US roster finally deserving of Best 11 Debate

US roster finally deserving of Best 11 Debate

If you’re searching for a meaningful measure of the progress American soccer has shown to date, look no further than the Best 11 Debate. This is the time-honored parlor game enjoyed by the denizens of actual soccer nations, whereby headstrong fans and observers argue as to exactly who should start, and where. You got Satellite Radio? Tune in to Sirius 126 and listen to 606, from the BBC’s Radio 5: hundreds of fans calling in from all over the U.K., gabbing on, mostly intelligently, about how Gerrard and Lampard must learn to play together, or not.

America has now qualified for six straight World Cups, but I’d argue that this year’s tournament — beginning Friday, June 11 in South Africa (Saturday’s the day for the U.S. opener, vs. England) — is the first one that allows American fans to indulge in such banter. Why? Because until this particular quadrennial, the Yanks simply didn’t have the options necessary for debate.

We were lucky to have 11 international-standard players for each position.

In 2010, we do. We have more than that, actually, which is requisite for arguments re. who should play and who should sit. For long-time observers of the national team, this is something of a revelation. Coach Bob Bradley even left some quite serviceable players at home, as WC rosters can only number 23.

You’ll not hear any idle banter from this quarter. The U.S. can and should get out of its group. It might get lucky and win a Round-of-16 match and earn its second Quarterfinal in 8 years. That, in itself, would be an extraordinary achievement.

But I’ll say now that American progress is already clear, to me. The choices at Bob Bradley’s disposal speak eloquently to this point.

Okay, so here is my Best 11, and how I’d line them up — from the strikers back to keeper:

Jozy Altidore                                    Clint Dempsey

Michael Bradley

Jose Francisco Torres                                                            Landon Donovan

Ricardo Clark

Carlos Bocanegra                                                                        Steve Cherundolo

Clarence Goodson                            Jay Demerit

Tim Howard

Torres, whose parentage gave him the opportunity to play for either Mexico or the United States (and he did play some under-23 matches for El Tri), is the late-emerging wild card here. Bradley didn’t feature him in many qualifiers, not at all in games that mattered actually. But he plays in the Mexican first division for Puebla (he’ll move to Pachuca in the fall) and he was the best player on the pitch, for my money, during the Yanks’ 2-1 win over Turkey in Philadelphia on May 29, the day before the U.S. left for South Africa. He held the ball with real cool and tackled with surety and fierceness. Some would like to see him at defensive midfielder, in place of Clark, and even though stature shouldn’t matter at this position (think Claude Makelele for Chelsea, and France), at 5’5” and 136 pounds, I do wonder about Torres holding his own in the middle of the pitch against a team like England.

Jose Francisco Torres, born in Longview, Texas

That’s why I like him on the left. He can play more centrally and defensively, as his opposite, Donovan, is sure to be roaming forward much of the time. Indeed, with Torres cheating in a bit more centrally to support the midfield — and hold the ball, something we need more of — Clark can cheat a bit right. All this frees Bradley to go forward, as well.

Is this the team that will start vs. England June 11. Doubtful. Bradley seems content to play Dempsey and Donovan as wing midfielders. Edson Buddle scored twice vs. Australia in the final WC tune-up on Saturday; if Dempsey’s at midfield, Buddle should start (Altidore has turned an ankle but reports indicate he’ll be ready for the English). I’d rather get Torres on the field and sacrifice Buddle, but I’m not in charge… One gets the impression that Onyewu will start vs. England, and he is our best central defender when healthy. But I don’t think he’s healthy. How could he be? He wasn’t fit enough to play a single game for AC Milan this spring. I’d leave him out vs. England, a game we can afford to lose, in hopes that he is fit for Slovenia and Algeria.

But the presence of Buddle and Goodson and Torres is a luxury we’ve not had before. It’s a luxury for Coach Bradley, and a luxury for us fans. Without choices, the Best 11 gambit is a non-starter, so to speak.

