Friday, December 26, 2008

Just When I Slam Bellamy ...

... the lad goes and does this. As my son Ben yelled out to me from our info center/home base computer on Boxing Day morning in the States, "Bellers with a brace, Hammers win 4-1!" He and his twin brother Alex were two hours away from flying to the south of France with their mother, but we were keeping tabs on all the Premiership matches via television on Setanta Sports, Setanta Xtra and Fox Soccer Channel. Unfortunately for me (Alex loves Everton, while Ben is a member of the Toon Army) the Hammers at Pompey were not on the telly, but we saw a good Stoke v. Man Utd. match. Tevez had his usual poacher's finish, but back to the team we all care about! As soon as I hit 'publish post' on the last entry, I regretted it. It's not that Bellamy takes extra touches, as such. It's more like he runs down blind alleys. Yes, his pace is electric, but at this point I would rather see the cunning of a Davide DiMichele than the thud and blunder of a Bellers. I know what will happen if he goes to Spurs. He'll probably score 5 in 7, then get injured and/or suspended for his club side while still managing to turn out for Wales. Whether he stays or goes, we won't finish higher than 12th this season (the fates willing!!) I'd rather Zola look further down the road on this one.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

We Played Well, So No Need To Press The Panic Button ...

... yet !! Gianfranco Zola has this group playing the kind of passing football Upton Park demands and, really, have we seen a better striker in regards to holding the ball up, being brave in the air and making a general nuisance of himself in recent years than Carlton Cole? True, the lad couldn't finish in a brothel, but he's also being let down by his partner-in-crime: one Craig Bellamy. His sweet finish at Chelsea aside, Bellers has not produced the goods when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net during his Hammers career. Sure, his game intelligence makes his play easy on the eye, and he has pace to burn. But whereas you can get around Coley's deficiencies in the starting 11 if you have a goal poacher around him, Bellamy does not afford you that option. (By the way, we're talking about Hammers' nil-1 result v. Aston Villa on Saturday.) The Welshman's game is all about pace mixed in with a bit of cleverness, but the optimal partner of Cole should be someone like Davide DiMichele, who has years of Serie A experience in toe-poking the ball home or, at least, firing one-time shots. Bellamy always seems to take that extra touch, and such elaboration is not what this team needs right now. By all means, sell him and the perennially-crocked Dean Ashton in January. But the rumor that has me sick with worry is the one that sees Matty Upson joining Manchester City for 8 million pounds. What a short-term gain that would be, at the expense of our Premiership status! Don't do it, Gianfranco. Although, it may be out of his hands when the Icelandic moneymen come calling. Anyone miss Terry Brown yet?!?!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When "Anti-Football" Is Very Unbecoming ...

Saturday's Spanish La Liga mega-matchup between Real Madrid and host Barcelona at Barca's mammoth Camp Nou was intriguing for so many reasons beyond the usual political and footballing issues associated with the rivalry. For one, Barca came out of the box this season under new manager Pep Guardiola (pictured above, in 'deep conversation' with Argentine striker Lionel Messi during the match; Messi himself, sporting a sharp new haircut, is also pictured after scoring in the game) and has put considerable distance between themselves and Real Madrid. Former Madrid legend Bernd Schuster of Germany, who delivered a La Liga title while in charge last season, was fired instantly in the lead-in to Saturday's match when he declared that his side had no hope of beating a rampant Barca. As I told some of my American friends, that's like a Boston Red Sox manager saying his team has no hope of beating the New York Yankees. Then, there was the instantaneous appointment of Juande Ramos (pictured giving instruction to Raul) as Schuster's successor. After an impressive Carling Cup victory over Chelsea early on, Ramos lost the plot in England as Spurs' latest savior. He quickly regained his footing in his native Spain by landing the Madrid job, but what we saw on Saturday -- incidentally, Barca won the match 2-nil, with a missed penalty thrown in for good measure -- was an assault on the spirit of the game. The best strategy Ramos could come up with was to have his team kick chunks out of Messi when the ball was elsewhere, when the referee wasn't looking ... or, basically, the whole match! It was a strategy so unbecoming of Madrid (and I'm sure local 'Madridistas' in southern New Jersey like Dave "Horse" Holak and Steve Miller would agree). Many of us involved in loving and following the game also coach our boys (or girls!), and we all like to win matches. Often times, you "pack it in" and hope to score on a counter-attack when faced with superior opposition. But, as a fan of the sport in general and someone still concerned with the seemingly-antiquated concepts of grace and honor, I could never countenance a strategy that is, basically, a version of anti-football. The fact that Messi's labors bore fruit in the shape of a goal was pure justice (French teammate Thierry Henry joined him on the scoresheet), and it makes you wonder where Real Madrid goes from here. Can you imagine: no Champions League for the Merengues next year? Could happen!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pardew's Guardian: A Global Phenomenon !!! (Er, Not Really ...)

