Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

Archive for the ‘Soccer’ Category

More than One United: A Call to Arms for MLS

In Soccer on July 27, 2011 at 1:25 PM

I love soccer.

I love United.

There is only one United.

I love the Premiership.

And I love Major League Soccer.

I mean that sincerely.  I really do.

Those jokes, about MLS goals being “touchdowns” and MLS fans not speaking English are old, tired—and inapplicable. MLS matches drew on average 17,000 fans in 2010, a number that will increase substantially this season because of new facilities and perpetually-sold out expansion teams in Vancouver and Portland. The enthusiasm of those Pacific Northwest MLS crowds is incredible—35,000 a game, all in colors, singing, chanting and waving scarves.  Traveling en masse to away games.  Those games look and sound like Premier League or Bundesliga matches, except for the accent.

And remember—this is all happening in two cities where the NBA failed (Seattle and Vancouver).

MLS TV ratings are steady, if not overwhelming, despite being filler programming on ESPN2 on the worst night of television: Fridays. (Imagine how much better it could be if ESPN put more of its marketing machine behind the league.) Yet it feels like there’s a stigma against MLS: You have to have a European team as your favorite to be considered a “real” soccer fan.

Which frankly is (expletive deleted). We as American soccer fans should be humiliated.

For decades, in the pre-Internet era, we were starved for more than the skimpy (at best) coverage of European and Latin American leagues.  Our lack of knowledge, stemming from no domestic league, was severe.

But we endured.  We grew to love the game despite the traditional powers thumbing their noses at an “American soccer fan.”  The 1994 World Cup on American soil converted many of us, including me.

And now, when we have a viable, entertaining domestic league with compelling, American superstar players—we meekly re-colonialize our soccer passions.

Why can’t someone be accepted as a genuinely knowledgeable soccer fan—and have MLS be the league he follows? When someone asks you who your favorite soccer team is, you should say with pride: “DC United!” or “LA Galaxy!” or whatever MLS team is your favorite. And if the person starts to snicker at that response, you should say, uhm, something that rhymes with “duck shoe.”

We should be proud of our league.  MLS has been a godsend to us American soccer fans by bringing the game home.  Our steadily-improving national team is now almost exclusively trained by MLS clubs, though stars may parlay national team success into more lucrative stints in Europe. I’d argue that the quality of play in the MLS would make it the fifth or sixth best league in Europe, top-to-bottom.  Sure, England, Spain, Germany and Italy are far better, but I’d argue MLS is close in quality to the French Ligue 1. None of the other European leagues come close.  The leagues in Scotland, Portugal, Holland and Turkey are too top heavy; Russian teams benefit from the weather too much.

And we are attracting talent, players that want to come to play here not because of the paycheck, but because of the quality of play.  Say what you want about David Beckham coming here at the “end” of his career—Los Angeles revived his career in less than two years, with no less a suitor than AC Milan trying to get him back to Europe afterward. Thierry Henry left Barcelona for New York with plenty of miles left; surely any number of top-flight European teams could have signed him for more than what New York offered.

We at Perfecting the Upset are as much to blame for this neo-colonialization as anyone else: If you look at our Allegiances, you’ll notice that under soccer, there are no MLS teams represented. [Ed: Prior to this article, there were two MLS teams in the “Additional Allegiances” column, however.]  Yes, I know that next to my name is a Manchester United logo—and proudly does it reside there. But I was a United fan before MLS was born; World Cup 1994 made me a soccer fan, then my RSN made me a United fan in the same year by showing them every week until MLS started. Plus, I lived in England for most of my career, where my love for United was integrated with access to Old Trafford.

But I must confess that when I joined Perfecting the Upset, I didn’t even ask our esteemed editor Rahat to put a DC United logo on my allegiances.

(In fairness, part of the reason was that I didn’t want the extra workload.  But in a way, that proves my point, too.)

It’s time for us American soccer fans to be proud of our league.  We should proudly say that we watch MLS, and that we support our MLS clubs wholeheartedly.

I’ll go first: Please add DC United to my Allegiances.

There is are only one two United(s).

[Ed: MLS fans are also encouraged to check out Bradley Freedman’s “That Sounds a Bit Dodgy” on MLS importing announcers.]

