Thursday, June 24, 2010

Onward and Upward

I've watched Landon Donovan's game winning goal dozens of times today. Each time, I feel happiness as I watch the ball slide into the bottom corner sending the US soccer team into jubilant celebration. Watching the highlight over and over, it doesn't get old (at least not yet). What strikes me about this USA soccer team, is its resilience, its ability to come back from the brink. They are down, but they are not out. They've gotten a gift goal that miraculously gave them a point against England, and then became only the 21st team to come back from a 2-0 half time deficit to tie a match against Slovenia (We should have been the first to win). They had their hearts ripped out by a overmatched referee who turned what should have been a momentum launching comeback into a bitterly contested tie, and yet, they came through again.

I'm fairly new to the who soccer fan thing. I have been able to pick up a decent amount and can sound at least somewhat educated when I'm talking about the game. I'm still grasping many tactical details and the other small nuances of the game. I have however, become hooked on the sport, and trying to understand it better. This year's World Cup represents the first time I would truly consider myself a soccer fan. This morning, I went to the bar at 6:45 am local time and watched with dozens of other soccer fans, both new and old, as the USA tried to meet expectations they so often did not.

By the time the 85th minute rolled around, hope was starting to run out. Each passing second raised the tension level, and disappointment seemed just an unlucky bounce away. We've already seen these unlucky "bounces" for team USA. Today, another goal celebration was cut short due to a referee's mistaken whistle and yet hope still was there. The US had chance after chance to score the winning goal; the goal that would put us through to the round of sixteen, our first major goal of this tournament. Instead, everything seemed to be coming up short and as the seconds wound down, the US looked like it was going to falter again.

As so often happens in sports, the miraculous comes from out of nowhere. Today was no different. We gasped in horror as an Algerian cross ended up on target to a wide open attacker, and for a brief moment, it looked as though we would lose 1-0. The ball shot off the players head directly toward the goal, but fortunately it was also directly at our brilliant goalkeeper Tim Howard. Howard stopped the shot, corralled the ball, and then threw a desperation pass towards midfield where our team was pushing towards the opponents goal. American star, Landon Donovan, whose struggles and maturation process have been very well documented, took the ball in stride and streaked down the sideline. His pass found the foot of Jozy Altidore, who subsequently squared it in to Clint Dempsey. Dempsey who had earlier hit the post and had a goal disallowed by an "offsides" call, redirected it right into the Algerian keeper's chest. Again, it appeared that our last ditch effort had fallen short. Donovan, whose failure to step up when he was needed most, had faltered again. But this time, the ball bounced just out of the keeper's arms and sat at the edge of the six yard box and on to the screen flew our American hero. Donovan said, "time kinda stopped," and for all of us watching, we felt the same way.

Landon calmly placed the rebound into the bottom corner of the net which set off perhaps the biggest celebration in US soccer history. John Harkes, the former USA captain and now match analyst could barely speak, his partner in the booth had to describe the goal for him. Alexi Lalas's voice quivered as he talked about the result after the game. Donovan wiped tears from his eyes in his post game interview. In the bar, we celebrated with them, hugging strangers and high-fiving friends, yelling and chanting "U-S-A!" repeatedly.

"I've been on a long journey for the last four years, and I'm just shocked and so proud of our guys," Donovan said after the match. I speak for all my fellow friends and fans that watched today's game and can say that we are all proud too. I can't even count how many Facebook statuses reflected these sentiments.

Landon Donovan's journey and maturation aren't yet complete. Team USA still has more work to do. Today was only the first step in the right direction. But today, our star shined when the lights were at their brightest. Our team came through when disappointment felt imminent. They say failures can make us stronger. In Donovan's case, his past failures have taught him valuable lessons that he has taken to heart.

