Sunday, January 23, 2011

One more night

I'm a sucker for nostalgia. I really am. Maybe it's because I was blessed to have a great childhood. Or, maybe it's because I have a sentimental soul. OR, maybe it's just the fact that the late-80's and early-90's were simply an amazing time to be a kid. Or maybe it's all the above.

Whatever the reason, I found myself watching a live feed of an indoor soccer game on a perfectly good Friday night. That may not sound terribly surprising coming from me. But, it wasn't any ordinary indoor game.

No, it wasn't ordinary. The fact that I was willing to endure a frustratingly bad video feed, repeated reboots, some choice, unprintable words (at least on this blog) until, miraculously, a clear video finally came through with only three minutes remaining in the game may hint that this wasn't some game chosen at random.


I may have mentioned it a few times here before - and if I did, then go ahead and skip the story between these asterisks - but back during the mid-90's, a time filled with lots of neon, plaid, and use of the word PHAT, soccer was not my bestie. Not even close. For me, it was all baseball, all the time. And nothing else. Even though girls were already on my radar by then, it would take alot more than a pretty set of eyes and, well, a pretty set of something else, to distract me from the game I put all of my dreams into. After all, I was going to play second base for the Boston Red Sox in, like, 2001 and so was my best friend Jesse, who was going to play short, and we'd room together, and we'd have lockers next to each other, and we'd have like a dozen TVs in our apartment. It was going to be AWESOME.

Wait, where was I going with this?

Oh yeah, so at that time, soccer was just another game that wasn't called baseball. It was so insignificant to me a that they might as well have played it on Mars. And this, during a World Cup year, a World Cup in the U.S., a World Cup in the U.S. that was hosting matches less than a half-hour's drive north of my backyard baseball field. I've been called many things, but smart was never one of them.

Granted, I did know that a World Cup was being played here. Sports Illustrated for Kids assured me of this. But, like I said, soccer? They played that in countries I couldn't pronounce yet.


Needless to say, I caught very little of that World Cup. Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones were just two guys who's pictures I'd seen on TV. Alexi was the dude with the ginger locks and goatee. Cobi had the dreads, and later appeared on MTV's Mega Dose, which was about health products, and a bunch of other stuff that flew over my head because I just said no. And that about summed up my knowledge of USA '94, and the remarkable team that advanced to the Round of 16 while I caught rays in an especially large kiddie pool.


On Friday morning - last Friday morning, as in the morning of January 21, 2011, which is, what, 16, almost 17 years after Alexi, Cobi, Tony Meola, and their coach, Bora, who spoke funny, grabbed the attention of almost everyone but me that during the summer of 1994 - I got an e-mail. That, in itself, is not extraordinary.*

(*Although according to some of my friends, it is because I "still" use AOL Mail.Never understood the amount of hatred harbored by so many for AOL. Maybe I missed a memo or something.)

What made this e-mail so great was that it contained a link with the following description:

Omaha Vipers vs. USA'94
1/21/2011 7:05:00 PM CST

Naturally, my antennae spiked when my eyes sent the message to my brain on the "USA'94" part.

What I'm about to say may be embarrassing. Maybe even a little sad. But, I found myself extremely excited, heck, even giddy, about the opportunity to watch these guys live for the first time in my life. It's the simple things in life, right?

So, anyway, to shorten a good ten hours of anticipation, sweaty palms, and a twitching left leg, I'll sum it up like this: I could not wait to see these guys play.


Back to those final three minutes, which I watched with a level of exhileration that I usually reserve for World Cup games: it was more than just a collection of retired players playing an exhibition match at some non-descript arena somewhere in middle America. No. It was much, MUCH more than that.

It was watching the team - at least a good chunk of them - playing together for the first time since that magical summer. And it was magical. Nineteen ninety four was a watershed year for American soccer. Without that World Cup, without that colorful cast of characters that somehow burrowed into my non-soccer brain, and without that record number of people that showed up at the Rose Bowl, Foxboro Stadium, The Meadowlands, and other stadiums, soccer's relevance remains trapped at the recreational level. There is no MLS. And this blog is called House of Baseball.