Let me just start by saying if you read this blog, you must understand my sense of humor. And please know that I don't do this full-time. I just love football (soccer, calcio, futbol) and have the temerity to think that I actually have something coherent to say about the Beautiful Game. Every post is made either before or after my (many!!) working hours and the multitude of nights spent on the fields coaching youth soccer. That's why there are so many gaps in-between the relatively few posts. But thanks to programs like ClustrMaps (see map above, with red dots in varying size representing hits), you get to know who (or whom ?!?!) are the people actually checking in. And I am pleasantly surprised to say that there are at least 97 countries of the 210 or so nations that exist on Planet Earth that have checked in, at some point, to view the blog. Even online users from notoriously Internet-unfriendly nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia have found their way to PardsGuard. That's a bit humbling, not in the sense that I have anything particularly insightful to say, but considering that people's time is precious. If you have, say, 20 minutes a day to spend online, would you actually come to James Clark's blog ??? Didn't think so! Thank goodness, I am linked from many West Ham sites in England and I also have U.S. soccer media advocates in my corner like John Harkes and Max Bretos who might humor me because they are such good guys and actually send on a link or two to their connected friends. The reason I say at least 97 countries is because 2 of the hits at ClustrMaps are listed as "regions" rather than specific countries (designated by "quotes".) Here is the breakdown of PardsGuard visitors, as of December 7:
At least 2,100 hits: United States
At least 1,000 hits: United Kingdom
At least 100 hits: Canada
At least 75 hits: Germany
At least 50 hits: Ireland
At least 25 hits: Italy, France, Australia, "Europe," Holland, Turkey, Spain, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Greece, Hungary, Belgium, India, Sweden
At least 10 hits: Denmark, Israel, Indonesia, Switzerland, Macedonia, Croatia, Argentina, Singapore, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, Czech Republic, Portugal
At least 1 hit: Russian Federation, South Africa, Bulgaria, Romania, Finland, Chile, Serbia, New Zealand, Malta, Japan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Peru, Hong Kong, Slovenia, Austria, Morocco, Estonia, Colombia, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, South Korea, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, Taiwan, Luxembourg, Vietnam, Iceland, Philippines, Senegal, Latvia, Qatar, Ecuador, Jordan, Gibraltar, Tunisia, Dominican Republic, Montenegro, Lithuania, St. Kitts & Nevis, Honduras, Guam, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, "Asia/Pacific Region," Cayman Islands, Malawi, Kazakhstan, Bahrain, Uganda, Nigeria, Moldova, Ghana, Kuwait, Costa Rica, Bermuda, Slovakia, Fiji.
While an impressive geographical list of the Earth's inhabitants have checked in here, the total numbers still pale when compared to the viewers drawn by the truly great USA-based blogs like Soccer By Ives and The Offside Rules. Kudos to those guys. They have talent, time and access. We are just nibbling at the edges. Cheers, James

Huge Point For Hammers !!

