him and then placed him in a position to succeed.

While Rodgers may be more popular in the U.S. than George Washington, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa these days, it is his mentoring and "handling" by the Packers that perhaps impresses me the most. For while the fawning over Rodgers is deserved (and even as a life-long Lions fan I will find myself somewhat conflicted as I watch the revival of a meaningful Lions-Packers game on Thanksgiving Day) I am convinced that the Packers' management and coaches placed Rodgers in the position that he is in today through a series of shrewd decisions.

One percent behind Jesus.

The authors of the book that I'm currently reading about the birth and growth of ESPN convincingly argue that the network's rise to its self-proclaimed status as "The Worldwide Leader in Sports" may have never occurred but for a series of decisions and events, any one of which may have resulted in the demise of the network. So too the Packers brass had multiple opportunities to fumble away the chance to grow Rodgers into the player that he is now but chose the right path every time. 

First, the Packers used a first-round draft pick to select Rodgers at a time when they already had a "franchise quarterback" in Favre (take note Indianapolis Colts). Second, they brought Rodgers along slowly, letting him to adjust to the speed of the game, learning from one of the best. Third, they recognized when it was Rodgers' time and when they did they committed to him fully, whether growing tired of Favre's "I'm retired; I'm not retired" antics or simply considering it in the best interests of the business to hand Rodgers the reins. And, finally, once Rodgers was installed as the franchise keystone, they collected, kept, and surrounded him with good talent.

Recognizing talent, training team members, surrounding your leaders with good employees, managing expectations. The Packers have taught us all something about how to achieve success in their handling of Aaron Rodgers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where Was Joe?

"Joe Paterno IS Penn State football!" said one of the rioters on that campus in the wake of the news that Paterno had been fired by Penn State's Board of Trustees.

To which one can only respond: you'd better hope not. 

The charges against Jerry Sandusky and the revelations of cover-up, inaction, lying and half-truths that followed force one to conclude that no school would want Paterno to lead one of its teams, let alone represent that team and that entire institution, given the vacuum of morality and leadership at the top of that program over the last 13 years.

Where was Joe when his Sandusky, his loyal assistant coach, was raping a 10 year-old boy in his team's facility?

Where was Joe and what did he do after that act was reported to him by a graduate assistant? Following the chain of command? When Sandusky was banned from the Penn State campus in 2002 what possible reason could there have been for it other than that the school knew, and Joe knew, that Sandusky had committed the precise act that was reported to Paterno. And yet those sordid details were apparently kept within the Penn State campus, enabling Sandusky to pursue his twisted habits everywhere else (including, potentially, one of the school's satellite campuses).

Where was Joe, when that loyal assistant retired, at the age of 55 and heir apparent to Joe's throne? What exactly did Joe know at that time about Sandusky? Why did Sandusky retire then, at the peak of his career, and what was his nebulous attachment to the Penn State football program after that?  Why was Sandusky still travelling with the team after his retirement, and apparently taking some of his victims (along with his wife) with him to bowl games?

Where was Joe when after Sandusky retired he founded The Second Mile, a charity ostensibly devoted to helping youths from troubled families, but in all likelihood to offer Sandusky a ready supply of young boys to prey upon? The Grand Jury states in its indictment of Sandusky that "[i]t was within The Second Mile program that Sandusky found his victims" which makes Penn State's and Paterno's lack of notice to anyone, including those within the foundation, of what they had to know, what they had to be worried about regarding Sandusky's predilections, all the more heinous. That is, if they were at all concerned about the welfare of children as opposed to, say, the reputation of the University and its lily white football program.

Where was Joe when that student quoted above and others were clashing with police and calling for his return? If he had really planned on devoting the rest of his life to the university after he magnanimously announced on his (and only his) terms when he would step down, shouldn't he have done something? Why not address the crowd and tell them that they were being completely wrong-headed and ill-motivated? Why not ask them where the protests were on behalf of those 7, 8, 9 or more (many, many more perhaps) boys who were abused and forever scarred by Joe's right-hand man when that news broke? Where was the Tweet, text, email, phone call, press release, telegraph, carrier pigeon message telling the students that they were merely heaping more shame on an already shamed institution? That his ability or inability to coach three more football games was not worth that extra layer of tarnish?