So, for me, it was more than just another old-timers game. It was a second chance. Maybe even a final chance. A chance to see these guys one more time playing the game that they love. A chance to thank them, some 17 years later, for playing and promoting the game that they love. The game that I love.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The weather outside is frightful

For the first time in my life, I gathered up the courage to sign up and play organized soccer last August. After all, the backyard is no proving ground. Plus, it was a great to play on an actual team with guys who knew the game.

Although we flew under the radar with a 0-4-5 record, it was a heck of a lot of fun. I had great teammates, the weather (save for a couple of 90+ degree days) treated us well, and I even managed to score a few goals. Crazy.

Anyway, one of the best pieces of soccer advice I ever received came from our captain, Justin. After our last game of the season, with our playoff hopes nothing more than a mourned fantasy, Justin came over to me on the bench, and offered me this:

"You had a heck of a season. You're probably one of the fastest guys in the league, and you progressed every week. Keep working on that right foot..."

Wait. It gets better.

"And once you get that taken care of, we can start working on your left."

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce myself as the world's only neither-footed player.

I didn't take it harshly. No way. This was my first time ever playing legit soccer. Justin, who probably started kicking a ball in the neonatal unit, is one of our best players. He knows what he's talking about. It also helped that he wasn't the typical arrogant jock who knew he was the next Pele or Maradona. That, more than anything else, helped ease the sting.

So, with the weaknesses addressed, I set out to improve my right foot - then, my left - during the offseason in the hopes of returning in the Spring as a player reborn. One who could send a through ball better than anyone on the block. A player who could shoot with the best on the U-11 level. In essence, I wanted to show that, yes, I can make myself into a better player.

It was an idea that eventually sent me to a few local soccer fields to work on this endeavor. And before I knew it, my right foot started coming along. My left? Believe it or not, my shots actually began to reach the goal. It was nasty.

My progress continued along for about two weeks. Not to pat myself on the back, but I was becoming what the English would call, "a worldbeater." And it looked like I'd head into spring ready to beat some worlds.

That is until a major snowstorm hit RI and dumped a solid two feet of snow all over the place, including my training grounds. For those of you who've never seen or experienced snow, here's some inside info: it's almost impossible to get high-quality touches on a 24" bed of snow. Seriously.

No problem, though. Just a temporary setback. The snow's gotta melt at some point. And when that point comes, I'll be back on the field, ready to continue where I left off.

Yeah, no.

Before half of that snow could melt, another blizzard reared its cold, ugly head and left us with another foot of snow. Fan-$%#@*-tastic.

Again, I hoped the snow would melt off, and my boots would finally get some use before the next snowfall. Sadly, that hope was extremely short-lived. Before I knew it, Snowstorm #3 dumped another five inches on every conceiveable plot of land within a 100 mile radius, and thus, my offseason training was halted once again.

In an attempt to thwart Mother Nature, I purchased a small, 4 x 6 net with the idea that I could somehow shovel the backyard - which isn't small, but a heck of alot easier to clear than a full-sized field - and temporarily set up shop behind the house.

I got about a quarter of it done this morning. Lo, the weather gods must have chortled because as soon as I checked the weather for tomorrow, the forecast included another 4-8 inches for RI.

Face, meet Palm.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Back from the dead!

So, I'm sure alot of you - "you" being a small pack of friends, family, and random instigators - were, at one point, wondering what the heck happened to this blog. And then, like so many other things that fall into your world of wonderment, you probably quickly forgot about it, and moved on with your lives.

Wonder no more. Here's a brief recap what's transpired since my last post back on September 2, 2010, which in blog years, was like ten years ago.

- Over the course of last summer, while we were rueing the "what ifs" of the U.S. National Team' in the World Cup and Snookie was getting arrested, fellow writer/good friend Sean Donahue and I were contemplating the creation of a soccer website unlike one ever seen around these parts of the internets. One that would bring unparalleled coverage of the Revs, local soccer, and the national team. In short: it would transform the medium completely.