The pundits, both here and in England, were playing "name the score" when it came to how badly Chelsea would defeat struggling West Ham at Stamford Bridge in the days leading up to Sunday's match. There was minor speculation that Hammers would raise their game to mark manager Gianfranco Zola's (pictured gesturing on the touchline) return to the Bridge with the proper amount of effort, but the prevailing thoughts were focused on a Chelsea rout. But West Ham had other ideas, as they took a 1-nil lead and eventually fashioned a 1-1 draw in West London that took the side up to 16th place with 19 points, just ahead of Manchester City. As I've stated previously -- and as my dear sons Alex and Ben have discussed with me many times in the last few weeks -- it's just soooo !! tight in the Premiership this year -- that I honestly think at least 8 teams will go into the last three weeks of the season with a chance to be relegated. But, back to Sunday's match. Striker Craig Bellamy is the proverbial "straw that stirs the drink," and his fine finish (pictured above) -- body over top the ball, laces parallel to the ground, falling forward on the follow-through -- gave Hammers a first-half lead against the run of play, although they were defending well. Chelsea's in-form Nicolas Anelka equalized early in the second half, but three Hammers players made sure a point was delivered back to East London. Carlton Cole, Robert Green and Matty Upson were impeccable on the day, although of Coley (pictured above, tussling with Chelsea's John Terry) could finish inside the 6-yard box as well as he plays higher up the field with his back to the goal, holding up the ball, he would truly be dangerous. Green, who is again displaying England form after a slight hiccup, made his usual cache of brilliant saves (one of them pictured above). There was a hairy moment when he lost a cross in the lights, but the ever-industrious Scotty Parker was there on the line to head clear. And what can you say about Upson? I would not be surprised if his former club Arsenal recognizes the errors of their ways and makes a big-money bid for the central defender in January. For my money, Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, as well as Terry and Upson are the best central defenders plying their trade in the Premiership right now. Also, I have been a bit critical of Hammers' Aussie right back/captain Lucas Neill in the past, but he played a binder today. Well played, Hammers.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

EXCLUSIVE: USA-Mexico qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, plus other musings ...

Sorry for the lack of posts in the last two months, but we should be back with news and opinions on a regular basis now, so thanks (to all 13 of you!!) for your patience.

-- First off, a highly placed, reliable source in the U.S. soccer community told pardew's guardian on Tuesday that the February CONCACAF 2010 World Cup qualifier between the United States men and their arch-rivals Mexico will be held at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. An official announcement should follow shortly. As far as I can tell, this news has not appeared anywhere else online or in print. While I was hoping for RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., or (in a fantasy world) Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey or Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia so I could attend -- and, imagine, 60,000 fans attendng the match, with allegiances split 50-50! -- the cold-weather location mirrors the 2001 qualifier at the same venue. Josh Wolff (pictured at top) and company bossed the game against Mexico, winning 2-nil and setting the mental stage for the USA's win by the same scoreline in the 2002 FIFA World Cup round-of-16 game in South Korea. This upcoming match will be interesting for a variety of reasons. Obviously, the last team the U.S. wanted to start with would have been Mexico, but drawing them at home is obviously an advantage to Bob Bradley's squad. It will be interesting to see if Bradley selects the players that merit inclusion (Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, et al) in the starting 11, or if he will play it safe. That could backfire if Sven Goran Eriksson figures out that Mexico plays best when passing the ball along the floor and pulls a tactical rabbit, so to speak, out of his experienced hat. Still, a 1-nil USA win, with goalkeeper Tim Howard shutting things down at the back, would get the Americans' Hexagonal campaign (3 of the 6 teams make the Cup, while the 4th-placed team makes a playoff) off to a wondrous start.

-- West Ham have fashioned 3 straight clean sheets in the Premier League. Manager Gianfranco Zola has finally righted the ship, not with champagne, attacking-style football but with the tried-and-true solid back four. Matty Upson and James Collins, I think, rival Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as one of the best central-defensive pairings in the league. Some of you who don't watch the Hammers may scoff, but Upson has obviously caught England manager Fabio Capello's eye and is now a regular member of the national squad. Keeper Robert Green (pictured second from top) has regained the form that had Hammers supporters calling for his England inclusion, will Collins (No. 19, pictured third from top) is an old-fashioned central defender who is just a pleasure to watch. He must have a magnet in his head! The ball finds his ginger noggin at least 30 times a match; it's almost uncanny. With striker Carlton Cole holding the ball up as the main striker and Scott Parker showing his skill in the midfield, I expect the Hammers to stay just above the relegation mire. But, things are so tight in the Premiership, you can't really be sure this season.