Before he finished the interview, he told Jeremy Schaap, "We believe." You know what Landon, so do the rest of us.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Always a Victor

Mostly we think of gifts as tangible objects, things that we give or receive for our birthdays or Christmas or some event that we deserve recognition for. We think of these things as a new shirt, or a gift certificate or something we can feel with our hands, an object we can use. Really, there are gifts of all different kinds, some tangible, some not, but usually the best gifts we receive are the ones that we cannot hold on to. The best gifts that I’ve received are my character traits, my hobbies, and many others of my favorite pastimes that have been passed down to me through family, friends, and life’s daily happenings. Let me tell you a story about my favorite gift that I have been given.

As a sports fan, we are often passed on our love of certain sports and teams from our families, and I am no exception. Although not necessarily in the same traditional sense as other kids, who’s parent’s might have given them a baseball cap at a young age, or told them stories of their favorite players, my family passed on a love for team just like the rest.

At a very young age, late in the fall, I was with my Grandma. Now she like most of my family was not a big sports fan, if a sports fan at all, but she had come to understand that I had mystically fallen in love with many of the different games I was able to watch on television or play in the back yard with my parents or friends. She was from the town of Port Clinton, Ohio, a state and city that is much different than Santa Barbara, the city that I grew up in. In Ohio, football is king, and The Ohio State University football team is the pride of most of the state. Many of her family members had been Buckeyes and were loyal supporters of the school. Fortunately for me, many of her other family members had attended “that school up North,” the one in Ann Arbor, a beautiful college town about an hour outside the city of Detroit. In fact, her brother-in-law James had taught at the University of Michigan for a long time and had influenced different aspects of change at the school. For those of you unfamiliar with these two schools, there exists a great rivalry between them. For years and years, the two have played legendary games with legendary figures that forever live in their history.

Although not a football fan herself, my Grandma was still was very much aware of the two schools and their clashes. She explained this, as best as she could to her young grandson that day. I don’t remember much of the details except that she told me that the game would be the following day, and that I should watch it. She also made a bet with me, one quarter, and she would root for her home-state Buckeyes. I don’t remember what year it was exactly, but I was most likely around five or six years old, which would make this about 1990 or 1991. Whatever year it was, Michigan won the game, and to my delight, I was a whole twenty-five cents richer. For the next eight, or nine years, every November when the two schools played, I could always expect a call from my Grandma the night before reminding me about the game, which I really needed no reminder of, and of our quarter bet on the game.

The 1990s were an awfully kind decade for the Michigan Wolverines as they won seven times, lost two and had one tie against their bitter rival. Essentially, during my more formative years, I always won a quarter, which kept me rooting for Michigan and turned me into a dedicated fan. Despite their recent struggles as a football team, my love for the school and the team lives on to this day. I toured the campus as a high school junior and although I did not attend Michigan, it forever holds a special place for me. I will always attribute my love for the school to my Grandma, who taught me about them, even if from the other side of things.

For me, “fandom” is a special thing. Not everyone understands what it means to root for a team and be lifted into pure elation, or have your heart broken by a game and a team. I love that so many generations of people have been passed on their love of a team or a sport from some part of their family, and I love that being a fan of a team can bring you together with random strangers, even just for three hours, and make you feel like you are part of something greater than yourself. I remember reading a wonderful internet thread on a message board just days before the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in eighty-six years. It was called “Win it for…” and it was made up of stories from people all over the world and how they had come to love the Red Sox. The stories ranged from people wishing the team would win for their elderly father, who had taught them baseball in the backyard and taken them to Fenway Park as a child, or for a brother off at war who was still following the Sox from the other side of the world. It was special to hear so many stories about how family members had been brought together by what some people consider a meaningless game. You can see the evidence all over, such as when New York rallied around the Yankees and Mets after September 11th, or even today as the city of New Orleans rallies around their beloved Saints as they continue to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina. Sports, despite all its flaws can give us hope.

My Grandma died in the summer of 1999. Ohio State won in the last game she was alive. Since then, the Buckeyes have won eight of the last ten meetings, and still every year I think of that reminder call that I never needed. So Grandma, thanks for the best gift you could have ever given me, something that makes me feel so alive. I’ll remember to get you your quarters.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Four Days

Four more days. They can't go by fast enough. I've been waiting since that dreary November day. I've been waiting, for what has felt like an eternity at times, but now only four more days remain. Four days until "The Victors" blasts and the players run and touch the banner. Four days until I can see what progress is being made. Four days until I can stop reading practice notes and see real results on the field in a real game.