Shooting the messenger -- the extra layer of tarnish.

To hear anyone say that Paterno was denied the "right" to retire on his own terms by the Board of Trustees is so galling, so myopic, it defies belief. Paterno lost any right he had to any sort of sympathy, understanding, or deference when he turned his back on the first boy he knew had been violated by Sandusky and lost it even more with every one that followed.

We know where Joe will not be on Saturday when his team takes the field without him for the first time in 60 years. And that is exactly the way it should be.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Down Goes Frazier

And with him boxing dies a little more.

Smokin' Joe Frazier's death this week has caused me to reminisce about the Golden Age of boxing, or at least the golden age that I knew, from the mid-1960's, through the '80's.

I readily admit that it has always been difficult to defend boxing as a sport. It was, and is, brutal, dangerous, exploitative, and corrupt. One only has to observe the rare public appearance by Mohammad Ali these past few years to understand latent dangers that boxing carries with it, along with the more immediate, and occasionally tragic, ones.

And yet, boxing as I knew it was a great sport and fantastic spectacle. Clay-Liston; Ali-Frazier; Hearns-Leonard; Mancini-Chacon. You don't need first names, or even specific fights, to know exactly who and what I'm talking about. Some great fighters are tied to each other for eternity.

The greatest fights and fighters earned status not accorded to any other sport or competition, not even Super Bowls or World Series. They weren't merely contests, they were world events that came close rivaling the biggest news. Its images were every bit as iconic as those of an anti-war protester offering a flower to a National Guardsman or Neil Armstrong taking that giant leap.

The most famous photo in sports history?

You remembered where you were when a fight happened and what happened, round-by-round. You recognized the fighters, their managers, their trainers, the reporters and analysts, and maybe even the ring announcers, by merely their face or their voice. You marveled at the courage, stamina, strength, and fortitude of fighters who, battered and beaten, found the will to get off of their stool to fight the fifteenth round, even though they had little chance of winning.

And that was part of what made boxing unique. As long as a boxer was in the ring and on his feet, he had a "fighting chance". Announcers talk of "knockout blows" in other sports, but boxing is the only sport where one side can deliver that blow after being beaten for 90% of the contest and impossibly behind in the score.

In boxing, there was always hope.

But boxing wasn't just will and brute strength. Skill, speed, power, hand-eye coordination, strategy, and stamina were all vitally important to deciding the outcome of a particular bout.

Sadly, boxing has been replaced to a large extent in the 21st Century by mixed martial arts fighting. Boxing is the "sweet science," for all the reasons listed above. There is no science to MMA, at least none that I care to discern.

The title to this post, of course, echoes Howard Cosell's famous call from the Frazier-Foreman fight in 1973. Back when prize fights were shown on live television, not only to those willing to fork over half of a week's savings to watch on pay-per-view or a king's ransom to see a fight live. That may be part of what killed boxing, along with greedy promoters and the ridiculous proliferation of world boxing organizations that tried to grab a piece of the pie.

This is not, however, an analysis of what went wrong with boxing or why. It's strictly a remembrance of an athlete we all knew, in a sport we all knew.  We'll miss you Joe, along with the pastime that has largely died along with you.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Play Hard, Have Fun

Before the playoffs began during my last season as Assistant Coach of our team, I decided to try to break the hoodoo that we seemed to have going into the postseason.

At the time, all soccer in West Virginia was played in one division, and our team always faced Capital High School and George Washington, two good soccer schools several times bigger than us, in the sectional (first round) of the playoffs. Although we went in with good teams each of those seasons, we never could get over the hump and beat both in order to progress to regional play.

So before the sectional semi-final in my daughter's senior year (my last as an assistant), I decided to give the girls little slips of paper that had a theme for the playoffs that they could put in their shoes or in their shinguards to take on to the field with them to remind them about what our task was, and perhaps feel a little comfort that those of us on the sidelines were there with them in spirit.

