Wednesday, June 27, 2012

New Jersey Rangers FC - Bermuda Hoggs (24-06-2012)

It is not uncommon for Premier Development League (PDL) teams to play their games at the premise of a university, but this time it was special: it was at the alma mater of my wife: Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. The New Jersey Rangers FC were funded in 2002 and play their games at different venues in North Jersey, where also most of its players are from.

We arrive late, due to horrific NY/NJ traffic, and are amazed by the number of cars around the sports field of Drew University; turns out, the vast majority of people were there for various other activities. We pay $5 per person to get in, but don’t get a ticket.

I am surprised to hear the British anthem “God Save the Queen,” but then remember that the opponents are the Bermuda Hoggs. There are ca. 100 people on the one stand, but it later turns out that roughly half are parents of the kids who play a game at half time. Interestingly, many speak Portuguese and some wear jerseys of the national team of Portugal. Among the non-affiliated supporters are also a large number of Hispanics.

The game is played on Astroturf, which is remarkably dry and dusty. In the 7th minute the hosts score a goal, but it is (correctly) ruled offside. The NJ rangers have mostly local college players, while the Hoggs have a more diverse selection in terms of age. In the 13th minute a great pass is met by a good header from 10 meters: 1-0.

It is a very slow game, with huge spaces and poor control. In the 16th minute terrible defense by Bermuda leads to a Rangers shot from the edge of the penalty box that is stopped by the goalie. A minute later the Hoggs have a  half decent attack over right B. The hosts are the better team, but the visitors get some chances (but they are too often offside).

After half an hour bad defense sets a Rangers striker in front of the goalkeeper, but he misses. Ten minutes later a good Rangers shot from 22 meters goes just over. In the last minute of the first half a shot from 5 meters is deflected  by Bermuda defenders. Half time score: 1-0.

After the crowd finally got excited during the half time game of their kids, they returned to semi-hibernation in the second half. In the 47th minute a good attack over left by the hosts leads to a hard low shot that is saved by the goalie. Six minutes later a rare counter of the Hoggs is headed at the Rangers goalie. Again six minutes later a good Rangers attack leads to a shot at the hand of a defender and a penalty: 2-0.

In the 62nd minute a great counter opportunity of Bermuda is wasted with bad passes. Seven minutes later an almost random long free kick of the Rangers is volleyed from 5 meters and ends at the back post: 3-0.

It’s only in the last five minutes that Bermuda starts to play. In the 87th minute a long ball by the Hoggs is headed to the goalkeeper, who slips, and the striker finishes with an easy tip: 3-1. In the first minute of extra time a good Bermuda attack is blocked by a defender. Final score: 3-1.

The PDL is a hit or miss league. Most teams don’t survive for more than a couple of years or forever operate in the margins of USL soccer. The New Jersey Rangers FC are a clear miss. They have nothing to do with professional, or even amateur, soccer. They have neither fans nor a home ground. Given that they exist since 2002, that doesn’t bode well for the future.

Chattanooga FC – Jacksonville United FC (07-05-2011)

Having arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, in the afternoon, I decided to drive up to Chattanooga, Tennessee, a two hour drive, to see a game in the newly discovered National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a highly organized league of amateur (or semi-professional) teams. Chattanooga FC plays in the NPSL Southeast, a division with just six teams. In fact, although founded only on 2009, they were last year’s champions.

I arrived about fifteen minutes before kick-off at the ticket office and bought a GA ticket for just $5. CFC plays at the W. Max Finley Stadium, more specifically the Gordon L. Davenport Field, which is home to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga football team. Finley Stadium Davenport Field opened in 1997 and has a capacity of 20.668; but for soccer games only the main stand is open.

Before kick-off I was walking around the stadium, admiring the variety of snacks and of CFC merchandise, both of which sold pretty well (roughly 20% of all people were wearing CFC gear). It was a nice Spring evening, in the low 80s, and not too humid. A couple of minutes before kick-off, the ‘Chattahooligans’ entered the stadium, bringing the one drum and several other instruments that would sound all night.