It has been a long off-season for us Michigan fans. Longer than any off-season in my lifetime. In 2008, there was no winning season, no bowl game to look forward to, and very few hints of success. We had to grasp to singular moments in games, even in games we lost to hold on to hope or watch old highlights and games from glory past. No, Michigan hasn't been the old powerhouse it used to be for sometime now. Sure 2006 brought us to Ohio St. undefeated and at #2 in the nation, but it also ended with two losses. They haven't beat Ohio St. in five years, they haven't been ranked #1 since they won the 1997 National Championship. They've lost to Toledo and Appalachian St. Yet, for me, there is still hope. Hope that we will return to our rightful place amongst the college football elite.

For every sport I love the build up towards the first game of the year. I can't wait for Opening Day, to see the Dodgers take the field for the first time since October. I love the first NFL weekend so that I can see the Pats start another quest towards greatness. I love Late Night and college basketball's start (although it does get better in March). This Saturday feels different than most other openers though. This is the first step in the road to redemption, the return to glory, to prove doubters wrong. There is so much anticipation for the game, which also makes this a somewhat scary event. As much excitement that can be generated, it can be topped by disappointment. But in the end, that's what fandom is all about.

We hope for the best, we expect the best, and are crushed by the worst. Even if we've been there before, even if there isn't much hope, the disappointment still comes. Fortunately, it is matched by the pure joy of success. That pure happiness and excitement that takes you back, if only for a moment, to childhood. Where nothing else matters and life is so simple. It's often hard to explain these feelings, why you see grown men act like little kids, and dance around a television set because a ball flew over a fence or a ball dropped into a basket. But for me, for people like me, it doesn't really need to be explained, maybe because it can't be.

Saturday is a day I live for. Anything can happen this season. We cannot predict the future. It might be another disaster, it may show only a glimpse of progress, but for me Saturday offers what sports fans all want to feel. Hope.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

(Un)Welcome Back

This morning I awoke (to my dismay) to an ESPN.com headline that told me Brett Favre was returning to the NFL to quarterback the Minnesota Vikings. Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that he retired? I thought perhaps that the third time was the charm, no more Brett Favre in my life, something that I had no problem with at all. This morning that idea unraveled. Now don't get me wrong, was Brett Favre a great quarterback? Yes, undoubtedly so; one of the best of his generation. Is Brett Favre a great quarterback? That answer is no, he is no longer great, he may no longer be good. The only thing that Brett Favre is great at these days is creating a media circus.

Vikings fans will tell you, well, delusional ones, that this is the piece that puts them over the top. That Brett is the key to putting them into the Super Bowl. This notion is absurd. Adrian Peterson is a great running back, and the defense is good as well. The problems at quarterback have been well defined over the past few months. Lets be honest here, a depth chart with the likes of Tavaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels, or John David Booty do not exactly inspire confidence, but does this mean Brett Favre is a significant upgrade?

Last year Favre threw for 3,472 yards, 22 touchdowns, and had a QB Rating of 81; a solid season by all accounts, unless you look a bit deeper. Through the first four games of last season, Favre's TD:INT ratio was 12:4. His completion percentage was around 70% and he had thrown for 935 yards. He had two games with a QB Rating above 120, very impressive. But with all this, the Jets were only 2-2. By no means am I saying that it was his fault that they had lost twice, losses cannot be attributed to a single player (consequently Vikings fans, neither can wins).

After the bye week in Week 4, the Jets would go on to roll of six wins in seven games. Favre would throw 8 TDs in this seven game stretch, but would also throw 9 interceptions. In a 28-24 win over lowly Kansas City, Favre would throw 3 interceptions. Yet despite the drop in numbers, the team was winning more. At 8-3, the Jets looked like they had a great opportunity to win the division, especially with Tom Brady out for the season and New England, despite the steady play of Matt Cassel, falling back to earth from the previous undefeated regular season.