We’ve not even discussed Stu Holden, who could just as easily claim a spot at right midfield, push Landon to the left and Dempsey up front; or Maurice Edu, a starter in defensive midfield for Rangers (one of the two elite teams in Scotland), who may well be better than Clark but isn’t as quick, and Bradley seems to sense, rightly in my view, that our defensive four (other than Cherundolo) is a bit plodding; or Jonathan Spector, a starting defender for West Ham United in the English top flight.

To me, Spector’s case speaks volumes: In World Cups past, if there was an American starting for a Premiership side, he was in the Best 11. Full-stop, no questions asked. As it happens, Spector might be our sixth-choice defender out of seven on the WC 2010 roster.

That, my friends, is progress.

Soccer’s own Encinitas Man to contribute WC 2010 reports

 

The curious, inspirational story of Dieter “Dee” Schmidt first came to the soccer world’s attention some four ago when his frozen but otherwise well preserved body — clad in nothing but a vintage Paul Breitner Bayern Munich jersey, impossibly bell-bottomed jeans and a pair of antique adidas Sambas — was recovered, thanks to a freakish January thaw, from a towering ice and garbage heap on the outskirts of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

Still encased in a sarcophagus of blue ice, Schmidt’s corpus crystalline was quickly air-lifted by provincial authorities to St. Anne’s Medical Center in Winnipeg, where doctors discovered his heart still functioning at some 3 beats per minute — less than half that of a black bear in hibernation. Incrementally, over course of two weeks, Schmidt’s body temperature was increased. Intravenous nourishment was introduced on Day 10, and for another week thereafter he was placed in a medically induced coma to avoid further metabolic complications.

Schmidt awoke from his coma Feb. 6, 2006, and later that day was chatting amiably with doctors — about his admiration for Johann Neeskens, his plans to attend the upcoming World Cup in Germany, and his regret that England had not qualified. When told by a soccer-informed orderly at St. Anne’s that England had indeed qualified for that summer’s World Cup, besting Poland to win its group, Schmidt pointedly differed. “Dude, you’ve got it backwards,” he was reported as saying. “Poland qualified at England’s expense. I listened to the BBC broadcast myself, on my bud’s ham radio.”

Of course, Poland had qualified instead of England for the World Cup — the 1974 World Cup.

The tale Schmidt eventually told of his postponed demise continues, some four years on, to stun the North American medical community while fascinating hardcore football fans worldwide. Schmidt claims to have traveled to northern Manitoba from his native San Diego in December 1973, via Toronto, to attend the Inuit Futsal Invitational, an obscure event on Canada’s indoor soccer calendar during the mid-1970s; the event was last held in 1978.

According to reports in the Winnipeg Star-Journal, Schmidt recalls venturing out of doors one evening to “smoke some grass” with members of a visiting club from Vancouver following Burnaby FC’s win in the tournament semifinal. That’s the last thing he remembers, though Schmidt claims the cannabis to have been “wicked potent” — potent enough, he surmises, to have put him to sleep in a nearby snow bank.

Star-Journal research on the Inuit Futsal Invitation shows the ‘73 final to have been postponed 24 hours due to a heavy winter storm that dropped more than two meters of snow on Churchill in less than 18 hours.

Schmidt would be reported missing in January 1974; archival records kept at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office show a series of inquiries and all-points bulletins related to Dieter’s disappearance — including a formal provincial inquest conducted in Toronto, his last known whereabouts — but the case was officially abandoned, unsolved, on July 11, 1982, the same day Paolo Rossi scored the last of his Golden Boot-winning six goals in a 3-1 win over West Germany, earning the Italians their first World Cup.

•••

Schmidt asserts (and Star-Journal investigations have confirmed) that he was born on July 12, 1952 in Long Beach, Calif., the only child of Franz Schmidt (an Austrian national and president of the Hubert Vogelsinger Fan Club/Encinitas Chapter, 1972-81) and Helen Fahey Schmidt, a novelist and native of Long Beach.

