Saturday, June 14, 2008

Meat Is Murder, the Massive!, Harkesy "Still On The Air" And Much 'Adu' About Sammy: A Match Report From USA-Argentina (Part 1)

East Rutherford, New Jersey -- Short of the FIFA World Cup matches between Ireland and Italy (the group stage) and Bulgaria and Italy (the semifinal) played at Giants Stadium -- our beloved, and creaky-but-beautiful Estadio de Gigantes -- in 1994, the friendly between the host United States Men's National Team and FIFA No. 1-ranked Argentina on Sunday, June 8, has to be the most important and glamourous football fixture ever played on New Jersey's sandy soil. I was at the CONCACAF Gold Cup (Copa de Oro) final a few years ago with Mark Melhorn to see the United States defeat Panama at Giants Stadium (in similar heat, it has to be said), but this game was definitely at another level.
With a 7:30 p.m. kickoff on a day where the Fahrenheit temperatures reached 97 degrees, the near-sellout crowd of 78,682 was a testament to the match's pulling power. And the fact that the Argentine-USA split in the crowd was about 60-40 (rather than 80-20 in the Argies' favor) no doubt lifted the American lads, especially considering how loud the supporters group Sam's Army made themselves behind one of the goals.
Obviously, the members of the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! (TM) were not going to miss this one, and Alex, Ben and I were lucky enough to score Row 1 seats in the usual Section 107 -- right on a corner flag -- that we inhabit for Red Bulls matches Although, at $65 per ticket, it's hard to consider yourself lucky, I suppose! The Nutile clan (Sam, Tyler and Nicky "Juan/ The One ") rode up with us, and the Holaks (Dave "The Horse," Carrie "The Mare" and Trevor "The Pony") were also in attendance, rooting for their longtime favorite national side, Argentina. The day began with a swing by Mainland High School at 2 p.m. to collect the Nutiles after one of Nicky's baseball games. The heat was sweltering, but the members of the Massive! knew from past experience (when there were 79,000-plus at the stadium to see Red Bulls v. Barcelona a few years prior) that it was better to arrive early and deal with the heat outside of your car rather than be stuck in endless traffic, looking for a place to park. The Holaks left in The Stagecoach at 3 p.m., and asked us to provide traffic updates. Little did we know!
The 120-mile trip usually takes 1 hour and 50 minutes, give or take 10. It's an easy drive to navigate: Expressway to Parkway North, then Turnpike North to exit 16W. Piece of cake. Except, you can't legislate for bad luck or sheer stupidity, and we saw plenty of both on this sunny Sunday. The first of four massive tie-ups affected us not even 20 miles in. Backed up for a half-hour, we noticed the tar on the road was actually melting into the tires of the cars in the next lane over, producing what Sam said was a "Flintstone-like" effect on forward progress. As the cars bump-bump-bumped along at 10 miles per hour, worried drivers were adding to their own delays by pulling off to the side of the road to inspect the cause of their less-than-smooth navigation. Sam kept the boys amused by crooning along to the "All-Elvis" channel on Sirius Satellite radio. It was going to be a long day!

Just getting started
About 60 miles later, we lost significant time again due to a complete moron running out of gas in the left lane! I know prices are higher than we're used to in the States, but, come on ... fill your tank up, for goodness sake. By this time, Sam was doing his best falsetto along to the "Sorry, Miss Jackson, you know I'm for reeeeaaaalllllll!!!" song that's all over the radio these days. Yikes!
This is where the trip started to get surreal. About 15 minutes later, we hit the first of two delays caused by caravans of Orthodox Jews. That's a statement of fact; it's not meant to be funny or disrespectful. I have been to Dachau to honor the dead and had many Jewish friends (and a girlfriend or 2!) back in college. I also shared a dormitory floor with some Palestinian engineering students, and my motto is Viva, la difference!
I also work with Jews, and I am not making a slur here in the least. But, first and foremost, I am a journalist. I have an obligation to observe, then report. And I can honestly tell you that on the hottest day of the year, and on a major highway into New York, 8 or so cars filled with Orthodox Jews were causing major havoc by (barely) pulling off to the shoulder on the left side!! of the road to congregate. Then, amazingly, 10 miles later, there were another 6 or so cars on the shoulder parked almost perpendicular to the left lane, slowing traffic to a grinding halt. And guess who was piling out of them? That's right, more Orthodox Jews. It was the most bizarre thing. At this point, I told Sam to call The Horse and warn him what was coming. The call went something like this -- Sam: "Giddyup, Horse. Watch out for the Orthodox Jews." Dave: "What are you talking about?" Sam: "You'll see."
We finally got moving again, and as we passed exit 15W, which takes you to Kearny, I had the lads "give a clap for Harkesy's hometown." Kearny, New Jersey, is Soccertown, USA. It has produced John Harkes, the former USA captain who I now am lucky to count as a friend, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos, among others. Anyone who has read Harkesy's book, "Captain for Life and Other Temporary Assignments," knows how Kearny Thistle broke new ground by beating Celtic's youngsters and how to grow up there in the 1970s and 80s, amongst the Scottish and other immigrants, was a soccer experience like no other in the United States. The players who came out of the Kearny scene were tough and tenacious, as well as highly skilled. I read Harkesy's book once a year to remind myself of his remarkable story, and Alex and Ben own copies and have read it. I also gave Sam, The Horse and other coaches a copy as a year-end present in the past. (File that nugget away, for now, dear readers! It will come in handy in a bit.)

