Saturday, August 30, 2014

Charlotte Eagles – Pittsburgh Riverhounds (29-08-2014)

Most lower leagues in the United States play only from June till mid-August. After that there is only the MLS, with just a few teams in this huge country, and the different leagues that try to be the official second division. The USL Pro is the recently renamed top division of the most established league. This not withstanding, the USL Pro is at best semi-pro and many team lack infrastructure and fans.

The Charlotte Eagles play their games at Dickson Field, which is the football stadium of Queens University of Charlotte. It is a beautiful small sports complex for a fairly small university. At the soccer pitch next to the football field are some (mostly Hispanic) youths playing.

I pay $10 for a nice ticket as I walk through the small building to the outside, where there are small bleachers on a hill, then some grass, and only then the pitch. There are some 3-400 people, mostly teens and kids with parents and some local college students. I think I was one of the few over 40 without kids there.

Most people sit on the small bleachers, but many have taken seats and blankets to sit on the lawn. At least 50 kids are just running around and play soccer or ask their parents when the game is over (even though the parents seem to be there for them).

The AstroTurf pitch is quite confusing, with both football and soccer lines, and in a very poor condition. It is not too warm for an August evening in the Southeast. Both teams have mostly non-white players, which are not the usual college kids of lower divisions. 

Still, the play is very mediocre and the pace is slow. There are few chances in the first minutes, as both teams play without much skill or urgency. Charlotte is the better team, but that changes around the 20th minute, when Pittsburgh gets better. 

In the 32th minute they have a free header after a corner, but it goes far wide. Ten minutes later they score a nice, but offside, goal. Half time score is 0-0 and that is a perfect reflection of the game so far.

The second half is much the same. Fortunately, it has cooled down a bot and oit is now a perfect summer evening, so I don’t mind the boring attempt at football at the pitch. Here is a summary of probably the most exciting ten minutes of the game. In the 60th minute Charlotte gets a free kick that goes nowhere. Six minutes later a scrimmage in the box almost leads to a Pittsburgh shot at goal. In the 68th minute Charlotte attack over left, pull the ball back to the penalty spot, but the player misses badly. A minute later a Pitt corner is headed on the crossbar.

In the 75th minute a Pittsburgh corner is unexpectedly headed in from within a large crowd of players: 0-1. This leads to Charlotte actually pressuring and going after a goal, but there is simply too little tactical and technical capability. Final score: 0-1.

To be honest, it is on nights like these that I see groundhopping primarily as collecting scalps, i.e. new stadiums, as the football part of it can be truly uninspiring – and definitely not worth a 6.5 hour drive back and forth. This USL Pro game looked even worse than some PDL game I have seen. 

Thursday, August 07, 2014

FC Carolina Discoveries - Gate City FC (12-07-2014)

At the lower end of the “professional” soccer leagues in the United States the season is very short. Moreover, games are spread over weird periods; for some teams three months, for other five weeks. This all makes it very hard to get to see a game, let alone a game in the Southeast, which is a barren wasteland in terms of decent soccer. This all notwithstanding, I did find a game only some 2 hours away, in Rock Hill, South Carolina! It was the last game of the regular season of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), South Region, South Atlantic Conference (which includes five teams from the two Carolinas).

Although we entered Rock Hill well before kick-off, at 19:00, we arrived a couple of minutes late to the game. The reason was that the game was moved from the usual ground at Manchester Meadows, a classic US soccer complex, to the (American) football stadium of District 3 High School, which actually has a much larger capacity. Not that this was really needed, as there are only some 150 people at the game, including some 25 away fans (which seemed to be almost all linked to the youth team that must have played earlier that day), which had made the ca. 120 miles (200 km) drive south from Greensboro, North Carolina.

We pay $6 each for a nice ticket and find a spot on the, mostly empty, large concrete stand – the smaller stand on the other side of the pitch is closed. The sun is still shining and it’s about 88F/31C with only a slight breeze.

The players look older than the players at the lowest level of the USL, which are mostly college players, who play in the Premier Development League (PDL) during the summer break. The game is played on AstroTurf with the football lines still on it – quite confusing for both the players and viewers.

