Sunday, May 16, 2010

St. Louis Lions – Real Colorado Foxes (15-05-2010)

Slightly less than a month ago I drove the 250 miles to Saint Louis (and back!) to see the newest ambitious soccer club in the US, AC Saint Louis, which provided an evening of unexpected Balkan atmosphere. At that time I didn’t know that there is actually another professional team in the Gateway City, which is starting its fifth season in the PDL, Heartland Division, the St. Louis Lions.

The Lions play at the Tony Glavin Soccer Complex in St. Peters, an affluent suburb northeast of St. Louis, named after and owned by the (Scottish) coach of the team. To say that the facilities are modest is an understatement. The ground has one stand, a ten-row bleacher, and tickets are sold (at $5) at a table with an umbrella. The small hall is closed to the public during games, and the concession stand in it sells a very small selection (the only warm thing were tiny hot dogs).

On this fairly cold and rainy spring day some 100 people had come out to see the season opener of the Lions; almost all friends and family of the players or of kids who play in the youth program. Understandably, no one had made the 1000+ mile trip from Highland Ranch to support the Real Colorado Foxes.

The game started furious, flowing from goal to goal, creating dozens of chances and semi-chances. Already in the 3rd minute the visitors scored their first goal: after a pass from the right the striker had an easy tip-in: 0-1. The next minutes saw chances for both sides, including a volley from 5 meters gone wide (Lions), a deflected shot cleared from the goal line (Foxes), and a dive from a striker (Lions) that was ignored by the good referee. Although the level of play was much lower than that at most other PDL games, such as the Dayton Dutch Lions, the game was quite entertaining.

[ Video Here ]

In the 19th minute a Lions free kick is fumbled by the goalie and the rebound rolls slowly just wide of the post. This is followed by a couple of headers just over the goal and, ten minutes later, by a nice and volley which is saved by the Colorado goalie. From then the game becomes slower and poorer; the heavy soggy pitch is wearing the players out, particularly the guests, and the teams are stretched from box to box. In the 38th minute the Lions shoot hard at goal, but the Foxes goalie saves again. Half time score is 0-1.

During half time we are all invited to come on to the pitch and close all the holes. This is definitely a first and I happily participate. While walking around, and realizing that there are actually few holes on the pitch (I also now realize that I didn’t see many tackles), I see an injured player from the Foxes being treated on the side of the pitch.

The second half starts exactly as the first one, with a goal from the visitors in the third minute. A nifty though pass is easily finished: 0-2. Four minutes later the Foxes striker takes way too much time and shoots into the defender. The Lions now start to change many players and, although they keep fighting, the game is dominated by the much younger Foxes. After a couple of smaller chances, and some good saves from the Lions goalie, they get a penalty kick after a dumb hand ball.

The penalty kick is hard and bounces of the crossbar. This gives the Lions some new strength, while it further slows down the Foxes. They did create some half chances, but failed to score. In the end, the 0-2 victory of the Foxes was well deserved and didn’t even do full justice to the quality difference between the two teams.

This was in many ways a special game for me. First, it was the first time I visited a second team of a US city. Second, this was the most amateuristic setting of a first team I have ever visited. That said, I had a nice evening, despite the poor weather, and hope the Lions will profit from AC’s new success, rather than be put in its shadow.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dayton Dutch Lions – Cincinnati Kings (07-05-2010)

This season various new teams joined the Premier Development League (PDL), but one has attracted my attention from the start: the Dayton Dutch Lions. The team is co-owned by Erik Tammer, a former Dutch professional football player who never lived up to his huge potential, and supported by FC Twente, the new Dutch football champions. It is absolutely unclear to me why they chose Dayton, Ohio, to start their American adventure. It seems that the Dutch Lions are at least as much a youth academy, and hence business, as a professional football team. They played their first game ever against Global United FC, a collection of international former stars (including Thomas Dooley, Marco Etchevery, Fredi Bobic and Paul Bosvelt), in front of 3.000 people.

Tonight the Dayton Dutch Lions played their local rivals, the Cincinnati Kings, at the Miami Valley South Stadium, also home to the Miami Valley Warriors, a semi-professional American football team, in Bellbrook, Ohio, a Dayton suburb. The stadium of the local high school underwent a $3.000.000 renovation and can now seat 4.000 people on the two large and one small bleachers.

M. and I paid $10 for a general admission ticket and entered the stadium almost an hour before kick-off, keeping ourselves happy with checking out the merchandise (quite a decent offer) and the concessions (not too bad, though terribly slow service). Unfortunately, the weather gods were against us: what should have been a nice summer evening, was in fact a very cold, windy and even rainy evening (ca. 46F/8C). This might explain the much lower attendance: at best 600 people, although the website speaks of “a little over 1000 spectators” (a clear exaggeration); I guestimate some 25-50 from nearby Cincinnati.

Although the Dayton Dutch Lions get most of their attention and interest, including from me, because of their Dutch connection and players, the slight majority of the squad is actually American. In fact, it is an odd mix of young American former college players (various with Dutch-sounding last names, like Hertsenberg or Vandersluijs), older Dutch former professionals (Geert Den Ouden, Oscar Moens, Hans van de Haar and Ivar van Dinteren), and young Dutch players who must be out of contract (such as Bas Ent, Johan Wigger and Julius Wille). The coach is the most famous of all: Sonny Silooy, former defender of ajax Amsterdam and 25-time Dutch international).