Mr. Schmidt died of a heart attack following Austria’s elimination from World Cup qualifying, 0-3 to Hungary, on April 17, 1985. Mrs. Schmidt passed away in 1992, of natural causes.

By his telling, the first 21 years of Dee’s life reveal him to be his father’s son, a middling player but an enormously committed fan who, despite the underdeveloped state of American soccer in the 1960s and ‘70s, lived and breathed the beautiful game and traveled the breadth of North America to see it. He claims:

• to have attended, with his dad, the 1967 United Soccer Association final at L.A.’s Memorial Coliseum (“A classico, man. Wolves [Los Angeles] beat the Whips [Washington] in OT, 6-5, on Ally Shewan’s own goal”);

• to have witnessed Pele’s U.S. soccer debut (a 1-0 Santos victory over A.C. Milan, in Boston, part the Rossinieri’s four-match tour of the U.S. in June 1970 — “Milan lost all four games of that tour, dude. It was sad.”);

• to have traveled to St. Louis in May 1972 to watch the U.S. Olympic team beat Jamaica, 2-1, earning the Yanks’ first Olympic berth since 1960.

Then a sophomore at San Diego State University and completely tapped out, Dieter couldn’t swing a trip to Munich for the 1972 Olympic finals — a fact that made him all the more determined to attend the World Cup finals, in West Germany, two years later.

In the end, Dee’s grand plans were foiled by a perfect storm of ill-fated events:

• his trip to Toronto in December 1973, where he failed to convince Metros striker Bruno Pilas to sign the no. 9 jersey Schmidt had nicked the previous July from a visitors’ locker room in Rochester (“Total waste of time. He was back in Croatia.”);

• his spontaneous decision to attend the Inuit tournament with a group of indigenous Canadians he befriended in a Bloor Street pub;

• his longstanding weakness for the kind bud;

• and his Southern Californian ignorance of just how dangerous it can be to nap outdoors so close to the Arctic Circle.

Still, it’s difficult not applaud and marvel at Dee Schmidt’s extraordinary metabolism, his love of football and his time-capsule knowledge of the soccer world leading up to the German’s first turn as World Cup host.

Four years ago, when doctors indicated a full recovery was expected, I resolved to confirm his extraordinary story and get to know this real-life, football-loving Encinitas Man. That began in 2007, and I’ve spent the last three years in fairly regular contact with Dee, helping him interpret the modern world as best I can and marveling at his singular outlook on and impressions of modern soccer.

Dee is now a friend, but this chummy association does not hide the fact that his is a keen, bristling soccer mind by any measure. He’s not a bad writer either. Accordingly, I’ve asked our own Miles Monroe to blog on this year’s World Cup from his singular perspective, and I will share his musings, alongside my own, in this space going forward.

Stay tuned to this space for Dee’s introductory effort, and please excuse his Ricky Henderson-like habit of referring to himself in the third person. Trust me, it’s not any sort of megalomania. After all he’s been through, we can hardly blame him for stepping back and observing his own life with a genuine and quite wondrous sense of detachment. Welcome back, Dee.

Hal Phillips, 26 May 2010

The Golf Tee & Dentistry: Now it can be told
The Aero-Tee: shaped like a giant, inverted, tri-cuspid fang.

The Golf Tee & Dentistry: Now it can be told

Some golfers look at things the way they are and ask “Why?” Dr. Venanzio Cardarelli dreams of things that never were and asks, “Could you open a little wider please?”

Cardarelli, a practicing dentist who holds some 20 different U.S. patents, is the D.M.D. behind the Aero-Tee, a three-pronged, polycarbonate, cuspid-shaped ball platform that he hopes will revolutionize the golf tee genre. It’s a pretty neat little gizmo and a real step forward, if all the independent testing is on the level (see results at www.aero-tee.com). The Aero-Tee’s tri-fluted, helical support structure is designed to reduce resistance by all but eliminating surface-area contact with the golf ball. According to Cardarelli, 55, this scheme also increases the amount of air accelerating all around the ball — including beneath it.