-- Juan Pablo Angel might be the best player to ever wear an MLS uniform. I will write more about the Red Bulls' improbable run to MLS Cup sometime soon (Alex, Ben and I were season-ticket holders in 2008), but it has to be acknowledged that this Colombian striker (pictured fourth from top) has shown talent rarely seen on these shores over the last two seasons. His 34 goals speak for themselves, but it's Angel's intelligence on the pitch that just has to be seen to be believed. You can't really tell when watching on television, but his movement, anticipation and sheer quality must rank him even with or above Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes, Landon Donovan or any other MLS great. I think it's a huge indictment of the coaching at Aston Villa that one season after Angel scored 24 goals in the Premiership, he was marooned on the bench for most of the following year. I think he could still play in the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A even now.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Good to see Jozy in the U.S. squad

Harkesy and I have had many recent conversations about how no U.S. men's side, in a game that truly matters, can afford to be without striker Jozy Altidore and midfielder/striker Freddy Adu in the starting 11. Those two players, while still learning the game and not without their flaws, give the U.S. a cutting edge that not even the talented Landon Donovan can provide. Altidore, with his move from the New York Red Bulls to Spanish side Villarreal, is the first U.S. export to garner big money from a top-tier league, while Adu finds himself playing for Monaco in France's highly athletic Ligue 1. Both men were named Friday in gaffer Bob Bradley's 23-man American side to face Cuba in a CONCACAF World Cup qualifier on Saturday, Oct. 11 in Washington, D.C. (7 p.m., ESPN Classic and Galavision). The roster shows Bradley has a sense as to where this team has to transition to in order to make the second round at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. I like the fact that there's no Pablo Mastroeni (nothing against him, but he's from the past), but there is a first-time call for Jose Francisco Torres. Assuming we qualify from the Hexagonal (3 of 6 go to the Cup from the next CONCACAF round; you have to think the U.S. and Mexico will be two of those teams), we can't take an old, tired team to the big show. Names like Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu and Sacha Kljestan represent the next generation, whose time will surely come in the FIFA Confederations Cup next year and at the real deal in 2010. With Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu and Tim Howard at the back, this team is primed to surprise. I predict another quarterfinal appearance (like 2002), at least.

Monday, September 29, 2008

We're stroking the ball around ...

Manager Gianfranco Zola is 2 for 2 in Premier League matches (the Carling Cup loss to Watford notwithstanding!), but even more so than the results, it's the type of football we are playing that's winning new converts and reinforcing the convictions of the old guard of supporters. Watching the 2-1 win over host Fulham at Craven Cottage last Saturday, I was struck by the degree of Hammers ball movement on display. The football I saw reminded me of the heyday of gaffer Harry Redknapp, most specifically the brand of offensive, probing football we played during the "famous" FA Cup run to the quarters in 2001 -- when Spurs "stole" a result in the rain at Upton Park. There are some good footballers at the club now: first and foremost, Swiss international Valon Behrami is an absolute stud! Throw in Frenchman Julien Faubert at his new "right back" position, and factor in good, old-fashioned English midfielders like Scott Parker and Mark Noble and then you're on to something! But what's really making this team tick is the (potential) England combination of winger Matty Etherington and striker Carlton Cole. At first glance, these two represent all the positive attributes of the English play -- commitment, talent on the ball and a 100 per cent-committed mentality when it comes to the game. They also draw in the dark side: Ethers with his gambling, Cole with drink driving. But nevermind. Zola will sort this out, and Hammers will NEVER totally eschew the English club mentality. Fortune's always hiding, you know ...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

We Have Our Man!

Gianfranco Zola has landed. What a time to be a Hammer! Yes, the jury is still out over whether he will replicate his stellar, attack-minded accomplishments as a player while prowling the touchline in a suit and tie. But you have to like the odds. I have been told by Jim Sturman -- a name familiar to many of you Hammers' fans -- that "Gianfranco is a wonderful man." It only takes one look at the Italian's massive, ever-present grin to know that Sturman's assessment rings true. As much as you had to admire what Curbs accomplished, bottom-line wise, at our club, can you ever imagine Zola keeping a player of Tevez's caliber on the bench as West Ham capitulated to a club like Reading (no offense meant to Royals supporters) 6-nil on a chilly New Year's Day? He will have the instant respect of the pumped-up egos that inhabit the dressing rooms of the modern-day Premiership. The problems the "flash" Alan Pardew and "old-school" Alan Curbishley had in keeping the bling-bling Anton Ferdinands and Nigel Reo-Cokers of the world in line evaporated the minute Zola signed his deal. Here is a man who was an understudy to Diego Maradona at Napoli, for goodness sake! Zola shredded defenses at Chelsea, but his intellect, first touch and movement were as much a part of the package as his finishing. And Zola truly was at the vanguard of changing the way Prem players looked after their diets and fitness. No more guzzling 12 pints at the pub on your day off from training; more like a glass or two of red wine and a fish (minus the chips) or pasta dinner. I honestly don't care if Gianfranco uses our club as a steppingstone to managing his beloved Chelsea someday. Just grab us an FA Cup or a shock spot in the Champions League on the way, please!

