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Generation Zero Now Available for Purchase

by Hal Phillips

Welcome to HalPhillips.net, where the headline news for 2022 remains the July publication of HP’s popular history, Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America. Click the graphic above to purchase via Amazon (or here for Barnes & Noble). Phillips and his publishers at Dickinson-Moses Press have also created a wicked companion site at www.genzero.halphillips.net. Do visit there for book news, excerpts, other recently published features and podcast relating to soccer, and all manner of GZ-centric blogging, pictures and testimonials.

Generation Zero: The modern Creation epic U.S. soccer didn’t know it had, available July 19

On the tarmac in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, October 1989 (Jon van Woerden photo)

Baseball has its Knickerbockers and the 19th century National League, while basketball traces its roots back to Dr. John Naismith and his peach baskets. With Generation Zero, the new sociological/sports history from author Hal Phillips, American soccer finally has a Creation story of its own — a modern one, befitting the extraordinary growth the game has undergone since 1970, after a full century in the wilderness.

Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America(Dickinson-Moses Press, 2022) is now available for purchase, via Amazon. Official launch date: July 19, 2022. 

The timing could not be more felicitous: With World Cup 2022 set to kick off Nov. 21 in Qatar, with Major League Soccer newly partnered up with Apple TV and preparing to welcome its 29th and 30th franchises, with the 2026 men’s World Cup to be contested in the United States, Mexico and Canada, American soccer is poised to assume an even bigger place in the sporting and cultural mainstream.

“I’m old enough to remember when U.S. soccer was something of a global punch-line, a sporting oxymoron akin to Jamaican bobsledding,” says Phillips (b. 1964). “No professional league post-1984, no Americans playing overseas, no World Cup qualifications since 1950. Americans born prior to 1985 grew up in a famously soccer-indifferent country. Well, we all live in a completely different country today, thanks to Generation Zero — the elite players and fans born in the mid-1960s and raised on soccer during the 1970s.”

Generation Zero profiles this epic transformation, starting with the Youth Soccer Revolution of the 1970s, and concluding with the U.S. Men’s National Team’s dramatic, watershed qualification for World Cup 1990, in Italy.

“That achievement flipped the switch,” explains the Maine-based author, a veteran journalist and media executive. “Conventional wisdom assigns American soccer progress largely to a single event, World Cup ’94. But history shows the tipping point arrived five years earlier. Even then, the famous Shot Heard ‘Round the World — Paul Caligiuri’s goal that qualified the U.S. for Italia ’90 — was the culmination of a 20-year evolution.

“Those youth leagues that spread like wildfire across suburbia during the Nixon Era — they were the bellwether. American boys and girls had never before grown up with soccer, as they did with baseball or football, for example. Very quickly, starting circa 1970, millions of young boys and girls were exposed to the game. Those kids are 50somethings today and they still love soccer. In fact, their support for U.S. national teams, men’s and women’s, starting in 1990, proved critical: Their attendance and viewing habits made a success of World Cup USA, in 1994, then Major League Soccer starting in 1996.”

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Decoding Distaff Indifference Toward Women’s Professional Sport

Ever wondered why women’s team sports are watched and otherwise supported so meagerly by women themselves? The underlying premise here may strike one as obtuse, even churlish this week, what with thousands of women in the stands watching the 2019 Women’s World Cup in stadia all over France. But none of last week’s Round of 16 matches sold out and World Cup crowds can mislead. You’ll recall they were enormous during the 1999 Women’s World Cup, here in the U.S. That event was seen as a tipping point for the women’s game in North America, and yet three separate women’s professional leagues have been attempted in the two decades since. The first two folded and the third — the National Women’s Professional Soccer League — continues to teeter on the brink of financial collapse and cultural irrelevance.

Soccer remains a funny duck in America. More than those in other footballing nations, soccer fans here are beguiled by and pay outsized attention to their national teams — as opposed to the privately administered clubs that compete in domestic leagues. And surely there are entrenched gender biases that have worked against the serial iterations of women’s pro soccer in this country, or the WNBA, or women’s professional hockey wherein the Canadian professional league just folded. U.S. hockey international Kendall Coyne Schofield told the New York Times in April that, “People are drooling for women’s hockey. But the product we deliver isn’t being shown.”

Are they drooling for it really? And what does she mean when she says, “people”. I don’t have numbers on how many folks consume women’s hockey at the Olympics, for example, and how that audience breaks down by gender. But it might surprise you to learn that nearly 70 percent of the WNBA’s viewership is male. That surprised me.

The WNBA has been around since the late 1990s; it has never turned a profit, despite being financially backed and marketed by one of the most savvy organizations in world sport, the NBA — an organization that has every incentive to create a larger audience for both of its on-court products. The core of that new, larger audience would presumably be women who don’t otherwise follow the NBA. But women have responded to the WNBA with the same relative indifference they exhibit toward women’s professional soccer and hockey. Here’s Adam Silver on the subject in 2018:

“It’s interesting: Women’s basketball is largely supported — just in terms of the demographics — by older men, for whatever reason, who like fundamental basketball, and it’s something I’ve talked a lot to the players about,” he said. “We’re not connecting with almost the same demographic that our players are. I’m always saying our players are roughly, let’s say, 21 to 34, in that age range. I’m saying [to the players], ‘Why do you think it is that we’re not getting your peers to want to watch women’s basketball?’

