Thursday, June 18, 2009

Red, white, and BLUE ...

Boston, still not summer ...

Growing up in soccer-mad New Jersey in the late 1960s and early '70s, I harbored typical childhood dreams of one day suiting up for the United States national team. At the time, the US of A was a perennial doormat in international competition, and it didn't seem that far-fetched that someone with my passion for the game could make the squad. Not even a 15-2 thumping from a visiting German side when I was 12 could dampen my enthusiasm. Unfortunately, my foot speed (or lack thereof), a somewhat limited skill set, and eventual injuries all conspired to curtail any hopes I might have entertained about playing soccer professionally. I just didn't have the wheels -- from either a quickness or a durability standpoint -- to play at a high collegiate level. But my love for the game never waned, and I was rewarded with a chance to watch the USA team as it blossomed over the ensuing three decades into a legitimate international contender. Not top-tier, perhaps, but a contender nonetheless.

In 1994, the United States hosted the World Cup, and though they weren't a legitimate threat, they didn't embarrass themselves either. They had a great run in the Korea World Cup in 2002, and most recently, they tied Italy, 1-1, the only blemish on the record of the eventual champs in the 2006 World Cup. They had a string a superb goaltenders, from Tony Meola to Brad Friedel (still my favorite) to Kasey Keller and Tim Howard. The old guard of Alexi Lalas, Thomas Dooley, Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna gave way to promising new stars, including Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Brian Ching, and Demarcus Beaseley. With the addition of young studs like Michael Parkhurst (please put him on the team! Now!), Jose Altidore, Oguchi Onyewu, Benny Feilhaber, Sacha Kljestan, and even Freddy Adu, things looked bright indeed ...

All of which helps explain why I'm so feeling so depressed today about Uncle Sam's boys. After getting throttled by Italy, 3-1, on Monday (with a New Jersey-born striker burying two for the Azzuri, just to add insult to injury), the US squad looked utterly outclassed today by Brazil. The Samba Boys appeared to toy with the Americans, and the final score could easily have been 5-0, even 6-0, had the Brazilians not taken their foot off the gas. This match definitely had the look of the varsity taking on the JV, as Brazil gave the US upstarts a good spanking. The fact that the Americans needed a result to have any hope of advancing to the Confederation Cup semifinals, following Monday's debacle against Italy, added to the sense of absolute resignation. When Kljestan got a straight red card for a ticky-tack foul in the second half, he barely put up a fight. He just turned away, resigned, and walked off the pitch. It was a microcosm of the USA's game. Making matters worse, Egypt -- hardly a doormat but no powerhouse either -- edged the Italians later in the day, 1-0, essentially ending any hope that the USA would advance. USA fans expecting the national 11 to have any success on Sunday against the Pharaohs, who played with poise and passion (they put three shots past Brazil on Monday), are kidding themselves.

The United States are still second-class citizens on soccer's world stage. Until they start showing a little more fire, and start stringing together a few results against futbol's big boys, that's all they'll be. Which, for the fans back home, is a shame ...


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What I missed 15 years ago, thanks to OJ ...

Boston, another glorious day ...

Tonight, ESPN's SportsCenter is dedicating a segment on what else was happening in the world of sport when OJ Simpson and his buddy took off in a white Ford Bronco and went on a little joy ride around Los Angeles exactly 15 years ago. The teasers was, "What you missed" while OJ was huddled in the back seat, gun to his head. Things like the opening of the first futbol World Cup on United States soil, the New York Rangers victory parade celebrating the team's first Stanley Cup in 45 years, and an NBA playoff game between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets.

I'll tell you what I missed out on. That Friday should have been one of the best nights of my life. It was my bachelor weekend, and my brother Sean had collected a tremendous group of guys to celebrate with us in the hills of southern Vermont, at Mount Snow, which was hosting a World Cup mountain bike weekend. I was in fat-tire heaven. Instead of strippers, we got to oogle some of the finest and fittest female athletes in the world (such as the sultry and statuesque Italian Paola Pezzo; be still my heart!). We pedaled a good part of the day, watched some amazing racing when we took a break from riding, and were gearing up for a night on the town when the TV got clicked on in the condo. And there, for all the world to see, was OJ on the run ...

