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Sunday, April 29, 2012

England's game of year draws attention from across pond


(by Eliott C. McLaughlin cnn.com 4-29-12)

It's no Super Bowl. Heck, it's no Monday Night Football, but for an American audience, Monday's Manchester Derby -- that is, the English club soccer game between Manchester's two Premier League teams -- is about as big as it gets stateside.

Sure, many American sports fans call the sport boring and complain there's not enough scoring. It moves too slowly, they say, and is marred by prima donnas who flop to the ground if you breathe on them.

Haters aside, the United States is taking notice. ESPN moved the game from ESPN 2 to its flagship station, a first for a weekday Premiership game. Pubs across the nation are anticipating big crowds, and some Americans are doing something very British for match day: skipping out of work early.

"You'll definitely want to see this. It's as high a stakes game as you'll see in any soccer league in the world," said Sports Illustrated senior writer and soccer guru, Grant Wahl.

Wahl likened the match between No. 1 Manchester United and No. 2 Manchester City to the New York Jets and New York Giants playing in the Super Bowl, or perhaps the Iron Bowl, which pits cross-state rivals Auburn and Alabama against each other at the end of the college football season.

He's never seen a Manchester Derby this important in the 15 years he's been covering soccer, said Wahl, who authored the book, "The Beckham Experiment: How the World's Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America."

ESPN announced this week it moved the game to take advantage of the live edition of "SportsCenter" that will lead into the game, which begins at 3 p.m. ET. In an e-mail, spokesman Mac Nwulu said the paid programming on ESPN2 prior to the game typically draws about 221,000 viewers, where "SportsCenter" will have an expected audience of 482,000. The live lead-in is key to sports programming, he said.

The network's English Premier League offerings on ESPN2 this year are 50% percent higher that last year's games, so English soccer's popularity is increasing in the U.S., Nwulu said.

"Best matchup of the season," Nwulu said of Monday's game. "So far, 20 teams have each played an average of 36 matches. And with two match-days to go, EPL has one game that is akin to a title game in a league series not decided by knockouts."

We've come a long way

British sports commentator Ian Darke, who will be calling the game for ESPN, predicts a "turbo-charged occasion" and said he has noticed America's growing interest in soccer since ABC hired him to call games for the U.S.-hosted World Cup in 1994.

"Producers (back then) said to explain what offsides was and explain the laws of the game as we went along," he recalled. "Now, there's been a complete changes of emphasis."

Today, more Americans -- many of whom played the sport in school and youth leagues -- have a better grasp on the basics, and commentators cover games in a more "authentic way, as if it were being broadcast for a European audience."

ESPN isn't the only one sensing the game taking off in the states. Hugh Folkerth, a bartender at Horse Brass Pub in Portland, Oregon, said that not so long ago Horse Brass was the premier place to watch English soccer in the city.

As the game has become more popular, more bars carry the matches and more people get the games at home, so the number of patrons coming to watch soccer at Horse Brass has taken a hit.

As for the derby Monday, Folkerth said he's received a few calls from people asking if he's showing it, and he expects a few more patrons than usual during the lunchtime rush.

A CNN Facebook page asking if fans were planning to skip work or school Monday drew plenty of the aforementioned haters, but a handful of fans said they'd be playing hooky.

"Will be skipping class at University and have already re-scheduled couple meetings already," wrote Tejash Patel, a United fan.

"Work? School? Bills? Life? All of it stops when the Derby is in play!" wrote fellow Red Devil Parker Smith.

Added Oladeji Thompson, "I'm coming home very early from work."

Fado Irish pubs in Austin, Texas, and Atlanta say they're expecting plenty of people to forsake their professors and employers. Both are tripling their staff. Austin general manager John O'Brien is expecting about 200 people for the game, which airs there at 2 p.m.

In Atlanta, general manager Brian Russell said he is expecting a similar crowd. Though he's bringing in the doorman who generally works only on weekends, he's not anticipating any problems with the crowd, he said.

"We'll just make sure the volume is loud, the TVs are on and we have enough staff to get everyone food and drinks," Russell said.

What's the big deal anyway?

So, the unitiated may be asking, why all the fuss over this particular game? Well, there are many storylines.

The first is that it's a derby, so there's the longstanding city rivalry in addition to the championship implications. United's Old Trafford and City's Etihad Stadium are separated by about five miles, so you can imagine how the game divides friends, family, coworkers and neighbors.

Sara Tomkins, assistant chief executive for the Manchester City Council, called it "one of the most anticipated derbies this city has seen for a decade" and said those not lucky enough to get tickets, which are commanding £1,300 ($2,115) online, will be filling up the city's pubs or gathering around the TV at home.

Police aren't expecting problem, according to a statement from Superintendent John O'Hare, but they've asked local businesses to "take extra safety measures such as using plastic glasses, employing more door staff and keeping an eye on the front of house. ... People will see extra patrols. This is not because we are expecting trouble; it is to make sure people feel safe to come and watch the match."

ESPN's Darke, who has been covering English derbies for almost 40 years, said he is expecting a rowdy and raucous atmosphere.

"Manchester's going to be quite a lively place, no matter the outcome. I might bring a tin helmet like the soldiers wear," he said with a chuckle.