“So in a way I think it’s a good problem to have in that I think the game looks fantastic, and it’s amazing where the league now is from over 20 years ago when it launched,” Silver said, “but we still have a marketing problem, and we gotta figure it out. We gotta figure out how we can do a better job connecting to young people and how they could become interested in women’s basketball.”

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Grim Realities for England’s Global Football Following

While their close neighbors and erstwhile enemies in Ireland, Scotland and Wales crow this morning over another anguished English exit from the World Cup, great swaths of the globe suffer alongside the Albion faithful. Some of this is due to the sheer size of the cultural footprint left by the mother country, once an Empire, today a Commonwealth. Yet millions more in places that have shaken off even that lighter cohesion (Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, Capetown) still follow the English game because the English introduced it to them a century ago. Billions more pay special attention for reasons better explained by 21st century marketing: Across Asia, the Middle East and the United States, 25 years of English Premier League broadcasts have bred spectacular ratings and merchandize sales, ephemeral things that have ultimately morphed into a form of allegiance — a fandom all the better fed by internet access to the always entertaining, bandwagon-inclined British football media.

For 30 minutes in Moscow on Wednesday, the English would appear to have produced — for the first time in 54 years — a team equal to this global glut of hope and expectation.

To the delight of Gaels everywhere, it was instead Croatia that earned a place in Sunday’s World Cup final against France, claiming a dogged 2-1 victory in extra time. This had been another pillar of English support Wednesday — the prospect of a cross-Channel, once-more-into-the-breech final, a rematch some 1,054 years in the making! But the indefatigable Croats were deserving winners. They adjusted and persevered where England could not.

The opening half hour would appear to have signaled the next in a series of sanguine developments for the English at this World Cup. A weak group had led to a preposterously easy side of the tournament draw. A great escape vs. Colombia in the Round of 16 (on penalties of all things) was followed by a thorough bludgeoning of Sweden (a team England had beaten just twice in 16 tries). In Wednesday’s semifinal, Kieran Trippier’s splendid free kick put England ahead 1-0 after just 7 minutes. The ensuing 20 minutes saw Raheem Sterling, the sprightly Man City striker, run rings around the Croatian defense.

This was the key to the game: England found it so easy to get Sterling in behind Croatian centerbacks Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, another goal seemed just a matter of time. Harry Kane indeed should have made it 2-0 after 15 minutes, having found himself on the doorstep with the option to shoot or slide it to Sterling for a tap-in. He went for goal, had it saved, then clanged the rebound off keeper Danijel Subasic and the post. That ball goes in and there’s no way back for the Croatians, though it seemed of little consequence at the time. The English were that good, that confident on the ball, that in control of this match.

That dominance, in a roundabout way, proved England’s undoing. Instead of continuing to patiently knock the ball around and pick the Croats apart (a side running on fumes after playing two exhausting knockout games in the previous 7 days), England were beguiled by Sterling’s ability to get in behind Lovren and Vida. The last 15 minutes of the half were squandered, as the English eschewed possession and impulsively pumped long balls over the top.

Pundits have claimed that England played an excellent half on Wednesday. They did not. They played an excellent half hour, then muddled their way to the break with a lead only half (or a third) of what it should have been.

Croatia made one vital adjustment before intermission, dropping Lovren and Vida off Kane (and his withdrawn running mate Dele Alli), in order to better cope with the speedy threat of Sterling. After halftime, they changed things up again — pressing England higher up the pitch. All of a sudden, central midfielder Jordan Henderson had no time on the ball. After 45 minutes of expert English distribution out of the back, Croatia took this away.

England made no adjustment at halftime and much as it tried, could not make one on the fly. The long balls continued, with ever diminishing returns. Faced with this increased pressure, Henderson and the entire English defense were a study in creeping panic — launching hopeful balls forward rather than risk having it taken by the Croats who, the longer this game went (despite their travails), looked the more energetic side. In the first 30 minutes Henderson & Co. looked imperious. After 60, they no longer wanted the ball at their feet. At this level, that is a recipe for just one thing: hanging on for dear life.

All of this ignores fully half the match, which would indeed require 120 minutes to decide. Ivan Perisic (I’ll not be bothering here with all the various Croatian accent marks, you’ll notice) leveled things on 70 minutes and England’s descent into anxiety and fatigue only got steeper. They were lucky to make it to extra time, when Mario Mandzukic struck the winner some 7 minutes before the onset of penalty kicks. England made the maximum four substitutions over the last hour, desperately looking to change the game, to change its own footing in and approach to the match. Nothing worked. Trippier injured his groin after the Mandzukic goal; having exhausted their allotment of subs, England finished meekly, playing 10 v. 11.

In the end, the Croats proved more canny, more flexible, more skilled, more confident, more dogged, more fit. They were deserving winners.

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In or Out? Why Linesmen So Often Get it Wrong

This ball was deemed out of play. Clearly, it was not…

We’ve reached the first 48-hour break in what has been a delightful frenzy of World Cup matches. The round of 16, our first knock-out stage, concluded Tuesday. Quarterfinals start Friday. Through the magic of YouTubeTV and its DVR function (we cut the cable cord in June), I’ve managed to see most every game. A few observations:

This may strike one as extremely small bore but I think the marginal sideline in/out decision is called wrongly more often than anything else in top-class football. The statute is clear: FIFA’s Rule 9 reads, “The ball is out of play when it has wholly crossed the goal line or touch line whether in the ground or in the air.” The advent of goal-line technology has given us  a new, better perspective on this rule. A birds’-eye view of the ball is what matters; the ball is in play until it’s entirely over the line, until there can be seen (from above) a sliver of green grass between the ball and touchline. Technology, now in the hands of a Video Assistant Referees (VAR), has brought new accuracy to goal-line decisions (and schooled observers on the over-arching rules relating to all in/out decisions — but touchline decisions remain in the hands of linesmen and the man in the middle, and they get it wrong way too often. I’ve noticed this for years now but VAR has brought in into clearer focus. Touchline decisions are called differently and I think I know why: Linesmen aren’t looking at it from above, of course. From a ground level view, if linesmen see any sort of green between ball and line they judge the ball to be out of play when the entire ball, according to Rule 9, has clearly not passed wholly over the line — something that would be obvious with a birds-eye view. The lead image atop this post (a screen grab; thanks again, YouTubeTV) provides a perfect example. This ball was called out for a corner. One can sorta tell the players are increasingly peeved by this double standard and why shouldn’t they be? Players on the ball do have a bird’s-eye view. There appears to be one standard for the goal line and another for every other boundary on the field. I’ve not seen nor heard nor read of VAR ever being used to mete out a touchline decision. I’m not advocating for that. But possession is important and in/out should better hew to the standard spelled out in Rule 9.

•••

The short-handed Colombians were put out of the tournament by England Tuesday in a Round of 16 affair that was at once pedestrian and completely riveting. That’s what an otherwise punchless World Cup match that goes to penalty kicks can do, especially where England are involved. Just the idea that some 60 million Brits were watching the game — increasingly pissed, in the fetal position, waiting for something catastrophic to happen — imbues all of their knock-out fixtures with that certain, extra-special something. Their boys didn’t disappoint — blowing the game, then rescuing it — and the rest of us duly lapped up the many layers of shadenfreude. The English did indeed have it won before conceding a 94th minute equalizer and sleep-walking through extra time toward penalties, the tie-breaking mechanism that has put them out of three World Cups and three European Championships. It’s a tragically accurate running joke in England that the national team cannot cope with, much less win, a penalty shoot-out at a major tournament (Tuesday’s win makes them 2-6 overall). It’s harped upon nearly as often as the fact that, “We invented this game.” But they won this shootout, celebrated accordingly, and they’re off to face plucky Sweden in a Saturday quarterfinal where the stakes, the alcohol intake, the national anxiety will be that much higher.

•••

Golden Boy James Rodriquez was the reason Colombia played short-handed Tuesday, having pulled up lame in the last group game. James (pronounced hah-mez) bears a fairly striking resemblance to a young John Harkes, US midfielder from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Colombian and his coiffure cut a more metrosexual pose than Harkes and his period mullet ever could. But close enough to meet the ‘Separated at Birth’ threshold, eh? Or maybe first cousins?… This is the sort of thing an American soccer fan is reduced to when we fail to qualify.

•••

I’ve now watched and participated in hundreds of these penalty shootouts (the Round of 16 produced three in eight matches). I’m surprised goalkeepers, at this elite level, don’t hold their ground at least once in the first couple kicks, if not to account for a Panenka or blast down the middle, then to plant in the heads of subsequent shooters the possibility that he might not be guessing/diving one way or the other as the shootout progresses. For keepers, this guessing has been the long-standing strategy: Shooters are so close that goalies must guess which way a shooter is going with the ball — and hope for the best. Yet so many elite players today basically trust their ability to see the keeper’s movement and, at the very last second, go the opposite way with the ball. A goalie who doesn’t move would completely freak the shooter out – and give every succeeding shooter uneasy food for thought.

•••

More observations from the first two weeks: Poor Japan. They deserved better than a 3-2 Round of 16 loss to Belgium on the last kick of the game. But honestly, WTF were they thinking — committing so many men to a corner kick (tiny team vs. big team) in the 94th minute tied at 2? It was a bold decision, I’ll grant you. But I’d have put a few token dudes in the box, stayed behind the ball essentially, and taken my chances in extra time… Sweden has played 50 World Cup matches in its history. Only Mexico has played more without winning a Cup. Yet Sweden’s international record is far more decorated. Indeed, Sverige is perhaps the globe’s most underrated soccer nation. This country of just 7 million souls, where one cannot play outside all year round, has produced a World Cup finalist (1958), three semifinalists (1938, 1950, 1994) and two quarterfinalists (1934, 2018). It may well better a last-8 finish this year — all without Zlatan Ibrahimovich, the finest Swedish player of his generation (perhaps of all time) who, though still active (in MLS), petulantly retired from international play two years ago. Sweden’s example is something for American soccer boosters to ponder when reckoning grandiose future goals. The US has reached a single quarterfinal, full stop… FIFA is as corrupt as they come, but it’s important to recognize the root and nature of that corruption. Since the late 1980s, FIFA’s particular corruption is born of the fact that each and every participating nation (all 211 of them) have a vote in where the World Cup will be held every four years. And make no mistake: Those votes do in fact get bought. But let’s also be real: Without this sort of arrangement (which leads to both coalition-building and corruption), there would never have been World Cups in Africa, or Russia, or the Middle East. Yes, it’s conventional wisdom that Qatar paid through the nose, to literally hundreds of national football federations, order to secure the 2022 event. And yes, repressive regimes benefit from buying such events — but so do the soccer-loving masses in those countries and regions. Ask an African soccer fan if it was worth it to have the 2010 event in South Africa. Ask a Saudi if they’re happy the World Cup is coming to Qatar. Moving the Cup around is good for the world game. Without its particular brand of corruption, the event would be held somewhere in Europe or North/South America every four years, forever… Mark Geiger, the only American referee participating in this World Cup, drew a very tough assignment in the England-Colombia match. It’s hard to imagine how a more experienced, skilled ref would’ve handled things without killing the game: Colombia deserved to have 2-3 guys sent off for dissent alone following the quite-right penalty kick decision that put England up 1-0. Radamel Falcao has complained publicly about Geiger’s performance, claiming he favored the English. But any neutral observer could plainly see the Colombians, down a goal, ratchetded up the physicality in hopes of turning the match back in their favor. Unfortunately, Geiger didn’t want to decide said match by sending anyone off — something the savvy Colombians sensed immediately. In bending over backward to preserve Colombia’s chance of ultimately getting a result, Geiger may have torpedoed his own career at this level.