While the new Aero-Tee departs quite radically from traditional golf tee designs, its designer does not. In fact Cardarelli continues a long, distinguished and quite curious tradition of dentist-assisted golf tee innovation. To wit, the wooden golf tee was invented by a Boston dentist, Dr. George Franklin Grant, in 1899, and the golf tee design most commonly utilized today was patented in 1924, by Dr. William Lowell — a New Jersey-based dentist.

Forget for a moment that Cardarelli’s Aero-Tee, if viewed upside down, bears vague resemblance to a mighty fang, roots and all.

What is it about the practice of dental arts that spurs an interest, much less sustained design innovation, in golf tees?

The Aero-Tee: shaped like a giant, inverted, tri-cuspid fang.

“Maybe Grant and Lowell were talking to me from the grave,” laughs Cardarelli, who lives in Plymouth, Mass., and practices four days a week in nearby Braintree. “Honestly, I didn’t even know these guys existed until after I came up with the Aero-Tee. I was just addressing the shortcomings of conventional tees in my basement and came up with this model. Why dentists and golf tees? That’s a tough question. I was just trying to fill a need.”

No pun intended?

“That’s right!”

Cardarelli’s enthusiasm for the Aero-Tee is evident the moment he launches into his rapid-fire, heart-felt spiels on the quest for acceptable tee stability and, of course, polycarbonates strong enough to avoid undue breakage. Yet he appears not to have considered why dentists have historically formed the leading edge of golf tee technology. “It’s a very interesting question,” muses the good doctor, slowing down to ponder the matter. “Maybe we look at things with a finer tooth comb than most people. We do deal with very small increments of measurement all day long, fractions of millimeters. We need to visualize and restore at these levels of fineness and quality — golf tees are created on this sort of scale.”

The morning after we spoke on the phone, Dr. Cardarelli, whose friends call him Vinnie, sent me an email. Evidently our conversation had stuck in his craw. “I am still thinking about your question, about the relationship of dentists and golf tees. Maybe the answer will come from the grave,” he wrote, before adding something he’d neglected to mention the day before: the vice president of Aero-Tee is Dr. Joseph Santelli, a close friend and fellow dentist (D.D.S., actually).

Cardarelli is optimistic about the Aero-Tee’s business prospects, though his product has been on the market a relatively short time [it debuted in early 2004] and there is significant competition. PrideSports of Burnham, Maine (www.ptsgolftees.com) produces some 85 percent of the world’s wooden tees, and golfers aren’t exactly massing in the streets and turning over cars to protest the state of the art. Most golfers believe low-tech wooden tees, despite their “resistance”, do a creditable job — and most golf courses give them away in pro shops.

That said, Pride has ventured into the high-tech, alternative tee market with its PTS Off-Set model whose design recalls a waitress holding a tray over her head. One of its three prongs is shorter than the others. According to the web literature, “for best results, aim short prong at target”.

The Tomahawx model claimed to reduce resistance by…

A product once marketed under the name Tomahawx went the resistance-free route by concentrating on the other end of the tee — the pointed end that goes sub terra. This knife-shaped point allowed the tee to pivot forward, thus reducing resistance upon driver impact.

… tipping over upon impact — without breaking.

Then there’s the Brush-T (www.brusht.com), another alternative tee product whose flat, bristle-brush platform also claims to reduce resistance and accelerate air flow beneath the golf ball. Sort of ironic that after all those years in the basement — after all those years cajoling his patients — Dr. Cardarelli never saw the golf application of brushes. “I’ve told my wife: I’m shocked that I didn’t come up with that as an alternate design,” he says somewhat ruefully. “I guess what’s really amazing is the person who invented it wasn’t a dentist.”