Another reason for the hullabaloo is that both teams are insanely wealthy. For United, the reigning English champs, this is nothing new. Founded in 1878, the team boasts 19 English championships and three European crowns. City, on the other hand, hasn't won the English title since 1968 and played unremarkably for the better part of four decades until Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the Abu Dhabi royal family bought the team in 2008.

United has always been the "glamour team" with the big players, where City have been the forgettable step-relatives, and "City fans are wearily philosophical about it," Darke said.

"City fans are sick to death of United ruling their roost, and here's their chance," he said. "They will celebrate like there's no tomorrow if they pull it off."

Both teams are now among the most loaded clubs in the world. The professional services firm, Deloitte, reported that with €367 million ($487 million), United was No. 3 in revenues last year, behind Spanish powerhouses Real Madrid and Barcelona. City came in at 11th with €170 million ($225 million).

To give you an idea what these figures mean, Forbes reported that average revenue among NFL teams in 2010 was $261 million.

City and United have used their fortunes to acquire some of the biggest soccer names in the world: Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Rio Ferdinand among them. The five dozen players on the two teams represent stars from 23 countries.

"(City) bought a lot of talent," said Sports Illustrated's Wahl. "The question is whether they bought a great team. The questions are going to remain until they win a title."

Topsy-turvy

Also stoking interest in the match is soap-opera-like drama surrounding it. Not only has the injection of Middle Eastern cash made City more competitive, the Blues thrashed United 6-1 during their first meeting, a result Wahl called "the most shocking result we've seen all year."

City stood atop the Premier League for months until March, when United seemed to find its form and took the lead. From there, it seemed a United repeat was inevitable, but in recent weeks, the tables have turned again. United has a win, loss and tie in its last three matches, while City is undefeated.

Each team's coach has engaged in a bit of psychological banter ahead of the fixture. United's Alex Ferguson has prohibited his team from making statements about the game, calling it the most important Derby since he took over the club in 1986. City's Roberto Mancini has cheekily fired back that the 6-1 drubbing earlier this year was more important. In a strange twist, he has also said his team has no chance of winning the title. He even went so far as to congratulate United on their championship with three games remaining.

Mancini simply knows his team performed better as underdogs this season than they did when they sat atop the table, Darke said.

"He knows how big this game is. Everything he's been saying in the last few days, he's trying to take pressure off his players," he said. "It's the lousiest piece of psychological warfare ever."

United will have to go into Etihad, where City hasn't lost all season, and snatch three points to ensure their second championship in as many years. City is three points behind United, but with a win, can take the Premiership lead. They'll be tied with United in the points column but will take first place because they have scored one more goal than United and given up five fewer than the Reds this season.

Though City is the favorite in the betting houses, no one seemed comfortable offering a prediction. Darke said his thoughts on the outcome were meaningless.

"Anything could happen. I'd just urge people to watch it," he said.



Borchers attacks


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Curse of Pablo's Pants, hilarious!

Props to 15 to 32 for making me laugh out loud today while reading BigSoccer.

A humorous exchange between him and a cRapids supporter in the MLS Supporters Photo Thread.


Monday, April 9, 2012

(Australia) A-League hopes to follow MLS' path



(by John Duerden si.com 3-8-12)

Over 30,000 turned out on a December evening in Melbourne to see local team Victory take on the L.A. Galaxy and David Beckham. If the Englishman's nation of birth and current home are two countries divided by a common language, in soccer terms Australia and the United States could be separated by just a few years, or at least, that is the hope down under. The MLS has gone from strength to strength after some tough early times and it is a narrative that appeals a few thousand miles away as the seventh A-League season nears an end. It was one that had to reverse recent negative trends and in some ways it succeeded but as the season approaches its climax; it is off the field issues that everyone is talking about.

In America, when it comes to soccer, you name it and it is on the up: attendances, new teams, soccer-specific stadiums and its domestic and overseas image -- the international coverage of the last MLS Cup final proved that. That vision wouldn't have seemed out of place in Australia when the eight-team A-League was formed in 2005. First season attendances were around 11,000. Two years later, they had risen to a healthy 14,600. Two new teams were ready to join the league, like MLS run by the national federation, with two more in the planning stage as expansion gathered pace.

That is less than four years ago but feels longer. By the end of last season, average attendances were barely 8,000 and it wasn't just the fans that were disappearing. North Queensland Fury lasted just two seasons before folding while Sydney Rovers, the planned 12th team, never got off the ground. What should have been 12 by the start of the 2011-12 season became 10. Now it is slipping to nine as another club, Gold Coast United had its license revoked in February -- more of that later.

Football Federation Australia (FFA) has been quick to point out that something similar happened in 2001 in the States with Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny ceasing to operate. In Japan, eight new clubs were added between 1994 and 1998 and attendances plummeted. Both leagues recovered to be recognized as two of the best outside Europe.

FFA CEO Ben Buckley admitted that the league's expansion policy produced mixed results but was optimistic that a corner had been turned. "The MLS as well as the J-League and K-League had substantial excitement in their first three seasons as a novelty of a new league creates impetus," Buckley told SI.com earlier in the season. "Then there appears to be a tapering of attendances as club ownership changes, new teams come into the competition and clubs work harder to get repeat attendees. Over time clubs and league become more financially stable and are able to invest in marketing and engaging with fans and then crowds trend upward again. We are at that point of the cycle."

