Wednesday, January 30, 2013

An Open Letter To US Fans and Pundits: Reactions to The USMNT v Canada Match

To Whom it May Concern:

There are all sorts of ways to evaluate a team's performance in any given soccer match. Some people use diagrams and arrows indicating general player position on the pitch and patterns of play, some just write about the match in general, and some people opt for the old reliable, yet incredibly subjective, 1-10 rating of player performance. I was toying with all of these forms of analysis last night while watching the US Men's National team take on Canada at Houston's new soccer specific stadium, BBVA Compass Stadium, but I eventually scrapped all of that midway through the second half of what eventually ended as a 0-0 draw.

Said scrapping took place right about the time I hopped on Twitter to see what was being said about the match. You would have thought ESPN2 was actually broadcasting Jurgen Klinsmann and his USA C squad ritualistically defacing the Constitution and bludgeoning puppies with 2X4s. All the talk before the match centered around this being a chance for pool players well down the pecking order to get a run out with the national side and an opportunity for Klinsmann and his staff to evaluate individual capabilities.

Instead, fans and pundits alike, were busy making loud noises about how awful the quality of play was and how dire the state of US soccer that a national team couldn't beat lowly Canada in a home match. It strikes me that this is a little like going to your kid's high school play and being pissed that it isn't Broadway caliber or even watching a 4th NFL preseason game and drawing all sorts of negative conclusions about your team's chances to win the Superbowl.

Calm the @$#! down.

Of last night's starting XI, maybe two or three players who donned the US jersey are going to get significant minutes during the Hex. Of those, there's a very real possibility that none of them will feature at all if and when the US qualifies for the 2014 World Cup Finals. Realistically, many of the players in last night's team were just playing for another call up to camp and nothing more. Granted, the match was not pleasing on the eye, and that's an understatement, but there were a number of bright spots that should give US fans some hope that the squad has options and depth in certain areas. Kyle Beckerman was tireless in his role as a box-to-box midfielder; Juan Agudelo looked sharp in the attack; Matt Besler and Justin Morrow got forward well, although their final ball left a lot to be desired; and Omar Gonzalez did enough to suggest that he could be a viable option in the future as a partner to Geoff Cameron in central defense. To borrow from Robert De Niro's Untouchables speech, last night was essentially a time for individual achievement. Let's not beat the team or Klinsmann to death with a baseball bat because they couldn't get a win in an entirely meaningless match.

In some ways, the comprehensive outrage during and immediately following the match is a good sign that the USMNT is progressing to a point that they're expected to win all CONCACAF matches regardless the team that is fielded or the importance of the encounter. However, let's not pull an England and suddenly delude ourselves into thinking that we should win just because we are who we are. Canada parked the bus and we had zero success breaking them down, but it's not like even the highest quality national sides aren't prone to failing at this as well (see: every team Greece played in the 2004 European Championships, Manchester City yesterday, and Arsenal with alarming frequency).

It also strikes me as fairly ironic that some of the performances US fans and pundits coo over as all time great wins stem from playing exactly the kind of defense first, counterattacking style the Canadians tried to employ last night. There were the Italy and Mexico matches last year and the Spain match in the 2009 Confederations Cup.

In terms of tactics and personnel, I have every reason to believe that Klinsmann could have fielded a side last night that would have beaten Canada, but that's not what this match was about. CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying is a long, arduous, difficult slog and vanity wins over Canada aren't going to make that slog any easier. What does help is vetting young talent and knowing just what your capabilities are three, four, and even five players deep, even, and especially if, it turns out those players are just not quite yet up to snuff. Here's to hoping everyone has taken a deep breath.


Grass In The Sky

PS Still would have been nice to get that win though.        

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Why Fulham Should Be Pressing The Panic Button or Send Up The Bent Signal

If Manchester United fans needed any reminding as to why they weren't terribly sorry to see Dimitar Berbatov go, he certainly did his best to jog their collective memory in Saturday's FA Cup demolition of Fulham. There's nothing I can say about Berbatov that hasn't been said before. On a good day, his game is languid, silky, effortless, delicate, and artful. On a bad day, like Saturday, his game is ponderous, lazy, static, and soporific.

