Monday, August 29, 2011

Brantford Galaxy SC – Toronto Croatia (31-07-2011)

To my big surprise, I did the 100 km (ca. 60 miles) within an hour and arrived at Lions Park, home ground of the Brantford Galaxy SC, several minutes before kick-off. This time, the game was actually mentioned on the sign. Was this going to be more professional?

While Lions Park is a sports park in a nice green site close to the river, it is for all purposes an amateur setting. Hence, my slight frustration that I had to pay again CAN$15 (ca. $15) to gain entrance to the ground. Brantford Galaxy are the reigning Canadian Soccer League (CSL) champions, which might explain the relatively large crowd (for CSL games) on this nice summer evening: roughly 150 people, including at least 50 (former) Yugoslavs, of whom many (confusingly) supported the home team.

As I walk in, I pass an impressive food tent, which serves ribs and all kind of other food plates; not surprisingly, some 20 (male) fans never leave the seating area next to the tent. I sit down on the small bleachers, which are quite nicely filled. Next to me are two guys who speak a former Yugoslav language, but surprisingly support the home team. This despite the fact that virtually all Toronto Croatia players speak (roughly) the same language; with the exception of the three black players of the team.

The first fifteen minutes are poor; the first good attack of Croatia is in the 14th minute and is volleyed over the goal. The pitch is made of real grass and is in good shape. I am surprised by how white both the audience and the players are; a stark contrast to the multi-racial games in (Greater) Toronto. I guess I notice these things, and have time to reflect on them, because the game is extremely poor. There are also a large number of young girls in soccer outfits; players of the youth academy.

Both teams create a few chances, often the consequence of huge blunders by defenders, but most end in poor final passes or wild shots over or wide. Everything is made even worse by the ‘comical duo’ Johnny and Giovanni (see below), who are constantly abusing the announcer position and public microphone to annoy the audience with extremely lame jokes and prizes. In fact, when Giovanni tries to give away a free t-shirt during half time, even the little kids don’t want it.

Just like Giovanni’s ‘jokes’, the game itself gets even worse in the second half. I am only able to endure it because of the very pleasant summer evening. There are some sporadic moments of football by both teams, but the finish always leaves much to desire. And then, unexpected by all, a surprise attack by Croatia and, even more amazing, a good finish by the only white non-Croatian: 0-1. Complete shock by the home crowd, delight by the few away fans.

As Johnny and Giovanni try to get rid of the last prizes, in between annoying us with more lame jokes and half-baked calls for support, the Galaxy struggles to get back into the game. But despite more ball possession, most half-decent chances are for the visitors.

In the 82nd minute I hear the first spontaneous chants from the home crowd: “Let’s Go Galaxy, Let’s Go.” It doesn’t seem to inspire the home team, who still keep at least five men behind the ball. The final result of 0-1 is therefore not even undeserved.

The Brantford Galaxy has the most numerous support of the CSL teams I saw this weekend, but they also have the most quiet fans, and the loudest and lamest announcers. Maybe I will return one day, but only on the condition that neither Johnny nor Giovanni gets access to a microphone.

Brampton City United –Serbian White Eagles (31-07-2011)

Brampton City United plays its home games at Victoria Park Stadium, tucked away in an industrial park in Brampton, the third-biggest city of Ontario, just west of Toronto. The team, which was founded as Metro Lions in 2002, has changed its name and crest virtually every year. Kick-off was at 3 PM and it was yet a very hot day: roughly 90F/32C in the shade… and there was little to no shade!

I pay CAN$10 (ca. $10) and make my way to one of the two wooden bleachers. Half an hour before kick-off there are not many people yet, but those there are more than worth the look (turn out later, they are some of players’ girlfriends). The crowd is small, roughly 50 people at kick-off, and quite diverse; most home fans are black, most visitor fans are Yugoslav (just like the players of the two teams). In front of me sits the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) official.

