Sunday, December 19, 2021

Portland Timbers FC – New York City FC (11-12-2021)


I have been a Portland Timbers fan since I moved to the US, in 2008, watching my first games when the team was still in the USL (Second Division), but already playing for many thousands of fans. I flew to the Timbers' first ever MLS game in Denver, flew in for the first derby against the Seattle Sounders in the MLS, and drove to the first MLS Cup Final they were in, and won, in Columbus. So, when the Timbers qualified for the MLS Cup Final, to play at home, I was desperate to get a ticket. Although I failed, my friend, and Timbers mega-fan IM, was successful in getting an extra ticket. So, I plundered my frequent flyer points and was on my way from Athens, GA, to Portland, OR (roughly 2,700 miles or 4,300 km).


The game started at noon, local time, and around 10 AM there was a loud group of most of the present New York City FC fans walking to the stadium from the city center. I arrived around 10.30 and could barely recognize the ground or area around it.


The last time I was here, it was still called Jeld-Wen Field and had some 10,000 seats less. Providence Park has 25,000 seats (?) and is a beautiful ground in the heart of Portland, truly Soccer City USA. After a 15-minute or so of cueing, they scanned my electronic ticket (which had cost $110), and I was in.


This might be the time to mention that the weather was absolutely terrible, even by Portland standards. It was cold, grey, wet, and windy. Moreover, my seat was uncovered! After walking around the stadium to find some food – poor options for insane prices – I met up with IM and took my seat with some of his friends. The rain was unrelenting, but fortunately the wind didn’t make it into the section of the stadium that I was in. In terms of view, the seat was quite good, in the corner behind one goal, quite close to the pitch.


Obviously, the stadium was sold-out, although NYCFC had not sold all of its 2,500 allocated tickets – despite allegedly subsidizing the tickets for its fans. I would estimate that there were at best 1,500 away supporters. Sure, New York City is literally on the other side of the (huge) country, but this would have never happened if Portland would have played the MLS Cup final in New York. Says a lot about the fan base of NYCFC, a truly corporate enterprise, co-owned by (the owners of) the New York Yankees and Manchester City.


The atmosphere was electric, despite the horrible weather. As always, the Timbers Army brought the songs and tifo, as many other parts of the stadiums joined in the singing as well. To be fair, the NYCFC supporters sang for most of the game as well. Overall, Providence Park is loud, really loud. It is an almost un-American, genuine football, atmosphere, which can hold its own with almost any other stadium I have been too.


Unfortunately, the game could not. Playing on a wet Astroturf pitch didn’t help either. From the start it was a combination of poor passes and pinball football, with NYCFC having the somewhat better of the game. Neither team was really better than the other, but Portland played too slow and predictable, and the strikers were almost invisible. NYCFC has tall defenders, who had few problems heading the high balls away.


As half-time was getting close, I was absolutely soaked, despite my “rain jacket”, and getting colder and colder. And then, out of nowhere, NYCFC scores in one of the few balls at goal. Almost directly it is half-time and the stadium went silent, with the exception of the away fans, at least for half time.


The second half was dreadful. The Timbers tried to create chances, but everything was too predictable and slow. The many changes helped a bit, with at least Moreno making some moves, but most final balls were high into the box, where NYCFC had a serious height advantage. If the Timbers won three headers up front, it was be a lot.


Where Portland could not, NYCFC did not want to. They just tried to get to the end of the game by wasting times, rolling around after the slightest of physical contact. The referee let a lot of things go, but he only started to punish this behavior late in the game, giving several yellow cards. When the referee indicated 4 minutes of extra time, I mainly saw it as four more minutes of suffering through terrible football and cold- and wetness. But, with almost the last shot of the game, out of nowhere, a loose ball was tipped in from close range, and the Timbers equalized in the fourth minute of extra time. Providence Park exploded and I experienced one of the most intensely emotional moments in my 50+ years of football fandom. 1-1 was also the full-time score: extra time!


After a short break, extra time started. The first fifteen minutes were completely dominated by the Timbers, who played their best football of the game (not a high bar admittedly), while New York was still dazed by the late equalizer. The Timbers created some chances, and even a few balls between the posts, but there were no goals. In the second period of extra time, the guests had come out of their shock and played slightly better, although both teams took few risks. Hence, it was still 1-1 after extra time. Time for penalties.