I feel the same way today that I felt 15 years ago. I was begging -- pleading -- for OJ to end the quintessential Hollywood soap opera by putting a bullet in his head. That's what everyone was watching to see happen anyway, and that was the only thing that was going to pull my posse away from the Boob Tube. OJ's "slow speed" chase along the LA highways, with a gaggle of police cruisers in tow, was a made-for-TV melodrama that proved riveting to everyone, it seemed, but me. I was stoked for some serious partying (well, as serious as parties can get in southern Vermont in early summer). Instead, we had a bunch of guys hovering over the TV, with me in the background, by the door, screaming "Pull the trigger, OJ! Do it now, for God's sake! Please!"

Nevermind the fact that Simpson would have saved the city of Los Angeles millions of dollars -- and saved the rest of us from having to put up with the constant regurgitation of of his trial (only the single biggest travesty known to jurisprudence, with the possible exception of Enron and George W. Bush's election) by simply applying a little pressure on the trigger that night. Of course, he was too much of a coward to do that. And, please, don't insult me with any lame arguments about how he was never convicted (Yeah, OJ, how's that search for the "real killer" going?). Simpson was guilty as sin, plain and simple. At least the civil case jury got it right. But, just like so many high-profile cases, this was about money, not justice. It's just like Kobe Bryant's little "romantic interlude" in Colorado a few years back, or Donte Stallworth's 30-day sentence for killing a man while driving drunk this past winter (to Stallworth's unending credit, he immediately owned up to his culpability; something that Simpson and Bryant, not to mention George W., are clearly unable to do).

I've always had a major hair across my butt regarding the Cult of Personality in this country in this day and age. Sadly, it's only getting worse, especially in the Wide World of Sports. I can usually ignore it. But when it interferes with my bachelor party, well, then it's personal! ;-)


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Ballad of "Knuckles" O'Connor ...

Boston, beautiful.

I got a call recently from the adjustment counselor at my youngest daughter's elementary school. Brynne, my 10-year-old got into a "skirmish" of sorts, and the counselor wanted to make sure I was aware of it. Seems there was some argument about a place in line for the transfer bus after chorus, and the debate quickly turned to blows. Things escalated, said the counselor, when other kids started chanting: "Fight! Fight!"

The counselor expressed "shock" to hear my daughter was involved, which is understandable. Brynne has a mischievous twinkle in her sky-blue eyes and an infectious giggle. She's pretty even-tempered, and makes friends easily. Still, my wife and I weren't surprised. Brynne, now nicknamed "Knuckles," can be pugnacious. This is the same kid who, at age 6, confronted a friend of her older sister (two years her senior) to explain, in no uncertain terms, that she didn't like how her sister was being treated at school. I remember watching the bus-stop melodrama unfold, mildly irritated that Brynne ignored our instructions that she should let her sister deal with the issue in her own way. On the other hand, I won't deny the pride I felt, knowing this munchkin was willing to take on a kid almost a foot taller in defense of her sibling (the other child, admittedly, showed great restraint, unsure of what to do about this ankle-biter getting up in her grill).

The first question I asked the counselor was, "Do you know who threw the first punch?" Brynne, though feisty, is unfailingly honest, with a keen sense of right and wrong. She told the counselor she was defending herself. The other girl, a year older, apparently has "anger issues" and might have tried to intimidate Brynne. If that's the case, I told the counselor, I'm glad my daughter didn't back down.