Nadeshiko and the Power of Healing

In Japan, Loyalty, Soccer on July 20, 2011 at 7:00 AM

It’s ten past five o’clock in the evening of July 17th, 2011. The bar is completely silent except for one voice… My own. In New York City—the one place in the U.S. with a sizable contingency of faithful soccer followers—and I’m the only one cheering for Japan over the red, white and blue in the Women’s World Cup Final. The “short little ladies,” as the Japanese coach called them, of the Nadeshiko Japan has just pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports.

Going into the game, the sentimental value on Japan’s part was well publicized and documented due to the tragedy of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster in northern Japan. Many of those affected by the calamity are still living in shelters, and in a nation like Japan with its homogeneous society, the tragedy has truly united the country. Men and women. Young and old. Soccer fans and baseball fans. For this reason, and not because they were such heavy underdogs, Japan was easily the sentimental favorite for anyone outside of the U.S.

There was no doubt that the U.S. played better overall and should have won the game. The first thirty minutes put supporters of the Japanese in constant fits of agony. Every five minutes, it seemed like the U.S. was on a break, threatening the Japanese goalie, only to see the ball somehow go wide or hit the post. The more the U.S. threatened, the more Japan escaped without conceding a goal, the more I began to wonder if I was about to witness one of those magical sports moments. Even when the U.S. went ahead 1-0, then 2-1, I had a feeling Japan was somehow going to come back. It was one of those inexplicable moments where the weight of a catastrophic tragedy propels the game to a whole new level of drama, inspiration and magic. In such moments of pure emotion and adrenaline, better talent and performance doesn’t always equate to victory. And when element of perseverance in the face of tragedy is associated with the underdog team, the story often seems to end in a fairytale fashion: A perfect upset. Japan, while clearly being dominated for much of the game, scored their first goal off a lucky bounce that resulted from a clearing miss by the usually reliable Ali Krieger. Their second goal came off a corner kick where Homare Sawa somehow, almost magically flicked the ball off the right side of her foot from a spot where math would deny her an appropriate angle. Two unbelievably fortuitous goals that were in stark contrast to the beautifully crafted goals by Alex Morgan and Abby Wombach. How did this happen? While religion lies low on my mind, do I dare call it divine intervention? There’s just no other way to explain how Japan won a game where they didn’t have possession, typically their area of strength, were outclassed at almost every position and went up against Hope Solo in penalty kicks with a very shaky goalkeeper on their side. Studio heads take note: Hollywood couldn’t have scripted this any better.

Whether it was sheer luck or divine intervention, it was yet another reminder of the power of sports and its healing power. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t directly affected by the tragedy in Japan. But knowing that my own father, who never sacrifices sleep in order to catch a game on television, woke up at 3:30am Japan time on a Monday to watch this game, I know how much this game meant to him, how much this game inspired him and how much he wanted to be inspired by this game. There is no doubt there were more cheers and tears at dawn across the country on Monday than any other moment in its sports history. Consider what the Saints winning the Super Bowl meant for New Orleans, even five years after Katrina. Now, make that an entire nation and only four months after a tragedy of much bigger magnitude. The degree to which this victory has both inspired and healed the country cannot be stated in mere words.

Finally, I leave you with the meaning of Nadeshiko, the nickname of the Japanese women’s team: While the literal translation is “pink dianthus flower,” which is known to be very tough and resilient, the term-in-use actually comes from the phrase Yamato Nadeshiko, which signifies “ideal Japanese women with grace and beauty.” Japan not only won the World Cup, but also received the FIFA Fair Play Award, a recognition fitting for Nadeshiko, especially for their graceful, technical style of play. Even an average Japanese soccer fan can’t even name more than a few players on this team, much less know that there’s a women’s league in Japan. But these previously unknown “short little ladies” of Japan are now standing taller than ever, and for many days, months and years to come, will forever be revered as heroes in the Land of the Rising Sun.

A Goodbye to Scholes and the Youth of United

In England, Soccer on July 19, 2011 at 7:00 AM

When Paul Scholes first joined Manchester United’s youth academy at the age of 14, the trainers had concerns about his size and were hoping for a growth spurt.

A couple of decades, 676 United first-team appearances and 150 goals later, United’s trainers are still wondering about that growth spurt.

Both Real Madrid/France star Zinedine Zidane and current Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola are known to have credited Scholes as the greatest midfielder of his generation.

Every United fan has a favorite Scholes moment, whether for United or England.  For me, it was the way that Scholes elevated his game whenever the United fixtures list said “Liverpool,” “Manchester City,” “Arsenal” or “Aston Villa.”