While I was impressed by the number of people in the stadium, I am skeptical about the official number of 1.105. My estimation was roughly 750, of which almost a third arrived late into the first half of the game. The audience was almost exclusively white, middle class, with a lot of college kids and young children running around.

The quality of the game was roughly between the USL and PDL, equivalent to really good college soccer. Overall, there were (too) many short passes, weak first touches, and, despite the AstroTurf pitch, many inaccurate passes. As so often in US lower leagues, the play on both sides was defensive, slow, and predictable.

Only after almost half an hour the first real chances were created, mostly by CFC. First a good attack was intercepted by the Jacksonville goalie and only a minute later a good deep ball was headed back and then headed on the crossbar from 5 meter. Five minutes before half time a CFC striker misses a cross.

In the 42nd minute a Jacksonville break is intercepted by the right back, who sets up a good attack, which cross is finished from 2 meter: 1-0. A couple minutes later a great effort of a Jacksonville attacker leads to a good pass that is miserably missed. And in the last minute of the first half the hosts miss a great counter opportunity because of a poor first touch. Half time score: 1-0.

After having sampled the “chiken on a stik” at a snack cart, which was quite good actually, I returned to the stand, but decided to sit a bit lower, among the crowd. What surprised me was that most people around me were talking about everything but the game. Only when really big chances for the home team occurred did they get involved.

A couple minutes into the second half a decent chance of CFC is finished too softly, while a corner in the 55th minute is missed by the Jacksonville goalie, but cleared from the goal line by a defender. Not much happens until the last ten minutes, in which mostly the hosts, but also the visitors, take some good shots at goal. However, it is only two minutes in extra time that the last goal is scored, by the left back of CFC, who goes at it alone and then shoots hard and secure from inside the box: 2-0, final score.

My first experience in the NPSL was a big success! While it is officially an amateur league, in terms of audience and play it was well above the vast majority of PDL teams I have seen so far. So, if you are in the area, do go and see a CFC game!

Canada – USA (03-06-2012)

One day after the cozy game in the NPSL, it was time for a larger venue, BMO Field in Toronto, Ontario, normally home to Toronto FC. As part of the warm-up schedule for the CONCACAF Qualifiers for the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil, as well as to celebrate the Centennial of Canadian Soccer, the national teams of Canada and the US met for the CSA Centennial Match. While this was a friendly, it is doubtful Canadians can really play a friendly against their big southern brother.

We had bought tickets in advance, which were just CAN$28.50 (without the CAN$10 handling fees of the biggest rip-off in entertainment: Ticketmaster). The stadium opened its gates one hour before kick-off, but it wasn’t really that crowded yet.

After circling the stadium and enjoying the mild weather, it was time to join the ca. 200 other US fans. Most Americans seemed from the Buffalo area in upstate New York, which is just 2 hours away from Toronto. There were also some hardcore Team USA fans, who follow the US soccer team around the world.

Surprisingly, as Toronto FC tends to attract pretty decent crowds in the 20.195-person BMO Field, the official attendance is 15.247. However, there are at best some 12.500 people actually in the stadium. The crowd is quite diverse, reflecting the incredible diversity of the host city, but also very quiet. The hardcore fans are in one corner, yet little will be heard of them either.

Despite the nice temperature, neither the fans no the players ever really get into the game. My wife is deeply disappointed by the American fans, who hardly ever chant or sing, and if they do, they don’t come much further than: “We believe that we can win.” Still, it is better than the home fans, who are the quietest bunch I have ever (not) heard.

I could tell you about the game, but just think about paint drying… in fact, think about a fairly bland paint drying. Aweful!!! The US hardly tries to attack, and as always Dempsey and Donovan can’t link up, while the Canadians act as if they are facing European and World Cup champions Spain in Madrid… terrified! Hence, 0-0 at half time.

The second time is even worse, if that would be possible. The ‘pace’ drops further, the US doesn’t create anything anymore, and the Canadians do not realize that this is the one time they can defeat their arch rivals. Balls are passed around in the midfield, hardly ever more than twice before it is lost. The most exciting thing is a plane over the pitch.