If so, it is still not automatic that an MLS-type experience will follow. According to MLS President Mark Abbott, the bad times were when the administrators got busy. "Contraction was just one part of a larger shift in the League's focus. Around that same time, we formed Soccer United Marketing and began devoting many resources toward the construction of soccer-specific stadiums. In 2001, Columbus Crew Stadium was the only one built for an MLS club, but now we have 12 venues built or renovated for soccer by an MLS owner. That has been a literal and symbolic cornerstone of the League's steady growth over the past decade."

A-League clubs do not own their own stadiums. It is something that holds that league back but Buckley pointed out that the U.S. has much more capital to build such arenas. The 2022 World Cup would have helped. America lost in Zurich in December but Australia lost more, spending $45 million on taxpayer's money to get just one vote.

The recriminations are still flying. An investigative television show claimed in July that publicly-funded broadcaster SBS had pressured its journalists to publicly support the Australian bid and that Les Murray, its football editor and member of FIFA's Ethics Committee, suggested to one of its leading writers that he attack the Americans and Sunil Gulati. Even if the FFA had such friends in the media, it still didn't escape criticism for putting all eggs in the 2022 basket, millions in the pockets of ineffective and controversial consultants and forgetting about the A-League.

Buckley admitted that there were things that could have been done differently but insisted that it was worth it. "It would have been a pivotal moment. In the short term, it created a lot of commentary and analysis that can distract people from the real strides forward that the game has made over five-six years." Would he recommend a future bid? "I don't think Australia should ever rule itself out of bidding for these things."

In both Australia and the U.S., soccer is number one in terms of participation but still has some way to go to challenge the established sports. For NFL, MLB and NBA read Rugby League, Aussie Rules Football and cricket. Soccer has long struggled for attention in the traditional media. Journalists wrestle with similar problems faced by candidates for the Republican Party presidential nomination in knowing that sticking it to rivals may thrill their core support but is hardly likely to tempt potential fans over to the soccer camp.

Abbott maintains however that competing with rivals was never part of the MLS plan. "Our approach has been to quietly go about establishing a solid foundation while measuring our progress against ourselves and other soccer leagues around the world, instead of against the leagues that have great tradition here. In short, we don't need to convert fans of other sports into soccer fans. We just want all soccer fans to follow a domestic club as well as the international game."

Buckley agrees: "We want to fish where the fish are. The immediate priority is not to try to get exclusive patronage but to convert the 1.7 million participants into regular followers of teams in their regions. Once you convert that group, you can then make the game attractive to new fans." Buckley has targeted a 15,000 average attendance in the next four to five years that, he says, will put the A-League on a par with rugby. "Success this season would be consolidation and to move back over 10,000 mark and that is certainly our goal."

That target has been achieved and an average attendance of around 11,000 is encouraging as is a rise in television viewing figures. The return of overseas stars such as Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton may not have had the impact their clubs wanted on the field --though that could suggest a rise in standards -- but has helped the league's media profile off it. With most talented players still heading overseas, the salary cap is strict at around $2.4 million per roster with a marquee star exempt, the arrival of local heroes is a welcome change.

As progress went, it was steady. But then came, or rather, went, Gold Coast United. The club, owned by billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer, has constantly struggled for fans ever since it started the 2009-10 season. His decisions to seal off three parts of the stadium to save money on matchdays annoyed many. Then, more recently, a bizarre plan to make a 17-year-old club captain caused a row that led to the team displaying the slogan "Freedom of Speech" on their shirts.

FFA revoked the club's license. Palmer, a man used to getting his own way, has promised legal action and has already set up an alternative regulatory body Football Australia with former A-League boss Archie Fraser at the helm. The early impression is that it is an association of the disgruntled, but while it is easy and partly correct to dismiss some of Palmer's rantings as bizarre, as the federation has done, that doesn't mean he is without genuine grievances. Some of these are echoed, though more quietly and in private, by other owners tired of losing money and what they see as too much control of clubs and league by an opaque, power-hungry and paranoid federation.

It all looks to be coming to a head. If so, it could be the episode that consigns Australian soccer back to the darkest days of the former National Soccer League that went bankrupt in 2004, or it could just be the catalyst that sends the A-league hurtling in the direction of the MLS. If so, perhaps, one day, 30,000 fans will turn out in America to see a star-studded Aussie team.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Keep it rollin'



Last night RSL thumped the Rapids and stay on top of the West, keep it rollin'.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Real Salt Lake's Bekerman inspires love, hate



(si.com 4-6-12)

Come Saturday, with a match against his former MLS club Colorado, Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman no doubt will play with ferocity, dreadlocks flying and vocal chords straining as he barks at referees and opposing players.

Off the field, the soon-to-be 30-year-old has a temperament more like Daisy the Bulldog, whom he lovingly petted after practice this week before happily stopping to pose for photos with six young fans.

It's a split personality as noticeable as his hair.

"I don't know what it is, something goes on and just the lion comes out,'' Beckerman said of his alter ego. "I try to control it the best I can, but I'm emotional, passionate about our team and each year I try to tame it a little, tame it a little, then it just comes out without me even knowing it.''

The passion has helped turn him into a leader in Utah, where nearly five years after his shocking trade he is the face of the franchise as well as its heart and soul.

While that passion has endeared him to fans of RSL, which sits alone atop the Western Conference standings with four wins in five games to start the season, the opposite is true around the league.