What started as a really, really long Facebook thread of thoughts, ideas, emotions, and emoticons eventually morphed itself into a honest-to-goodness website. We named it "New England Soccer Today," or "" if you're on the world wide web.*

(*Last night, I popped the fourth season of "Boy Meets World" into my PS3 for little bit of late-night entertainment. I'm know: I'm dull. During one of the episodes, Joey the Rat references that he was chatting on "the web" with Harley Keiner, who's release from juvie was imminent. I believe the episode was taped in 1995, which got me thinking: who, at that time, could have ever foreseen how big the internet would become? Certainly not Joey the Rat, and definitely not me. Otherwise, I would have saved all of my random missives on sports written during free period and published them here for open ridicule.)

Since then, Sean, Julian Cardillo (another one of our talented writers), and I got to work and have slowly, but surely, turned the site into a moderate success. What can I say? I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a pair of writers who, by association, make my stuff actually appear readable.

Of course, the site isn't a finished product. By no means. Recently, Sean re-introduced his wildly-popular Revolution Recap in podcast form, with the hopes that it might someday return to the radio airwaves in order to siphon the attention of listeners throughout southeastern New England. Meanwhile, there's been talk of video reports, game broadcasts, and NEST-branded polo shirts and thongs. Should we taste success on all of these fronts, our next step is WORLD DOMINATION.

-Another endeavor that's kept me up late at night (besides watching all four seasons of "Boy Meets World" everynight without interruption) is the reconstruction of the New England Soccer Hall of Fame's website. Now, without throwing anyone under the bus, the site became outdated, and when it was apparent that we were out of luck in our numerous attempts to update it, we frustratingly crumpled it up (figuratively, of course) started from scratch.

As one of the few members with passing knowledge of the internet, it was my job to oversee the creation of the new site. The fact that I'm also president probably also had something to do with it. Anywho, I met with the extremely-knowledgeable/helpful Brian Sperlongano and got the site launched in December. Alot of work still remains to get it looking, dressing, and talking the way I want it to, but it's a start.

In addition to the site, my role as President has thrown me headfirst, fully clothed and all, into a number of projects concerning the organization. One such project is the location for the 2011 induction ceremony. Typically, we hold it at the Riveria Inn, which is right down the road for me in East Providence and is pretty convenient for most of the Board and Committee Members to get to. Plus, it has that "old world" charm that I'm sure alot of people appreciate.

But, I've always thought another location could also work. One which, for lack of a better cliche, will "take us to the next level." And right now, I'm currently discussing that locale with a few people within the New England soccer community. Although I can't divulge too many specifics because nothing is even close to set in stone, I can say that if it all shapes up according to plan, this year's ceremonies will blow the previous year's out of the water like a deep-sea torpedo.

Lastly, but certainly not at all the least, the search for a physical home for the countless items and artifacts that we've accumulated over the years remains our top priority. Although we've been told many things by many people over the years, nothing has come to fruition as of yet.

However, it is my one of my ultimate goals in life - besides, you know, winning the lottery and driving a different car each day of the week - not just as President or even as a Committee Member, to get a physical location for the Hall. As a soccer fan, New England deserves to have its own soccer museum to showcase how rich the sport's history is right here. Not alot of people know how deep the sport's roots run here. And that's a darn shame. Hopefully, we can change that. The establishment of a soccer museum would be a tremendous step in the right direction.

So that's all that's going on with me. Because alot of my writing responsibilities lie with and, the bulk of my work can be found there.

But, stick around. I still plan on writing here. I'm thinking of firing up another Soccer Odyssey a la the one I journeyed on back in 2007, and writing extensively about it here. I also plan to post some less formal pieces here, stuff that probably isn't the best for N.E.S.T. First-person writing is done best in blogs, anyway.

If you've made it this far, then please bear with me for little longer. If you haven't, then whatever message I type here will be utterly useless (much like the majority of my posts).

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Second Embarrassment of Bob Bradley

(Photo: AP)

Even before the United States was eliminated from South Africa three months ago, many arguments have arisen as to whether Bob Bradley deserves to stay on board as Men's National Team manager for another four years. And that's a perfectly worthwhile topic for debate.

However, what isn't debatable is the way in which Bradley has been treated by Sunil Gulati and the United States Soccer Federation during his tenure. While the oft-criticized Bradley has been second guessed - at times, justifably so - moreso than any other American manager in the Federation's history, he has always aquitted himself with an admirable sense of integrity in the face of it all. Sadly, the same cannot be said for U.S. Soccer.

