Thursday, June 23, 2011

FC Tampa Bay – Carolina RailHawks (4-6-2011)

During a short holiday in Florida, M. and I went to St. Petersburg to watch a game of Tampa Bay FC. While Tampa Bay has a long legacy in US soccer, FC Tampa Bay was founded in 2008; initially as the FC Tampa Bay Rowdies, in acknowledgment of the NASL team of the same name of the 1970s. (The city also had an MLS franchise, the Tampa Bay Mutiny, between 1995 and 2001. Together with the other Florida franchise, Miami Fusion, the Mutiny is the only MLS team to have ever folded.) As so often in US sports, commercial arguments led to the name change in 2010. It played its first season in the USSF Division 2, but this year changed to the small North American Soccer League (NASL).

FC Tampa Bay also changed its home ground, to Al Lang Field in downtown St. Petersburg; technically it is called Progress Energy Park, home of Al Lang Field. It is a baseball stadium that houses 7,227 people; FCTB’s average crowd is roughly half that. We bought GA tickets for $14 per person and entered the stadium.

For Florida, the weather wasn’t too bad; roughly 85F/29C but with a nice breeze. As I lost my notes, this report is largely based on the official report on the club’s website. It notes that there were 2,688 people, which sounds plausible. Only some ten were from Cary, North Carolina, some 675 miles (1,085 km) north; six sitting in front of us, family of one of the RailHawks players. On the other side of the stadium was Ralph’s Mob, the independent supporters group of the FC Tampa Bay.

From the beginning both teams were fairly even, although Carolina clearly had the better players. FCTB has some quick offensive players, but they often miss aim in their passing. Overall, the quality of play wasn’t particularly high and few big chances were created. Hence, the 0-0 half time score was not surprising. That said, the atmosphere was good, with Ralph’s Mob singing, and the people around us really into the game.

In the second half the game slowed down as a consequence of the heat and substitutions. However, there were also goals. In the 65th minute Carolina got a soft penalty and took the gift: 1-0. Three minutes later they struck again: 2-0. Game over?

As the visitors started to defend their lead, FCTB got more of the game. This finally paid off in the 86th minute, when they scored 2-1. Unfortunately for the fans, the last minutes created a lot of tension, but no more goals. In the end, the 2-1 victory of the Carolina RailHawks was deserved.

I had a nice time at the FC Tampa Bay! While there were less than 3.000 people, many were real soccer fans, and Ralph’s Mob created a nice soccer atmosphere. At the same time, it is sad that a city with such a long soccer history, and with no major competitor in the whole state, attracts just 3.000 people on average. I fear it will be a long time before the MLS will return to Florida.

FC New York – Rochester Rhinos (30-05-2011)

Spending a couple of days in Queens, I had to see a game of the newly founded FC New York, which in its inaugural season plays its home games at St. John’s University. After stocking up some amazing bagels and water I park in the parking lot under Belson Stadium, the soccer stadium of The Red Storm (St. John’s men and women soccer teams).

The ticket prices were quite steep: $12 for behind the goals, $17 for the ends of the long side, and $24 for a center spot. I settled for the $17 and then moved close to the center on the empty stand (which would fill up around kick-off).

On this very hot Memorial Day (90F/32C), approximately 350 people filled the 2.600 capacity stadium; at least 50 had made the 350 miles (650 km) trip from Rochester in upstate New York.

The audience was quite diverse, though there were a lot of college kids and almost no kids. Also, despite this was a game in the USL Pro League (Second Division), neither team had a special group of fans with drums and songs (i.e. ultras). Overall, very few people were wearing FCNY gear (they also only sold a couple of t-shirts). Fortunately there was a small group of Mexicans who created some atmosphere at times.

We started the game without the national anthem, a one-off in US professional sports, as far as my experience goes. The first fifteen minutes were dominated by the Rhinos, who nevertheless failed to provide the final pass in. The somewhat erratic referee let three handballs go unpunished, while FCNY excelled in choosing the difficult option, which led to a lot of unnecessary loss of possession. Overall the pace was high though, and the technique and control were good. Although no really clear chances were created, the game moved from box to box. In the 19th minute the hosts finished a good attack with a shot at the goalie and the ensuing counter-attack of the guests led to a shot just wide. Finally, in the 27th minute, the first goal was scored, out of a corner kick, a strong header made it 1-0.

After the goal both teams created some small chances and had some shots at each other’s goals. In general, neither goalkeeper was particularly tested. In the only minute of extra time, a ball was shot against a defender’s hand and the referee could do nothing else than give a penalty: 2-0, half time.

The second half started very unorganized. As the supporters were asked to observe a minute of silence for Memorial Day, the players were shouting at each other to gear the team up for the second half. And when the singer started to sing “God Bless America”, the game had already started. The first fifteen minutes were again for the guests, but this time they made better use of it. In the 56th minute a rebound was hit hard and low: 2-1.

After that, the game got harder and nastier, though definitely not better. Undoubtedly in part because of the scorching heat, the pace dropped significantly. The passing also got much worse, as did the control. Overall, the quality of play deteriorated, even if there were still quite some half chances. All in all, neither team had the energy or quality to score another goal, and so FC New York got a narrow first home victory: 2-1.