There's a website started by an FC Dallas fan called "I Hate Kyle Beckerman.''

Accumulated yellow cards forced Beckerman to miss Real Salt Lake's second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Monterrey last April.

He also was suspended three games last September and fined $1,250 for head-butting Chicago's Daniel Paladini.

Beckerman apologized for the incident then and simply acknowledges, "Some things I want to tame and some things I absolutely want to keep, but the yellow cards I want to stop.''

Time will tell if that happens, but there's no question the reggae-loving, guitar-playing outdoor enthusiast has found a home in Salt Lake City, where he now even owns a home and has a girlfriend.

He said a perfect day would be breakfast at the Red Moose Coffee Company, a hike in the mountains and an outdoor concert.

He's even talking to teammates about a camping trip.

"When he gets his mind on something and wants to do it, he'll go that next day to go get camping gear, tents and he'll bring the guys with him,'' said best buddy Nick Rimando, RSL's goalkeeper, who was in Miami when Beckerman was an 18-year-old MLS rookie. "It's starting to get nice out. I don't doubt he'll go.''

That determination hasn't changed but Beckerman's game has had to evolve.

"When I first came in the league, I was an attacking player,'' he said.

That didn't get him on the field much, so he eventually moved to defensive midfield, where he has been critical to Real Salt Lake's success. The team went from laughingstock in 2007 to MLS Cup champion in 2009 and to the Western Conference finals last season where it lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Galaxy.

"At some point you have to let go of all the ego stuff, let go of being the goal scorer, because you're not going to be that anymore,'' said Beckerman, now in his 13th season. "You're doing the stuff that's just going to help the team or get somebody else to score. Some people don't want to do that and they can't. But you have to get it in your head `This is my job' and embrace it.''

Last weekend at Portland, Beckerman showed he still has offensive punch, drilling home the game-winner in the 93rd minute during stoppage time to earn RSL three points.

"It great because he fights so hard,'' said Rimando, who used the words hard-working, loyal, humble, community-oriented and passionate in describing Beckerman. "He's the guy to pull us all together.

Beckerman also has been rewarded with more appearances on the U.S. National Team since Jurgen Klinsmann took over as coach, and this offseason received the opportunity to train with one of the more storied clubs in Germany.

That meant no time for surfing in Costa Rica, which he had done in the offseason until 2009.

And while he gets a sheepish grin when asked if he's been skiing or snowboarding in Utah, he says those things can wait until his soccer days are over.

A foot injury a few years back made him realize how quickly things could end.

"I only have one career, so I've got to get it in as much as I can,'' he said.

Approaching 30 also has meant taking better care of his body. Rimando sees a guy who 12 years ago lived on Hot Pockets and microwavable food now shopping at Whole Foods.

Beckerman also can even be seen working out on Pilates' machines alongside ballerinas and the like.

"It's my experiment this year to see what happens,'' he said. "So far it's been making my body feel better than in years past.''

After all, he has to keep up with Colorado defensive midfielder Pablo Maestroni, who will turn 36 this summer.

"I can't stop before him, so I'm trying to keep my body good and keep my focus,'' Beckerman said.

He also wants to keep the Rocky Mountain Cup, which the two rival clubs have vied for each season.

Beckerman has always been on the winning side and doesn't want that to change Saturday when the teams meet at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.

"As long as Kyle's on my team, I hope he stays perfect,'' said Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson.

Beckerman wants the game, too. But after seeing RSL lose in the conference finals last season, he has an eye on the bigger picture.

"We have a good team, with good players and this could be something special this year, but we've still got lot of hard work in front of us,'' Beckerman said.

His role figures to be even more important now with midfielders Ned Grabavoy and Javier Morales out for a while after injuries suffered in Wednesday's 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact. With main playmaker Morales out last year, Beckerman picked up the slack, with three goals and a career-best nine assists (including six game-winning helpers).

"He's unbelievable,'' said midfielder Jonny Steele, an Irishman whom Beckerman has taken under his wing. "The first day he arrived I saw how he lifted the whole atmosphere. He comes in with a smile, shakes everyone's hand, gets everyone upbeat, is always upbeat. He really is a good guy.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fallen Men: A meditation on the scourge of diving in global soccer





(by Shaj Mathew si.com 4-2-12)

The Glaswegian faithful were unusually somnolent on this February night some five years ago. Making a rare foray into the round of 16 of European soccer's elite Champions League, their green- and white-striped Celtic side were hosting AC Milan, who had quickly established themselves as rude guests, lazily stroking the ball around the pitch, suffusing each cross-field pass with an infuriating insouciance that inspired as many scowls as yawns.

The imperiousness of their play was not wholly unexpected, however: both current form and pedigree made Milan the obvious favorites to win the game. (Number of Champions League titles won: Milan 7, Celtic 1).

And in this moment, Milan finally looked ready to deliver the knockout blow. It went like this: Kak√° played a silky ball on the ground to Alberto Gilardino, who zipped into the penalty box. Celtic's last defender and goalkeeper rushed to confront the Italian, but he nimbly touched the ball around them to his right.

Unfortunately for Gilardino, his efforts to round the keeper placed him at an impossibly acute angle on the right-hand-side of the penalty box. The €24 million man was good, but he would've never scored from here.