I've watched Berbatov play for years and some of the most sublime goals I've ever seen came about through the moody Bulgarian's masterful touch and incredible vision. There was that 2007 goal for Spurs against Charlton and that moment of ridiculousness to find Cristiano Ronaldo in the six yard box for Manchester United versus West Ham United. Those moments certainly encapsulate Berbatov at his best, but they came against weak opposition when Berbatov was just another incredibly talented player in sides not lacking in creative playmakers. Certainly at Manchester United, where Berbatov was the Premier League's leading goal scorer in the 2010-11 season, he was not the focal point of the team and was surrounded by strong personalities who personified United's trademark industry, pace, and team concept.

When Berbatov signed for Fulham following the departures of Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele, Fulham fans, myself included, were optimistic that his class, reunited with Martin Jol, would shine through and inspire the entire team to play a fluid, creative style full of goals and a comfortable campaign in the Premier League. Instead, it seems that the goals have dried up and Fulham are now playing an arguably more static, less dynamic brand of soccer that has seen them steadily slide down the Premier League table and begin an all-too-familiar flirtation with the relegation zone.

Obviously, this can't all be blamed on Berbatov and persistent rumblings of locker room unrest and player conflicts with Martin Jol have continued to plague the Cottagers since Bobby Zamora spectacularly fell from grace last season. However, Berbatov and Jol have made no secret of the fact that this is the Bulgarian's team and his self professed desire to play as the number 10 has arguably been more of a detriment to the side than a help.

They've got the passing part down, but now it's time to panic

Consider Fulham's first match of the season against Norwich prior to both Dembele's departure and Berbatov's arrival. Fulham ran out 5-0 winners. Mladen Petric scored twice, Damien Duff and Alexander Kacaniklic added one a piece, and Steve Sidwell finished one from the spot. With Bryan Ruiz playing in the hole, Fulham looked dynamic and creative making overlapping runs down the flanks and incisive passes in behind the defense. Martin Jol was able to play with one true holding midfielder in Mahamadou Diarra while Moussa Dembele worked tirelessly from box-to-box winning possession and distributing the ball forward to spring the attack. Granted, it was the first match of the season and first matches are always more of a one off than a bellwether, but there was enough industry and young, dynamic talent in the side to suggest that the campaign would be an enjoyable one for Fulham fans.

Fast forward a few weeks. Dembele and Dempsey are gone and now Berbatov is the undisputed focal point of the team. Adding a player with Berbatov's class on the ball should be a value added scenario, but he's hardly a like-for-like switch for either Dempsey or Dembele. Although not blessed with extraordinary pace, Dempsey, as he was often deployed for Fulham, served as a target player who could hold the ball up in transition and in the offensive third of the field and bring others into the attack. He also has a knack for popping up in the box to finish off the scraps and doing the physical work to hammer one in with his head.

The departure of Dembele meant that Jol had to play a central midfield pairing of two dedicated holding players in some combination of Sidwell, Chris Baird, Giorgos Karagounis, and Diarra. Sidwell and Karagounis have done their best to get forward and spring the attack, but they're playing against their nature when they do, and their lack of vision and quality in the pass has caused Fulham to stagnate somewhat when they go forward. Still, with a player like Ruiz playing in the hole between the midfield and a target forward, Fulham have the capability to bridge defense and attack, but it requires a target further up the field to stretch the opponent's defense and create space in which Ruiz can work and an outlet for him to play to once he's able to turn. This is where Berbatov, for all his skill and ability, has killed Fulham going forward.

It strikes me that Ruiz and Berbatov essentially want to play the same role. Consider the FA Cup match against Manchester United on Saturday. Both Ruiz and Berbatov consistently dropped well into Fulham's own half to get the ball from Sidwell, Baird, and later Karagounis. Once they were able to turn, the only passes that were on were square to either Duff or Kacaniklic and more often to Riether or Riise. This allowed Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Rafael, and Patrice Evra to play well up the pitch to pressure the ball as they did not have to worry about Berbatov or Ruiz running in behind them. Additionally, Duff and Kacaniklic were tasked with helping out Riether and Riise as Evra and Rafael looked to make runs down either flank at every opportunity. As the match wore on, Duff, Kacaniklic, and later Dejagah found it more and more difficult to get forward as the yards they'd run to track Evra and Rafael piled up on their legs. This unsuccessful pattern of play was compounded by the fact that neither Sidwell nor initially Baird are the sorts of players that can run through from deeper positions and, most unforgivably, that Berbatov himself seemed content to pick up the ball, play a square pass, and then stroll languidly behind as the recipient of his pass looked desperately for a forward option to play the ball.
Forgive the amateur diagram
When Berbatov did move in the offensive third to collect the ball, he often did so out to the right flank where, at least initially, Riether and Duff were already fairly effective at getting in behind Patrice Evra. In doing so, he killed space and often had to play square or drop the ball back to a teammate allowing Manchester United to keep the play in front of their defense. On the occasions Berbatov was able to find Kacaniklic, Duff, or Riether he seemed content to linger behind the play instead of taking it upon himself to get into United's box to get onto the end of the balls that were inevitably played to no one in particular. Fulham were essentially playing a 4-6-0.