No, it cannot be said for the Federation because when the debate has boiled and the times have toughened, it has refused stand unconditionally by their man.

The genesis of this disturbing attitude the Federation has shown towards one of its best Men's Team managers in history started when he was initially given the reigns - temporarily, of course - back in 2007.

For five long months in the first part of that year, Bradley guided the program without reservation, all the while the very organization that had just handed him the job was looking for his replacement behind his back. And everyone knew it. The fans, the media, everyone. He knew it, too. But he refused to let it distract him.

Instead, he faced the situation with grace and integrity, and shortly after U.S. Soccer had exhausted its energies trying to corral the wildly-popular Jurgen Klinsmann, he forced the Federation to finally remove the "interim" albatross.

Ironically, the Federation's decision to keep Bradley on board during that summer of '07 proved to be a serendipitous godsend. The Princeton grad guided his charges to a Gold Cup Championship, and earned them a spot at the 2009 Conderations Cup a couple of years later.

Meanwhile, a crop of talented young players - players like Jozy Altidore, Stuart Holden, Maurice Edu, and even his own son, Michael -emerged under his tenure. Bradley had cultivated an impressive group of guys that quickly restored the country's footballing image after a nightmarish 2006 World Cup.

There were still whispers, though. There were some who still felt that the wrong man had been hired. It should have been Klinsmann. Pekerman. Eriksson. Rongen. Some of those names were even echoed inside the USSF offices. Bradley, ever so stoic, must have privately thought what it would take to actually acquire some job security.

But he remained focused on the task at hand. By mid-cycle, it was clear that the Federation simply had to let things be. Any changes or sudden movements would surely spell disaster for the Nats in South Africa.

Interestingly, when Bradley succeeded at the Confederations Cup, who was there to slap his back in approval? The Federation, of course. It was they who had the wisdom to make such a shrewd choice. It was they who had stuck by their man. And it was surely they who had provided Bradley with the platform to succeed.

Before long, it was time to head back to South Africa for the World Cup and see what Bradley could really do. His squad engineered a trifecta of heart-pounding performances in the Group stage, and in the process, earned enough points to claim king of hill in Group C, besting England to boot.

Then, the Best of 16 arrived. Pitted against Ghana, Bradley made curious move to start Ricardo Clark over Maurice Edu in the central midfield. It was all downhill from there. Clark was awarded a yellow within 20 minutes, was subbed off for Edu, and the U.S. lost in overtime. All the more painful was the fact that had the Nats won, it faced a relatively easy path to a possible semi-final berth. But that was not to be.

With their World Cup over, it was obvious that U.S. Soccer had a decision to make. Should it keep the successful Bradley, or bring in a new hire in the hopes of catapulting its success further in four years?

Regardless of what conclusion it would reach, it was important that one be made quickly. Brazil, France, and Italy all expedited the interview process and secured their new hires shortly after the Cup. Not the U.S., though. No, it wanted time to mull its deicison. And so it did.

They mulled throughout the entire month of July. They mulled in the days leading up to the U.S.-Brazil friendly, the first action the Nats had seen since their defeat to Ghana. And all of sudden, it was deja vu all over again.

To make matters worse, Brazil pummeled Bradley's boys on home soil, which only served to make the voices of doubt scream louder. Naturally, the Federation did what it does best: stayed noncommittal. Privately, Bradley must have seethed.

Finally, with the knowledge that FIFA would be arriving soon to consider the Federation's bid on the 2018/22 World Cup, they scurried to find their man. It was not Bob Bradley. No, it was Jurgen Klinsmann, the man they originally tried to lure before and during those first 100 days of Bob Bradley's tenure.

Whether the reasons were political, personal, or professional, the Federation failed to catch Klinsmann. So, with their only other option in-house, they backtracked and announced long after the nightly news and game shows that Bradley would be their man. Again.

It doesn't matter whether you like him or not because Bob Bradley, if anything else besides a legitimate national team manager, is a man of dignity. A man of respect. A man who had every reason to falter under the enormous doubt that fell on his shoulders. A man who achieved much, but clearly lacked the respect of his superiors.