The Most Productive Response to World Cup Failure? Choose and Support an MLS Club

Who is best equipped to cope with U.S. Soccer’s elimination from the 2018 World Cup? Seattle Sounders fans…

Instead of asking where U.S. Soccer goes from here, let’s take a bit of time to first understand where we are, and why.

Dropping the Oct. 10 match to Trinidad & Tobago and missing out on the Russian World Cup this summer do not change America’s standing in the soccer world.

In the grand scheme of things, we are still operating in the “modern” era of American soccer, thanks to a generation of now-50something players who, almost exactly 28 years earlier (on the same Caribbean island), qualified their country (one that had operated for 40 years as an irrelevant footballing nation) for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. From that moment forward, the U.S. graduated into the company of proper footballing nations, i.e. those that qualify for World Cup finals with regularity and harbor reasonable expectations of advancing out of the group stage. Here’s the proof of this evolution: 1990 marked the first of seven straight World Cup appearances for the U.S., four of which ended in the knockout stage.

To argue that missing the 2018 World Cup “shows everything is wrong with the United States doesn’t follow,” Stephan Szymanski told The New York Times this week. Symanski, co-author of the wondrous book, Soccernomics, is among the keenest soccer observers on the planet. “This doesn’t prove that. Stuff happens. It’s the nature of the game and not necessarily surprising to see the U.S. knocked out. This is what being a soccer fan is like. You’re prone to the extreme event all the time. There’s no royal road, unless you’re Brazil or Germany.”

We’ll unpack this more thoroughly below, but this understanding of world football viability is really important for U.S. fans to get their heads around in wake of this week’s admittedly gut-wrenching events. Not going to Russia truly sucks, on multiple levels, and while it may well prove a “teachable moment” for the U.S. soccer establishment, we are obliged to remain clear-eyed about how international football works and exactly why this failure to qualify (for the first time since 1986) truly IS such a pivotal moment. Because it’s not what you may think.

As I’ve written before, international football is hard. Failures like Tuesday’s happen each and every World Cup (and European Championship) cycle, to perfectly capable footballing nations. England missed the WC in 1974 (just 8 years after winning the whole ball of wax), then again in 1978 and 1994. The Netherlands just crashed out of Russia 2018 qualifying — the second straight major-tournament qualification failure for one of the planet’s traditional powers. Chile, runners-up at last summer’s Confederations Cup and one of the game’s most entertaining sides, failed to qualify for Russia, too. So did mighty Italy, qualifiers for every WC finals since 1958.

Every four years, at least one really good European team and one strong South American side don’t qualify for the World Cup. In England, Holland and now Chile & Italy, these failures either have led to or will lead to genuine soul-searching re. team coaching, talent identification/development, and national team administration. This is the introspective process American soccer is wrestling with now.

But if history is any guide, this introspection will come to nothing.

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Decade-old, Yank-laden Fulham Phenomenon Revisited

[Thirteen years ago, I ventured to the SW6 section of London to report on the Yank-laden Fulham FC phenomenon for espn.com. For whatever reason, the first installment of that two-part feature no longer lives on the web. It has been reprinted below. The second installment can still be found here … The Cottagers would survive the 2007 relegation battle and spend another seven years in the Premiership — a scrappy, mid-table tenure highlighted by a 2010 appearance in the Europa Cup final. Alas, 13 years on, FFC are back in the Championship, having been relegated in 2014, promoted in 2018 and bounced straight back down again a year later.]

LONDON — There are moments, sublime moments, when spectators sitting in the Johnny Haynes Stand at Craven Cottage can look to the far corner of the ground — where the geometric grandstands fail to meet — and see straight through to the Thames. The river fairly well glistens on sunny spring afternoons like the one we spent in late March, watching Fulham F.C. and its sizable American contingent (players and fans) salvage a 1-1 draw with visiting Portsmouth. Through these gaps in the stadium seating, one spies Putney on the far bank before yet another eight sculls in and out of the V-shaped frame — a window, however small and diversionary, on why Fulham is one of the Premiership’s most compelling clubs.

American soccer fans might not know Fulham Football Club from Scunthorpe United if the two shared the same lower division and the same dearth of Yanks on their rosters. But Fulham does play in the Premiership — for now — and the club has made a habit of buying up American talent on the cheap, to the point where Craven Cottage has become ground zero for U.S. soccer fans heading to London to check on our boys.

That was our exactly charge in late March: To stop merely scouring the Internet for the odd mention of Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey. To “just go” and see them in person, while sampling those venues where would-be Fulham fans might eat, drink and be merry on either side of Putney Bridge.