With any other player and many other teams, this would require a relatively simple tactical adjustment, but Martin Jol seems committed to letting Berbatov essentially play however and wherever Berbatov wants. Lest I be accused of Berbatov bashing, let's consider what happened when Hugo Rodallega was introduced to the tie in the second half. I've got a lot of time for the Colombian as he's always struck me as an industrious, no nonsense player with decent speed and the ability to get some goals. He scored ten for Wigan in the 2009-10 season and scoring ten for Wigan in any season is a little like scoring twenty for any other team not named Wigan. 

In the 65th minute of the match, Fulham broke up a Manchester United attack and the ball wound up at Karagounis' feet. He played the ball to Berbatov who was checking back to the center circle. Berbatov went to play a little square flick of the ball to Rodallega who was drifting off the back shoulder of a United defender. Rodallega wanted the ball into space behind the United defense and was unable to recover the ball Berbatov actually played. As play went back toward the Fulham goal, Rodallega could be seen frustratingly gesturing to Berbatov that he wanted the ball into space. Berbatov immediately fired back with his own angry gesticulations that Rodallega should have checked to the ball Berbatov played square. Keep in mind that the match was 3-0 at this point and Rodallega was the furthest player up the pitch. 
With no one playing as a target or running in behind, Manchester United were able to keep Fulham playing across the face of the defense. 
This is where, in spite of my awe at Berbatov's skill and ability, I lose patience a la any Manchester United fan who ever shook his head at Berbatov's style of play. He's never wrong. Ever. 

Berbatov will berate a teammate for not finding him, even in the most difficult circumstances. He'll throw his hands up at missed shots or runs not made, but he doesn't even blush or hold a hand up in apology when he himself screws a ball horribly wide or fails to pick out the run of a teammate in a better position. On a team like Fulham, a team without another transcendent talent or an especially strong personality in the manager's seat, that sort of attitude and constant brow beating is a cancer that permeates the dressing room and the spirit of the team on the pitch. 

This Fulham vintage is arguably more talented than other Fulham sides that have narrowly escaped relegation, but it doesn't have the sort of leadership or infectious personality someone like Danny Murphy or Jimmy Bullard provided. At best, seasoned professionals like Damien Duff, Steve Sidwell, Hugo Rodallega, and Giorgos Karagounis fire back at Berbatov in frustration. At worst, young talents like Kacaniklic play timidly and without the confidence to make things happen lest they incur the wrath of the moody number 9.

From where I sit, Fulham are dangerously close to devolving into a relegation frontrunner. They play Manchester United at the weekend and then still have matches against Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Everton, and Liverpool. At this point in the season, with the transfer window about to close and dangling only six points clear of the relegation zone, I think they have to buy a striker. Berbatov has made it clear that he wants to play a number 10 role essentially free of any dirty responsibilities. This is frustrating as, even in the United match, he showed that he is capable of harrying a defender into coughing up the ball and doing the high pressure work necessary to win corners and push his team on; he just doesn't do it frequently enough to call it part of his game. Ruiz, on the other hand, is potentially a more industrious player, but he isn't suited to taking on the role of a frontrunner a la Clint Dempsey. 

So who is available? Well, the list isn't long considering Mohammed Al-Fayed only begrudgingly opens his checkbook and Fulham aren't exactly a dream destination for proven goalscorers in their prime. A good season on the Thames is finishing comfortably mid table. A great season is pushing for a Europa League spot and surviving deep into one of the cup competitions. I'd love to see someone speedy and hungry for goals like Luis Suarez or Chicharito don a white jersey, but that isn't going to happen. Given these fact, only two names immediately pop into mind and those belong to Darren Bent and Shane Long. Bent is still only 28, can't get a game with Aston Villa, and is exactly the kind of physical, big bodied striker that Fulham need to establish an attacking target.