Indeed, the Brush-T was conceived by Jason Crouse, a South African industrial product engineer. In other words, not a dentist. However, the president of Brush-T North America, Paul Krok, while not a dentist, just happens to be president of another company, Oralgiene USA, Inc., which distributes electric toothbrushes for children. Perhaps for this reason, Cardarelli is gracious in discussing his competitor.

Or perhaps he’s just wary of being pegged as the only dentist on earth against brushing.

 

Three-wheeling the Vietnamese Highlands

Three-wheeling the Vietnamese Highlands

We had only been a day in Phan Thiet and, frankly, I’d have rather stayed another two. The links at Ocean Dunes Golf Club, part of the seaside Novotel Phan Thiet Resort, were superb (good enough to warrant another go-round, or two) and only a fool would have begged off one fully flaked-out day on the hotel’s long, quiet stretch of beach.

But the itinerary can be a stern taskmaster, so I kept my peace and prepared for our scheduled departure. Then, on the way to breakfast, I saw them — those motorcycles and their attendant sidecars, all neatly lined up in front of the hotel — and my ambivalence melted away. No one in his or her right mind could resist the sheer romance of 200 kilometers, by sidecar, from this tropical perch on the South China Sea to the mountain retreat of Dalat. I was glad to see that my driver, Gilles Poggi, sported a kroma, that distinctive, all-purpose Cambodian scarf. I wanted one, too. I was also hoping we could line up behind our respective machines and, at the sound of a gun, begin the journey rally style.

The reality proves more staid. The sun now peeking over the hotel façade, we slather on the sunscreen, affix our sunglasses, helmets and hats, and wait for the last of our group to return from the bathroom. Hardly the stuff of Paris to Dakar, though our three-wheelers do turn over, en masse, with a very satisfying rumble, and we pull out in precise formation, one after another, like starlettes from a 1930s-era musical follies into the pool.

Poggi, a Corsican who wears his kroma with all the Gallic élan one might expect, is a hotelier whose next project is poised to open just south of here in Ho Tram. These sidecars and their motorized escorts are his personal obsession, and he leads these trips — along with his friends in Team Camel, their touring club — as a one-of-a-kind amenity for guests and acquaintances seeking 360-degree tours of the south Vietnamese countryside.

“We started adventuring with sidecars more than 10 years ago, in Hanoi,” Poggi shouts as we travel up the coast, his voice perfectly audible above the 4-stroke din. “I had two friends who had hooked up with these sidecars. One of them invited me to go to Sapa, and I’ve been riding ever since.”

Poggi slows down and stops his narrative for the moment, to avoid a cavernous pothole. We’ve turned away from the water now, the roads becoming more narrow and dodgy with every passing kilometer. My sidecar, of course, is suspended between three points of a triangle: the two wheels of the motorcycle, to my left, and a third wheel to my right. When Poggi dodges a pothole, my carriage often passes directly over the blemish. The passenger sees it coming and instinctively braces for a jolt that never comes. This is a fine metaphor for sidecar travel: All in all, the experience is far more comfortable than one might expect.

“Later, when we moved to Phan Thiet, I decide to get one for myself,” Poggi continues. “I met a policeman who was selling one, and when I asked him how much, he quoted me a price — by kilo! So I bought one, for maybe $200 US. Later, I realized we should have another one, so we could go out as a group. I bought a second, and the policeman told me, ‘I’ll do you a favor. You buy the second and I’ll give you a third for free.’ Today, we have 11.”

The ride of choice for Team Camel is the 650cc Ural M-72, a Russian replica of the vaunted BMW R71, a German-army staple during World War II and the very bike Steve McQueen made famous jumping barbed-wire fencing in “The Great Escape”. Urals became ubiquitous in Vietnam only after 1975, and they remain practical, Poggi says, because the Russians did a good job simplifying the design, parts are readily available, and Vietnamese mechanics know their way around them. They’ve been fixing them for 30 years after all.