Monday, September 08, 2008

If It's Zola, I'm Fine With That

All reports out of England indicate that ex-Chelsea striker and It
alian international 
franco Zola (pictured above top, twice) will be named as West Ham's first foreign manager within days, if not hours. There has been a subtle uproar amongst Hammers supporters -- mainly due t
o Zola's Chelsea connectons, but also as we try to get over the fact that Europe's manager du jour, Croatia's Slaven Bilic, won't be returning to his one-time Upton Park home. But when the Ha
mmers' Icelandic owners signed up Italian Gianluca Nani as technical director, you knew that the days of (now) ex-manager Alan Curbishley's tenure were numbered. This continental set-up -- with both a technical/football director and a first-team coach -- is the way forward in the Premiership. You might wonder why I say that, but think about the Hammers' recent sale of Northern Irish international left back George McCartney. Supposedly, that was the straw that broke the camel's back and forced Curbs to resign.
But let's look at it another way. While McCartney was a fine player, the club -- under Nani's guiding hand -- moved quickly to sign a replacement in Uruguayan Walter Lopez (pictured above, in Hammers' kit), a 22-year-old who played for Argentine giants River Plate. That kind of knowledge of the world market would be non-existent if Curbs were calling the shots when it comes to transfers. He wanted to sign ex-Millwall thug Ben Thatcher, for goodness sake! Curbs acquitted himself very well in his 15 years at Charlton, and he guided his boyhood club Hammers through some rocky times. But he never won over the Upton Park crowd (and, yes, I have been part of that number on five occasions, plus an away match at Derby despite my living in New Jersey) with his "caution first" approach to football. It was effective, and he is a more-than-competent manager in the English top flight. But we want magic. It's why we prefer players with a slight cutting edge like Mark Noble to the cool efficiency of a Scott Parker. We love the Di Canios and FA Cup shocks of the world -- not the dreary, grinding 1-1 tie at Boro to consolidate 10th place in the Premier League. Maybe it's pure vanity, but being a Hammer is about much more than stability. It's about (very!!) occasional magic, and if Zola can produce that then I say welcome aboard!!! Fellow countryman Roberto Donadoni would have been like an Italian version of the charisma-less Curbs, despite his pedigree. One gets the feeling that Zola -- and his potential No. 2, fellow Italian/ex-Chelsea striker Pierluigi Casiraghi -- can be the real deal. Here's hoping! We need some luck and some verve (sadly absent since Harry's tenure, Pards' Cup run and Tevez) around the place. Fingers crossed ... tightly.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

No Adu for the USA?

Coach Bob Bradley's latest USA Men's National Team roster for the upcoming CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup against Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago has a curious absence: One Freddy Adu. Based on his performances in the USA's first two group games at the Beijing Olympics (Adu was suspended for the third match, down to his own petulance), this sort of beggars belief. Now, Bradley may think he has enough of a roster to walk these two matches and let Adu bed in with his new side Monaco (the lads and I have been to their stadium, by the way). But when you are a national-team manager, you have to budget, so to speak, for all outcomes. And if we go deep into the second half against either Cuba or T&T at nil-nil, you need someone on the bench who can unlock a defense and help you steal a result you might not really deserve. And of all the players who have worn a USA shirt, Adu is showing himself to be the most capable of doing so: whether it be a clever backheel, a probing run or that pass that required an extra second before being released. As a 14-year-old, his hype worked against him. But at this point, a USA starting 11 without Adu seems like folly. Just an opinion.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Red Bulls Peaking As Season Winds Down

