By Paul Gardner
The worst has happened, we are now deprived of World Cup soccer. The European leagues haven’t started yet, and all we’re going to get for the next few weeks is, basically, MLS.
Yikes! Can you imagine? No more of the magnificent Super-S teams -- come on, you remember them, the ones you canceled everything to watch: Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Switzerland, wowee! were those guys exciting or what? Gone are the dynamic skills of England, Italy and France. Will life be worth living without the comforting thought that a game featuring the artistry of Australia or the full majesty of New Zealand is coming up shortly?
Difficult times confront us, I’d say. Or at least they confront the Eurosnobs. What on earth will those guys do? Well, they have a half-chance for temporary salvation, because we’re being invaded by a whole bunch of their favorite teams. I’m not sure how a Eurosnob deals with an exhibition game that features his favorite team against, gasp!, an MLS team. Maybe he simply shuts his eyes every time the Americans get the ball?
Manchester United have blessed us with their legendary presence, bringing with them, I learn, their superstars -- Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher. I watched them beat Glasgow Celtic 3-1. Sorry, snobbos, this was not great stuff.
Though there was one triumph for the anti-snob brigade (of which I have appointed myself a spokesperson) and that was that ESPN has discovered the word soccer, and will be giving us a Summer Soccer Series. Football is out it seems, gone with the World Cup.
The ManU vs. Celtic game had nothing in particular to offer, neither good nor bad. Though it was encouraging to notice a lot of empty seats, meaning that Toronto soccer fans are evidently not quite as easily separated from their money as the promoters thought. ManU became increasingly unrecognizable as the game went on, swamping the field with young subs. Celtic was unrecognizable from the start. A snobby game at snobby prices.
Celtic went on to play in Seattle. Against the Sounders -- an MLS team in an MLS stadium in an MLS atmosphere. Sorry again, snobbos -- Seattle was the better team, even though it played a good part of the game with 10 men (more about that in a moment). Most of the good soccer came from the Sounders, and they produced a thoroughly enjoyable game. Yep, I would have paid to watch this -- paid for what the Sounders dished up; Celtic was simply living proof of a great club that has seen better days, a reflection of how far Scottish soccer has fallen.
I also watched the San Jose Earthquakes take on Tottenham Hotspur. MLS vs EPL. No contest, of course. EPL must win, big. Well Spurs did not win. San Jose was the livelier team, playing some really good soccer at times, with Arturo Alvarez the outstanding player. It finished 0-0 (that’s nil-nil in Eurosnobbese), but it was one of those rare 0-0 games that enthrall.
Of course, of course, there were excuses to be made for the Brit teams. All that traveling, all that heat, all that not-having-played-lately, all that trying-out-young-players and so on (and, yes, at these prices, I do have a problem with putting teams on the field that bare little resemblance to the full starting team).
But it was sad to hear those excuses made, forcefully and repeatedly, by the ESPN commentators, who seemed to know more about the Brit teams than the MLS teams -- or, at any rate, were determined to let us know how widely knowledgeable they are.
The biggest disappointment here was the “surprise guest” in the booth at the beginning of the Seattle game - goalkeeper Kasey Keller. Keller made sense, on the whole, until he started in on the Jabulani ball when he disintegrated into total blather. .. “Worst ball I’ve ever played with ... If I hit a ball I want to know where it’s going to go, with this ball you have no idea what it’s going to do ...” ending up with the usual pathetic whine that “they” are trying to make goalkeepers look silly.” Not necessary Kasey, you guys do the job beautifully yourselves. A ball as willfully unpredictable as Kasey describes would make it quite impossible to play the sport. So let’s stop this nonsense.
That is merely silly. Far worse was Kyle Martino, on the same telecast, commenting on the red card given to Keller’s replacement, Terry Boss. Referee Paul Ward can be faulted, perhaps, for whistling too quickly, because Celtic’s Georgios Samaras, though clearly fouled by Boss, did eventually get the ball in the net.
Should Ward have played the advantage rule? It was once spelled out for me, in no uncertain terms, by FIFA referee Ken Aston, that a referee should never play the advantage in the penalty area.
So Ward got it right. A penalty kick and a red card to Boss for denying an “obvious goal scoring opportunity.” Martino’s point, that no one wanted to see an 11 vs. 10 game, is of course valid, as it always is when someone is red-carded. I’ve written about exactly this several times over the years -- and have made it clear that I believe the rules people should allow a red-carded player to be replaced -- but, obviously, with further punishment for the offending team.
But the rules right now are clear -- the player goes off, the team plays with 10 men. Yet here is Martino suggesting that Celtic and Seattle should have got together before the game to subvert the rules to ensure that the game remained 11 vs. 11: “I’d be surprised if they didn’t try to figure out some sort of agreement to get 11 men out there.”
Mind boggling. Such an “agreement” could only be implemented with the cooperation -- collusion is probably the correct word -- of the referee. So Paul Ward should have been asked to betray his commitment to calling an honest game? And who is going to ask him to do that?
The Eurosnobs can laugh, if they feel like it, at that bit of American “analysis” -- but I can assure them that it was no worse than several examples of ignorance displayed by the wonder-Brits brought in by ESPN to do the World Cup.
So, my snobbo friends, this was not a good week for you. Your teams looked mediocre, even when they put their best available players on the field. Against them the San Jose Earthquakes and the Seattle Sounders played the better soccer.
By the same yardstick, this was a good weekend for MLS, and not only for their performances against the Brit teams. Sunday’s game between D.C. United and the L.A. Galaxy had plenty of good highly competitive soccer to offer.
Even so, I was a bit disappointed with this game -- not because it compared poorly with the snobbo teams. But because it didn’t measure up to MLS standards. D.C. United, sadly, is no longer the class act it was back in the early MLS days, and with Landon Donovan on the field the Galaxy really ought to be capable of playing a more skillful version of the sport.