Unfortunately for Jets fans, their demise would come in the final five weeks of the season. The 39 year old Favre, who was starting to get banged up was coming back down to perhaps the normal level of play for such an aging QB. Favre would throw only two touchdown passes against nine interceptions in a stretch where the Jets would go 1-4 to miss the playoffs. More and more fans believed that the aging QB was done. For those of you who saw the final game against Miami, Favre resembled a shell of his former self.

Which brings us to last off-season. Months and months of speculation about what Brett Favre would do. Would he return to the Jets? Would he join former division rival the Vikings? No, oh wait, yes. The teary and emotional press conference that Favre held as he retired from the Packers seems so long ago. During his final year in Green Bay, fans overlooked the past years of uncertainty about the return of Favre. His comments about how it was not his obligation to tutor newly drafted Aaron Rodgers, or how he let Green Bay wait until after the draft to make his retirement decision.

This leads me to my original point. Brett Favre WAS a great quarterback. His achievements will someday be found in Canton, OH at the Football Hall of Fame. They will undoubtedly be deserved. Today Brett Favre is no longer a good quarterback. This was evidenced by last season's struggles. Sure you can attribute them to lack of health, but what 39 year old QB will stay healthy over the course of the season. Is Brett Favre an upgrade of Jackson or Rosenfels? Maybe, but I'm not sure you can definitively say that he is. In any case, the Vikings have handled the situation wrong. Declaring them out of the Brett Favre "race" and maintaining that they could win with the QBs the roster presented was untrue, well at least the first part. I'm sure both Jackson and Rosenfels are feeling supreme confidence from their organization at this point.

We don't like to see our favorite athletes hang on too long past their primes. For Favre, it seems like an eternity of retirements, comebacks, and failures. What he is doing right now seems to be a selfish and defiant act. Sure, this isn't just trying gain revenge against his former team, but his inability to let go has saddened, and eventually angered me. No, I was never a big Favre fan, but I could never deny that he was a terrific and exciting player. His drawn out process of deciding if he was willing to play another year is tired and over-hyped. This is not about a team, a franchise, or a fan base. This is about one man who believes that he can do whatever he wants on his on schedule because he deserves it.

Today, the Brett Favre saga continues. It is a saga that has dragged on for far too long. Favre is returning for another season in the NFL, and I for one will not be waiting with open arms.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Feeling Disgusted...

After watching yesterday's soccer match between the United States and its arch-rival Mexico, I left with a feeling of disgust. Sure there were other feeling involved, disappointment, anger, and so on, but the biggest of them all was disgust. Now, let me dive a little deeper into this sentiment.

I was disgusted by the way we played. This was as good a chance as we have ever had to win a game in Mexico City in the "hallowed" Estadio Azteca. The American's were coming off a great showing in this summer's Confederations Cup and felt like momentum was building towards another great result in next year's World Cup in South Africa. Our players had to be full of confidence as this game approached. This is Mexico, not Spain, not Brazil, two of the world's best who we had gone toe-to-toe with. Mexico over the years seems to have lost its luster on the world soccer stage. Mexico who was struggling to qualify for next summer's World Cup. Mexico, our greatest rival.

The game started well, as those of you who watched know. Charlie Davies took a beautiful pass from Landon Donovan and stunned the 100,000 plus crowd in the 9th minute with a great goal to give the American's their first ever lead in Mexico. Some analyst said he has never seen 100,000 people get so quiet so fast. Their fears were being realized, this wasn't the same US team that has gone to Azteca and failed over and over. We had them on the ropes early, our foot was on their throat, we had the opportunity to throw the knockout punch. All the talk about how we needed to "survive" the first ten minutes was gone, silenced by the right foot of Davies. Unfortunately, this is when the game ended.

