Monday, October 05, 2015

Jacksonville Armada FC – Tampa Bay Rowdies (26-09-2015)

M. and I are visiting friends in Jacksonville, in the north of Florida, and combine it with a game of soccer. The Jacksonville Armada FC is a brand new soccer club, founded in 2013, and playing their first season in the North American Soccer League (NASL), the third division in the US, this year. They play their games in the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, also known (after its main sponsor) as Community First Park, a fairly generic US baseball stadium that opened roughly ten years and holds 11.000 people.

As we park near the stadium (at $10!) we already notice that there are quite a lot of people for this Saturday evening game. Mostly younger families with children, including a lot of Hispanic families, quite usual for US soccer games. It is a gorgeous late summer evening, high 80s (roughly 30C) and dry, if humid.

Our friends buy us tickets for the section behind the goal, at a not inconsequential $20 each, which is where the ‘rowdy’ home fans are and next to the away supporters. A good 100 fans had made the 200 miles trip northeast from Tampa, probably the shortest distance in the NASL.

Community First Park is a fairly generic modern minor league baseball stadium, which all seem to use the same bricks and dark green paint for the metal. Baseball stadiums are always a bit odd venues for soccer games, because the shape of the pitch and the stadium are different. Still, there is a very good crowd tonight – the official number is over 7.100, but I doubt more than 5.000 were actually in the stadium. The home team has a small core of fans who drum and sing, but overall most people in the stadium were quite involved in the game – a rarity in baseball stadiums.

The quality of the game is not bad at all. Everything is a bit imprecise and a bit slow, but both teams try to combine and play reasonably attractive soccer. The Armada has roughly as many US as Latin American players with many coming from Argentina and Colombia. As this is Spanish Heritage week, the home team plays in the Spanish colors (red and gold/yellow) and has the Latin American players make Spanish language messages to the many Hispanic fans.

Although the pace is rather slow, the game is entertaining and creates regularly chances and semi-chances, such as shots at goal from outside of the box. For most of the first 30 minutes the Rowdies are the (much) better team, but they don’t finish their chances. As so often in soccer, this is punished, as the Armada scores a nice goal in the 34th minute: 1-0.

The rest of the first half both teams have a number of shots at or close to goal, mostly from reasonably far out. Both goalies make some saves. The fans get really into the game with the away fans out-singing the home fans. Half time score: 1-0.

The second half is very similar to the first. The visitors are again a bit better, in part because they have to press for an equalizer, but it is the hosts that score. Great shot flies in and the fans go wild.

The next 15 minutes, 10 regular and 5 extra time, are entertaining and include several shots and saves, but the final score remains the same: 2-0 for the Jacksonville Armada, which ties them in the standing with their state rivals (incidentally, Fort Lauderdale Strikers are the third Florida team in the current 11-team NASL and Miami FC will join in 2016).

Although I was more distracted by the good company than usual, when I groundhop by myself, I really enjoyed the game and the experience. It is clear that minor league soccer is alive and well in Jacksonville and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this ‘franchise’ move up to the USL and maybe even MLS in the coming years.

Charlotte Independence – New York Red Bull II (05-08-2015)

Soccer is not a very popular sport in the Southeast, with the exception perhaps of the state of Florida, but the bigger cities are trying to develop new franchises that should, one day soon, compete in the top division of US soccer, the MLS. This is the goal of the Charlotte Independence, founded in 2014, which took over the USL Pro (Second Division) franchise of the Charlotte Eagles, which moved to the amateur PDL.

My friend C. and I arrive at the Ramblewood Soccer Complex about 15 minutes before kick-off. It is a generic US soccer complex with several pitches that are used mostly for pay-to-play teams of white middle class Americans. The game is going to be played in a makeshift ‘stadium’ of bleachers. Unbelievable for a Second Division team anywhere. We line up in front of the ‘ticket office’ and get tickets at a very decent $11 each, sitting behind the goal.

It is a sweltering late summer evening and there is a decent crowd. I guestimate some 1000 people, mostly young and white middle class, few with Charlotte Independence jerseys (despite the ‘fan shop’ – see below), many soccer moms and Hispanics. There are ca. 100 kids from amateur soccer team Charlotte United, who will later be celebrated on the pitch at half time. I can find no away fans, which isn’t surprising for the reserve team of an MLS club.