After 120 minutes of football, one of the most amazing things was that only a handful of people had left the stadium, despite the cold and wet weather and the uninspiring play by the home team. I am not sure how optimistic the home crowd was, but that optimism disappeared quickly, as the Timbers missed their first penalty. Although the guests missed shortly after, the hosts did too, which meant that when New York City FC scored their fifth penalty, it was all over. NYCFC had won the 2021 MLS Cup 2-4 on penalties and it was not totally undeserved.


As soon as the final whistle was blown, I left the stadium, with pretty much everyone else (except the NYCFC fans), and walked with IM and his friends to the Timbers Army “after party”, where most people were quiet but resigned. After a quick visit to the Fan Laden, I made my way back to my hotel to warm up.



As I flew back to Atlanta the next (very early) morning, I was disappointed but did not regret my decision to fly to Portland. Sure, it was an extremely expensive defeat, but I had been at the first home MLS Cup Final of the Timbers and experienced the enlarged stadium is all its glory. Providence Park is truly a unique US football stadium and the atmosphere will even impress hardened fans and groundhoppers from more traditional football countries. Portland is and remains Soccer City USA!

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Nashville SC - Orlando City FC (23-11-2021)



My last groundhop of 2021, a pretty decent recovery year after the dramatic year 2020, the first year in which I didn’t see a game since I was a kid, takes me to Nashville, Tennessee. This is a solid 5 hour drive from my home in Athens, Georgia, and on a Tuesday too – but fortunately the next day Thanksgiving break started, so I could stay the night.



Nashville SC is one of the newest clubs (or as it is called in the US, “franchises”) in Major League Soccer (MLS), having joined the top division in US “soccer” only in 2020. In their second season, they again made the play-offs. They play in the Nissan Stadium, a massive, uncovered ground with a capacity of 69.143, which is the home ground of the Tennessee Titans (American) football team. Next season they will play in a brand-new soccer-only ground of 30,000.


Nashville SC normally only uses the lower part of the stadium, except for corners (which are not used), which is sold out for this game. There are also a few hundred fans on the upper tier. Official attendance is 26,043, which is a very solid number, even if it doesn’t looks so impressive in such an enormous stadium. The audience is quite mixed. There are a lot of Hispanics but few African Americans. Many people wear Nashville gear, particularly scarves, as it is a cold evening. There are a few hundred away supporters, who are either local or made the almost 700 mile (1120 km) track from Central Florida.


I have paid my ticket online, as is increasingly the only way in the US. So, no real ticket. I paid $53 for the seat but with taxes and various “services” that came to $71.50. Add to that $25 parking and it was, yet again, a ridiculously expensive experience. In the US, “soccer” is really made for the (upper) middle class. Still, the view from my seat is pretty nice.


The game starts fairly pedestrian. In the 13th minute a  poor pass back leads to a break for Orlando City and a corner. That corner is headed in childishly easy: 0-1. Just eight minutes later a Nashville striker gets the ball by accident and his shot from just outside of the box is deflected: 1-1.


Nashville has more possession but plays slow and predictable. The passing is either too soft or too poor. They create few chances. Orlando City does very little overall, mainly tries to counter. In the 41st minute the home team has a good attack that leads to a sneaky shot in the corner and the rebound is scored but it is offside.



The last few minutes of the first half have a little bit of action. In the 44th minute an Orland counter leads to two poor goal attempts. And in the first minute of extra time the hosts have a remarkable attack with two cheeky heels and then a decent volley (but it is too soft and goes wide). Half time score: 1-1.



The game does not get much better in the second half. In the 58th minute a couple of hard Orlando shots from outside of box are blocked and wide. But in the 74th minute, after a long period of domination by  the guests, a slow Nashville attack by a striker is finished low in far corner: 2-1! A reward for the home fans behind the goal, who have been singing all game.