Bob Bradley, who has done a respectable job as coach of the United States decided not to go for that knockout blow. Instead, as I have felt is so often the case, he decided to play for a tie. Instead of pressing for another goal, a probable back-breaker for the stunned Mexican squad, the American's dropped into a shell. The Mexican's had free reign to do almost whatever they wanted. They dominated possession, they made runs into the penalty area, they drew fouls, everything they could to get the equalizing goal. Ten minutes later, it happened. Mexico regained possession of the ball after Landon Donovan turned it over (I think he was fouled, but more on the officiating later) and Israel Macias Castro drilled an incredible shot for his first goal in twenty international appearances. Just like that our 1-0 lead, our chance to put away the demons of years past was gone. I don't know if Bradley felt we could defend for 81 minutes straight and not give up a goal, but we came up 71 minutes short of that. From there, instead of trying to go for a second goal and another lead, the team continued to sit back and play defense. While I know the environment conditions played a role in keeping our midfielders deeper on the field, I still believe we had to press forward more. We managed to reach halftime with a 1-1 tie, but a tie seemed our best case scenario.

The second half took place as much of the first half did. The US with virtually no possession, and Mexico running wild with opportunity after opportunity. We were constantly defending, and they seemed like they were on the verge for most of the second half. We did seem to get a bit of a spark as Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber entered the game as subs. Holdon made a beautiful cross that just missed the head of Charlie Davies. In the 81st minute, our defense broke down, the ball took an unlucky bounce, and Mexican sub Miguel Sabah put the dagger in our hearts. There was still a little time to try to even the score, but we didn't have it in us. 2-1 final, another heartbreaker in Mexico City.

I was upset by a number of things. First of all, the fact that we did not seem to play for the win. The American's did a admirable job trying to defend for most of the game, but when the other team has the ball constantly, it seems like goals are inevitable. Even in the Spain game, Tim Howard had to play out of his mind to keep the lead as he was peppered with shot after shot. Why Bradley continues to coach seemingly without a desire to win is beyond me. Mexico played a good game, they did what they needed to do, but it felt as though the US let them do it. Another complaint I have with Coach Bradley is his starting 11 he put on the field. Now I get that certain players may not be in "game form," but I certainly do not agree with change for the sake of change. Our magical run in South Africa was keyed my a great starting lineup that produced. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, then don't fix it. Why change something that had worked so well? Another point on this, as my soccer friend Brian states, "when are people going to realize that great form in the MLS means nothing?" Congratulations Brian Ching for having a nice start to your MLS season, thanks for not showing up in yesterday's game (although he had very few chances to do anything because we were defending the whole time). I was also upset at our "stars." All the talk in the lead up to yesterday's game was about how Donovan was ready to step up. He was shedding his image of "LandyCakes" and ready to make a big splash against Mexico. The only thing I'll remember about him yesterday is him getting burned on the final goal. Thanks for playing Landon, hopefully you enjoyed the vacation. This also brings me to Clint Dempsey. An individual award winner during the Confed Cup, and a reputation of a big game player, Clint was a non-factor. I barely remember him doing anything yesterday, just a bystander or spectator with a great view. Don't get me wrong, I am not so down on these two as to give up on them. They are terrific players and will be a big part of our success (or failure) in the coming months as we lead up to the World Cup. It was just disappointing to see them fail in yesterday's match so miserably.

This brings me to my third point. I know that it's impossible to expect to get any calls on the road for the United States, but somehow I still hold on to hope. The refereeing in yesterday's match was so one-sided and inconsistent it made me sick. Phantom fouls against the American's or yellow card's that only went to us. Cherundolo get's tackled from behind and it's a mere foul. Bocanegra gets ball first and gets a yellow. Even my Mexican counterparts who I watched the game readily admitted to inconsistency in the reffing, but shrugged and smiled, "we'll take it." Someday CONCACAF and FIFA will not allow our players to be "assaulted" as Brian says, but that day was neither yesterday, today, or tomorrow.

My last issue is with the Mexican players and fans (some not all). Congratulations, you beat us. You beat us at home. You beat us when you HAD to. You beat us with the help of a blind referee. You beat us with a lucky bounce. You beat us on a one-in-million goal. You beat us without class from your fans or your players. So congrats again. I hope you fail to qualify for the World Cup.