They play on a real grass pitch, which is in decent condition, but quite bent. The grass is quite high, which makes the ball move slow. In the first half I sit among the fans of the Serbian White Eagles, which are an odd mix of old Serbian-speaking men and a diverse bunch of 20-some hip guys and hot girls. Already in the 5th minute a 20 meter free kick is headed in from 6 meters: 1-0. Two minutes later a 20 meter Eagles shot is saved and the rebound is saved too. In the 14th minute everything changes: although I couldn’t see exactly what happened, a Serbian defender is sent off for elbowing a player while the game is interrupted. On top of that, Brampton gets also a penalty.

With one man less and 2-0 down the fans around me go crazy, shouting in English with heavy accents at the referees and the linesman involved. Their most intense swearing was in Serbian though, to the great delight of the younger fans. Soon to would have something to celebrate though. In the 20th minute a great individual action of the captain made it 2-1.

While the level of play wasn’t stellar, we got still quite a couple of little treats. In the 28th minute the hosts kicked an amazing flick with the outside foot which landed on the crossbar. In the 34th minute a good attack by the Eagles was saved by the goalie and a defender. But in the 37th minute a good attack over left was slided in: 3-1. A hattrick by BCUFC #10! Just before half time the Eagles goalie and defender mess up, but the striker puts the ball at the crossbar. Half time score: 3-1.

After an excellent sausage sandwich and a walk around the pitch, I am ready for the second half. This time I sit with the home fans, on the other wooden bleacher. The level of play decreases, but the talking on the pitch doesn’t. Both teams excel in talking, talking, talking, which isn’t helped by the fact that the referee gives cards when the players complain enough. In the 63rd minute the hosts have a good attack, but it is saved by the goalie.

One minute later Brampton take a free kick from 20 meters as the goalie is still adjusting the wall: crossbar! They create a couple more chances in the next minutes, but completely surprising it is the Eagles that score, again through their captain, with a beautiful high lob: 3-2. After that the home team reasserts its dominance, but the attacks become too complicated.

With ten minutes left to go, I have to leave, as I have just over an hour to get to my next game, almost 100 km (60 miles) away. As I leave, I am certain the hosts will be able to hang on, if not extend, their lead. As it turns out, the Eagles were able to tie the game, despite being one man down, and drew 3-3. Stunning!

Niagara United – Mississauga Eagles FC B (30-07-2011)

Although Toronto traffic can be terrible, I made the ca. 150 km (ca. 90 miles) trip from Maple to Niagara Falls with enough to spare for a quick trip across the border to gas up. Unfortunately, finding the ground of Niagara United took much more time than expected (I couldn’t find the house number and the street was veeeeeery long).

I park my car and walk to the ‘stadium’. Although Niagara United plays in the Second Division of the Canadian Soccer League (CSL), this accommodation is very amateuristic. The pitch that they play at is part of a larger complex with three senior and five mini soccer pitches. It’s a nice public facility, but has hardly any facilities for supporters.

I circle the ground and finally find the “spectator entrance;” there is no ticket office, so I can walk in for free. Unfortunately, I have missed at least 15 minutes. There are a couple of old wooden bleachers on this side of the pitch. Some 50 people are scattered along this side of the pitch, almost all seemingly family of the players, although there are virtually as many host fans as there are visitor fans.

Unlike the earlier game in Maple, almost all players here are white and they are mostly young. The local United plays the reserve team of CSL First Division team Mississauga Eagles FC. I notice that there is no fourth official (is that even allowed?) and that the visitors have no substitutes. Just minutes after I arrive, a good attack is easily finished: 0-1… I think, as so many people cheer. At the end of the game I find out that I had my teams wrong for the whole game: hence, 1-0!