After that first season (in which we lost in the second round) and all my years as head coach, I continued the practice with two changes: our first year of AA-A competition I decided to write a different message for each game and, in one and only one instance, I gave them all a slip before a regular season game.

I tried to hold on to those slips but over the years I lost some, and others were literally washed away by the occasional deluge (I kept them in my worn black bag that accompanied me to every game along with spare keeper gloves, spare shinguards, and my ubiquitous notebooks in which I would scratch my observations of the game and about our and the opposing players).

The ones that survived, or that I recall, I list below, more or less in chronological order. If any former players out there have or remember others, please comment or send me an email so I can add them to the list. Some are self-explanatory, some will be completely cryptic, but that's what makes it fun, I hope.

Next Game.

First time, last time, OUR time.

Play hard -- respect your opponent.

This is our first chance to make history.

We do the ordinary things better.

Anytime, anywhere. Too bad for them it's here and now.

Perfect day, perfect place -- have some fun and play hard.

Play with passion.

Make a statement.

To repeat takes character.

Be Great.

First step to a third star.

Avenge the ball!

Be the greatest.

This is what we play for.

Be smarter, play harder.

And, finally, what were always my last words after our pre-game Hail Mary:

"Play hard, Have fun."

Breaking the huddle at the 2009 State Finals --
right after my customary "Play Hard, Have Fun."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Can You Still Call Me Coach?

So, I coached my last high school soccer game last night, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

Not about the game, which we lost 1-0. I was disappointed with the result, but proud of the way that our little band of 15 battled to the end. I thought I was handling the result, and the end of my "second career," fairly well until I realized that I was still awake at 3 a.m., replaying the game in my head and making different decisions that could have changed the outcome of the match.

But, rather, how I feel about the simple fact that, as of today, I am an ex-coach.

I've always loved so many things about coaching. To be a part of, and lead, a team. The relationship with each and every one of the players that I've coached and the joy and at times frustration that inevitably results. The deep passion to want to succeed and help others succeed. The bond between co-coaches. The give-and-take with the skilled and smart fellow coaches that I was fortunate enough to coach against. Even, believe it or not, my relationship with many referees. Perhaps, most of all, being a teacher.

I received several awards and recognitions during my time as a coach, but two, which do not involve trophies or certificates or plaques, are the most special to me.

Receiving one of my awards, this one from the National Federation of High School Coaches' Association. My expression was unplanned, but captures my bemusement.

The first is the slip of official looking paper that I would receive from the State Board of Education certifying me as a "teacher".  When I first started coaching I never thought of myself as an educator, just another coach. But the receipt of that certificate every year struck home the point to me that I was indeed a teacher, with all the responsibility that that position entails, and I was very proud of it.

The second is simply to be called coach.

Almost every time I would call our athletic director, Bill Gillispie, he would respond to my latest request for help with an initial "Hey Coach, how's it going?" And while I always encouraged my players to call me by my first name, and almost all always did (in one variation or another) I have to admit that I was always a little tickled when they would greet me with a "Hi Coach!" rather than a "Kevin!"

I will no longer lead a team onto a field, or try to figure out what will motivate them or how to instruct them to make the most of what they are, or what they can be. But hopefully, in some way or another, I will always be worthy of the title.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Winning and Losing

I haven't written anything about our team's current soccer season so far for several reasons. First, because I've missed a number of practices and several games due to various familial and work obligations. And, second, because I've been struggling with what to say about our team and our season.

Let's face it: it's easy to think of things to write when you're flying high (even if they're not always positive); a little tougher when you're inconsistent. Add to that the fact that I'm conscious of the possibility (although, in all likelihood, not the probability) that a current or future opponent's coach or players could read my posts and perhaps gain some insight into how to play against our team, or obtain bulletin-board material for when we do play them, and there are good reasons why I've been mum to this point.

With the regular season almost at an end, however, I've been assessing what our team, and I, have learned about ourselves this year.