East Rutherford, New Jersey -- The lads and I spent a beautiful Sunday with 12,000-plus fellow fans at Giants Stadium and saw the resurgent New York Red Bulls impose themselves during a comprehensive 3-nil win over the Houston Dynamo in a match that was broadcast nationally on Spanish-language network Telefutura. Give some credit to Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio -- the Colombian has made all the right moves in the "post-Claudio Reyna" era. The signings of Pietravallo, Jimenez and Cichero have added a palpable Hispanic flair to the side, and with Juan Pablo Angel back to his deadly goalscoring form, New York is not a team that any MLS club would want to face in a two-leg playoff. Mike Magee and the blazing-fast Dane Richards also found the scoresheet Sunday, and Rutgers grad Jon Conway shut things down in goal.
The one good aspect about the Bulls' indifferent early season form is that they may now face a weaker Western Conference side in the playoffs, or even this Houston side. Allowing for the fact that Ching and Holden did not start for the Dynamo on Sunday, the Bulls have to be confident in the fact that they bossed the game. Even when Nate Jaqua came on in the second half for Houston, Jimenez had him in his back pocket.
With three-quarters of the season gone, the Bulls still have a chance to move up the Eastern Conference standings. And you get the feeling that Osorio is saving some of his tactical acumen for the postseason. If Angel stays in form, it might finally be a good time to be a Metro/Red Bulls supporter. Eastern Conference final, here we come!

Is This How Sad We've Become?

It's not the fact that we're losing Anton Ferdinand (pictured) to Sunderland, per se. He was always a raw-but-talented defender. In many cases, his penchant for scoring goals seemed to outweigh his talents for stopping goals at the other end, at least in the Premier League. Remember, his best days with Hammers were when he partnered Elliot Ward and helped us win promotion in 2004-05.
Anton was always the consolation, as such, for selling Rio to Leeds for that filthy lucre (18 million pounds-plus) all those years ago. "At least we still have the kid brother," we told ourselves. Raised in the urban environment of Peckham in South London, the Ferdinand parents were the exception to the norm. Their lads Rio and Anton had riding lessons and learned to play musical instruments ... they were not just thick footballers; they were all-rounders, as they say in the U.K. Rio's "forgotten" drug test and Anton's ill-advised trip to South Carolina for a bachelor party notwithstanding, these boys represented the best of the famed West Ham academy.
The fact that Anton sees his future with the ascendant Roy Keane and the Mackems/Black Cats ... and the fact that he can quadruple his wages there ... instead of in East London says a lot about both the limitations of manager Alan Curbishley to rally players around the cause as well as the failure of our Icelandic owners to compete in the financial landscape of the Premiership 2008-09, taking the global "credit crunch" into account.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Key To The Hammers' Season? Carlton Cole

When you think about what West Ham needs to do in order to stay in the Premiership -- and, let's face it, with Curbs as manager and the credit crunch putting paid to the Icelandic-owners consortium's ability to compete financially -- finishing anywhere from 17th and above MUST!! be considered a success. There are a few names that jump out at you regarding how the side can stay afloat .. Robert Green, Matty Upson, Scott Parker and (hopefully) Dean Ashton. But when it comes to the week-in, week-out toil that will actually accomplish the task, look no further than our No. 12 Carlton Cole. His goal totals might not light up the scoreboards, but Colely does all the "off the ball" chores that contribute to getting results. He holds the ball up, knocks the ball down, provides the requisite flick-ons and weighs in with the occasional goal. In summary, the unsung hero who you can see firing the Hammers on a long FA Cup run. Well done, Carlton. Keep up the good work.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Beckham, the Barons and Spurs shirts ... oh, my!