He terrorized the opponents that United fans love to see terrorized.  His 30-yard volley against Villa in 2006 is still a YouTube favorite.   He terrorized Argentina star Ariel Ortega at the 2002 World Cup, playing for England, earning man of the match honors.

His retirement, coupled with that of Gary Neville earlier this season, leaves just Ryan Giggs in the United squad from that fabled Class of 1992: Gary’s brother Phil is still at Everton (if only just), Nicky Butt ended his career as a Newcastle United loanee to Birmingham City five years ago and a largely-unknown midfielder named David Beckham apparently is collecting paycheques here in Los Angeles.

(Digression: ever notice how a celebrity’s biggest fan will never meet him, but someone who can’t recognize him will get a great photo opportunity?  I had lunch with my friend John a few months ago.  He said “So I was just at the Apple store in Century City, and David Beckham was there.” I asked John if he talked to Becks, and he said, “No, I didn’t really know which one he was.  But somebody told me he was there.”  I thought not being able to recognize Beckham was a mathematical impossibility at this point, like dividing by zero or taking the square root of a negative number.)

Scholes’ retirement also makes a burgeoning hole at United even more glaring.  The Class of 1992 are so-called because they represented players who not only grew up in United’s youth academy, they also—bar Beckham—grew up as kids in the greater Manchester area: Scholes in Langley, the Nevilles in Bury, Butt in Gorton and Giggs in Salford (via Cardiff, hence the allegiance to Wales).

Since then, United’s youth academy has provided scant help to the first team.  Wes Brown and John O’Shea have developed into decent role players, and the jury is probably still out on the recent harvest including Federico Macheda, Darren Gibson, and Johnny Evans.

But it’s very thin after that.

True, United aren’t the only Premiership squad in this quandary.  But just because other title contenders struggle with this question doesn’t mean that it’s just a “sign of the modern era.”

The youth academy does more for United than just produce quality footballers.  It produces evangelists for the squad.  Athletes always talk about how excited they are to play against the teams they grew up hating as fans; the youth academy instills that spirit into the players at a young age.

Gary Neville famously jeered at the Kop after scoring a goal at Anfield.  Anti-Liverpool is in his blood, he later would admit, causing him to elevate his game against the Scousers.  Can you imagine any of United’s current back four saying that today, in their Serbian, French or Brazilian accents?

Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying as xenophobia.  Far from it: United’s scout team has done a masterful job bringing in players from around the world.

Nobody knew the scrawny teenager Sir Alex Ferguson signed from Sporting Lisbon would turn into Cristiano Ronaldo.

How many teams passed on a little fellow from Mexico who ended up stealing the starting striker’s job—from the guy who led the Premiership in goals, Dimitar Berbatov?

Even the fabled Class of 1992 needed star imports, including Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke, Peter Schmeichel and Ole Gunnar Solkskjaer, to achieve the haul of trophies they did.

But what made United ferocious was the combination of global star power coupled with the club’s values being instilled in the first team’s leadership from a young age.  It’s what propelled United to be equally motivated against Reading as Real Madrid, against Bolton as Barcelona.

It’s the edge that is currently missing at Old Trafford.  Scholes’ retirement makes it all the more acute.

Perfecting the Top 10: Championship Upsets of the 21st Century

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Golf, Perfecting the Top 10, Soccer, Tennis on July 9, 2011 at 12:00 PM

In discussing who we are here at Perfecting the Upset, we argue that, “Everyone believes in miracles whether they admit it or not.  And for a sports fan, miracles happen when someone pulls off the perfect upset: That team nobody saw coming against the team who we thought would take it all.” But there’s an additional curl in this fabric that can make some victories considerably more satisfying because of their rarity: Upsets in championships.  In order for this to happen, there has to be perfect harmony in the cosmos.  Not only does David have to first make his way through the rubble, but he also needs Goliath to be waiting at the end of the tunnel.  There are some quite unfortunate cases where, if Goliath was waiting, the story could have been sweeter.  After all, Portsmouth winning the FA Cup in 2008 sounds like a story to tell until you remember they defeated a team from a lower division (Cardiff City) in the finals.