The Lions started with 5 Dutch players, who were also loudest on the pitch and the ones constantly criticizing the referee. From the beginning they were the better team; far superior technique, but tactically a bit weak (probably need more time together) and with a too slow pace. The first good chance was for the Kings, however, a half-volley straight at goalie Moens. However, in the 14th minute the Lions score, after a smart pass and an easy tip-in: 1-0. Time for the 10 ultras of the Orange Legion to go crazy. ;-)

The Lions remain dominant, but do not really pressure much. The first half looks like it is going to end 1-0, until the Lions get a free kick at about 20 meters and Wille curls it into the goal: 2-0. While the free kick was well taken, any half-decent goalie would have stopped it. Again a sign that PDL level is not very high and the Lions are clearly a cut above average… in talent.

After the usual half time entertainment, as American audiences have to be kept occupied the whole time they are in the stadium, the second half starts weak for the guests. The pace is even lower and several players seem to have lost interest. Both teams get some half chances, before the Lions blow a huge chance from roughly 2 meters. At least we have some extra entertainment, as Den Ouden is sitting a meter away from us, coaching his team mates loudly. It doesn’t help much though, as in the 72nd minute the Kings score 2-1 after a huge defensive mistaken of the Lions. However, this soon looks like only a temporary set back, as in the 75th minute Ent passes and McCarthy only has to tip it in from 3 meter: 3-1, game over.

However, the Lions are not just from Dayton, they are also… exactly, Dutch! And what do Dutch excel at? Screwing up easy victories! After the 3-1 they seem even less concentrate and keen – Ent in particular was terrible, unable to pass virtually any defender. After a long pass by the Kings, and the inevitable defensive blunder by the Lions, the visitors score again: 3-2 in the 79th minute.

This seems to have awakened the Lions, who create a string of real and semi-chances in the following five minutes; including a hammer on the crossbar from 25 meters. However, it is the Kings who score again, after a good free kick, and indecisive non-action by Moens: 3-3 and only 4 minutes left in regular time. To be fair, the Kings deserve it, as they have never given up, despite being clearly outclassed. While the Kings keep pressing for the winner, the Lions get the biggest chance: in the dying seconds Ent misses the goal from 3 meter!

There is no doubt that the Dayton Dutch Lions are a Dutch team. Despite the fact that more than half of its players are American, they combine superior skills with inferior mentality, the typical Dutch disease. That said, with a couple players being cleared in the near future (notably Van de Haar, who was a prolific scorer in the top two Dutch leagues), and some more practice together, the Lions could make quite a name for themselves in the PDL. I, for one, will try to see some more of their (away) games!
AC Saint Louis – Austin Aztex (17-04-2010)

AC Saint Louis is the newest soccer team in the US with great ambitions (i.e. MLS as soon as possible). Though founded only in 2009, the team doesn’t start in the PDL, but directly in the USSF D2 Pro League, the new Second Division created exclusively for this season after a feud between the United Soccer Leagues (USL) and the North American Soccer League (NASL). They play their home games at the Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park, together with the Saint Louis Athletica, which plays in the Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPSL).

The Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park is located in Fenton, Missouri, a southwestern suburb of Saint Louis. It is a soccer-specific stadium with one main stand and another long side of bleachers, which together hold 6.200 people. According to the official website, this first official home game against the Austin Aztex was a sell-out with 5,695 people. My guestimation puts it at 80% capacity. Moreover, it seems that many tickets were distributed for free. In fact, while lining up for the ticket office, a kind soul gave me his extra ticket for free (thank you kind sir!).

Whether truly sold out or not, there is no doubt that thousands of people came out to watch the AC Saint Louis and many already wore some team apparel. Moreover, the club has a hardcore fan base, the United Knights, who can already compete with some of the best ultras in US soccer. The atmosphere was at times Southern European; not accidentally, as many of the United Knights are... Bosnians!

While the infrastructure for good football is clearly present in St. Louis, the quality of the players is still lacking. The Austin Aztex are no high-fliers in US football; in their first season they finished 10th; but they were clearly better than the hosts. Overall though, the quality of play was very poor. That said, it was nice to finally watch a game surrounded by people who actually understand the game (i.e. the Bosnians).

It would take until the 37th minute for the first goal… an own goal by a St. Louis defender: 0-1. After this disappointment, the hosts started to improve their game a bit, leading to two decent shots. However, in the 43rd minute history was made, when Anthony O’Garro scored the first official goal for the AC Saint Louis; a deflected shot: 1-1. This led to flares set off by the United Knights, the smoke of which would linger over the pitch at half time.

The second half was even poorer, with the pace going down and few chances being created. The game was decided in the 55th minute by a strange swirling shot from 25 meters that was horribly missed by the goalie: 1-2.

Nothing changed after that, despite continuing loud support from the fans. I sneaked out a couple of minutes early, as I still had a 3+ hour drive ahead of me. Looking back atv the stadium, a thick cloud was still lingering over the pitch.

While the AC Saint Louis might not yet be ready for the MLS, it seems that they have found a welcoming audience in Saint Louis. Welcome to the USL!