Gate City FC (GCFC) gets a couple of half decent chances before the Carolina Discoveries goalie hits over the ball and gives the GCFC striker an easy finish in front of an open goal: 0-1. He doesn’t look or play like the real goalie, but rather like a regular player just filling in. In the next 5 minutes the visitors get two more good opportunities but finish weak.

In the 24th minute the home team gets a corner-kick, which is headed back and then headed at the crossbar. Six minutes later a GCFC player lobs the ball over the ‘goalie’ but hits the post –the ‘goalie’ reacts as if the ball is going to go far wide. In the 33th minute the hosts have their first good combination attack, but the GCFC goalie makes a save. Half time: a deserved 1-0 lead for the clearly better visitors.

Five minutes into the second half GCFC gets a penalty: the kick is weak, but the goalkeeper – a new one, who seems to be a real goalie – cannot stop it: 0-2. Three minutes later a terrible mix-up in the GCFC defense brings the hosts back into the game. The goalie kicks over the ball, which seems to be the story of the game, the ball rolls almost over the line, and a Discoveries player kicks it in: 1-2.

In the 64th minute the visitors’ striker is touched from behind in the penalty box, but the referee doesn't give whistle. In the direct counter-attack the home striker goes down at outside of box and does get a penalty kick: 2-2. Asian gambling syndicate anyone?  

This totally changes the game. In the 77th minute the Carolina Discoveries have the best combination attack of the game, but the shot hits the post. Two minutes later another complete screw up in the GCFC defense leaves the ball in front of a Discoveries player, who stands at 5 meters of the goal: 3-2. Four minutes later a badly defended ball is rebounded with a volley that goes over the terrible goalkeeper: 4-2. This is followed by virtually the only decent chance of the visitors, but the half-volley is saved by the (real) goalkeeper. In the 88th minute the game is finished with a Discoveries free-kick that leads to a free header: 5-2.

In the end we saw a crazy game in a very pleasant setting. The football wasn’t particularly good, and there weren’t too many people in the stands, but the weather was nice and the venue promising.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

RJS HL Fleurus – Union St-Gilles (16-03-2014)

Having seen an evening game in St. Gallen, Switzerland, the night before, we had to drive long (a bit over 700 km) to make it to Charleroi, Belgium, the next day to be able to see the afternoon game in the Derde Klasse B (Third Division B). Unfortunately, our car ran into major trouble and when we finally made it to Charleroi, we were unable to find the stadium – no one, including the police, knew where we needed to go. This was not that surprising, as Royale Jeunesse Sporting Heppignies-Lambusart-Fleurus, or RJS HL Fleurus, is one of those many merger-teams in the (lower) Belgian divisions. Sadly, I have to say “was” a team, as 2013-14 turned out to be the last season that RJS HL Fleurus existed. Going back to Etoile Sportive Fleurusienne, which was founded in 1909, it went through three mergers to finally go under in a huge reshuffling of smaller teams in Wallonia.

FC St Gallen – BSC Young Boys (15-03-2014)

It takes us around 2.5 hours to drive the 250 km from Stuttgart to St. Gallen, in part because we are not stopped at the German-Swiss border – the last time T and I tried this, the Swiss border guard inspected our car for almost 30 minutes! We arrive well in time for the game, despite getting lost in St. Gallen.

To be honest, I had never heard of FC St. Gallen before planning this trip. They have never really been a major team in Swiss football, for a long time yo-yo-ing between the first and second divisions. This not withstanding, they were founded in 1879, which makes them the oldest existing team in Switzerland and, according to Wikipedia, continental Europe!

Today FC St. Gallen plays in the Swiss Super League, the country’s First Division. Its home is the AFG Arena, a beautiful modern stadium, completed in 2008. It has a capacity of 19,694 and currently doubles as home for FC Wil, a team from the Swiss Challenge League (Second Division), which is building a new stadium to meet the Swiss Football League’s standards.

The stadium is situated above a shopping mall. We park in the parking garage under the mall and walk through the largely closed but clean shopping mall to the stadium. Welcome to football in the 21st century! At the surprisingly makeshift ticket office we buy tickets for the standing-only home section behind the goal. The tickets cost 25 CHF ( 20.50) a piece, which isn’t too bad for a top division game in a comfortable stadium in a very expensive country.