Alone in the box with no immediate help from his teammates, he pulled the most dastardly trick out of his repertoire. No, he did not conjure up a clever step-over. No, he did not cross the ball to a marked teammate. And no, he did not magically curl the ball into the net. Instead, Alberto Gilardino fell on his face.

The crowd roused itself from its stupor. The Celtic players erupted. The cheat!

If Gilardino successfully deceived the referee, he would have earned Milan a penalty kick. And if he had gotten really lucky, he would have gotten one of the Celtic defenders carded, or better yet, sent off. But what distinguished Gilardino's flop here from the dives that occur each weekend around the world was its sheer stupidity.

During a typical dive, a player will topple over and grab a random body part -- maybe his face, maybe his knee -- but only after he's been touched, however lightly. This seems like common sense. But in this case, Gilardino was easily a few yards from anyone else on the field before he thrust himself forward and crashed to the ground, without so much as a tap on the shoulder. You don't have to be familiar with Stanislavsky to know that this is bad acting.

Confronted with such obvious evidence, the referee, the Norwegian Terje Hauge, awarded Gilardino a yellow card for "simulation," FIFA's official term for diving. Gilardino, still sitting on the grass, turned to the sideline referee for sympathy, and, upon receiving none, muttered a small protest in Italian.

This may be the most egregious dive in recent history. Which is a shame, because antics like Gilardino's invariably mar the experience of watching soccer, whether you are new to the sport or partaking in a decades-long Sunday tradition.

The stakes get higher when you consider that the dive, as a horrible affront to machismo, is probably the most-cited reason that soccer will fail in America. After all, what better captures the "grass fairy" stereotype than a grown man flailing to the ground, untouched, as if Mike Tyson had just sucker punched him?

As the theatrics of players like Gilardino return to American households during this summer's Euro 2012 tournament, it's worth taking a closer look at the phenomenon that is diving. How can referees better detect these inglorious tumbles to the turf? What can we do to eradicate the culture of simulation? And can we learn something from Gilardino's famous flop?

***

A gradual shift in soccer's attitude toward cheating paved the way for the culture of rampant diving we see today. Artifice on the pitch became de-stigmatized, acceptable, even glorified, starting with Argentina's 1986 World Cup quarterfinal victory over England, in which Diego Maradona scored two of the most famous goals in the history of soccer.

In the first goal, the 5-foot-5 Maradona beat the 6-foot-1 English goalie Peter Shilton to an aerial ball in the penalty box, punching it into the net with the aid of his outstretched left fist: The Hand of God. (His second goal, a half-field solo run known as the Goal of the Century, exuded an air of virtuosity and technical artistry never before seen. Still: "Sometimes I think I almost enjoyed [The Hand of God goal] more," said Maradona.)

Thanks to the Hand of God, Argentina won the game 2-1 and went on to win the World Cup. Given the high-profile nature of the match and its consequences for England, it might not be an exaggeration to say the devolution of "fair play" -- soccer's long-standing culture of sportsmanship -- began with The Hand of God goal.

Thanks to the diminutive Argentine, cheating was now a real possibility -- a glorious, World-Cup-winning possibility -- and this opened the door for diving to emerge and gain popularity; in fact, in The Guardian's compilation of "best" dives, the earliest entry is three years after Maradona's sleight-of-hand -- none register before his inspired leap.

It might seem extreme to pin the degradation of soccer's sportsmanship on one player, but Maradona was (and continues to be) one of sport's great icons, and with that power comes commensurate capacity for influence. The fact that FIFA created its "Fair Play Award" (designed to recognize good sportsmanship) the very year after the Hand of God goal said it all. Soccer's culture of gentility was over: sportsmanship was now to be rewarded, not expected.

Some may point to the nebulous concept of "fair play" in defense of soccer's enduring grace, yet this principle, so entrenched in the modern game, makes reform more difficult, if anything. Since there are no stoppages in soccer, one of the unwritten rules behind "fair play" (which is only now beginning to be questioned) holds that a good sportsman will kick the ball out of bounds when an opposing player is hurt.

Fair play takes on a more ironic meaning when players abuse it late in games, feigning injury in order to interrupt the other team's rhythm by forcing them to kick the ball out of bounds so they can receive treatment. Worse, when the injured player gets up, his team kicks the ball all the way back to the opposing team's goal, meaning that the good sportsmen have forfeited any advanced field position or momentum they had before the opponent's "injury."

Dives and other violations of fair play aren't typically as clear-cut as the cases of Gilardino and Maradona imply, however. So what if the player actually is hurt? How can we know for sure if a dive is a dive? Perhaps there is no way to tell.

Consider another infamous dive against Celtic, attempted some two years after Gilardino's ill-fated effort. In the 27th minute of a 2009 Champions League match, Arsenal's Eduardo da Silva also appeared to fall down in the penalty box a little too easily.

Two things differentiate this case from Gilardino's, however. One, Eduardo actually earned and converted the ensuing penalty kick. Two, he also earned a two-game suspension from European soccer's governing body, UEFA.

While many agreed with The Guardian's instantaneous verdict -- "a risible dive" -- Arsenal unsurprisingly found the charge "deeply flawed" and launched a formal appeal on behalf of the player. Two weeks later, upon review of the footage and referees' opinions, UEFA overturned the suspension. "The day after that match, Michel Platini, the UEFA president and one of the finest players of his generation, told me his view of the incident was inconclusive," wrote Rob Hughes in The New York Times.