The American's had a chance yesterday. A chance that does not present itself very often. An early lead, a stunned crowd, a stunned opponent, a chance to make history, a chance to bury your rival. The opportunity of a lifetime. And they did not take it. That in itself left me disgusted...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The End of an Era

Today marks the end of an era. Although brief, it was filled with joy, excitement, and enough thrills to last a lifetime. I was lucky enough to attend a game in which Eric Gagne entered through the bullpen gates at Dodger Stadium, "Welcome to the Jungle" blaring and 50,000 mellow Southern-Californians turned into 50,000 rabid fans.

In Los Angeles, and around the country, the joke is that Dodger fans arrive late, and leave early. Much of this can be attributed to the laid-back lifestyle that most of us are used to, and well, the traffic. It's a phenomenon that I myself don't abide by, but understand and have come to expect just like gridlock on 101 during rush hour. When Eric Gagne took over as the closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002, and Guns 'n' Roses started blaring of the Dodger Stadium PA, the ninth inning changed forever.

No longer did the casual Dodger fans head for the exits before the top of the ninth. People stayed because each time Gagne entered the game, it was an event. The crowd would rise and cheer and the noise level would reach decibels normally reserved for playoff game atmospheres. Cameras would flash hoping to to catch a glimpse of their local folk-hero, and In would come our stocky, goggle wearing, goateed closer, and out would go the other team, often times with a scream and a trademark fist pump to emphatically shut the door.

When he first broke in as a starter with the Dodgers, I will admit, that I was not a fan. He could never quite handle the game and mistakes were always just around the corner. He would look great for a few innings and then implode with a few home runs. 2002 started with the Dodgers with much uncertainty in the bullpen. Then the transformation took place from an underachieving starter to maybe the most dominant closer in Major League history. I'm not sure how it happened, many will attribute it to steroid use, but he became a new pitcher, a new person. He no longer looked like a overmatched pitcher that didn't belong on a Major League mound. He was now the face of intimidation. Armed with his high-90's fastball, a "Bugs-Bunny" volcan change-up, and a slow rolling curveball, he became unhittable.

In 2003, it all came together in a Cy Young Award winning season. With video game like numbers (56 for 56 in saves, 1.20 ERA, and 137 K's in 82.1 innings) he took the National League by storm. When the Dodgers had a lead going to the ninth, it was "GAME OVER." But his place in Los Angeles was not about the numbers. It was about the surge of energy that Eric Gagne brought everytime he toed the rubber. It was about the air of invibility that surrounded him everytime he made his slow jog in from the pen. It was how he made us stay.

I remember watching the Dodgers play the Yankees on television. The final pitch he threw was about a 69 mph curveball that absolutely froze Bernie Williams and sent me flying off the coach and screaming into a pillow. The amazing part wasn't that I lost it (I frequently do when watching sports), but that the uncomparable Vin Scully did too. "OH MY GOSH! WHAT A PITCH!!" Now those of you that have listened to Vin know that very rarely if ever does ever get excited to the point where he will gasp in amazement. But as this pitch fell into the glove, he and I screamed simultaneously. That was the effect Eric Gagne had on those who watched him.

Today, Eric Gagne has reportedly signed a one year contract with the Texas Rangers. I do not feel any bitterness. I do not feel sadness either. Something happened in his elbow two years ago. The invulnerability that was once there left. It wasn't the other team you were worried about, it was his own body. We still wanted to believe that someday he would come back. That he would be that same guy that converted 84 consecutive saves, that blew away batters with a 97 mph heat, that would come through the bullpen gates music blaring, and Scully's familiar voice announcing his entrance, "Bienvenue Monsieur Gagne." Deep down, we knew that would never happen. Still we hung on to the memory of his greatness. We scoured the paper looking for updates on his health, and signs that he was coming back. We loved watching him cheer on his teammates in the dugout, and watching old video clips of him leaping off the mound to high five his catcher as the opposing batter walked away with his head down. As he rides off down to Texas, I have one thing left to say. Au revoir Monsieur Gagne. Thanks for the memories.