Now, I'm not making light of our daughter's schoolyard scrap. I've seen young girls in action, especially with our eldest (who has a much more passive personality), and know how mean-spirited they can be. Lauri and I don't advocate fighting as a model for conflict resolution. I suggested Brynne use her strong voice (and she's got pipes) to tell any bully to "Back off!" But I also told her that if she was being picked on, and wasn't the aggressor, then she had every right to stand up for herself. The counselor didn't entirely concur with my position. The schools, she said, would rather have Brynne find a few supportive friends, and gently extricate herself from the situation. She floated the idea of a "mutual apology."

I disagreed. Bullies attack any weakness, real or imagined. Brynne is not weak. By showing a willingness to protect herself, she's telling any potential bully, "You've got the wrong girl." And I've got her back. She would not be apologizing, I politely told the counselor.

I certainly don't want my girls starting fights. But I don't mind if they finish them.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Running in the rain ...

Boston, finally clearing ...

After yesterday's brilliant spring day, I was holding out hope that sunshine would grace our Over-40 soccer finale this morning. What I got was even better ... rain. Lots and lots of rain. Granted, a number of the, um, more "mature" booters on our Wen-Ham United Football Club aren't all that fond of a wet field, but I'm not one of them. Nothing makes me feel more like a kid than messing around in the muck. Not that it's easier. In fact, as a goalie, I have a healthy respect for the havoc that a wet ball can create. But I'll take the trade-off ... running in the rain has always been, and I hope always will be, one of the more exhilarating experiences of my life.

We were matched up against our cross-country rivals, FC Boxford, a band of skilled and fleet players who we've gotten to know quite well over the years. Several members of their squad were once teammates, and a few of us play for their indoor team during the winter. There's a healthy respect between the teams, which probably adds to the level of intensity of these games. Earlier this season, we played FCB to a 0-0 standoff, and it was the start of a nice run for our guys. We came into this match knowing it was the last of the season for us. There was absolutely no pressure; we had secured our spot in Division 3, but hadn't garnered enough points to make the playoffs. For us, then, it was strictly a social affair.

Not so for FCB. The Boxfordians needed a win to assure they were safe from relegation, so there was considerable pride at stake. Not to mention bragging rights. We understood that FCB would come out gunning for bear, but still had trouble matching their level of play. They had that extra jump in their step right from the get-go, winning most 50/50 balls, and creating scoring chances at will. Our guys hung tough, though, and we were able to keep them off the scoreboard for most of the first half. I managed to keep my mitts on that greased ball on most scoring bids, except for two shots that glanced off my fingertips and then off the crossbar. Another terrific shot from FCB's Eric Swain sailed just past my outstretched right hand, but the ball struck the outside post. Then, just minutes before half time, FCB sent a free kick into the box. I charged off my line to punch the ball away, but a split second before I reached it, Swain flashed between us. The ball skimmed off the top of his head, over my balled-up fists, and into the net. It was, admittedly, a great goal, and the difference in the 1-0 final result.

Five years ago (maybe 10?), I might have gotten to that ball. But I supposed that's what they mean by "Over the Hill," eh? The goalie in me never likes to concede anything, and I can't help but feel like I should have had that cross. Next season, I'm redoubling my efforts to play a bit more assertive in the goal box, and make sure that I win those 50/50 balls. That said, the 51-year-old in me understands that balls will occasionally get past me, and I'm really too old to be losing any sleep over them. And it was a blast to play in the rain, and finish covered in mud and grass stains!

At halftime, I gave way to my netminding colleague, Stephan Thieringer, who I had platooned with all season (given my injury history, it was a wise move by our captain, Daniel "Ahab" Bates, to recruit another keeper). Stephan made a couple of great stops to keep the game close, but we could never dent the FCB defense, despite hitting a post as well. It was a well-played, hard-fought contest, and today we came up just a bit short. The game ended with FCB garnering all three points, ensuring a couple of rematches during the fall OTHSL season. And everyone finished soaked to the bone. It's never fun to lose, but we escaped relatively unscathed. Injuries, after all, are the biggest concern when splashing around on a slick field. The truth is, my biggest regret is that the rain canceled our planned post-game cookout with the FCB squad. So now I've got that to look forward to next fall when we meet up again!