Both teams try to play through very short passes, but mostly poorly. Very poor defending of the hosts leads almost to the equalizer. After another half chance of the visitors, the hosts extend their lead through a beautiful attack and a cool finish: 2-0. About five minutes a couple of good passes put a Niagara player in front of the goalie, he sidesteps him, and scores: 3-0, too easy. There are some more plays, but the most notable act of the first half is not a play, but a remark: one player says to another “The easy one is the most difficult one. Think about it.” With this pearl of wisdom, and a 3-0 lead for the hosts, we get into the half time break.

Just three minutes into the second half horrible defending by the visitors sets a Niagara striker face-to-face with the goalie: 4-0. Mississauga creates a couple of good attacks, but the finishes are poor. In the 51st minute a good pass by the hosts is met by a horrible finish. Twenty minutes later a good attack is almost successful, but the final pass is too tight.

By now the game has lost its edge, but it is still a very pleasant summer evening and the few supporters are quite involved. Everyone seems to know at least a couple of players by name. In the last ten minutes there are several chances: in the 80th minute the visitors hit the crossbar; in the 82nd minute the hosts come face-to-face with the goalie, who saves the weak shot; and in the 87th an almost own goal leads to a great safe of the Niagara goalie. This notwithstanding, the last 15 are incredibly bad. Final score: 4-0.

It was quite interesting to see a CSL Second Division game, as it allowed some comparison with the CSL First Division. Niagara United is actually one of the few non-reserve teams in the Second Division. Overall, the players in this division seem younger and the fans mostly family.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

York Region Shooters – Windsor Stars (30-07-2011)

After the failed start of my Canadian groundhopping extravaganza, because of a freak cancellation, I was keen to finally get my first real Canadian game under my belt. Sure, I had been to other Canadian teams before – notably Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC – but these teams played in North American leagues, not in the Canadian Soccer League! Now, 1 PM on a hot Saturday afternoon in late July, it was finally going to happen. I parked my car in front of the small ‘stadium’ of St. Joan of Arc Turf Field in Maple, Ontario – a northwestern suburb of Toronto.

As in Australia, before the introduction of the A League in 2005, soccer in Canada is highly ethnic. Most teams have their origins in South European immigrant communities, most notably Italians and (former) Yugoslavs. The York Region Shooters went by the name Italian Shooters between 2006 and 2010 and play in shirts that are reminiscent of the Azzurri (the Italian national team); their url is still

I paid a steep CAN$15 ($15.30) for a GA ticket; the guy at the ticket office was also the announcer and, given his endless advertising of the concession stand, probably also the owner of that (and the club?). It was very warm, 90F/32C in the shade, and few people sat on the one makeshift stand. I estimate that, in the end, some 50 paying spectators were present; felt more like a summer tournament I used to play when I was 15.

With a delay of 12 minutes, a consequence of the fact that the visitors brought the wrong shirts (the also play normally in blue), it was time for the Canadian national anthem, and, finally, kick-off. Most players were ethnic; somewhat surprisingly, most Windsor players were of Italian descent. Next to me sat an older man and his son, who spoke Italian; they were York fans, however. Other notable point: a lineswoman (not uncommon in lower North American divisions).

The first (weak) shot happened in the 8th minute, but three minutes later, the first goal is scored. York tries to clear, the defender shoots the ball against a Windsor attacker: 0-1. One of the lamest goals I have ever seen. The game is poor and the pace is slow; and I don’t think it is just because of the heat. Fortunately, I sit next to David, an English expat who is a referee for the NASL and knows Canadian soccer inside and out.

The first half is poor. York does come back though. In the 34th minute a half-volley from the top of the box goes just wide, but five minutes later a slow counter leads to a great cross from the right and a dry, low finish from 16 meters: 1-1. This is also the half time score, despite a Windsor free kick at the crossbar in the 45th minute.

After a half time of music from the announcer’s youth (mostly 1970s and 1980s European disco), it is time for the second half. In the 49th minute a counter attack of York is just intercepted by the goalie, while three minutes later a mistake of a Windsor defender gives York another good chance. The hosts are much better in the game now; in the 57th a counter leads to an excellent shot that hits the crossbar and bounces out of the goal. Windsor, although seemingly the better team, is sinking deeper and deeper away. In the 51st minute, after a comedy of errors, York scores the deserved 2-1.