We didn’t arrive in South London expecting to watch the club fight for its Premiership life. However, as it turned out, our late-March visit would prove the club’s last carefree weekend of the season. Having won only twice since Dec. 18, the Cottagers followed their home draw vs. Portsmouth with two successive defeats. Coach Chris Coleman would be sacked on April 11, replaced by Lawrie Sanchez, and Fulham’s precarious position (just four points above the drop zone) set the stage for a harrowing three weeks of relegation avoidance.

None of this appeared at all probable just two weeks prior, when we alighted our District Line train into the spring sunshine. A quick, intuitive look at the London Underground map might lead one to exit The Tube at Fulham Broadway, but that’s miles away (and serves the other Premiership club in SW6, Chelsea). Putney Bridge Station is your best point of departure — your gateway to the ground itself, a fine bunch of pubs and the folks who comprise Fulham Nation.

This tidy neighborhood on the north bank of the Thames has everything you need for pre-match entertainment. The closest pub to the Tube stop, however, the Eight Bells, is one designated for away fans. So don’t show up there in your Brian McBride replica shirt. The day we happened by, still some two hours before kick-off, Portsmouth fans had spilled out onto the surrounding sidewalk eight deep and there were dozens of policemen about, mounted and otherwise, to keep an eye on them.

We didn’t venture into the Bells. Too crowded. But we did, as clear Fulham backers, enjoy a pint and some pleasant chat with several Pompey fans in the Temperance, formerly known as the Pharaoh & Firkin, another de facto “visitors” pub serving Craven Cottage. Just that day, rumors were swirling that Michael Dell, of Dell Computer fame, was angling to buy Fulham F.C. (word of Wal-Mart billionaire Stan Kroenke’s new 9.9 percent stake in Arsenal emerged a week later). One Portsmouth supporter, Paul, politely bemoaned the fact that Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks had already purchased Liverpool, Randy Lerner had snapped up Aston Villa, and Malcolm Glazer had assumed control of Manchester United (against the club’s will). “We didn’t think you Americans even liked proper football,” Paul said with a wry smile.

The best Fulham pub in this village is The Golden Lion, directly across Fulham High Street from the Temperance and teeming with locals. Game-day spreads are often served up gratis; the big screen beckons for those without tickets; there’s always someone at the bar ready, willing and able to talk Fulham footy; and, if you don’t fancy the menu’s standard meat and potatoes, you’ll find a great little curry house (India Cottage) right next door. What’s more, there’s an official Fulham supporters shop just around the corner.

There’s also The Larrick here for fans in need of another pint option but, truth be told, the best Fulham pubs are located across the river, on the south bank. Just over Putney Bridge — the very span featured as a shotgun-dump in the film “Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” — and up a quiet side street sits The Bricklayer’s Arms, an old-fashioned, off-the-high-street, football-supporting, still-pulling-proper-pints public house if there ever was one. Another sign of its legitimacy? No TV. If you’re a purist, they reckon, you’re at the game and the other fixtures don’t much matter.

One Fulham supporter, John from Reading, explained to us that several “football” pubs on both sides have actually gone away of late, and not necessarily for lack of support: “What they’ve done with a lot of these pubs — The Cottage is a good example — is they’ll rip out the insides and turn them into nice, gentrified dining pubs. All the clientele disappear, of course, all the football fans. A good British business model that. Get a load of Ikea furniture and there you go, you’ve got an empty pub. Well done.”

Rest assured, plenty remain. The Whistle & Flute, Half Moon and Coat & Badge — each another block or so south of the Thames — are all cracking pubs where, if you show up wearing FFC scarves, you’ll be among friends. But The Brick is the choice here for atmosphere, beer selection (pulled pints of Taylor’s; try the Landlord) and camaraderie.

There is no tailgate scene here. All that social energy is funneled into these local pubs, where the home club and its fortunes are dissected, lauded and bemoaned — en masse, by turn and according to a predictable fixture list. One Fulham supporter at The Brick summed it up quite neatly: “It’s a social life that I don’t have to organize.”

US Soccer: Just how bare is thy cupboard?

USMNT manager Bruce Arena in lighter times — with former L.A. Galaxy charge, David Beckham.

Some 60 minutes into what remained of a 1-0 game in San Jose, Costa Rica on Nov. 15, 2016, BeIN color commentator Thomas Rongen festered aloud at the visiting Americans’ inability to go forward. He identified the problem, quite rightly, as originating in the center of midfield, where 29-year-old Michael Bradley dropped ever deeper and 35-year-old Jermaine Jones drifted even further into irrelevance. Rongen suggested that Jurgen Klinsmann needed to make a change — that inserting Sacha Kljestan was the best option to link up, in attacking fashion, with the troika of Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic.

It was then that I realized the U.S. was doomed this night and that Klinsi would soon be out of a job. Rongen’s analysis was spot on. But if Sacha Kljestan is your best midfield attacking option off the bench, one can reasonably argue the cupboard is more or less bare.

As it happened, Klinsmann was relieved of his U.S Men‘s National Team duties the following Tuesday morning and L.A. Galaxy skipper Bruce Arena was hired in his place.  And so, pointless and facing a win-at-all-costs game at home vs. Honduras this Friday night, March 24, U.S. Soccer finds itself at an unfamiliar crossroads.

Yeah, sure, the U.S. has once or twice stumbled or started slowly in Hexagonals past.

But the U.S. finds itself in an altogether different situation in 2017.

Prior to 1990, the U.S. had never qualified for a World Cup, of course. That signal success, after 40 years of utter failure, ushered in a new era of American soccer, one where qualification was a given and the challenge lay in determining a) how U.S. teams would inevitably ascend to the next echelon, to truly compete toe-to-toe with the best 12-15 teams on the planet, and b) who would lead them to this new place of relevance.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to relevance.