Alex, Ben and I left the house at 7:15 a.m. on Saturday, July 19th and spent the day at Fort Dix in 97-degree heat as the lads were playing in the Central Jersey Invitational Cup as part of the South Jersey Barons summer select U-11 soccer team. We then headed up to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford to be among the 46,000 to watch the host New York Red Bulls tie David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy 2-2 in Major League Soccer that evening.
Commentator and fine human being Max Bretos of Fox Soccer Channel arranged "Family & Friends" passes for us, so were were able to be near the locker rooms and on the field level before and after the game. Beforehand, the lads met Galaxy coach -- and AC Milan and Holland legend -- Ruud Gullit. Afterward they got a huge hug from Bretos, who has followed their progress over the years with as much interest as a relative would. Max is truly one of the good guys out there in the media. He is genuine, not fake. Thanks, Max.
The boys also got a towel tossed to them from the Bulls' Juan Pablo Angel, and later got him to sign it. But the highlight was meeting Becks, who was classy and made small talk with the lads and all the other kids around. I shook "Our David's" hand and even made him laugh by asking him why an East London boy like himself didn't sign with West Ham!
The photos of Becks on the field were taken by Alex from our seats right on the corner flag. Steady photographer's hand from young Alex!
On Sunday, July 20th with the lovely Victoria along for the trip, it was out of the house at 8:30 a.m. to trek back to the extreme heat of Fort Dix for Day 2 of the Central Jersey Cup. The Barons boys made semifinals of their age group, where they turned in a great performance in defeating a Dutch Total Soccer academy team 4-1. The Barons boys then lost a heartbreaker to the MAPS select team in the final, 3-2. The Barons team (including Alex, Ben and Trevor "The Pony" Holak) is pictured above, receiving their second-place medals. Alex played ALL 300 MINUTES in the five games over the two days at left back. Ben started every match and every second half as a central midfielder and played about 80 percent of the total minutes. Home at 8 p.m. on the Sunday. A proud dad I very much was!
Fast forward one week: Alex, Ben and Trevor, along with massive Spurs fans Michael and Jonathan Sturman from England, won their Sunday group in our local Mainland United 3 v. 3 soccer tournament. After a tough opening 2 games, Dave "The Horse" Holak took over the tactical duties from me (hey, I still 'stretched' the lads!) and our boys -- competing as Tottenham, complete with "125 years" jerseys supplied by dad Jim Sturman; please know that I wore my No. 32 West Ham "Tevez" shirt in proud protest! -- went 3-0 with 28 goals scored and just 4 given up over the last 3 matches to grab first place in their group. Well done, the lads!

From The Horse's Mouth: Marketing Beckham -- A Missed Opportunity

(photo by Alex Clark)

Unfortunately, I think MLS has fallen into the same marketing philosophy many businesses, big and small, fall into in regards to David Beckham ... make the big initial "grand opening" push and get the snowball running downhill, and once it starts rolling it will get bigger and bigger. When Beckham signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, they did a good job of getting the buzz out -- moving Beckham #23 jerseys and selling out stadiums across the country for his first visit.
But we're in Year 2 now, and the "smell of something new" is wearing off, which was painfully apparent by the completely empty third level of Giants Stadium on Saturday, July 19th, when the New York Red Bulls hosted the Galaxy (a match I, "The Horse," attended with my wife Carrie "The Mare" and our son Trevor "The Pony." Yes, we drove to the game in "The Stagecoach." Hey, what can I do? James Clark edits the site!)
Sure, 40,000 fans is a huge bump from the standard 15,000 the Red Bulls play in front of on a typical Saturday night, but this is David Beckham (oh yeah, and Landon Donovan). The optimist says, "that's a 25,000 fan bump", but  the smart businessman says "where are the additional 30,000 fans that were here last year?" That's almost a 40% drop in business and that's not good using anyone's math. MLS can argue they anticipated a bubble in Year 1 but with a 40% drop in Year 2, in my opinion, the potential of the Beckham/MLS era is being wasted. 
MLS will never be La Liga, the EPL or Serie A -- I don't suffer from those delusions -- but being a soccer fan who appreciates what Beckham brings to the field, I'm incredibly disappointed that the buzz is gone. Last week marked Beckham's first MLS All-Star appearance as a fit player ... did anyone outside the dedicated soccer community know that ???? 
Why didn't MLS partner Beckham with the "other stars" or the "future stars" of the league in a marketing campaign. (MLS, you can feel free to send me a small conceptual-development check!) Every day, the clock is running out on the Beckham coat-tails ... so, ride them!
Compare MLS with Apple Computers and imagine, for a minute, that Beckham's arrival was the launch of the first iPhone. How has MLS followed up on the launch? A few weeks ago, Steve Jobs launched the same iPhone he launched a year ago with a few design tweaks and some new features. People lined up around street blocks all over THE WORLD to pay $200 plus service fees to get one. 
Why? Because Apple understands that it's all about marketing. Unfortunately, MLS does not. Now, I'm off to get some oats and sugar cubes.
(All "equine" joking aside, Dave Holak runs a cutting-edge graphics and advertising company called make-it-pop. Check it out online; the guy knows what he's talking about! James Clark)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

