Friday, July 31, 2009

Colorado Rapids – New York Red Bulls (25-07-2009)

Although tired, I had little problems with making the 537 miles (865 km) from Sandy, Utah to Commerce City, Colorado in time for the third and last game of the road trip. The Dick’s Sporting Goods Park is a soccer-specific stadium in a northeastern suburb of Denver; as so much in the US, it is only reachable by car.

It was opened in April 2007 and is the home of the Colorado Rapids (MLS) and the Denver Dream of the Lingerie Football League (a women’s American football league; really, it exists!). Its capacity for football games is 18,086 (all seating) and most Colorado Rapids games are near capacity. For this Saturday night game against New York Red Bulls official attendance was 16,816, although I doubt more than 13,000 were actually in the stadium (the curse of corporate tickets?). However, the crowd was remarkably diverse in terms of age, gender and ethnicity.

I had again opted for a ‘cheap’ ticket at $20, which put me in my trusted spot in the corner of the pitch. But before I took my seat, I first sampled the excellent stadium food, which included a very tasty chicken tender basket ($6.25) and a Jamba Juice smoothie ($5). Let the game begin…. uhm, well, after the national anthem, of course.

Colorado is having a mediocre season and was clearly looking forward to playing the even more struggling Red Bulls. Still, it would be the visitors who would have the first ‘chance’, a shot from 25 meter well over the goal. That would also be the only semi-serious ‘threat’ of the Red Bulls that evening. This notwithstanding, I would hardly hear the Rapids ‘ultras’ this evening; in fact, I could hardly locate them.

In the 5th minute the Rapids created a great counter attack over the right wing and the low pass was easily finished in the middle: 1-0. Shortly after that it started to rain quite heavily, but people seemed well prepared and continued to enjoy the game in their colorful rain coats.

And they would be well rewarded for their perseverance, but not just yet. Because of the bad weather and many interruptions (injuries) the first half just dragged out. While both teams created some chances, no one was able to finish them. The Red Bulls thus remained in the game, despite their fumbling goalie, until one of their defenders mad a nasty late tackle in the second minute of extra time and received a well deserved red card. Half time: 1-0 and one man more for the Rapids!

After a diverse half time entertainment program, which featured amateur cheerleaders and kids football, everyone was eager to see the second half play out. They wouldn’t have to wait long for the inevitable: already in the 46th minute a clever through pass was coolly finished: 2-0. Game over, as even the few Red Bulls fans accepted, seeking their entertainment around the drink stands instead.

With a 2-0 lead and a man more on the pitch, the Rapids shifted to an even lower pace, which gave the Red Bulls some air to breathe. Still, with such an unreliable goalie another goal was inevitable, and after a terrible fumble Real could not but score the rebound: 0-3 in the 60th minute.

It was painful to see how poor the Red Bulls were both collectively and individually. No wonder they are at the bottom of their division. The 66th minute provided the highlight of the evening, a beautiful free kick in the top far corner (captured equally beautifully by yours truly): 4-0.

Despite the fact that this launched a wave to go through the stadium for minutes, the rest of the game was a brutal example of anti-football. The last 20 minutes were simply pissed away on the pitch. Rather than making the most of this near perfect situation, and work on your goal difference, the Rapids players decided to simply pass the ball around and let the minutes eat away; who cares about the fans who have suffered through almost an hour of rain. Hence, 4-0 was also the final score.

Although the game never really took off, because of the weakness and stupidity of the Red Bulls, it is clear that the Colorado Rapids are another MLS team with a solid support base and professional infrastructure. While the numbers are not very impressive, they do make for a well-filled stadium and decent atmosphere.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Real Salt Lake – FC Dallas (24-07-2009)

Directly after the Timbers game I had jumped into my car to drive at least another 4 hours to keep me en route for game 2 of this road trip, 778.7 miles (1253 km) away in Sandy, Utah. I had agreed with a colleague, who lives in Salt Lake City, that I would call him from the road if I was certain that I would make it. So, when I crossed the Idaho-Utah border around 17.00, three hours before kick-off, I called him and we agreed to meet in front of the stadium.

We bought tickets for $25 each, which were only the second least expensive (!), and gave us a seat in one of the (uncovered) corners in the beautiful new stadium. Fortunately, as we would soon find out, the Rio Tinto Stadium doesn’t have any real bad seats, so our view was excellent.

The Rio Tinto Stadium is a brand new soccer-specific stadium, opened in October 2008, in Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. It holds 20,008 people and is home (exclusively) to MLS team Real Salt Lake. For this Friday evening game against FC Dallas 18,882 people had shown up, deterred neither by the high ticket prices nor by the expected rain. I was amazed by the high number of people sporting Real Salt Lake gear and the high number of Latinos among the (hardcore) fans.

Under the tunes of Guns & Roses (in a Mormon stronghold!) the teams entered the pitch and, after the obligatory national anthem (proudly and loudly sung by those around us, hand on their heart), the game started. It needed some heating up, with a hard shot in the side net in the 9th minute, but soon after the game was on! In the 12th minute a fairly lame covered shot of Dallas caught the Real goalie on his wrong foot: 0-1. All four away fans went crazy. ;-)

The crowd was really stunned ten minutes later, when FC Dallas laid down a beautiful rugby-like attack over five players that was finished by Dutchman Dave van den Bergh: 0-2. As far as my colleague and I were concerned, it was game over. The rest of the first half Dallas remained the better team, even if they failed to take an even bigger lead. The 0-2 was a highly deserved half time score and was met with fairly loud booing of the home crowd.