We took our lace on the bleachers and see a fairly furious start of the game. In the 3rd minute the visitors have a good shot, which is met by a safe of the Charlotte goalkeeper. Three minutes later a good shot from the edge of the box is placed in the corner and poor goalkeeping does the rest: 0-1 for New York.

The goal awakens the home team, which has 3 good chances in one minute, ending with a header that goes just wide. In the 20th minute good pressure of Charlotte leads to a shot from 16 meter that also goes just wide. Three minutes later a good chance of the visitors is headed away and the direct counter starts with a long pass, followed by a great run and a lob over the goalkeeper: 1-1.

In the 25th minute a fast counter of New York, with no one in the way, leads to a shot across goal that goes just wide. Some ten minutes later the visitors totally miss a kick out and shoot the ball straight at a home striker, 10 meters out, who misses miserably. This is followed a couple minutes later by a good attack over right by the home side, which is finished weak and goes far wide.

The pitch is really small, as the teams need only 2-3 passes to get from goal to goal. The pace is high, the control pretty good, but the defense is terrible. Half time score: 1-1.

After having circled the pitch at half time, and eaten a bratwurst at a small makeshift stand next to the makeshift stands, I get back to my spot to see the second half start with a semi-serious attack of the hosts, which leads to a pass inside, behind the striker, but the winger strolls in and hits the goal from 10 meters out: 2-1. A surreal goal.

Around the 53rd minute the Charlotte goalie heads the ball out, a defender intercepts and shoots from just outside the mid circle on the goal post! How small is this pitch? Seven minutes later a New York attack leads to a collision in front of the goal and a corner kick. The game gets much slower now, as the heat and humidity are taking their toll. In the 71st minute a lazy attack by the visitors leads to a non-remarkable shot in far corner: 2-2.

Not much happens after that. The pace gets slower and slower and the control poorer and poorer. The audience is starting to leave as the kids have to go to bed. Final score: 2-2.

Charlotte Independence is a new team, so one shouldn’t judge it too harshly. But if this is the franchise that has to get Charlotte an MLS team, they will have to step it up in pretty much all ways possible. The ground is unprofessional, there is virtually no grassroots support, and the people that do come to the stadium are not very involved.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

US Solrézienne - FC Richelle United

As most leagues had already ended, or played all games of the last round on the same date and time (mostly on Saturday), it was not easy to find a game on Sunday. I couldn’t make it to Club Brugge in time, I feared, so I settled for a couple divisions lower, namely a play-off game between the last from the Vierde Klasse (Fourth Division) and the first of the Eerste Provinciale (Fifth Division, regional). Winner was to stay in/be promoted to the Fourth Division, the lowest national division in Belgium.

Union Sportive Solrézienne is a small club from Solre-sur-Sambre (which literally translates as Water-With-Mud), a village of just 2,500 people at the French border. The club’s facility is one of the most modest and run-down I have ever seen, much less developed than my very low-ranked amateur team in the Netherlands had thirty years ago.

As I arrive to the ground, stadium would be too much, I am met by a bus full of drunk and loud away supporters, who brought a "Viva Espagna" drum and a couple of horns. They made the roughly 150 km (90 miles) trip from Visé, above Liege, where FC Richelle United is from.

I pay €7 at the make-shift ticket stand, get a basic ticket (very common in lower division games in Belgium), and walk into the ground. I estimate that there are some 300-400 people, possibly half away fans. It is a very nice day, roughly 21C/70F and sunny. A relaxed atmosphere in this rural setting. There is a little stream on one long side of the pitch, a horse behind one goal, and a forest on the other long side. As far as I can see, there is no police present!

The game starts late, but no one seems to care. It seems like one of the referees is missing. With a delay of ca. 20 minutes the game finally kicks off, with blue playing against blue?! The pitch is very small and has several big sand parts.

The visitors have the first good chance, already in the 2nd minute of the game. In the 10th minute Richelle United plays a high ball in, the goalkeeper hits it away, but the rebound is finished from close up: 0-1.

In the 18th minute a good attack of the hosts leads to a fantastic turned half-volley, which is tipped to a corner by the diving goalkeeper. The low corner is back-heeled, but too soft, so the goalie can pick it up. In the next attack the ball bounces in the box and is half-volleyed hard into the goal from 7 meters: 1-1.