This is the end of Windsor’s resistance. In the 67th minute a great drive by a York player, passing 3-4 Windsor players, ends with a great finish: 3-1. Three minutes later a great attack of the hosts is squandered by the striker. In the 72nd minute York strikes for the fourth and last time, with a phenomenal half-volley from 20 meters in the far corner: 4-1. After this, the home players only go for their own glory, and good chances are killed by egoism.

My first real Canadian game had a lot of goals, but little atmosphere or quality. It was comparable to a (poor) PDL game. Fortunately, David made it all very enjoyable. Directly after the final whistle and said my goodbyes to him and got into my car: time for the second game of the day!

London City - Windsor Stars (29-07-2011)

After a great concert by Danish metal outfit Volbeat in Fort Wayne, Indiana, I started my Canadian groundhop full of optimism. Five games in three days: the good old European days were back! I arrived in London, Ontario around 3 PM, having to kill several hours of this very warm and sunny day before kick-off. When time had finally come, I made my way to Cove Stadium, which turned out to be located behind the building of the Deutsch-Kanadischer Verein (German-Canadian Association); another indication of the ethnic character of Canadian soccer. As I got out of my car, I saw some people getting back into their car. And then I see this sign!Link

After days of sunny 90F/32C weather, and still sweating in the early evening, this game in the middle of one of the warmest summers in Canada was... "cancelled due to wet field conditions"!!! I could not believe it! As I heard the next day, this pitch is very close to a swamp and floods very easily. Maybe a move might be a good idea?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Chicago Fire – Portland Timbers (16-07-2011)

My wife and I had been looking forward to this game for months. We had actually invited many of our colleagues and students. In the end, just three came, but it was quality over quantity, as they became part of the Timbers Army within minutes. After a bit under 3 hour drive, we arrive at Toyota Park, in Bridgeview, Illinois, 13 miles (21 km) southwest of Chicago.

After forking out $15 for parking (not cool!), we went to the ticket office to buy tickets for the away section 134. The tickets were $28 each, even though the Timbers Army had sold them for $20 before the game. Moreover, despite the fact that the section was far from full, our students were told that section 134 was sold out and got tickets for section 133.

We walked a little bit around the stadium, as there was still an hour until kick-off, where there were various organized activities as well as spontaneous tailgating. I was most struck by the large presence of Hispanics – the stadium even has a Section Latino.

It was a warm summer evening, hot and humid (ca. 90F/32C), and there was an official attendance of 16.419 in the 22.000 capacity soccer-specific Toyota Park. Among them, the boys from Section 8, who had a special banner for their friends of the Timbers Army.

The Timbers Army had initially wanted to come out in full force, but was hit by very high plane prices. In the end some 75 TA were in attendance, several like us from the Midwest, and we song during the whole game.

Both the Fire and the Timbers had lost many of their past games, so there was much at stake for this game. It was soon clear why both are at the bottom of the table, as the level of play was poor, to say the least. Both tactically and technically mistakes followed mistakes, but both teams played with great heart. In the 25th minute the Timbers got a break, after a striker was tripped, and Jewsbury buried the penalty: 0-1 TIMBERS!!!

The play didn’t change much after the goal, although the Timbers started to defend deeper and deeper. The Fire had most of the ball, but created very little chances. Only their left-wing attacker was really threatening, but the final ball was often lacking. In addition to a free shot at the crossbar, the Fire challenged the Timbers goalie a couple of times, but the half time score remained: 0-1.

The second half was much of the same. Timbers defending too deep, Fire unable to create real chances, and the Timbers Army singing. While both teams worked their butts off, the quality of play was low… very low. Halfway the second half Section 8 decides to put on a fireworks show, which creates some nice pix.