In our party there are two quite spiffy, official-lookijng sidecars while the others are decorated more flamboyantly, according to the whims of individual club members. Remi Faubel, Poggi’s friend and a quite celebrated chef here in VN, drives a Ural of canary yellow featuring the snarling countenance of a large cat-like creature. Poggi and I ride a black model named for “The Ramones”. It’s an odd-but-pleasing juxtaposition, wending my way through a Vietnamese tableau with a Corsican guide, seated in a Russian-made BMW knock-off named for the proto-grungers who gave us “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”.

Having passed through a narrow shelf of level ground set aside for rice paddies, we soon set off into the highlands. We have taken the back roads where villages are fewer and further between. The Urals are working hard now, taking on steep inclines and those potholes too large to straddle. The higher we go into the mountains, the less tropical the landscape becomes. But never is it anything less than lush: 10 shades of deep green set against still darker greens.

On a tree-less plateau set high above a reservoir of sparkling blue-green, we stop for lunch which, thanks to Faubel, qualifies as perhaps the most elegant picnic ever devised by man. Holding a glass of sauvignon blanc, Poggi defends his precious Urals from the half-serious charge that they are, well, rather ungainly in appearance. “The sidecar is not a very noble piece of transportation, it’s true. No matter how we package it. But there is nobility in riding a sidecar, there is nobility in experiencing the highlands in this way, there is nobility in enjoying a lunch of foie gras and perhaps a glass of white wine.”

There’s no arguing this.

After lunch we climb ever higher into the highlands on narrow roads of the switchback variety, each one flanked by precipitous drop-offs lurking just beyond the guardrails — when there are guardrails. It’s something of a shock to see that Vietnam can be so legitimately mountainous. Two hours from Dalat we zig-zag our way up through a broad mountain pass and Poggi points to a hillside dotted with cultivated vegetation: “Café,” he shouts, lifting an imaginary demitasse to his lips. It was the first of many plantations we would pass in the next half-hour. Vietnam is now the world’s second largest producer of coffee beans, behind Brazil, thanks to elevations and hillsides like these.

As we draw closer to our destination, the roads get better and the population less sparse. For several hours, we had passed only through dusty, remote villages where locals met our odd caravan first with surprise, then with smiles and waves. In these more populous areas, our standing as curiosities is more modest. Dalat is a resort Mecca that attracts all kinds, foreign and domestic. A light rain begins to fall. We draw less and less attention as pedestrians veil themselves and we find our place amid the wider flow of traffic.

Though we’d been climbing steadily since mid-morning, the final stretch of road is the steepest yet. Halfway up this series of switchbacks, the vegetation turns again; there are pine trees at roadside now and the air sports a startling crispness, an absence of moisture I hadn’t experienced since my plane touched down in Ho Chi Minh City the week before.

The French influence in Vietnam is hard to miss, even 50 years and three wars removed, but because the French founded Dalat (as opposed to merely occupying it), this mile-high city has retained more of its Gallic character than just about any place in Vietnam. With its alpine qualities, planned neighborhoods and ubiquitous French architecture, Dalat could be mistaken for Lausanne, or Grenoble. Our ultimate destination, the Sofitel Dalat Palace hotel — surrounded by topiary gardens and verdant lawns sloping down to sparkling Xuan Huong Lake — does nothing to mitigate this sensation. Opened in 1922 and restored to the last period detail, the Palace and its fine-dining venue, Le Rabelais, evoke a level of colonial grandeur and indolence the equal of anything in Southeast Asia.

And yes, that is a golf course I spy on the hillside across the lake. Not just any course, apparently, but the one laid out in 1932 for Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam. I think I’m going to like it here.

Bedecked in shorts and flip-flops, I surely looked a fright as I hoist my dust-covered frame from the Sheena Express. Had I alighted in this state from a mere automobile, I might have felt out of place. As it was, I ascend the Palace’s ornate, white marble steps in the perfect historical idiom, regretting only that I had failed to pack a tuxedo.