The start to our season was very difficult, as we had suspected it would be. Only 13 players showed up the first day of practice and the girls had to recruit classmates just so we could have a realistic number of players. No rising ninth grade girls play soccer, so there was no infusion of talent from that class. Then, not only did we have a tough schedule, facing two AAA schools and a good Ohio team in a showcase tournament, we were missing three of our players who were not yet eligible.

Things have gotten better since that rough start and while we haven't won as many games as we have gotten used to over the past few years, or in fact in any of the years that I've been the coach, we have improved as a team and perhaps learned some lessons along the way. 

Our recent successes have meant that most of the small school teams that we will be paired with in the playoffs still refused to play us this season and as a result our schedule has still been filled for the most part with schools and programs that have several times the students and players that we do. So this season, as in the last few, we've been punching above our weight. But without that killer left hook that we had before.

Our small school brethren, however, may come to regret their decisions not to play us this year. Our team has improved on the field while being tested by many of the best teams in the state, regardless of class. While the results haven't always been what we hoped for, and while we all have never become satisfied with losing, we have learned to be pleased with the improvements in our effort and performance even in those losses. And our difficult schedule has required both players and coaches to be able to adapt to a variety of line-ups and positions in order to meet the challenges that each team has presented.

That improvement was evident today, as we battled our friendly rival University to a standstill in the first half, before eventually losing 2-0. But, for an extended period in the second half, we actually had them on their heels and played our best soccer of the season so far.

The saying goes that losing builds character. I'm not sure that's true. But I do believe that adversity reveals character and gives you the opportunity to grow, much more so than easy success does. While losing is clearly not as much fun as winning, the character building that our team has undergone this season may be exactly what we needed to ultimately be successful this season. The next two, or three, or four weeks will reveal just how much we've improved from the experience.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Klinsmann Era Begins

So, rather than jumping to conclusions based on the U.S. men's national team's first match in the Klinsmann Era (which, after all, came only 10 day after Jurgen Klinsmann's appointment as manager and was against our biggest rival, Mexico), I thought I'd wait a while to see how the dust settles.

After all, Klinsmann himself insists that that this is all part of a "process" that goes far beyond a win or a loss in a friendly.

Good thing.

The team looked close to abysmal in the first half of the match against Mexico, with a line-up and a level of play that was, frankly, reminiscent of its effort against Tres Colores in the Gold Cup Final. Second best at best, the Yanks chased the ball and, on those rare occasions when they actually won it, looked largely inept with it at their feet.

After the half, though, the Americans played inspired soccer, at least in part because Mexico substituted some of its best players, most notably Rafael Marquez. Klinsmann moved players around and freed up Landon Donovan to play a more pivotal role in the offense. The change was so dramatic, in fact, that I wondered if Klinsmann wasn't tweaking U.S. Soccer and his predecessor, Bob Bradley, by showing the contrast of the way things were under Bradley in the first half, and the way they will be under Klinsmann in the second.

Juan Agudelo, Brek Shea, and Jose Torres celebrate Robbie Rogers'
equalizer against Mexico, while Rogers runs to join in.

Unfortunately, things didn't improve, and in fact regressed, in the squad's next two matches. Using a variety of U.S.-based and European based players, the Americans lost 1-0 to Costa Rica in California and to Belgium by the same score in Brussels.

The U.S. dominated the Costa Rica match, wasting several opportunities to score in the first half while dominating possession. The second half was more even, although Los Ticos scored on their only really quality chance of the entire match. The Americans looked less threatening against the Belgians, although Clint Dempsey (absent from both the Mexico and Costa Rica matches due to club obligations) had several good chances.

Should we hit the panic button after a less-than-impressive start under Klinsmann? Should we pine for the good old days of Bradley or Arena? I don't think so.

While a skeptic may ascribe Klinsmann's talk of patience and process as excuses, I think he truly believes them. His plan for his job goes far beyond the performance of the U.S. Men's National Team and extends to the youth program as well. A measure of his approach is apparent as well in his unorthodox decision to employ a number of temporary assistant coaches in the early stages of his reign to garner input from a variety of sources, both close to the national team program and to MLS.