Not much later, a Fire player gets his second yellow card, after a dumb foul in midfield, which should have wrapped the game up for the Timbers. Unfortunately, it didn’t, and the Fire created more chances with 10 men than with 11. This included yet another powerful shot at the crossbar, and some saves by the Timbers goalie. Moreover, the Timbers again stopped playing in the 87th minute, instead choosing to waste time (which they suck at, so it only means that rather than perhaps scoring a second goal, and tying the game up, they waste a couple of seconds and then lose the ball and have to defend again). Fortunately, we kept our lead: 0-1, first away win in MLS history!!!

As I could finally breathe again, coach John Spencer came over to thank the TA fans. Classy! A bit later the players came over too, and were passionately thanked for their great performance. I wonder, do they ever discuss how lucky they are that they have such fans?

Ok, this trip was not so much about the Chicago Fire (see my earlier visit here). But the Fire has a nice stadium and a good group of supporters. It’s a shame Toyota Park is so far outside of the city and the Fire has to compete with two baseball teams (Cubs and White Sox). The Timbers Army again showed that they are the premier traveling football fans. Can’t wait to see them again soon, somewhere in the country!

Portland Timbers – Seattle Sounders (10-07-2011)

As I am sitting on the couch in my Indy apartment on a Friday afternoon, I get a text message from my friend Mokumer: I have an extra ticket for the Seattle game. I look at my wife… could I? She doesn’t say no, so I am all over the internet, in the end finding a flight with maximum frequent flyer miles and minimum cash. The next day I take a flight to Portland and on Sunday morning I meet up with Mokumer for brunch at the Marathon Taverna, around the corner of the stadium.

About 12:30, thirty minutes before kick-off, we go to JELD-WEN Field, as PGE Park is now called. I haven’t been at the stadium since they rebuild the baseball stadium into a soccer-specific stadium. I really like the way they have integrated it into the little spot available (JELD-WEN Field is one of the few MLS Stadiums in the heart of the city!). We get into section 137, where the Timbers Army is already present in full force and singing their hearts out.

We decide to sit at the top of the stand, where it is a bit less crowdy. We meet up with some friends of Mokumer, exchange stories about the Netherlands, agree that we need a win and that the "Shittle Flounders" should be destroyed, and join the singing. The atmosphere is electric. The stadium was sold out with 18.627 anxious supporters. I am so happy that I came.

As this is the first ever home game in the MLS against the arch rival, the Timbers Army has created an impressive tifo action. They have made several huge banners, taunting the ca. 500 Seattle supporters who made the ca. 175 miles (275 km) drive south on the I-5.

I stand behind most of the huge banners, so can’t see them all, but am impressed by how organized everything is. The Timbers Army controls the sections behind the goal in a manner reminiscent of the great ultra groups in Latin America and Southern Europe. The final banner is a claim to the title of best club in the Pacific Northwest: King of Clubs!

The creativity and swagger of the Timbers Army is not really copied by the boys in green and white. We have, without any doubt, the most British team in the MLS. Everything is physical, long and high balls (even know the tall striker Cooper has been replaced by the very short striker Perlaza), while tactically and technically it is very poor. Fortunately, Seattle is not much better, particularly in the first half. 0-0 is the only logical half time score and, despite the poor play, I have been nervous for the full 45 minutes.

The second half started with a blast. In the 46th minute we score… well, to fair, they score, but in their own net: 1-0 TIMBERS!!! I cannot believe it, scream and shout, and am bathed in beer by someone behind me. 1-0 up, through an own goal… seems to have been the only way it could happen.

Unfortunately, the happiness lasts only for a short time. Ten minutes later Freddy Montero (“No means no!”) scores a free kick from just outside of the box and makes it look really easy. The Sounders are getting better in the game now, but it is the Timbers that score, again through a lucky. But who cares, it’s 2-1! The second piece of wood, cut by Timber Joey and his chainsaw, makes it up section 136.