Over the past three-plus years, the Federation embarrassed one of its brightest men. And because of it, many of the doubters are now doubting someone else: Sunil Gulati.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

About U.S. Soccer

(Photo: uncredited)

The United States Soccer Federation has really come a long way during the past thirty years. And by "long way," I mean "light years." What was once a small clan of volunteers that used to huddle up in hotel rooms and vacant office spaces back in early-80's has since morphed into a legit, moneymaking organization that delivered a World Cup to a nation that, at the time, failed to support a first division league.

Although the Federation lost its hastily-assembled bid to bring the 1986 World Cup* Stateside, it has since experienced a rapid renaissance that the sport has never seen in this country. In 1988, it was awarded the 1994 World Cup. In 1990, the US MNT clinched its first World Cup berth in 40 years. In 1991, the US WNT won the first-ever Women's World Cup. Three years later, the U.S. hosted the most commercially successful World Cup to date. Then, in 1995...well, you know the rest.

(*You probably already know this, but after Colombia lost its hosting rights due to economic concerns, the '86 Cup was up for bidding. In response, a slew of soccer backers in the States put together a proposal for FIFA to bring it here. I think Henry Kissinger was brought on board to negotiate. Needless to say, it failed.)

It was all good. For reals. To say that it's been an impressive run for a group that had to deal with more in-fighting than a season of Big Brother over the course of its not-so-storied history would be a huge understatement. The fact that it has lived to fight another day time after tumultuous time is a either a testament to sheer determination or pure stubborness. Take your pick.

But as many mountains U.S. Soccer has scaled since those seminal days, it still, to this very day, frustratingly flakes out when important decisions need to be made.

Four score, I mean, four years ago, the Federation mulled its replacement for Bruce Arena after the flameout known as Germany '06. They mulled. And mulled. And mulled some more.

At one point in time, they thought they had Jurgen Klinsmann in the bag. The problem: he wasn't in the bag. At all. And once the former Germany manager officially declined the post, the Federation, with egg on its face, scrambled and brought in Bob Bradley.

You know the funny thing about that hire? Bradley wasn't even given the job on a permanent basis. He was assigned the position with the glamorous "interim" label. It was a temp job. And it was obvious that the Federation still hadn't made up its mind. Amid the ambiguity, one thing was clear: Sunil Gulati and the guys up in Chi-town had no idea who the heck they were going to hire.

After falling flat on its face to find a manager not named Bob Bradley, the "interim" was dropped from Bradley's name tag, likely due to the sheer ineptitude that hampered the hiring process. Whether it was money, availability, commitment, or anything other reason, nobody cared. They just wanted the Federation to make up its damn mind already.

Fortunately, Bradley's successes made it easy to forget that little snafu. He went on to win a bunch of games, a Gold Cup, claim a spot in the Confedations Cup Final, and put the Yanks at the top of Group C at South Africa. Talk about dodging a grenade.

And yet, here we are - again - in 2010, and the Federation finds itself once again mulling its options on the managerial front. Will it be Bob Bradley? Or will it be Klinsmann? How about Jose Pekerman? Martin O'Neil? Bora? ALF?*

(*You wouldn't even have to pay him. Just surround him with an unlimited supply of cats.)

It's bizarre that well-paid employees of the Federation have let history repeat itself. While Brazil, France, and Italy have all since appointed new managers in preparation for Brazil '14, the USSF has once again left the national team manager position in limbo and, in the process, wasted a valuable two months worth of prep time for the national team.

If they wanted Bob Bradley, they would have paid him what he was asking and had him sign on the dotted line last month. And while some would have disagreed with that decision, many of us would have respected it. It is ultimately the Federation's decision to make. At least the team itself would know what direction it was going in.

However, it's fairly obvious that Bradley isn't their first choice for leading the Nats to Brazil in four years. The Federation is probably flirting with a few other familiar faces, all the while Bobby B puts on a brave face and sits on the sideline as a likely lame duck. Or, should all else fail, as it did in 2007, his contract will be hastily renewed, and the Federation will once again look sillier than Snooki outside a South Beach bar. Either way, I suspect this will not end well.

All of which illustrates that as far as this organization has come, some of the remnants that have dogged the Federation for so long - indecision, obstinance and politics - are still very much alive and well.

So much for progress.