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Of Hillsborough, Heysel & Stamford Bridge: Backstories amplify documentary of tragedy

Of Hillsborough, Heysel & Stamford Bridge: Backstories amplify documentary of tragedy

Hillsborough1_2880476b

[This post was excerpted and adapted from the author’s current book project, “Generation Zero: The 1990 World Cup Team and the Making of Soccer in America”.]

In joining the wide chorus of praise for director Daniel Gordon’s superb “30 for 30” documentary on the Hillsborough soccer disaster, we should be reminded of two things: First, the state of British football fandom in the mid- to late-1980s was legitimately menacing and pervasive; and second, the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster (where 39 died in a similar crush of humanity) should hang over the Hillsborough proceedings with a pall all its own.

That Gordon never found space in his film for Heysel, nor Britain’s genuine cultural worry over hooliganism (and Liverpool’s connection thereto) is somewhat startling.

Gordon was clearly at pains to accentuate the unfair and, some would argue, criminal treatment that Liverpool fans received in the wake of Hillsborough. It’s a fair and important point, and the facts here have been too long obscured. However, the context Gordon seeks — namely, that Liverpool’s reputation for hooligan behavior contributed to the way the disaster was investigated — cannot be summoned without a discussion of Heysel, which colored everything that came afterward and certainly fixed uncomfortable attention on a club (and fan base) that played central roles in both tragedies.

Liverpool FC was indeed front and center on May 29, 1985, when the Reds met Juventus of Turin in the European Cup Final (forebear to today’s Champions League Final). Thirty-nine fans (predominantly Italian) perished that night in Brussels, where Liverpool fans stormed a purportedly neutral area inside the gates but outside the stadium itself. Juventus fans fled from the threat, into the stadium, toward a concrete retaining wall. Fans already seated there were crushed by the onslaught of humanity — then the wall collapsed.

Unlike the Hillsborough narrative, very little of the above account is disputed, by Liverpool supporters or anyone else. Six hundred more were injured at Heysel that night and, as a result, English clubs were banned from all European competitions for five years (Liverpool was banned for 10, but was allowed back after 7 years served).

Gordon makes the important point that, rightly or wrongly, the fear of untoward supporter behavior tragically influenced police actions before, during and after the tragic 1989 FA Cup semifinal. The presumption that drunken fan violence had played a role ultimately moved the English Football Association (FA) to an appalling continuum of cynical posturing. That same presumption influenced media coverage of the event for years to come.

As such, it’s vital to understand the climate in which that semifinal, and so many other matches were routinely played during this period.

The police, the FA and the media behaved abominably post-Hillsborough. Full stop.

However, they were not behaving in a vacuum. The mid- to late-1980s were rife with soccer hooliganism. Serious alcohol consumption routinely played a role.

And yet Gordon touches on this broader cultural phenomenon very little.

Hey, it’s a big subject — probably too big to address fully/fairly in a 120-minute documentary on Hillsborough. But again, methinks Gordon soft-pedaled it because undo context here would tend to explain, if not justify, the behavior/presumptions of police, the FA and media in relation to Hillsborough.

Gordon does make it clear that police, the FA and England’s tabloid culture took this fear of hooliganism — born of Heysel and myriad other incidents involving dozens of clubs — and manipulated it in disgraceful fashion. However, menacing fan behavior was no figment of the FA’s nor Rupert Murdoch’s imagination.

It was all too real and totally out of control in many cases, as I witnessed first hand.

•••

It can be argued that the spring of 1985 represented the nadir of British football hooliganism, as Heysel had not yet gone down and English supporters still traveled to away grounds, foreign and domestic, with impunity. As it happened, this low point coincided with the semester I spent at the University of London, on loan, as it were, from my American college. I traveled all over the city that winter and spring, taking in a dozen matches at three separate grounds.

My maiden voyage, however, would prove the ultimate eye-opener.

I had two English roommates at the Westfield College, University of London; both were rugby fans and sarcastically dismissed football as a meaningless diversion for working class oiks. Accordingly, when Barry — a fellow American and Sheffield Wednesday fan (thanks to several summers spent in South Yorkshire with his cousins) — suggested we and I take in the Chelsea-Wednesday match one early February night at Stamford Bridge, I didn’t even mention it to my roommates. Off Barry and I went.

The word “hooligan” has always been loaded with questionable motivation, but there is no doubt that English soccer in the mid-1980s was then developing, in earnest, its notorious reputation for what has since become known, in a blanket fashion, as “hooliganism”, whereby traveling supporters of certain clubs would clash with home-standing counterparts before, during and after matches in miniature manifestations of England’s particular brand of xenophobia. People always harp upon English hatred of the French, and they do hate them (who wouldn’t). But in truth, the English aren’t particularly fond of anyone in Europe. Indeed, people from the South of England belittle people from the North, and vice versa; residents of Shropshire deride their neighbors in Worcestershire, and vice versa; even neighboring towns have managed to work up healthy mutual hatreds over the course of centuries.

As a consequence, “support” for football clubs routinely takes on a tribal, fever pitch (to borrow a phrase) the likes of which we really cannot imagine here in the States. There is no cultural equivalent that even begins to fit.