"It looked like a dive, but only one man, Eduardo, knows if he went to ground because of contact. If Platini, with his personal experience of playing, could not be certain, why would the members of a committee sitting in Switzerland and reviewing the video overrule the appointed decision maker on the field, the referee?"

Academic studies exhaustively reach the same conclusion: it's hard to tell. In a 2009 study, the University of Portsmouth's Paul Morris and David Lewis had students watch short video clips of tackles and judge whether simulation took place or not, or if they couldn't tell at all.

The results were highly reliable in that most of the students' answers matched up with each other. (Reliability is of course different from validity, but we've established that it is often only the player who knows whether he has dived or not.)

Unfortunately, students most often agreed that they could not tell if a dive had occurred; for a number of the clips, virtually all the students selected the "not sure" option. Indeed, Morris and Lewis remark, "The frequent use of the 'not sure' category probably accounts for the controversy surrounding whether a player has attempted deception or not."

The main problem with this study is, of course, the test subjects. They are students, not professional referees. Also, in the study's efforts to eliminate bias, the researchers showed the students footage of lower league games.

This complicates any conclusions we might draw since the lower divisions feature wildly different atmospheres to those of the upper echelon; diminished player and referee skill likely combine to create a very different culture of diving.

Nonetheless, Morris and Lewis deserve credit for codifying Gilardino's dive -- whose form is among the most histrionic and ubiquitous we see in the modern game -- as an example of the "archer's bow." The term's description will instantly remind fans of a number of infamous divers and some of their best performances over the years: "the chest is thrust out; the head is back; the arms are fully raised and pointing upward and back; the legs are raised off the ground and bent at the knee."

***

If we're not sure if we can spot simulation with certainty, we can examine the set of circumstances that most often lead to diving. Another diving study published this past October by a University of Queensland professor and doctoral student analyzed 2,800 falls in 60 professional games across the world.

The first finding, that players dived twice as frequently in the area closest to the attacking goal than when in any defensive area, is unsurprising, even in light of another finding: referees rewarded fewer dives in attacking zones. But more interesting was the scoreline's effect on dive frequency.

Players were significantly more likely to take a dive while the match was a draw, compared to when one team was winning or losing. The rationale offered by the study's authors? A player has most to gain when his team is level with the other team, since the goal-scoring opportunity represents a chance to win the match.

According to the study, he doesn't tend to dive more when his team is losing, since the goal-scoring opportunity only represents a chance to draw, not win. While this argument could be argued vigorously -- aren't players on the losing side desperate for a comeback victory? -- consider the points system used in leagues and tournaments anywhere. A win is worth three points, a draw one point, and a loss zero. This corroborates the authors' logic: a player stands to gain two points for his team by breaking a tie game with a goal, but only one for his team if he scores the equalizing goal.

True, when making calls on the field, referees take these factors into account. Brian Hall, who became the first American to officiate a World Cup match in 2002, told NPR before the 2006 World Cup that referees consider the area 30 yards from the goalmouth a "red zone" for diving, especially since free kicks in this zone lead to goals 30 percent of the time. But it's the ball itself that usually gives the diving player away.

"When an attacker pushes the ball too far ahead of him and will likely lose possession, he thinks, hey, I'm not going to get the ball. I might as will hit the ground myself, try to get a free kick or penalty kick because the end result is going to be negative in the first place. And as they hit the ground what's the first thing they do? They roll over and they take a peek to see where the referee is and trying to say aah, I got you."

But there's a difference between being aware of simulation's red flags and actually punishing players for flopping. In the University of Queensland study, the researchers classified challenges between players into two categories: fair tackles and dives. None of the 169 observed dives were punished by the referee. And of the 2,633 tackles between players, the referees gave seven free kicks against the innocent players that fell down (but didn't dive), as well as two yellow cards. "As such, no relationship between the punishment of deceivers and a decrease in the prevalence of deception was detected," the authors concluded.

This is not to ignore the plight of the referee in this situation. "It's very difficult because you have to hope you are close to the play and with the speed of the modern game that's not always that easy," said Hall. "You have to hope you have the best possible sight lines to the contact and to the play."

***

So, how can we curtail diving? The fans have spoken, and players hate it as well (so they claim). The logical solution would be to levy extortionate fines at habitual divers in order to discourage repeat offending.

America's Major League Soccer has taken baby steps toward this goal, fining Charlie Davies and Alvaro Saborio $1,000 each for tumbles last summer. The official reason? They committed dives that "directly impacted the patch," or, in other words, led to penalty kicks and, in the case of Saborio, the ejection of an opponent. (In a rare concession, Davies later admitted to "embellishment," but refused to classify his fall as a dive).

While the salaries of MLS players aren't anywhere near those of NFL, MLB, or NBA players, it's clear that a $1,000 fine isn't making an impression on either Davies or Saborio. (They both make around $300,000.) But what if players had to hand over 10 percent of their salary after each dive? $30,000 isn't anything to scoff at for either of those two, who would certainly think twice before ever attempting to fall over again. Sure, players like Landon Donovan or David Beckham would object to a $200,000 or $600,000 fines, but if the goal is to foster a sporting culture in which diving is anathema, attacking players' checkbooks seems like the most effective way to go.