He has also already given opportunities to a number of young players who were only on the fringes of the full national team prior to his arrival. Brek Shea, Robbie Rogers, and Jose Torres have all figured prominently in the offense since Klinsmann's arrival. Torres' consistent inclusion in the center of midfield is particularly noteworthy as he was rarely called upon by Bob Bradley who preferred two defensive midfielders in his formation and his playmaking and imagination give the team something that it sorely lacked under Bradley. Klinsmann has tested out a number of defenders as well -- Timmy Chandler has looked particularly impressive while Michael Oroczo Fiscal and Edgar Castillo have had inconsistent efforts.

Jose Torres on the ball.

The biggest problem, and the one that Klinsmann may be unable to solve, is up front. The U.S. lacks a true target man at forward. Jozy Altidore and Juan Agudelo have had the lion's share of opportunities so far, but have failed to score.

Altidore works hard, but hasn't seemed particularly threatening in the opponent's defensive third. Fortunately, Altidore is for the first time in several years getting regular playing opportunities with his club team (Dutch side AZ Alkmaar) and it's easy to forget that despite his 40 caps for the Men's squad, Altidore is only 22. Agudelo has come on mostly as a substitute and, like Altidore, at the tender age of 18 still has plenty of time to grow as a player. He's great on the ball, but seems to lack the poacher's instinct required of a striker, particularly when playing alone up top as seems to be Klinsmann's preference when it comes to formations.

Still, while there are uncertainties, Klinsmann's willingness to look at young new players adds an air of excitement and anticipation to the team, much as his ascension to the job did. While we wait to see how the process works in the end, it will at least be an interesting ride getting there.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Turning Out The Lights

The final episode of the television series "Friday Night Lights" was aired on NBC a few weeks ago, and while I have not been a wholly faithful viewer, I will miss it.

In case you haven't seen it (and, to paraphrase Bob Uecker, judging by the ratings most of you have not), Friday Night Lights was set in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and centered around high school football coach Eric Taylor and his family.  It never attracted a strong viewership, apparently at least in part because NBC never made up its mind whether to market it to men as a football show or to women as a family show.

But to me, plain and simple, it was a coach's show. And not just any one. The best, ever.

Sure, there were lots of story lines and sub-plots that were compelling. The show did a great job of examining, honestly and unblinkingly, small-town America issues like alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, and military service that many face. My favorite character in the show (other than Eric Taylor), Tim Riggins (portrayed masterfully by actor Taylor Kitsch), was at times a James Dean anti-hero, at times a full-blown Pat Tillman-esque hero.

There are many other memorable characters as well. Landry and Vince and Buddy and Matt and Smash all deal with problems that many high school athletes, parents, and supporters face.

But the one thing that they all have in common is that they were changed by Coach Taylor, and shaped forever, and forever to the better, by being a part of his team. Every episode had at least one scene where, even if you're not a coach, even if you never wanted to be a coach, you would get "it" when you watched.

Eric Taylor was admittedly a tougher coach on his players than I am, which is one thing that I admire about him. But it was always "tough love" not just tough. He truly cared about his players, and that concern would always shine through in the end. Here's Coach Taylor at his most imspirational:

But Taylor wasn't always concerned about winning or losing, at least not just on the football field. While I sometimes wish I was the Coach Taylor above, I hope I am sometimes the Coach Taylor below:

The good news is that ESPN Classic has purchased the rights to Friday Night Lights and is re-airing the first season now. If you are a coach, ever wanted to be a coach, or ever wondered what the heck makes coaches tick, I highly recommend you tune in.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Team of Destiny, Meet Team of Destiny

Okay, so I really don't feel much like writing a post about the U.S. vs. Japan match. Or anything else, for that matter.

As an objective observer/soccer fan you have to be more than a little happy for a plucky Japanese team that had more of a never-say-die attitude than the Americans, who had made that their trademark in this World Cup. And that whole tsunami thing undoubtedly makes this a "feel good" story not only in Japan but worldwide.