The year before, after Liverpool had defeated Roma in the 1984 European Cup Final, bands of Italian toughs on scooters had apparently attacked celebrating British fans as they danced in the Eternal City’s many fountains. Hit and run, or hit and scoot, apparently. This sort of behavior didn’t sit well with the English, as it probably wouldn’t with anyone. A year later, at Heysel, it was payback time.

Yet fan violence wasn’t reserved for internationals. English fans — not all fans, but relatively small subgroups of young toughs — routinely practiced their sordid craft at domestic matches, where rivalries were arguably more heated. Familiarity and contempt, don’t you know. This was the backdrop, only a few months pre-Heysel, as Barry and I left Westfield College, in the north London borough of Hampstead, for south London.

The tableau in and around Stamford Bridge that night was truly surreal. We came up and out of the Fulham Broadway Tube station and immediately walked past a pub that had been thoroughly gutted, all its windows shattered following a punch-up late that afternoon apparently; police and angry masses milled about everywhere.

Picture the scene from Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen and the boys reach that bridge, the one a few clicks beyond which lies Cambodia and certain peril, the one eerily bejeweled with hanging lights and flairs, where a night-time firefight rages and chaos reigns. I love that scene, and that’s what it was like in and around Stamford Bridge that night, minus (ironically) the illuminated bridge. It was an atmosphere only enhanced by the fact that the river of supporters streaming toward the ground was continually fed by tributaries emanating from local pubs. Plus, I’d gotten well and duly stoned before leaving Hampstead. I was effectively channeling Timothy Bottom’s surfer dude character, Lance, who was transfixed but not effectively warned by the spectacle.

Following Barry’s lead we entered the stadium through a portal reserved for visiting fans alongside a gaggle of Wednesday supporters. The terrace (no seats) set aside for visitors at Stamford Bridge was located behind the North goal. To our left there was nothing — just a sunken access road, well below us, that led to the field. Indeed, 30 feet of open space separated us from the main stand along the touchline.

To our right was an unoccupied terrace guarded on either side by 15-foot, wrought-iron fencing punctuated at foot-long intervals by sharp spikes. Beyond that was the remainder of Stamford Bridge’s North Terrace, occupied by thousands of Chelsea fans, clearly hammered and beside themselves with venom, all of it aimed at — us.

I had been utterly naïve about this excursion. I would soon learn what I should have known beforehand — what my roommates would have readily told me — namely, that Chelsea supporters, back then anyway, were among the “hardest” and most hostile in London, rivaled only by Millwall’s and West Ham’s. Put the money of Russian oligarch ownership out of your mind. This was not the posh club it is today. Chelsea was a hardscrabble, working class club in 1985, with fans to match.

Today, as home to one of the world football’s richest clubs, Stamford Bridge is a jewel (I’ve heard some older fans deride it as a bleedin’ galleria). In 1985, it was no such thing. Picture a dingy, no-frills ground very much like the Hillsborough we see in Gordon’s documentary.

•••

Inside the ground, the Wednesday fans (along with at least one woefully underprepared, somewhat stoned Yank), occupied a pen current observers might also recognize from the “Hillsborough” documentary. No seats. Completely enclosed. But that February evening in 1985, we were but a few hundred traveling supporters from Sheffield. There was no crush of fans clamoring to enter all at once. There was plenty of room to move about freely, though we instead huddled together — to guard against the cold and various projectiles.

From the outset and this considerable distance — the full width of the open terrace, maybe 25 yards — the Chelsea faithful pelted us with AAA batteries and pound coins. However, to be honest, it wasn’t all that threatening. It was a bit of a laugh at that stage. What a good and practical idea, I remember thinking, to leave that section open, as a buffer.

The game? Well, at times it seemed almost secondary to our homestanding neighbors a section removed. Chelsea scored first, through Kerry Dixon, and Sheffield managed to equalize just before halftime.

About then, to our horror, the empty section that separated the home crowd from ours was opened up, practical caution apparently giving way to the reality of ticket sales.

What ensued was a jailbreak. There’s no other way to describe it, and it lends insight to the rush/crush of fans that took place at Heysel and Hillsborough. The Chelsea throng poured over (!) and around this huge, spear-tipped fence like a horde of rabid 11th century Danes, and made a beeline for the lone wrought-iron barrier now separating us. Soon they were pressed up against it, screaming obscenities and taunting us, their arms reaching through the fence like desperate, famished prisoners. We all instinctively moved away from the fence, gathering at the far edge of the terrace and pulling our jackets up around our heads so as not to take a AAA in the ear. Let me tell you: It was fucking scary. I remember turning to Barry and saying, “I should NOT have gotten stoned.”

This was not some frenzied spasm of menace that faded with time. The Chelsea fans were on us the whole time, the entire second half, bombarding us with all manner of pocket-sized ammo. Thank god no human could spit that far.

There was no police presence in the terrace, only a smattering along the access/egress concourse that ran along the back of all three sections, behind the north goal. While the Chelsea horde had scaled one wrought-iron fence, an identical fence continued to separate them from us. The only thing stopping them from invading our space was, well… I don’t know. The fact that police were watching from above and perhaps an obscure, deep-seated tenet of British restraint?

Fortunately Chelsea scored in the final 10 minutes to secure a 2-1 victory. I don’t want to think about how things might have played out if Wednesday leveled things, or managed to win the game. As a player myself (at the time), I remember considering the prospect later that night: Did the Wednesday players, for example, recognize what victory might mean for the 800 or so supporters who’ve traveled down from Sheffield? Can one try to win with all the same commitment, knowing that a goal or victory — or perhaps a goal celebration taken a bit too far — might well bring a battery down on someone’s head, to say nothing of what might happen afterwards, outside the stadium?