The referee is dragged down to the level of the game, and no longer runs his diagonals, but prefers to walk around the middle and make terrible calls as a consequence. I think everyone is relieved when the final whistle blows. Even if they would have continued for another five years they wouldn’t have scored.

This was one of the worst games I have ever seen! Clearly soccer has a very long way to go in North America, both in Canada and the US; not just in terms of quality of the players, but also of the fans.

Detroit City FC - Greater Binghamton FC (02-06-2012)

After several failed attempts to groundhop in 2012, including a last minute canceled trip to Europe, I finally had a groundhop-weekend again. Almost one year since my last groundhop trip to Canada, I was again moving up north, this time accompanied by my lovely wife, to see two games. The first game was in the Midwest Division of the fairly obscure National Premier Soccer League.

The great sport city of Detroit has not played much role in soccer, but the newly founded Detroit City FC is hoping to change this. They were founded by 5 local residents, who wanted their own club to help build community through soccer. Their inaugural season is played at Cass Tech Stadium, the football stadium of a downtown high school.

It’s a nice and sunny day as we arrive fifteen minutes before kick-off. We park opposite to the stadium and go to the ticket booth in front of the entrance: $5 per person buys us the game and a beautiful ticket. 


 Le Rouge, as DCFC is known among the insiders, has a pretty decent 'shop', i.e. a stand, where they sell various t-shirts, jerseys, and scarves. I am amazed by both the professional gear (sponsored by Nike) and by how many people actually wear the gear. This is undoubtedly helped by the fact that the crowd is very white male middle class (incl. alternatives); amazing in such a multicultural city. 

The opponent is Greater Binghamton FC, which has made the ca. 500 mile (800 km) trip by team bus. Not surprisingly, no away supporters have joined them. The Binghamton team seems to consist mostly of college students. As there are no dug-outs, their reserves, and those of their DCFC counterparts, have to sit on the stand (a novelty for me, as I have never seen that before in my 500+ groundhops).

There are roughly 500 people on this pleasant Saturday afternoon, almost exclusively white, but unlike at most lower division games in the US, there are remarkably few families or mothers with children. These people are really here for the game. Even more remarkable is the group of ca. 200 ultras, a sort of mini-Timbers Army (of the Portland Timbers), who chant and sing during the whole game.

The game is defined by the unfortunate combination of a bumpy pitch (real grass) and poor technique. In the 3rd minute DCFC plays a great through ball, but the Binghamton goalie safes. In the 18th another through ball does meet a cool finish: 1-0 for the home team!

DCFC remains the dominant side and in the 24th minute they attack over the right flank, the GBFC goalie comes out of his goal, but the lob goes in the side net. Two minutes later a DCFC corner leads to a header that is cleared from line by a header of a defender.

The Asian-American referee adopts a British style, and let the game flow, which is nice. Both teams play physical but fair. In the 33rd minute a good effort on the right is followed by a soft low shot that is missed by the Binghamton goalkeeper: 2-0. Six minutes later the visitors go alone at the Detroit goalie, but he saves. The ultras are enjoying themselves, singing “Take me home to Detroit City, where the roads are shit but the girls are pretty” (to the tunes of Guns & Roses). Half time: 2-0.

The second half is messy, in part because high balls have become more difficult because of the strong wind. In the 56th minute a little pass through is finished in a calm and collected manner: 3-0. In the 59th minute Detroit attacks over the right, the ball is brought in but bounces over the striker’s foot.

In the 73rd minute a Binghamton sub almost scores on first contact. Four minutes later Detroit responds: a good attack over right and the cross is finished from 2 meter in the back: 4-0. The ultras, who have been singing all game, show their pride and celebrate their team.

After the 4-0 the visitors are incredibly tame. In the 84th minute an attack over the whole pitch is set up and almost finished by the Detroit captain. Two minutes later a great home counter goes just wide. The full time score is: 4-0.

My first groundhop of 2012 was a very pleasant surprise. While the game itself was mediocre at best, the atmosphere was absolutely great! Seldom have I been so entertained by a US soccer crowd, let alone in the lower divisions, than at Detroit City FC. If the club can reach out beyond its current relatively small and homogeneous crowd, something beautiful could be growing in the Motor City!