In the 4th minute of extra time, as I’m lost in the parking lot, looking for my car, Nashville secures its spot in the quarter finals of the MLS Cup play-offs. While this wasn’t the best game, and the Nissan Stadium was not the best setting, I will definitely come back in the future, to experience Nashville SC in its new ground. Clearly, the city has embraced its team and the atmosphere is pretty good.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Stumptown AC - New Amsterdam FC (25-09-2021)

Today I’m at a game in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), which is officially the third tier of US soccer, but more like Fifth or Sixth Division, depending h0w and hwo you count. Anyway, it is one of the few lower leagues that still play in the Fall and has some teams "in the region".

The home team is Stumptown AC, which plays at the Matthews Sportplex in Matthews, NC, a wealthy suburb of Charlotte. The opponents are New Amsterdam FC from New York. The Sportsplex is a massive complex of soccer pitches and the game is in the “Stadium”, which consists of (metal) seats on both long sides and behind one goal. Behind the other goal is the official building.

I pay $15 for a ticket and actually get a physical ticket, which is also for this specific game. Amazing! I guesstimate that there are some 150 people, about one third children. The crowd is amazingly diverse with many Asians and Hispanics. There is a small group of some 15 “ultras” with a couple of drums.

The diversity is also visible on the pitch. Not only are both squads very diverse, so is the team of referees. And the main referee is a woman of color, which I have only seen once before (also in the US).

The game is played on very dry artificial grass, which doesn’t look too good but is very even. The game starts fairly pedestrian. Only in the 11th minute Stumptown has the first shot at goal. The corner leads to a rebound that is semi-volleyed from just outside the box, which the goalie cannot/does not stop: 1-0. The ultras celebrate with smoke.

It’s a reasonably cold evening (15C), but perfect for playing soccer. This not withstanding, the pace is low. At one time, the New Amsterdam goalie is chased by a Stumptown striker and drags the ball behind his leg to create space, just 5 meters in front of his own goal, staying ice cold while doing it. One of the few highlights of the game.

Overall, the first half is very poor, with virtually no chances on either side. For all his shouting, I don‘t think the Stumptown goalie needed to make one safe.

The second half is also really bad. In the 60th minute a New Amsterdam corner is missed by the (loud) Stumptown goalie but the ball falls to a striker surrounded by people. After that blunder, his first action of the night, the goalie plays injured for a few minutes.

Later, there is an injury for a New Amsterdam defender. He stays on the ground for minutes as the Stumptown attacks continue. He waves and later stands up and limps towards the referee — he could have rolled off the pitch and received help. After that, game is stopped for almost 10 minutes during which the referee has a long discussion with the New Amsterdam coach (no cards). I've never seen something like this.

Even the ultras have started to just talk rather than watch the game. Knowing that there will be a lot of extra time, yet preciously little football, I leave 5 minutes early. Final score remains 1-0.

As so many soccer leagues in the US, the NISA offers a lot of different soccer experiences. Teams like Chattannooga FC or Detroit FC have serious support and offer pretty good atmosphere. Teams like Stumptown AC, not so much.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

KR – FH (08-08-2021)

The second game of the day takes is roughly a 15 minute drive from Vikingur, towards the center. Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur (KR) is the oldest club from Iceland and is from the Vesturbær district of the capital. It plays its games in the KR-völlur, a football stadium in that holds about 2,700 people (1,541 seated) and is located at Kaplaskjólsvegur in West Reykjavík. This is also a game in the Úrvalsdeild karla, the highest division for men in Iceland.



I meet my Icelandic colleague again, who comes to support his team (FH), and has not just bought a ticket online for me, but also arranged a physical ticket. KR-völlur has one old-school English type stand, with covered seats, which is pretty full. I guesstimate some 500 ppl, including some 100 away supporters. Again, several mothers with babies and prams but this time also groups of teenage girls (also among away supporters).


In the 5th minute KR has an enormous chance, but it is shot high over from 5 meters. The next minute FH heads the ball just over. In the 8th minute a corner for the guests is headed in by the striker who completely outjumps everyone: 0-1


Just as happened when I saw FH in the previous game, they give the ball away in the back, without any pressure, and with a cross and a tip-in KR has equalized: 1-1. After about 20 minutes the pace goes down and everyone is just strolling around with at times a foul. Then, in the 37th minute, out of nowhere, a good opening by KR over left, a cross in, and a header just wide. Followed by a decent FH attack that ends with a shot wide over the goal. Half time score: 1-1.