'Captain America' Claudio Reyna Retires

New Jersey has such a rich, wonderful history when it comes to American soccer. Names like John Harkes, Claudio Reyna, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos and Bob Bradley drip off the tongue, as do clubs and schools like Kearny Thistle and St. Benedict's Prep of Newark. (I'd even throw my alma mater Ocean City High School in there when it comes to the roundball tradition.) 
College sides from Rutgers and Princeton merit a mention, and let's not forget venues such as Giants Stadium and pro teams such as the Cosmos -- and, yes, the very successful Ocean City Barons, too -- when it comes to the Garden State ranking up there with the elite of Yank futbol legacy. Well on Wednesday, we lose one of our own when midfielder Reyna hangs up his boots after a phenomenal career. Think about the places he's played: the aforementioned St. Benedict's, the ACC powerhouse University of Virginia, Vfl Wolfsburg of the German Bundesliga, Glasgow Rangers of Scotland, Sunderland and Manchester City of the English Premier League and New York Red Bulls of MLS. But it is Reyna's exploits for the United States Men's National Team that will cement his place in the pantheon of the game as long as it is played in this country. This son of Portuguese and Argentine immigrants became the first American to be named in a FIFA All-World Cup Team after driving the United States into the quarterfinals in 2002, where they gave Germany all it could handle in a 1-nil loss in Korea. Reyna played a key role for the USA in the 1998 World Cup in France and the 2006 version in Germany. He reminded us all what a force he could be when his shot hit the post in the loss to the Czech Republic in the opening match of the latter tourney. Unfortunately, his blunder in the last group match against Ghana and his injury-filled tenure with the Red Bulls (while he occupied a Designated Player slot and drew a $1.1 million salary) has clouded people's perspective of his accomplishments lately, but when the dust clears Reyna will join Harkes as the two most decorated and talented American outfield players to ever lace up the boots. (I think Reyna lacked Harkesy's drive, grit and goalscoring ability, but I think even Harkesy would agree that Claudio was slightly more skilled on the ball and a good passer.) The bottom three photos in this entry were taken by me at Bulls matches this season, as Reyna signed shirts for Alex and Ben and took a corner right below us in our corner-flag seats in Section 107. The lads and I were able to chat with him briefly on 4 or 5 occasions (the most recent time being in the elevator after the USA-Argentina match) and I always found him to be polite and engaging. He would often hand his baby off to his wife to sign for the various kids gathered around, which I thought showed real class. Funnily enough, of all the players from the Red Bulls, other MLS clubs, USA, Argentina and even the few West Ham players I've met in England, Reyna is the only one I've ever asked for an autograph. (As I explained to Harkesy one time, being 38 years old I really have no desire to ask fellow grown men for their autographs. I'd rather shake a hand, enjoy a brief word and let the kids do the hero worshipping as I snap a photo for the boys' memories. Besides, of all the American players Harkesy was -- and still is -- my only hero, but thanks to some incredible luck, some journalistic hustle on my part and true graciousness on his, we actually enjoy a mutual friendship, which is much cooler!) I don't even know why I asked Claudio to scrawl his name on my shirt, but the lads still tease me for saying, "Claudio, how 'bout one for the old man?" after he signed their shirts. Now that he will no longer be playing, I'm glad I deviated from my usual protocol. I hope he enjoys his retirement and finds a way to give back to the game, much like Harkesy does on the airwaves or Ramos does with his youth academy. Kudos on a great career, Claudio. And thanks for taking us along on your unique ride through Europe's -- and the world's -- great stadiums. Every American boy who's ever kicked a ball in earnest would have traded places with you in a heartbeat!