Hoping To Meet Up
One of the reasons Harkesy was on our minds was that he was calling the match live for ESPN Classic, and we had made plans -- through various texts when he was in London, covering the recent USA-England friendly -- to meet up in the Giants Stadium tunnel near the locker rooms after the match. When Harkesy was an assistant coach with the Red Bulls, he would extend us the same favor on occasion, as has Fox Soccer Channel broadcaster Max Bretos, Red Bulls assistant Richie Williams and Red Bulls official Remy Cherin. The boys love getting a chance to meet the players -- it helps "create heroes" for them, as The Horse so aptly says -- and we were able to introduce the Nutiles to the "tunnel experience" once previously. Trevor also joined us for a "Meet the Team" event for season ticket-holders earlier this year, so all the lads have had a chance to shake hands with and pose for photos with some pros. It's a nice treat for them, and I am always indebted to my contacts for their graciousness on that front.
But I knew this would be the toughest nut to crack yet. Let's just say that security is a wee bit tighter for a National Team game (not that it's ever lax, mind you). Harkesy hadn't got us official passes, as such; we were just going to meet up with him. But try telling that to stadium officials! Unless Harkesy actually came and got us, we would be out of luck. And as the good man was actually working on the night for ESPN, there was no telling when he would be freed up to grab us. But more on all of that later.
After getting a beautiful eyeful of the New York City skyline, we pulled into the stadium around 4:50 p.m., having lost a good hour or so to the various traffic shenanigans. The big worry was whether we would be able to park in the stadium lot proper, or would be forced to a satellite lot 2 miles away and have to take a shuttle bus to the stadium. No thanks. We paid the $20 parking fee (really, could they fleece us any more? It's "only" $10 for MLS matches) and I found what had to be one of the last spots available. It was a tight squeeze, but within a few minutes the kids were in their stadium chairs, the mini-soccer ball was out, two beers were cracked and Sam was readying the grill. We were going all-out on the tailgate for this one: sausage, hot dogs, cheddarwursts and burgers, plus sliced veggies and fruit to balance out the menu.
Loyal readers of this Pardew's Guardian blog will note that when the Nutiles joined us for the Red Bulls-Wizards match a while back, I was meant to bring the beer and Sam was meant to bring the grub. As you might remember, I, ahem, somehow managed to leave the beer behind in Northfield, which forced me -- out of a sense of duty to Sam, if nothing else -- to approach a tailgating girls' team from Brooklyn, New York, and offer to buy some of their beer. Thankfully, there would be none of that nonsense this time. Sam and I had planned meticulously, and my wife Victoria had even given Sam an early Father's Day present of a grill lighter. How could we lose, correct?
Except, we could. The grill lighter worked a charm, but the grill itself refused to light. I never saw a man more determined to succeed than Sam on this front. For 30 minutes, he toiled, hoped, prayed, cajoled, cursed and poured gallons of sweat in the sweltering conditions. But I knew what was coming, even if Sam refused to admit it. For the second time in a row, I would have to depend on the kindness of strangers, this time for grill space.

Success, Again
At least we had our own food, and I wasn't forced to beg for that, too! As The Smiths said, meat really is murder. But it wasn't too hard get the brood fed. Some tailgating "pros" -- they were cooking whole chickens, and serving up littleneck clams with kettles of butter and the like -- were nice enough to let me commandeer one of their grills for 15 minutes (see the fourth picture, above)
The Argentine team buses made their way past us, complete with a police motorcade, drawing huge cheers and competing chants of "U.S.A! U.S.A!" in equal measure. It was a timely reminder of why we were all there. After shooing the kids inside the car during an ensuing pour-down complete with lightning (what is it with the rain up there? I have been to Giants Stadium for soccer more than 20 times over the years, and I think it has rained at some point during the event on at least 18 occasions. Do the clouds suck up the moisture from the surrounding swamps and deposit it, in the form of rain, on the onlookers below?), Sam made friends with some of our fellow Hispanic revelers with a friendly, "Hey, Big Papi, are you hungry? Do you want a beer?" I offered some sausage to one of a trio of lads near our car, then had to explain that the whole plate wasn't available. Nevermind, futbol is the beautiful game, and it helps cross cultural boundaries. We had three new buddies, and that was cool. But the weather was clearing up, and it was about 6:40 p.m. -- just 50 minutes to kickoff. We tore down our camp and made our way toward the gates. It was time to go inside. There was some soccer to be played.

-- To Be Continued --