So, what better way to continue our Perfecting the Top 10 series than to count down the ten most memorable championship upsets of the 21st century?  In coming up with the list, more popular leagues were given greater weight.  They had to be head-to-head matchups, not just against the field.  Attention was given to genuine upsets, not those simply perceived as such by the sensationalist media (such as a formidable Diamondbacks team defeating an equally-talented Yankees team).  And finally, additional credence was given to teams with legacy: It’s one thing defeating the flavour-of-the-year, but it’s another to defeat a Goliath packing a dynasty in his holster.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48 – Oakland Raiders 21 (Super Bowl XXXVII) »  At age 37, Rich Gannon threw for 4,689 yards, won the league MVP and took the Raiders to their first Super Bowl since 1983.  The oddsmakers favored their top-rated offense by 4 against Jon Gruden’s top-rated defense, but by the time the third quarter ended, it was obvious that defense did, in fact, win championships.  Gruden had gotten revenge against his previous team, and the Al Davis affliction in sunny California continued to persist.

9. Florida Gators 41 – Ohio State Buckeyes 14 (2007 BCS National Championship Game) »  Troy Smith, Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez made the Buckeyes look invincible throughout the season (which included a 24-7 dismantling of defending champions from the University of Texas).  Aside from a late game comeback by rival Michigan, Ohio State was never in danger of losing a game.  This was supposed to be one of the most lopsided deciding bowl games ever.  But Chris Leak, Percy Harvin and some fellow named Tim Tebow had other ideas.  After the Buckeyes returned the initial kickoff, Harvin matched—and it was a cakewalk for the remainder.  It was lopsided, alright, just on the other side.

8. Florida Marlins 4 – New York Yankees 2 (2003 World Series) »  Money doesn’t always make you happy, and money definitely can’t buy you championships.  The Marlins shocked the Yankees (and their $110 million difference in payroll) by riding Josh Beckett to the glory land for the second time in seven years.  Along the way, though, they had some extra help from a Cubs fan whose memorabilia-hogging instincts kept the grand prize away for his cursed team.

7. Greece 1 – Portugal 0 (Euro 2004) »  Greece’s improbable run at Euro 2004 was capped with a second defeat of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Portuguese squad, headlined by Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, who failed to avenge their opening day loss.  Along the way, they also beat France and England.  It’s possible to pad this further, but seriously, there shouldn’t be any other data necessary: Greece won Euro 2004 by defeating three powerhouses four times total.  That’s the math, and that’s pretty amazing.

6. Maria Sharapova (6-1, 6-4) over Serena Williams (2004 Wimbledon) »  Out of nowhere, 13th seeded, 17-year-old Sharapova beats two-time defending champion and #1 seed Williams in straight sets.  This was a passing of the torch, of sorts, not unlike Federer beating Sampras in 2001.  Of course, Serena continued her dominance for a while longer, but she’ll never forget the spark she provided to Sharapova’s career at Centre Court.

5. Y.E. Yang (-8) over Tiger Woods (-5) (2009 PGA Championship) »  Golf isn’t a head-to-head sport, but when you take into effect that Yang and Woods were paired up for the final round at the Hazeltine National Golf Club, you can imagine how intense it must have been throughout the day.  Tiger entered the day with a 2 shot lead before ending the day +3, in the process witnessing the first Asian-born player to win a major on the PGA tour.  This was all the more impressive as Yang didn’t start playing golf until age 19.  The maturing prodigy was defeated by the budding late-bloomer.

4. Texas 41 – USC 38 (2006 Rose Bowl/BCS National Championship Game) »  Matt Leinart this.  Reggie Bush that.  For all the hype the media loves to generate, there’s probably no doubt amongst college football fanatics that this Trojans team was one of the greatest to ever play.  But there was one man who, frankly, didn’t give a damn: Vince Young.  He had put in the single greatest individual performance I’ve ever witnessed by the time he crossed into the endzone on 4th and 2.  While the awe and magic of a game like this may never again be repeated, Young’s lesson in media-founded histrionics will always be remembered.

3. Patriots 20 – Rams 17 (Super Bowl XXXVI) »  September 11 made New York City a solemn place to live.  But for some reason, it felt as if supporting these mediocre “Patriots” would make us all happier.  So, we did.  Against “the Greatest Show on Turf.”  Little did we know that we’d witness the genesis of one of the most hated dynasties in sports history, and that of a man who would end up marrying the world’s highest-paid supermodel and have hair softer than Justin Bieber.