Very slowly, punishments for diving are becoming more common worldwide. (Unhappily, however, these punishments have not caught up to the weekly post-match condemnation of Opposing Player X for obvious simulation and/or crimes against humanity).

Last year, Italy's Serie A -- home to some of the world's worst serial offenders -- suspended Juventus winger Milos Krasic for fall that led to a (missed) penalty kick. The sentence was no small tap on the shoulder either, since Juventus faced league rivals AC Milan in its next game.

That said, the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga or German Bundesliga -- easily the world's best leagues -- lag behind in their quest to eradicate diving, having never fined or suspended players for simulation. But perhaps their inaction represents pragmatism (and pessimism): it's simply not worth the effort to punish players who can immediately -- and often successfully --appeal the subjective nature of the call.

Likewise, FIFA has the power to review events in question after international matches, but the process is often corrupted by the ever-exploitable element of inconclusiveness inherent to the dive. (Recall how Arsenal successfully appealed Eduardo's Champions League suspension, just two weeks later.) Nonetheless, it seems that FIFA and the world's greatest leagues have to stomach the fact that they may get a few heavy fines and suspensions wrong if they wants to effect greater, longer-lasting change in the game.

I'm not saying these governing bodies shouldn't try to avoid Type I errors -- in this case, fining players who did not dive -- but what's a million euros to a notorious diver like Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, who could pay that with a month's salary?

While it is possible that clubs could undercut the policy by indemnifying players against diving fines, it is enforcement -- both during and after games -- coupled with serious punishment that will only begin to mitigate the problem of diving.

When you think about it, the 10 percent solution isn't an extortionate measure. A single dive truly has the potential to alter the course of a single match, especially if it leads to a goal-scoring chance.

It's true: in soccer, goals are hard to come by. And they're getting even rarer. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, players scored a total of 145 goals over 64 games, an average of just 2.26 per game. This is part of a downward trend over the past 12 years; 171 goals were tallied in 1998 in France, 161 in Korea/Japan in 2002, and 147 in Germany in 2006.

Goal scoring opportunities take on more meaning than ever and players, quick to recognize this, are ready to topple over easier than ever. But at competitions like the World Cup, the Champions League, or even a domestic league, more than glory is at stake.

Individual games are incredibly lucrative. Consider the Champions League Final, which in 2005 surpassed the Super Bowl as the world's most-watched sporting event. Unlike the tournament's earlier home-and-home knockout rounds, the final is a single-elimination match: win one game and you're champions of Europe. Excluding winnings from the tournament's previous matches, the victor takes home €9 million, the loser €5.6 million.

Granted, for the teams that usually make the final, money is typically no object. But considering the effect that a single goal has on soccer matches -- which are becoming lower scoring each year -- it's really inappropriate to compare flopping in soccer to basketball or other sports. A single dive can completely change the outcome of a soccer match. A flop in basketball, on the other hand, might net a player two free throws out of the 90-or-so points his team will accumulate by the end of the game.

***

There's a kind of beautiful symbolism immanent to the perfect dive. I'm picturing Gilardino's fall, the textbook archer's dive: his knees buckling, feet dragging across the grass, both arms flinging upward, inexplicably, spectacularly; the hysterical childlike panting -- what, me? -- betraying his unshaven, importunate visage; the look of feigned incredulity.

Think now of Paradise Lost, where each character consciously falls from upright splendor and sins prostrate. Likewise, with each dive to the ground, soccer falls further from innocence. Gilardino tasted the fruit and flung himself on the floor, lying in "moping melancholy and mood-struck madness" before 60,000 angry souls at Celtic Park.

But is there a felix culpa within all this? Can we view dives like Gilardino's as positives if they embarrass FIFA into reforming the game by issuing suspensions, fining players, and introducing replay evidence? Enactment of any of these solutions might even redeem a diver's sin, such are the financial and competitive stakes at hand.

But action is not to be taken for granted inside soccer's monolithic governing bodies, which have plenty of sins of their own to atone for. A lot of players in this situation are in the wrong, of course, but it all starts with the conscious choice of the player on the field. He does not conjure up a clever step-over. He does not cross the ball to a marked teammate. And no, he does not magically curl the ball into the back of the net. Instead, he elects to fall on his face.

Still on the ground, Alberto Gilardino regards the referee, who looks to restore justice to the situation. In an ideal world, the referee's actions wouldn't deserve commendation -- they would be as routine as whistling for a throw in -- but on this sleepy night some four years ago in Scotland, they do. Standing erect, Terje Hauge peers down at the fallen Italian, briskly raising the yellow card into the marmoreal Glaswegian sky.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Quakes get go-ahead on new stadium from SJ Planning Commission



San Jose Planning Commission votes 6-0 to uphold Earthquakes' Planned Development Permit

(sjearthquakes.com 2-22-12)

The San Jose Planning Commission voted 6-0 to uphold the Earthquakes’ Planned Development Permit Wednesday night, paving the way for the club to break ground on its new stadium at 1125 Coleman Ave.

Statement from Club President Dave Kaval:

“Tonight’s decision to uphold the Planned Development Permit that we received in December is a milestone not just for the San Jose Earthquakes but all Bay Area soccer fans. Our club and its stakeholders have worked hard through this process and we feel that we have a great plan for our new stadium. Looking ahead, our club will now begin the work of finalizing the stadium design and financing plan. The goal is to put shovels in the ground this year.