Like in all other stadiums in Iceland, no food or drink in the stadiums (because of covid-19) and no club shop. Nothing… which makes the 15 minutes break long and boring.


The second half is again very poor. Slow, little creativity, long pauses, bad passes. In the 68th minute a FH player gets a second yellow card and therefore a red card. Somehow, I totally miss this and only find out at the end of the game when my colleague tells me. KR has been a bit better but nothing indicated that they were playing 10 men.


Only in the last few minutes does KR finally seem to get more urgent, but the pressure creates little chances. Hence, 1-1 is the final score and KR loses two points in its fight for European (qualifier) football next season.


While the game was quite poor, the atmosphere was pretty good. Also because of the almost 100 away supporters. KR should definitely be on your groundhopping list in Iceland.

Vikingur – KA (08-08-2021)


On Sunday I attempt a double hop in the city of Reykjavik, visiting two of the biggest and oldest clubs in the country. Knattspyrnufélagið Víkingur, commonly referred to as Víkingur or Víkingur Reykjavík, and internationally known as Vikingur FC, is based in the Fossvogur neighbourhood of Reykjavík. It is one of the oldest sports clubs in Iceland, founded in 1908, and plays in the Úrvalsdeild karla, commercially known as Pepsi deild karla, the highest division for men in Iceland.


They play their games in the Vikingsvöllur, which has a capacity of 2,000, including 1,450 covered and seated. The stadium is located at 'Traðarland' in Fossvogsdalur, south-east of the city center, in a residential area. I arrive 20 minutes before kick-off but can still easily park opposite to the stadium – most fans seem to arrive by foot from the neighborhood.


From the road you cannot really see the pitch as it is behind a building through which you enter. I pay ISK 2000 (~$16) and ask for a ticket. After some hesitation, the young woman gives me a generic one (yes!). Once you go through the building you enter the ground, which is really cute. They have one rather big, covered stand. Before kick-off, music is played and there is a real (small club) football atmosphere. Many people know and greet each other.


The main stand is pretty full, I guesstimate some 500-600 people. The fans are all over the place in terms of age and gender, though mostly men. There are a lot of kids and even some women with babies (and prams). There are some 50 supporters of Knattspyrnufélag Akureyrar (KA), mostly middle-aged men, who either live in the capitol or have made the ca. 4.5-hour drive from Akureyri, the capitol of the Northern Region. The pitch is artificial grass, which is being sprayed through built-in sprayers just before kick-off.


The first shot on goal is by Vikingur, in the second minutes, and goes just over. In the 8th minute, after pressure, a Vikingur player walks into the box and shoots dry and low in the far corner: 1-0. Another explosive start.


Vikingur is much better in the first part of the game and in the 16th minute another attack ends with a hard shot that is save by the goalkeeper. Only in the 21st minute does KA have its first good chance, which forces the home goalie to a good save. But from the consequent corner they somewhat surprisingly score: 1-1.


There are some soft chances on both sides, but there is no pace or sense of urgency. Vikingur are 1-1 at home and should be slaughtering KA, but everything is so predictable. Consequently, the game shifts and KA now has the better (half) chances. But then, just before half-time, out of nowhere, Vikingur has a calm attack and an excellent cross from the right is headed in: 2-1 In extra time a long pass by KA comes to the goalie, who shouts for it, and the. shoots it at KA attacker. Fortunately for him, the ball ricochets wide. Half time score is 2-1.


During the break the sun comes out and it is so warm that I it is pleasant to sit just in a t-shirt. I think this is the first time in Iceland I can do this for more than 2 minutes. Amazing! To be clear, it is probably only 19C and quite windy.


The first chance of the second half is for the visitors, in the 51st minute. Almost 10 minutes later a nice long KA attack is crossed from left to right, then volleyed in, and shot over. I leave in the 70th minute, to get to my evening game, and later hear that KA scored and the game ended 2-2. A loss of two important points for the championship for Vikingur, who could and should have won (easily).


Still, as a groundhop destination, Vikingur should be high on your list in Reykjavik. It is really a local club with a nice atmosphere.