2. Giants 17 – Patriots 14 (Super Bowl XLII) »  18-1.

1. Detroit Pistons 4 – Los Angeles Lakers 1 (2004 NBA Finals) »  Many would contest that the Giants’ defeat of the previously undefeated Patriots should be #1.  But I can’t help but argue for these pesky, blue-collar boys from Detroit.  Not only did the Pistons embody everything the Motor City stood for, they outright dominated a stacked team filled with four future Hall-of-Famers.  Keeping the Lakers to 68 points in a game?  That’s a team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.  Yet they never broke 100 points.  Winning one game is great.  But winning a championship in this commanding a fashion as an underdog?  Incredible. Keeping someone from perfect once has some luck involved.  But keeping a great team from reaching its ultimate goal over a seven-game series?  That’s the kind of perseverance and teamwork that makes us believe that miracles are possible.

Championship Upsets of the 21st Century

That Yank Sounds a Bit Dodgy

In Soccer on July 8, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Over the 4th of July weekend, Portland Timbers rookie midfielder Darlington Nagbe struck one of the goals of the season against Sporting Kansas City. After Nagbe’s fellow midfielder Jack Jewsbury served up a free kick which was punched away by Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, the ball traveled directly to Nagbe’s right foot. He juggled the ball once, juggled it again and then struck a devastating shot into the top left corner of the net from outside the box. Thankfully for me, it was Portland’s only goal of the night.  My Sporting side won a 2-1 victory on the road, while I got the benefit of watching an enjoyable but harmless goal.

Watching the game from Kansas City, I heard the call from television announcer Callum Williams. He’s the 21-year old Birmingham native brought in this year from the BBC to be the voice of KC’s newly revamped Sporting franchise. A couple of days later, I happened to see the goal again online. That video was taken from Portland’s broadcast, and it included another British voice (presumably that of Robbie Earle, the English-born Timbers’ announcer). I also watched another contender for MLS goal of the season, this one struck by Vancouver’s Eric Hassli. Naturally, the announcing team (taken from a national Fox Soccer Channel broadcast) was also accent-tinged.

Was I offended at being exposed—during the celebration of our glorious Independence!—to a barrage of blatant outsourcing to our former colonizer? No. I was merely curious. At first I assumed there had been a concerted effort by MLS broadcasters to hire their on-air talent from overseas. An attempt to cater to some notion of cosmopolitanism among MLS fans? Perhaps. But then I realized that it might simply be the natural result of too many American soccer teams and too few American soccer announcers.

During last year’s World Cup, ESPN secured the famous voice of England’s Martin Tyler to be the lead play-by-play man from South Africa. This was after the network’s infamous use of Red Sox announcer (and soccer neophyte) Dave O’Brien in 2006. Fans were outraged that for the biggest tournament in the world, ESPN had to settle for a voice from baseball. But the lack of elite soccer broadcasters makes sense: There has never been any reason for an ambitious, talented broadcaster in this country to have anything to do with soccer. But as the MLS has expanded successfully in recent years to Toronto, Portland, Vancouver and Philadelphia, there’s an increasing demand for quality broadcasting talent made up of something other than retired MLS players.

All the same, I can’t dismiss the possibility that the prevalence of Brits is based as much on branding as it is broadcasting. In American culture, the English accent serves as a shorthand in and of itself. The clearest use of this shorthand is Hollywood’s mandatory accent rule of ancient Rome, which stipulates that anyone portraying a Roman must speak in an English accent. This doesn’t mean just hiring English actors. It means that non-English actors must fake an English accent. My personal favorite iteration of this rule occurred in Gladiator, when Russell Crowe (an Australian actor) used an English accent (to speak what historically would have been Latin) in order to portray Maximus Decimus Meridius (a Roman General), a character who the film tells us is actually from Spain.

But of course the point of the accent rule is clear: England had the greatest empire since the Romans, and the English accent conveys the breadth, grandeur and haughtiness necessary to stand in for Hollywood’s idea of ancient Rome.  (It’s also clear that however much of an empire America is, we still haven’t cracked the glass ceiling of Roman movie accents. How many more countries must we invade?)

For soccer in America, the shorthand of an English (or Irish or Scottish) accent is also clear: Guys with accents know a lot about soccer. And in a country where Cheryl Cole may have been fired by American Idol for her Geordie accent, soccer fans make up one of the few groups who are happy to hear an English accent because of the credibility it conveys. Yes, some of those fans are ignorant snobs who just think the accent “sounds better.” But most simply want to hear games called by people who understand the sport.