Except here. Japan didn't win this one; we gave it away.  I wanted to pummel Ian Darke when he kept wondering if the U.S. would rue its repeated missed opportunities in the first 30 minutes of the match, but that was mostly because I suspected he was right (and for God's sake will someone please buy Julie Foudy a calculator?).

Still, those misses shouldn't have mattered. You have to be able to defend a one goal lead in the last ten minutes of any match. And particularly a World Cup Final against a team that had, for 80 minutes, displayed a remarkable lack of finishing ability and had failed to pose a single legitimate offensive threat.

It was the first of the two Japanese goals that was particularly heinous. Horrible, desperate defending when it wasn't necessary or called for. Usually you speak of offensive players who "choke" but it certainly appeared that it was the U.S. defenders who did exactly that, gifting Miyama an opportunity she didn't deserve but, to her credit, she put away.

Not the celebration U.S. fans were hoping to see,
particularly in the 116th minute with the lead.

When Sawa scored the second, with only four minutes to play in extra time, it seemed to seal the deal. It wasn't the U.S. that would be the improbable winner in this match. The shootout was awful to watch and, surely, worse to actually participate in.

So we're left with a lot of good memories and renewed attention, at least temporarily, to soccer in general and women's soccer in particular in this country. But oh, what could have been, if only we had decided to clear the ball upfield instead of treating it like a pinball in our own six-yard box.

And, if nothing else, this match proved exactly what makes soccer unique among all sports: one team can dominate another and still lose. That is indeed what makes soccer so maddening, and so irresistible at the same time.

The next Women's World Cup is in Canada. Anyone else in?

Monday, July 11, 2011

C'mon In Girls, the Water's Fine

Yeah, yeah, you've read this before. Or something close to it anyway.

The difference is fans of women's soccer in the United States don't need an introduction to the sport or to World Cup thrills.

But just as a year ago Landon Donovan and the U.S. men gave us 90 minutes of tension and then jubilation, so too Abby Wambach and the U.S. women (and a less-than-helpful Australian referee) gave us 122 minutes of nail-biting thrills against Brazil in the Women's World Cup yesterday and then tacked on a penalty shootout for good measure.

Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach celebrate Wambach's goal
(and Rapinoe's cross that set it up) at the death against Brazil.

Yesterday's match was the re-invigoration of soccer in our country that we so needed. Instead of its earliest ever exit from the World Cup, Wambach and her resilient, never-say-die teammates gave us a match for the ages and a lesson that makes us all feel a little bit better about the sport in our country. And maybe ourselves.

There's still a long way to go, no doubt about that. The Americans have to beat the surprising French in the semifinal and, if they get past Les Blues, either a team that has already bested them in this tournament (Pia Sundhage's native Sweden), or a Japan team that knocked out the favorites Germany in the quarterfinals.

While you have to like their chances, regardless of what happens in the semifinals and final, this game will likely be remembered as the match of the 2011 Women's World Cup, or perhaps any women's World Cup. Just as Donovan's goal, while ultimately not leading to a World Cup (or even a spot in the quarterfinals), was an example of grit and determination, so to the women's victory demonstrated guts, and heart, and most of all belief in the value of team.

Wambach's perfect header.

At the very least, the women made a believer out of their coach. "I come from Sweden," said Sundhage after the match, "and this American attitude, pulling everything together and bringing out the best performance in each other, that is contagious. I am very, very proud, and I'm very, very happy to be the coach of the U.S. team."  

The U.S. women faced a daunting task when the match began against a squad with the five-time defending world player of the year in Marta and several other teammates with, honestly, more flair than that possessed by any American player. An early own goal by Brazil seemed at the time a gift (the only one the Yanks received all evening), but may have caused them to play more tentatively as a result.