At half time I sampled some of the excellent food offers at the Rio Tinto Stadium, including a highly acceptable pulled chicken sandwich ($8). We took our places for the second half, which started exactly as the first had ended: with FC Dallas dominating but not finishing its chances. However, Real was getting back into the game and, after three corner kicks in a row without a goal, scored somewhat unexpected in the 54th minute: 1-2. Five minutes later the Real striker was clearly held in the box and the penalty was converted: 2-2.

Within five minutes a game that seemed over after 20 minutes, was totally open again. But while the home fans could taste victory, it would be the visitors who would get the next chance. In the 69th minute, after a free kick hit the hand of a defender, Dallas also got a penalty… but missed!

Just minutes later there was a confusing situation were it first seemed that a Real player was sent off, but it then turned out to be their coach. This seemed to inspire the players even more in their thirst for victory. After increasing pressure they would also finally get what they increasingly deserved, even if it was through an own goal: 3-2.

A couple of minutes later, in extra time, Real finished a perfect counter with a hard shot low in the corner: 4-2! What a comeback! This led one of the increasingly frustrated Dallas players to a hard foul (and red card), which started a short brawl. An unfortunate end to an amazing football game.

While my colleague stayed for the post-match fireworks, I made my way back to my car, as I had a few hours more to drive, so that I stayed on course for a three games in three days schedule. Whatever next days game would bring, I already knew that tonight’s experience would be extremely hard to beat. Real Salt Lake has a beautiful stadium and a great sized fan base which remains enthusiastic even without alcohol!
Portland Timbers – Puerto Rico Islanders (23-07-2009)

Although I have (unfortunately) left the Northwest, for now at least, I had one last opportunity to see my Timbers at home, when I flew back to Eugene to drive our second car cross-country. I arrived at PGE Park just 10 minutes before kick-off and was faced with long lines in front of the ticket offices.

With some delay, I bought a General Admission ticket for $12 and made my way to the Timbers Army section(s). I had just missed the national anthem of Puerto Rico (well, if Northern Ireland can have one, why not Puerto Rico!), but am sure these Islanders fans enjoyed it.

A stunning 14,103 people had come this Thursday evening for the big game in the USL 1 (the Second Division) between the actual leaders, the Puerto Rico Islanders, and the virtual leaders, the Portland Timbers, with less point but also less games. The expectations for the game were high, particularly in Portland, even though the Timbers have had troubles scoring against good teams. Timber Joey had his chainsaw and wood ready…

Unfortunately, we were not in for a treat today. While the game started with a chance (for the Islanders) in the 1st minute, this would turn out to be one of few in the first half. The Islanders also were the better team of the first half, but created few real chances, and thus 0-0 was a logical half time score.

The second half didn’t bring much more, although the Timbers were able to enforce a bit more pressure on their guests. Even the Timbers Army seemed affected, as they were less lively as normally. I recall only three notable attacks; in the 58th minute the Islanders led a good counter over 40 meters but shot just wide, while in the 71st and 82nd minutes the Timbers wasted good attacks with weak finishes. The final score of 0-0 was therefore more than deserved.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by my ‘last’ game at PGE Park, although it was clear that both teams were tired and of equal strength. And even though the Timbers Army was not at its strongest that evening (no critique here, as I hardly ever sing or shout myself), they still provide the best football atmosphere in the US.

Cincinnati Kings - Cleveland Internationals

Football in the US often provides surprises. For example, because of the lack of adequate infrastructure teams often play well outside of their own town; hell, sometimes even outside of their own state (e.g. Spokane Spiders). This is also the case with the Cincinnati Kings from Ohio, who play at the Town & Country Soccer Stadium in Wilder, Kentucky; which is actually more like a suburb of Cincinnati, 10 km to the south of the city.

We arrived just after kick-off, hence missing the national anthem, and joined the roughly 200-250 other fans on the four-row make-shift bleachers on the one long side of the pitch. For some reason, there was no entrance fee (there were not even ticket offices). It seemed that only one fan had made the 250 miles (400 km) trip south from Cleveland.

Both the Cincinnati Kings and the Cleveland Internationals are relatively new teams, founded in 2005 and 2004 respectively, and are at the bottom of the table in the Great Lakes Division of the Premier Development League (PDL). Hence, it comes as no surprise that the level of play was not very high. It also shows the big differences within the PDL; even within leagues (e.g. the Kitsap Pumas were of a different planet than fellow-Northwest Division team Spokane Spiders).

Although the level of play wasn’t high, the game was quite entertaining. In the first 10 minutes both teams created a good chance, but it would be the hosts who scored first, after a clever through-pass: 1-0 in the 12th minute. This brought more pressure from the visitors, who equalized in the 28th minute, after a terrible screw-up by one of the Kings defenders.

And it would come even worse for the startled hosts. In the 35th minute the Internationals, through a substitute who has just come on the pitch, scored again after a defensive blunder: 1-2. Three minutes later the same guy scores again, but now from an offside position, so no score. Hence, 1-2 is the half time score.

The second half provides even slower play, but at least with some drama. After a good chance for the visitors in the 51st minute, the Kings punish a slow reaction from the Internationals goalie: 2-2. This seems to be the turning point of the game, as after that it is only the Kings that create serious attacks.

Still, as so often, when one team doesn’t finish its chances, the other one will profit, and so it also came this night. In the 79th minute it was again number 8 (Nagbe), who coolly finished a rebound: 2-3. The following ten minutes of ultimate pressure from the Kings couldn’t change the result.