This time it takes us even less than 5 minutes to give the lead away. In the 74th minute they equalize: 2-2. And in the 83rd minute it gets even worse: the last Timbers defender fouls the Seattle striker: penalty and red card: 2-3, game over.
No Picture of Final Score
I am absolutely gutted, although I continue to sing with the Timbers Army and even applaud the players, who come to receive their two slices of wood from Timber Joey in front of the Timbers Army. Mokumer deals with it easier – ajax fans are never very loyal ;-) – and reminds me that this is our first season and, to be honest, we are just not that good. He is right, we are not, but we fight and have the best supporters in the whole world… well, in the MLS at least!

The next day I go back for breakfast at the Marathon Tavern, and walk passed JELD-WEN Field. So peaceful. As if we never lost against the Sounders… if only.

River City Rovers – Forest City London (04-07-2011)

I was looking for things to do on the 4th of July and found that in Louisville they have fireworks over the Ohio River… but, more importantly, they have a Premier Development League (PDL) team, the River City Rovers, which played a game that evening. And so, after a brief afternoon walk in the city center, we drove about 15 miles from downtown, to a very affluent, and very white, neighborhood, to the elitist Christian Academy of Louisville.

After paying $2 for parking (really?), we paid $10 for general admission and entered the school’s sporting grounds. Although the school has a decent football stadium, the River City Rovers play on a soccer pitch next to it, with some make-shift bleachers on one side of the pitch. Founded in 2010, the River City Rovers are in their first PDL season, in the Great Lakes Division. Tonight’s game was against Forest City London, from Canada, and thus the game was started with two national anthems.

There were exactly 125 people in the stadium (me included); I counted them personally. Some 5-10 were away fans; probably linked to the team. One of the linesmen was… a woman! The Canadian players tried to intimidate her from the start, putting pressure on her to favor them. In general, the Canadian players were much more like Europeans than Americans; where American soccer players are really polite, they don’t swear and address the referee as “sir,” the Canadians were complaining and cursing; to the chagrin of the spectators (this was, after all, at the Christian Academy ;-).

From the first minutes it was clear that this was going to be a poor quality game. After 4 minutes the Rovers give a good pass to the penalty spot, and the guy hits over the ball. In the 10th minute Forest City has a free kick at 17 meters, and kick it 5 meters over the goal. A minute later the guests should have gotten a penalty because of holding, but the ref doesn’t whistle it. After 23 minutes a long ball is missed by the Canadian goalie, and the Rovers score an easy goal: 1-0.

After that both teams have some soft chances, but overall the passing is extremely poor and few real chances are created. The Rovers goalie makes some decent saves; turns out he is a Dutch guy, who used to play in the ajax youth. Begs the question: what went so horribly wrong that he would end up here? Half Time: 1-0.

During the half time everyone plays on the pitch; mostly little kids and a couple of adult Africans (who looks kind of lost in this see of conservative Christian white Americanism). The second half is more of the same; perhaps even less quality. In the 61th minute a messy situation in the goal area leads to the equalizer: 1-1. A couple minutes later the Canadian goalie intercepts a good attack. In the 65th minute a Forest City player shoots from 16 meters with his left foot: 15 meters wide!

The rest of the game is a lot of work, and little play. There is a nasty head collision, which leads to a long break, but both players can continue. In the 84th minute three Forest City attack three Rovers defenders, but they pass rather than shoot, and the chance is wasted. In the 88th minute there is much confusion in the Canadian box, but the goalie pulls out a great save. In the dying seconds of the game, the guests go at goal one more time, but shoot wide. Clearly, 1-1 is the maximum possible for these two teams.

The PDL is a weird league. The difference between teams such as the River City Rovers and, say, Kitsap Pumas are so enormous. Moreover, one starts to wonder about the whole use of the enterprise, as they play a very short season, have no youth teams, and exist largely outside of the main cities (in rich, white suburbs).