It would be easy to dwell on the negatives of the next two hours of soccer that followed that first goal.  Horrible refereeing decision upon bad. Cynical play and play-acting by the Brazilians. Even, surprisingly, at times clueless commentary by the usually fine Ian Darke and Julie Fouty (90 plus 15 plus 15 equals 120, not 115 y'all). More globally, whether it's good that the women's game appears to be evolving into the same bad-tempered, cynical affair that marks the men's game. Or whether our apparent malaise regarding women's soccer is indicative of a misogynistic turn that my favorite soccer blogger, Fake Sigi, thinks our nation has taken in the last 12 years.

But we'll leave all that for another day (if ever). Now is the time to just revel. In the accomplishments of a team of resolute women who ignored at best horrible misfortune and at worst a stacking of the deck against them. In a team that stuck to the task at hand and believed, when all seemed lost, that they would persevere.

Or, as Wambach said after the match: "I think that is a perfect example of what this country is about. What the history of this team has always been. We never give up. We literally went to the last second it seems."

The reference in the title to this post is to the Donovan goal a year ago, and to Delmar's invitation to join the nation of believers in O Brother Where Art Thou? But perhaps a better observation from Delmar for yesterday's game, and our reaction to it, comes after Delmar thinks that he has discovered that his fellow escapee Pete in an altered state. "Them syreens did this to Pete." says Delmar. "They loved him up and turned him into a toad."

What's the state of U.S. soccer? For at least one day, it's about as good as it can get, thanks to the sirens of our national team. Color us grey and cover us with warts for all we care.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Can You Demand Support?

The recent National Team matches between the U.S. Men's soccer team and Mexico and the Women's team and Sweden have had me pondering the nature of support of national teams.
Ask anyone who is a fan raised in a football culture and they will tell you club comes before country. In America, however, it's a little different. Unless you're 15 years old or younger, you were born at a time when there was no major professional league in the country. So for my generation, and the one that preceded me, the national team was the team of first allegiance. Maybe that's why I have trouble understanding Americans who root for other countries against "their" nation in any competition.
My Grandfather emigrated from Sweden in his early adulthood and I am extremely proud of my Scandinavian heritage, as well as his accomplishments and assimilation into American life. But I would never think of rooting for Sweden to beat the U.S. Sweden is what I claim as my nation of origin, my heritage. The United States is my country.
The Swedish national team badge.
So while the Swedes made the American women look very ordinary in their World Cup match Wednesday, I felt no elation. Frustration, yes. But the team I was rooting for wore white and the badge of U.S. soccer and they were and are my team.

As noted in my previous post, that is not the case with Hispanic fans who root on Mexico against their adopted homeland, America. While I am far from those who insist on making English the official language of the United States, and have established a track record of non-jingoism, I am troubled by the fact that the American men are the "away" team when they play Mexico almost anywhere within the contiguous 48 states.
The rationalization of one Mexican national team supporter at the Gold Cup final was this: "I love this country, it has given me everything that I have, and I'm proud to be part of it," said Victor Sanchez, a 37-year-old Monrovia resident wearing a Mexico jersey. "But yet, I didn't have a choice to come here, I was born in Mexico, and that is where my heart will always be."
I'm sorry Victor, but, unless you were forced across the border at gun point, yes, in fact, you did have a choice. You chose to come to the land of opportunity over your native land, much as my Grandfather did. And now you turn your back on it.
There are several solutions to this situation. The most obvious is to cultivate a large enough following of the U.S. national team that supporters that they will purchase tickets instead of the Mexican fans. 
The second is to hold to matches in areas that are not traditional "strongholds" of Mexican national team support (i.e., Los Angeles). The most memorable soccer match I have ever attended was in Columbus, Ohio. In February. 

U.S. Soccer finally decided to turn the tables on our neighbors to the South, who generally make us play in the smog-filled thin air of Mexico City for our national team matches against them, and set our first qualifying match for the 2002 World Cup in Columbus. Mother Nature, with a wink and a nod, complied with the plan and served up weather that was 29F at kick-off, with the wind chill in the teens.

The Mexican team never had a chance, emerging shivering from its locker room only minutes before kick-off only to find the Americans already on the field, most memorably for me Tony Sanneh in shirt sleeves. Even with Brian McBride, local Columbus Crew hero and the Americans' top striker, forced out early with a golf ball sized knot on his face, the Yanks dominated and won 2-0.