There are many people we want to thank for their support along the way, but first and foremost the club owes a debt of gratitude to the hundreds of stakeholders who attended tonight’s meeting and showed the San Jose Planning Commission that our fans are the most passionate in Major League Soccer. Our club prides itself on community involvement. The sea of blue and black overflowing the council chambers tonight was an inspiration to the many speakers who voiced their support.

This night will be remembered as another key moment in our club’s storied history. From our pioneering days in the NASL to Eric Wynalda’s game winner in MLS’ Inaugural Game on April 6, 1996; from MLS Cup titles in 2001 and 2003 to the Quakes’ reincarnation in 2008; from Chris Wondolowski’s come-from-behind win to take home the 2010 Budweiser Golden Boot to our memorable return to the MLS Cup Playoffs that same year, tonight’s decision will reside amongst the club’s most treasured memories.

In addition to our fans, I would also like to thank Lew Wolff and Keith Wolff for their vision and confidence in our project and for being a great partner through this process. Go Quakes.”

-----

The Earthquakes’ PD Permit was initially consented for approval by city planners on Dec. 14, but a member of the Newhall Neighborhood Association appealed the permit on Jan. 1.

Fans clad in Earthquakes colors filled the council chambers to capacity and beyond as some were forced stand in the back of the room while others were turned away. Among the representatives who spoke on behalf of the club were owner Lew Wolff, Club President Dave Kaval and MLS President Mark Abbott. The duo was joined by a score of community members and stakeholders.

Following over two hours of input from the public as well as the Earthquakes, the commission closed discussion and took action on the appeal.

The club has already sold 10 of 12 available field-level luxury suites for its new stadium, generating over $3.5 million in revenue for the project.

Epic night in Portland

RSL scored two goals in the last four minutes to beat Portland 3-2.







(by Michael Orr desnews.com 3-31-12)

Real Salt Lake scored two goals in the game's dying moments Saturday night to escape Jeld-Wen Field with three points in a 3-2 win against the Portland Timbers. Substitute Jonny Steele equalized in the 89th minute and Kyle Beckerman got the dramatic winner late in injury time to overcome a Darlington Nagbe brace in Portland.

Having controlled possession through the first quarter-hour, Salt Lake was tested midway through the half. Nick Rimando made a leaping save on an Eric Alexander shot in the 22nd minute before cutting out a dangerous Rodney Wallace cross just a minute later.

Just before the half-hour, Salt Lake got back into offensive action as Alvaro Saborio nearly got his head to a terrific Tony Beltran cross, before Troy Perkins punched the ball away at the last moment. Returning to the starting XI, Saborio was a welcome addition for the visitors. "It gave us a big boost the way Sabo fights up top. It was great to get him 90 minutes," Beckerman explained.

The visitors were lucky not to concede in the 32nd minute when Diego Chara played Jorge Peralza into the box on a quick counter attack. The Colombian forward rounded Rimando but could only hit the side net. Perlaza appeared to be offside but with the flag down, a goal would have given the Timbers the opener.

Instead, Salt Lake used a Wallace handball in defending a Grabavoy run into the box to set up a Saborio penalty in the 39th minute and dramatically shift momentum. The Costa Rican striker wrong-footed Perkins and easily slotted his first goal of the season for a 1-0 lead.

Nagbe leveled the score in the 48th minute, beating Rimando to the near post with a blistering, low shot. Any plans of sitting back and holding the 1-0 lead disappeared in the Timbers Army's green smoke as Salt Lake fired back immediately.

Beckerman's slaloming run on the next possession nearly gave Salt Lake the lead again but his crafty sequence ended with the ball in the side net. Salt Lake came even closer in the 52nd minute when Saborio was played through by Morales but saw his shot ricochet off the far post.

With the pace ever quickening, Portland was denied a second goal when Rimando made a wonderful reaction save on Nagbe's blast from 15 yards in the 57th minute. Yet Nagbe gave Portland a stunning advantage in the 66th minute when he volleyed a goal similar to his 2011 Goal of the Year, beating Rimando to the top right corner.

Despite falling behind, RSL manager Jason Kreis was pleased with his team's response. "We kept a pretty even keel and stayed really positive," he said. "That's all I can ask for right now."

In the hopes of reinvigorating the attack, Kreis inserted Fabian Espindola in the 70th minute. The prolific striker's presence was quickly impactful and ultimately gave Salt Lake the key assist.

Rimando kept out a Franck Songo'o header in the 81st minute to give the visitors 10 minutes to find a goal and a point in Portland. It was substitute Jonny Steele who broke through for Salt Lake, creatively finding space in the box before patiently beating Perkins to the lower left corner in the 89th minute. Said Kreis of the equalizer, "I was very pleased that he has the calm and collectiveness to take that finish because it was really nice."

Moments later, Beckerman finished off the Timbers with a volley of his own deep in injury time. "[Espindola] chipped a great ball to me, I told Jonny to leave it and I just hit it," said a smiling Beckerman. "I think we would have been happy with a tie but we were fortunate to come out with a win."

Even with the dramatics fresh in mind, Kreis refused to get carried away with the rebound victory for Salt Lake, particularly with another game coming mid-week in Montreal. "We're not going to pat ourselves on the back too much about getting a win here just as we didn't criticize ourselves too much after we lost last week," he said quietly.