I don’t have a problem with the trend of British sportscasters in America. Yes, it would be nice if our country were able to provide enough homegrown talent to fill the broadcast booths, because that would mean that soccer is strong in America. And yes, I do hope that the talent being brought to the states is actually talented and not just a cultural branding strategy. (For what it’s worth, in my very limited exposure to Callum Williams, he seems perfectly well-suited for his job in Kansas City.)

Because soccer is still a niche in America, it’s easy to get people pissed off about it. Right now, half of our readers are probably pissed off that I’m writing about soccer at all. The other half are pissed off that I’m calling it “soccer.” Instead of lamenting our over-reliance on foreigners and our country’s lack of soccer expertise, I’ll say that I’m perfectly happy to have as many British broadcasters as we need to cover MLS. I’m less concerned about America’s lack of homegrown on-air talent than our lack of a homegrown striker.

You Have to Start Somewhere

In Chicago, Football, Soccer on June 29, 2011 at 10:00 AM

I wasn’t raised a sports fan.  I was raised, by my father, to love the New York Giants and thus loathe the Philadelphia Eagles, but I couldn’t tell you anything about the sport. My mother, in an attempt to raise children with less rigid gender roles, enrolled both my brother and I in soccer and ballet.  She figured we would experience different ends of the spectrum and decide for ourselves which suited us better.  Though we participated in both activities, we eventually fell into traditional roles: He competed in soccer and track & field, whereas I continued dancing three to four times a week.  (There is an anecdote about my standing on the soccer pitch, twirling my pigtails; I was quite disinterested.)  I continued not caring about sports for many, many years.

Then, in 2004, I began dating a man who was an ardent Chicago Bears fan.  At the beginning of our relationship, it was easy to avoid the games: Adam would be busy on Sunday afternoons, and I’d find something else to do.  Football gave me an excuse to have boozy brunches with my ladies.  (Though, come to think of it, I probably didn’t need an excuse.)  Once we began cohabiting, though, the NFL was much harder to avoid.  Initially, we struck a bargain: If I received physical attention in the form of cuddling, I’d watch the games with him.  Then the bargain extended to the bar: I’d only come if at least one of my beers was purchased for me and there were wings.  Inadvertently, I started learning about the game.  At the beginning, I would make up meanings for the call gestures: holding wasn’t holding, it was fisting; that’s not a false start, but rather a sign for the bossa nova (time for a dance break)!  The discovery of a new favorite sound made the game even more entertaining: When the rival team attempted a field goal and missed by hitting the posts, the resounding klongggggggg was pure pleasure.  Eventually, I did actually accumulate some knowledge, though I’m still nowhere near the level of my male friends who make the calls before the referees do.

RedEye reporter Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz listed, in a 2007 guest-post on Luis Arroyave’s blog Red Card, five ways to engage your girlfriend in sports.  In her case, the sport in question was soccer, but these tips work across the board.  Elejade-Ruiz nailed it:

1. Take her to a game
2. Take the time to talk to her about the sport
3. Show her photos of the team studs
4. Invite her to join your co-ed team or at least invite her to watch you play
5. Bargain with her

My path to being interested in sports on any level hit each of these marks.  My good friend, Danny, worked for a time on the Major League Soccer website.  That, combined with a trip to Adam’s Chicago family, gave the boys a perfect opportunity to introduce me to soccer.  (I still think it should be called football, as it is everywhere else in the world and is far more accurate.)  As I said before, what I knew of soccer extended to the tips of my braids, but they were committed to changing that.  And what better way than to take me to a live game?  Not just any live game, though: The opening of Chicagoland area’s Toyota Park in June 2006.  When it comes to sports, live games are good, opening days are better and grand openings are best—talk about fanfare!  During the game they gave me insights and explanations on how the game was played (much the same way they would on Sunday afternoons at football bars).  Our seats were not the best in the arena, but from where we were sitting I could see many of the players and quickly developed a crush on Chicago Fire’s lanky Nate Jaqua (now of the Seattle Sounders FC), whom I started referring to as “Naqua.”

Just in that one evening, the boys managed to hit the first three points on Elejalde-Ruiz’s list.  My re-introduction and education in football had already been covered via bargaining, bribery and, though I didn’t mention it before, finding a crush (or two).  But what about that fourth point?  Though New York City is rife with social sports leagues, none of my male friends played football. They did play street hockey, though…