The third solution is the one that the democrat (little "d") in me whispers in my ear while I curse the pro-Mexican crowds is to make those fans feel a little more American. Maybe, it says, it was easier for your Grandpa and his son and his son's son because they had fair hair and blue eyes. Maybe, if we spent a little less time building walls (real and metaphorical) to keep immigrants out they would feel a little more American.

Pia Sundhage, the U.S. women's national team coach, is Swedish. I seriously doubt that anyone will accuse her of throwing the game against Sweden (although why Megan Rapinoe played for 72 minutes is completely beyond me). Would the same be true if Bob Bradley was of Mexican heritage?

Regardless of why, or what the short-term solution may be, the bottom line is that you can't dictate allegiance. It has to be earned. So, at least for the short run, Victor and his many companions will continue to support their country of origin over their country of opportunity. And I (and Tim Howard) will just have to learn to deal with it. After all Tim, that match in Columbus? It's forever known in Mexico as La Guerra Fria ("The Cold War"). Sounds way cooler in Spanish.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Not All That Great

That is, the state of American soccer isn't all that great.

The men were pounded by Mexico and the women looked less than convincing in their win against North Korea, which apparently would have been a loss had the Koreans not suffered tragic misfortune in the days leading up to the World Cup.

The men had a dream start to their Gold Cup final against Mexico, scoring twice in the first half hour of the match to take a 2-0 lead.  The next hour, however, was basically an evisceration of the Yanks' defense as Mexico showed off all of its attacking talent and at the same time exposed the weakness and lack of depth of the American backline.

An overwhelmingly pro-Mexico crowd and the delivery of the post-match honors primarily in Spanish rankled both American supporters and some of their players, but were just salt in the wounds for a disappointing performance in the tournament as a whole and particularly in the final. While their defensive deficiencies can be explained by some extent to the early substitution of right back Steve Cherundolo, it's hard to believe that his presence would have made much of a difference, with central defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson looking slow and Cherundolo's replacement Jonathan Bornstein completely out of his element.

 Giovani Dos Santos jukes Tim Howard just before scoring
the goal of the Tournament, sealing Mexico's 4-2 win

Post-match commentary has been critical of coach Bob Bradley, suggesting that it is time for him to go so that a new man may be in place and fully in charge before World cup qualifying begins. Given that Bradley received a new four year contract shortly after the last World Cup, a replacement seems unlikely, although U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati seemed somewhat equivocal regarding his confidence in Bradley immediately following the Mexico match.

I think Bradley is in a damned if he does and damned if he doesn't situation -- criticized for being predictable, he actually tried some new things at the Gold Cup that worked (featuring Freddy Adu, then starting him, with considerable success, in the final; installing Eric Lichaj at left back) and some that didn't (mostly, naming Bornstein to the squad in the first place). The biggest thing that Bradley seems to have in his favor is that contract, and the fact that by all appearances U.S. Soccer attempted to find a big profile successor after the 2010 World Cup without success.

The women started their World Cup with a 2-0 over North Korea. The North Koreans were very young (10 players on their roster are under 20) and were technically skilled and the more consistently dangerous team in the first half, which ended 0-0. The Americans ramped up their attack in the second half and won 2-0.

Lauren Cheney (12) celebrates her crucial first goal against North Korea.

After the match, perhaps keeping in mind the humiliation to which the North Korean men's squad was subjected after their 2010 World Cup, the Korean coach explained the "real" reason why his team lost. Lightning. That's right, Kim-Kwang-min claimed that his keeper and his defenders (or strikers, depending on the translation) were victims of a lightning strike in training leading up to the match, leading to their substandard performance in the second half.

While the U.S. women probably won't have to hope that the Colombian women, their next opponents, suffered a similar fate in order to beat them, they will still have to show improvement, or hope for divine intervention, before facing Sweden (to whom they lost 2-1 in January) in the final match of group play, which will likely determine which team will be the number one seed in the group entering the knockout phase of the tournament.