In the 24th minute the visitors have another big chance, but he tries to go around too many players in the box, rather than shoot. In the 33rd minute Richelle has a good attack over left but the cross is missed badly by both the defender and the striker. Half time score: 1-1

The second half starts ferocious. In the 48th minute a big chance for the hosts is saved by the goalkeeper. Two minutes later the visitors volley the ball far over the goal. Then it slow down a bit. In the 63rd minute a Solrézienne corner is headed hard but just over the goal. Overall I rate the quality higher than in the Mulhouse game, but maybe the atmosphere creates different expectations.

In the 79th minute a Solrézienne cross was headed on and completely missed in a bad attempt at a volley from 5 meter. Two minutes later they get another big chance but the goalie saves. The next minute the arrogant, slow, but good captain of the hosts gets alone in front of the goal but the goalie makes an amazingly safe.

As I am watching the game, several people cycle onto the ground, as there are two fully open roads leading into it – one from the town and one from the woods. At one time two tourists cycle into ground and ask me what game is on!

In the last minutes Richelle has two chances but cannot finish. Hence, the final score is 1-1. Extra time! I hadn’t expected this and have to leave, as I have to return my rental car in Paris that evening and it is already 20.30. I later find out that the game went into penalties, which were won 5-6 by FC Richelle United, who will play in the Fourth Division next year.

FC Mulhouse - Saint Etienne II

I drive three hours almost non-stop to cross the 275 km (ca. 170 miles) from Grossaspach, Germany, to Mulhouse, France. As I left the afternoon game early, I arrive almost 30 min before kick-off. It is so quiet around the stadium that I worry that the game starts at 20:00 rather than 18:00.

I buy a ticket for €10 and go into the stadium. The clubhouse is already open and there are some 50 people at that time, almost exclusively men. I enter and get a drink, as I await kick-off. FC Mulhouse has an interesting history. It was founded in 1893 by two Englishmen as Fussball Club Mülhausen, as Mulhouse was then part of Germany.

During the 1980s and 1990s FC Mulhouse played in the French Second Division, but in 1998 they were relegated and the next year they went bankrupt. Since then they have fought their way back to the Championnat de France Amateurs (CFA), the highest amateur league, and officially the Fourth Division of French football. Since 1978 they have played in the Stade de l’Ill, an ugly stadium with two big concrete stands and an athletic track around the pitch. 

It is perfect weather for an early evening game: ca. 20 degrees Celsius (68F), nice and warm in the sun, not too cold in the shade. The game is against the second team of AS Saint Etienne, whose first team plays in the French Ligue 1 (First Division). At kick-off there are some 300-400 people, about two-thirds on the main stand and some 100 on the cheaper opposite stand. While mostly male and white, there are quite a number of ‘immigrants’ as well as four away supporters and one home supporters with a drum.

The game starts slow. In the 7th minute the visitors get a free kick that goes straight at the goalkeeper, who boxes it away in panic. Four minutes later a good Mulhouse attack is saved by the goalie. A minute later the home defense screws up, putting a Saint Etienne striker alone before goal, who lobs the ball over the keeper, but it goes wide.

I am used to a lot, but this is really, REALLY, bad football. The game is slooooow and the ‘control’ and passing are still terrible, even of the Saint Etienne players. The only notable action isa Mulhouse corner that is headed just over the goal. Half time score: 0-0.

Half time takes at least 20 minutes, during which there is absolutely nothing to do. Fortunately it is still sunny. The second half starts furious. In the 48th minute poor build-up by the visitors gives Mulhouse the ball and the cross is volleyed at goal: the goalkeeper gets his hand to it, but it goes through the crossbar into the goal: 1-0.

There is more happening now. In the 53rd minute a striker of the visitors runs at the goal from his own half and is tackled from behind. The defender hits both the ball and the player, but no foul is called. The next minute a Saint Etienne defender is screwing around, loses the ball, but the Mulhouse shot is saved by the goalkeeper. In the 61st minute the ball comes with luck to the Mulhouse striker, as most players think the referee will call a foul, and he takes the ball from 12 meter and shoots it beautifully in the upper corner: 2-0.

In the 69th minute a good counter is set up by a Mulhouse defender, who volleys in extremis just over the goal. The guests have clearly given up by now. One can only hope that the first team of AS Saint Etienne will never have to draw upon any of these players. They are terrible! In the last five minutes they waste two chances. Final score: 2-0.

Sure, it is amateur level, but this notwithstanding, this was really a very disappointing level of football, particularly of the second team of AS Saint Etienne. FC Mulhouse is a great example of faded glory, a club that has seen better days, but is still worth a visit if you are in the neighborhood.