FC New York is between PDL and USL Pro in terms of organization and experience. Granted, it is only their inaugural season, but when I visited AC St. Louis for the opening game of its first season, there was much more atmosphere and many more people. Then again, AC St. Louis folded after one season… FCNY has the same ambition as AC St. Louis had; let’s hope it has a better future.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Brooklyn Italians – Mass Utd FC (29-05-2011)

Initially, I was not that interested in National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), as it is officially a non-professional league. But, after my very positive experience at the Chattanooga FC game, I decided to see another NPSL game during my stay in New York. After all, who can ignore a team with the name Brooklyn Italians?

The Brooklyn Italians play in at John Dewey High School in a rough part of Brooklyn, NY; in fact, the school and pitch were surrounded by barb wire! There were no ticket office or bleachers; just a couple of 2-3 person benches on one side of the pitch. There was also no announcer and it was one of the only games I ever visited in the US that did not start with the national anthem (because of a lack of a sound system, I presume). This was without any doubt the most amateuristic setting I have ever visited as a groundhopper.

There were some 25 ‘spectators’, I guestimate most in one way or another linked to the clubs or players. An old man sat next to us and introduced himself as the president of the Brooklyn Italians. In poor English with a very heavy Italian accent he told us the heroic story of the club, which was founded in 1948 and has won several soccer prizes since.

From the outset the Brooklyn Italians dominated the game. Their young team created several half chances by good combinations. And they had a secret weapon; a player with a salto throw-in (or flip throw-in) –something I so far had only seen in women soccer. In the 21st minutes he had another long throw-in, which was boxed out by the goalie, but the rebound was headed in: 1-0.

In the 24th minute the visitors from Massachusetts had their first good chance, but the striker jumped under the great cross. But the Italians remained dominant and in the 31st minute a corner kick was headed in: 2-0. Mass Utd FC created and wasted yet another chance, before the Italians scored their third after bad defending. 3-0 was also the half time.

The first fifteen minutes of the second half saw some good pressure from the guests, but the Italians withered that storm pretty easily. In the 67th minute Mass Utd had a good counter attack, but the shot went wide. Eight minutes later they had another good chance, followed by a great counter attack of the hosts, but the ball ricocheted off the post.

In the 83rd minute the guests finally got what they deserved, after bad defending of the hosts: 3-1. Two minutes later a Mass Utd striker pushes through and forced the goalie to make a save. The 86th minute a long throw was headed in: 3-2. The final minutes were tight, but in the end the (much) better team did win 3-2.

The Brooklyn Italians might be a US soccer institution (see their wiki-site), but as far as infrastructure goes, they are even below an average amateur team. Hell, when I played junior soccer at the age of 11, in the Netherlands, I would play for more people! That said, a team with that name should grow and go professional. If they do, I’ll be back!

Jersey Express – Ocean City FC (27-05-2011)

In December 2010 Ironbound Express changed its name into Jersey Express and expanded its operation, among others adding a youth academy to its PDL team. They play their games on the campus of the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), in the downtown of Newark, NJ, lacking much of a real presence in the city.

After we paid $10 each at the ‘ticket office’, M and I joined the roughly 50 other people at the one stand of the stadium. We soon found out that at least 30 spectators were supporters of the away team, also known as the OC ‘Nor’easters’, from Ocean City, NJ, only ca. 120 miles (200 km) south.

This Jersey Derby was a game in the Eastern Conference, Mid Atlantic Division, of the Premier Development League (Fourth Division). They played on a good (Astroturf) pitch, but the level of play was poor. In the 17th minute a half-volley of the Express went over the goal, and some six minutes later a turn and shot from the hosts also went over.

The most remarkable events of the first half were two hard collisions between players, both leading to long pauses (but no major injuries). In the 37th minute a good long ball of OC was met by a bad first touch, which allowed a tackle to clear the danger. 0-0 was the inevitable half time score.

After the half time break, which the hosts spent at the pitch, the second half continued with poor play and remarkably much and loud shouting on the pitch. In the 50th minute the Express had a good control and shot from 25 meters, and in the 54th minute some good moves and a good shot of their striker.

In the 71st minute OC kicked a free kick from 17 meters on the crossbar. A minute later Express responded with a surprise covered shot from right outside of the box, which was boxed out of the goal by the OC goalie. In the 74th minute an Express attack with a good first touch and a lob went just over. Four minutes later an Express striker goes with a high leg at the goalie, but doesn’t touch him, and the goalie retaliates by pushing him roughly to the ground; the terrible referee only gives a yellow card.

In the 83rd minute the Express left defender ran over 50 meters, but was prevented from scoring by a last ditch tackle. Four minutes later a horrible tackle of the visitors was again not punished with a red card. And, as most people had already accepted a draw, a cross bounces odd and an Express player heads the ball over the goalie: 1-0. A couple minutes later, the referee whistles for the end.

The PDL is a semi-, or maybe even pseudo-professional soccer league, where most clubs seem more interested in their youth academy than their PDL team. Many lack an own infrastructure and play at schools or universities in front of few people. Jersey Express is one of these teams. Nothing more, nothing less.