We walk past the ‘ultras’ of the home team as we make our way up the stairs. The stadium is quite full and had a good, organized, atmosphere for a Swiss game. While I estimate that there are some 6,000 people in the stadium – almost exclusively white and (upper) middle class – they later announce that the official attendance is 13,157, which seems a wild exaggeration. A quite decent number of fans, some 300, have made the 200 km trip from Berne to support their Young Boys (YB), one of the most successful clubs in Swiss football.

The game is not overly exciting even though the quality is pretty decent. The plays are technically competent and the teams play tactically quite well. The pace isn’t too high though and creativity is rare. The first chance is only in the 20th minute: a header for FC St. Gallen. Two minutes later a home player is lucky to get the ball and shoots at the YB goalie.

In the 24th minute YB gets a corner. The goalie saves the shot but the rebound header finds the net: 0-1. Just two minutes later a FC St. Gallen player breaks through, gets around the goalie, and scores: 1-1. Looks like we are having a game now!

YB responds by creating two good chances, but both shots are saved by the FC St. Gallen goalie. Over all the football is pretty decent: YB is better, but FSG works harder. Half time score is 1-1.

The second half is much less impressive. The quality of the game drops dramatically. YB defends very deep, hardly tries to play, while FSG dominates but doesn’t create any real chances. This notwithstanding, the home fans continue their singing of largely unoriginal songs.

When a YB forward makes two nasty fouls within 5 minutes he gets two yellows (and therefore red) and has to leave. This gives the fans some hope, but the game doesn't really change much. FSG just doesn't have enough quality to score. Final score: 1-1.

In many ways this was a very modern football experience. A modern stadium integrated in a shopping mall with significant comfort and well-behaved affluent fans. At the same time, the atmosphere was surprisingly good for a small Swiss team.

Stuttgarter Kickers - Chemnitzer FC (15-03-2104)

  After a leisurely drive from Dijon, France, we make it with more than enough time to our next destination, Stuttgart. Both T. and I have visited the big club VfB Stuttgart before, so we are here to see the little brother, the Stuttgarter Kickers. The Kickers are one of the older teams in Europe, founded in 1899 as Stuttgarter Cickers. I have always had a weakness for them, going back to the early 1980s, when their beautiful white jerseys had vertical light-blue stripes and Südmilch as their shirt sponsor.

The Kickers play in the Waldau-Stadion, which for sponsor-purposes is called GAZi Stadion an der Waldau. It’s an old stadium, opened in 1905, which has seen various renovations throughout its 110 years of existence. It holds 11,410 people, of which a mere 1,311 can sit. In other words, a nice old-school German stadium. It is currently the home of two football teams, Stuttgarter Kickers and VfB Stuttgart II, which both play in the 3. Bundesliga (Germany’s Third Division), and the Stuttgart Scorpions, an American football team.

After we have been joined by my friend M., with whom I have made many groundhops before we both moved abroad, we pay €10, sample some of the excellent stadium snacks (sausages and other chunks of meats), and take our place on the standing-only stand.

As quite often at second or third clubs in a city, the supporters are mostly old men, who know each other and have been coming to the club for years. As is usual with German teams, the fans bring flags and passionately sing their club song before kick-off.

I estimate that there are some 3,500 people in the stadium, including some 300 from Chemnitz (known as Karl-Marx-Stadt between 1953 and 1990), some 435 km to the East. As almost always when the visitors are from East Germany, there is a large and very active police presence at the game.

It took more than ten minutes for the first shot at goal, which came from the home team. However, in the 16th minute a Chemnitz shot ricochets and goes over the goalie: 0-1. Less than ten minutes it gets even worse for the Stuttgarter, as a nice combination attack is finished with a strong low shot: 0-2.

This finally gets the home team moving and five minutes before half time they have a good header, which is saved by the Chemnitz goalie. Two minutes later a good attack but the striker slides the ball from 7 meter at least 10 meter over the goal. Half time: 0-2.

The second half doesn’t bring much better play for the home team. The fans around us complain and increasingly talk about games between other teams or better times of the Kickers.

In the 60th minute the Kickers get a free kick but it is headed straight at the goalie.  Three minutes before the end the guest counter attack and score: 0-3, also the final score. As the East Germans celebrate, the locals complain rather stoically. They have been through a lot, during the past decades. We leave quickly, as we have another game that day, but look back at an old-fashioned genuine football experience, which unfortunately has become increasingly rare in today’s world of commercialized football.