Today, in the more refined Premiership era, visiting players score and make beelines to visiting fan sections, where much fist pumping and bellowing is enjoyed by the merry bands of traveling supporters. English football comportment was generally far less exhibitionist during the 1980s (so few of the games were televised). But visiting goal celebrations were relatively muted, in part, so as not to put traveling supporters in unnecessary danger inside and outside the ground.

As it was, when the final whistle blew and the referee pointed to the spot, the home supporters spent a few minutes hugging each other and chanting before they turned back to us and emptied their pockets one last time.

The trip out of the stadium was more frightening still. We Wednesday supporters exited first — and now there were several dozen policemen to help us execute this delicate task. The entire stadium was sealed but for our Bobby-lined egress route, which, of course, passed right behind our neighboring terrace, where the horde reached out to us one last time through the fence. They let us have it again, but I didn’t see any of this spectacle. I had my coat up over my head.

Outside the stadium there were two long lines of police on horseback; we walked between them the three city blocks back to the Tube station, where a special train was waiting for us. We piled on, the doors closed, and, as we slowly pulled away, a group of Chelsea fans burst down onto the platform, half of them singing “We love you Chelsea/Oh yes we do-oo…”, while the other half reiterated the epithets to which we had become accustomed inside the Bridge.

The context is important: Wednesday was and remains no particular rival of Chelsea’s. This was a run-of-the-mill, February match between a pair of mid-table sides, with nothing special to play for. And yet the atmosphere between the two sets of supporters was dire — and routine. That everyday menace like this, and incidents like Heysel, did nothing to move the FA toward meaningful institutional reform and stadium renovation, is a bit mystifying 30 years on. That it took Hillsborough to make that happen, finally, is tragic.

Back at Westfield, just off the Finchley Road, I found my roommates at home and started to regale them with tales of my nerve-rattling introduction to top-flight English football. Yet I’d hardly begun when Trevor interrupted. “Hang on, mate. You sat with the away supporters?” As indicated, Trev was no football fan back then, but he knew enough to throw a disbelieving glance at Adrian, before turning back to me. “That was fucking stupid.”

Das Reboot: German Scraps Aid U.S. Soccer

Das Reboot: German Scraps Aid U.S. Soccer

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Germany’s much-ballyhooed rebuilding program has become the default reasoning behind Sunday’s World Cup trophy, but they’re nowhere special without one young gun in particular, Tomas Mueller.

One of the practical joys of watching any proper soccer tournament is the breadth of exposure given to teams that matter. The group phase can be tedious. When the world’s best teams congregate, some also-rans are surely caught in the crossfire. But these three games provide an early indication of who’s got what, and the first two knockout game effectively produce four worthy semifinalists — not the best four teams in the world, but the best in this tournament.

This is true of any tournament, but it just so happens that World Cups, European Championships, and, to a lesser extent, Copas Mundial, are televised. But if you watched your kid’s U-14 tournament upstate, and it deployed this standard competitive format, and you watched pretty much every game (which you can’t, because they aren’t televised), you would nevertheless enjoy the same qualitative and quantitative exposure to the most worthy combatants in the competition.

After watching Germany and Argentina play six times, Brazil and Holland six times, and all the quarterfinalists five times, it’s now clear  the 2014 FIFA World Cup successfully identified Germany as the tournament’s best team. And so we should applaud the 1-0 result because it was both just and deserved.

This is a championship process most Americans “identify” more with golf and the USGA, whose famously punishing course setups are designed not to do anything abstract like protect par, or give the world’s best players some lesson in humility, but to identify the best player over four days of play.

Here our good friends at FIFA do a comparable and creditable job, mainly because they can’t screw it up — not the breadth of exposure part anyway. This format isn’t anything peculiar or innovative from FIFA. Again, it’s how soccer tournaments are run at the African Cup of Nations and the Crossroads Challenge here in New Gloucester, Maine.

Results can be stolen, or given away, but tournaments seldom are.

I thought Argentina were actually very good in the final, the first half especially. I don’t know why they took off the effective Lavezzi, though if Aguero is healthy, one supposes one must play him. Whether they can tactically be played together, or not, is something on which I’m not comfortable challenging Coach Carlos Sabella, who generally played his hand well.

But the Germans were superior and now we hear why/how exactly it was they scaled these heights. Once Vlad Putin had leaned over and congratulated Angela Merkel on the victory, there ensued   a hale of sobriquet-laden analysis re.  Das German Reboot, the overhaul of Germany’s player evaluation and academy systems that launched in 2000, whereupon the Germans had gone 4 whole years without winning anything (one has to go all the way back to the 1996 Euros in England; prior to that, World Cup Italia 1990 — those are high standards).

Lost in amid all this bootlicking is this irrefutable fact: It’s a damned good thing for the United States that Germany stepped up that player development effort when they did. With a surfeit of young talent, Merkel’s Boys can afford to let players like John Brooks, Julian Greene, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones play for us!

And who’s the U.S. coach? Jurgen Klinsmann, a figure integral to Das Reboot — he was national team jefe for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where a very young but promising group (Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Klose, Neuer) was thrown into the fire (under similar, home-country pressures that ultimately poleaxed Brazil) and finished third.

This all wraps up very neatly. They win World Cups, and we just happen to disproportionately benefit from the German scraps, which are better than anything much we can produce on our own. If Das Reboot is successful enough, we should snag some REALLY good castoffs between now and Russia 2018.