Shane Long is the kind of speedy, hard working striker Fulham lack to get in behind defenses and would surely allow Berbatov and/or Ruiz a little more space to operate. As it stands, there is no fast enough threat to scare even the slowest Premier League defenders into playing a little deeper.

Obviously, there are a few issues with either of these choices as Villa are reportedly looking for something in the neighborhood of 20 million pounds to offload Bent, but when a guy like Michu can be signed for under 5 million pounds, there is a limit to what the market will bear. Even still, some bigger clubs are lurking around Christian Benteke and if someone comes in with an offer the Villans can't refuse, Bent could suddenly find himself back in the good graces of Paul Lambert...or whoever potentially replaces him.

Shane Long may also be a tough get as Peter Odemwingie is pushing on in years and has had an inconsistent season thus far. Additionally, Romelu Lukaku is only at West Brom on loan and the Baggies would suddenly find themselves light in the striking department if they let him go.

Having said that, if Jol continues to insist that Berbatov be allowed to play the role for Fulham that he's been playing, he needs to look to buy a viable outlet who can be fielded further up the pitch. Perhaps a lineup with Bent or Long as a target player or frontrunner, respectively; Berbatov sitting in the hole; Duff and Ruiz on either side of midfield; and Sidwell, Baird, Karagounis, and whoever else holding midfield could bring some of the dynamism back to the Cottagers' attack. Kacaniklic/Ruiz/Dejagah could come off the bench as tactics and situations dictated. 

Whether Fulham attempt to remedy their current malaise in the transfer window or on the training ground is anyone's guess, but the side needs strong medicine and fast. Looking at this transfer window, Long and Bent are just two possible suggestions that might seemingly fit Fulham's wage structure and also address a glaring need in their attack. As a Fulham fan, I hope for the best, but my Berbatov jersey is getting awfully difficult to wear.        

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Best XI Bottom III

This weekend I (again) spent an inordinate amount of time watching Premier League matches back-to-back-to-back while I should have been doing other, more constructive things like walking the dog, cleaning my apartment, or...bathing. This fact was no lost on my delightful girlfriend and I'm currently snuggling on the couch with her watching The Bachelor as penance. I'm screwed if she looks over my shoulder to see what I'm typing. Whatever. It was worth it. I enjoyed it and I can quit any time. You're not the boss of me.

Some time between watching Arsene Wenger actually make use of that ridiculous coat of his and surprising myself by cheering enthusiastically for a draw in the Spurs v Man United match, I had a thought [insert "one thought" jokes here]. Could you, drafting only players currently on teams in the relegation zone of the Premier League, put together a league challenging side?

Just so we're all on the same page here, we're talking QPR, Wigan, and Reading. QPR are, dare I say, reborn under Harry Redknapp and are currently threatening to shed their mantle as Most Spectacular Train Wreck Of The Season. But their January transfer window activity thus far has been limited to signing too old, too expensive hired guns to replace a bunch of other too old, too expensive hired guns. I will literally eat my hat if QPR escape relegation.

My hat.
Wigan have been competently - and I mean that with all sincerity- led by Roberto Martinez right back into a relegation scrap and should be thankful to even be there. Seriously, how does this guy do it? It seems like every year Wigan just escape relegation and celebrate by selling off their best players, replacing them with no one in particular, and winding up the whole thing again just to see how close they can cut it. Everyone goes on and on about Harry Redknapp, but what Martinez does every single year with three nuns, a mime, four UPS drivers, a high school place kicker, two mannequins, and six of those shooting dummies they use at training sessions to make the wall is astounding. I predict they do it again this year.
Hippest duckface ever.

That leaves us with Reading, the quintessential yo-yo side. They could barely stay up or barely go down and I wouldn't be surprised either way. The best thing they have going for them is that there are other teams just as bad, if not worse, that could sneak into one of those bottom three spots. The worst thing they have going for them is that they look an awful lot like QPR in those jerseys. C'mon, Reading. Dress like the guy who has the job you want.  

So, do we have a contender? Well, first things first, we need a manager. Brian McDermott looks like a bond villain to me and I've never been terribly impressed by his tactics. Harry Redknapp seems the obvious choice, but I submit that he's never gone to a club that wasn't woefully underachieving and then done one before he could ride the crest back down to more realistic results. That leaves me with Roberto Martinez and I feel pretty good about that choice (see above).

In goal I've got to go with Julio Cesar, mostly because I just can't square the fact that this guy has won almost everything in the game with the fact that he's about to get relegated as a member of one of the most underachieving Premier League sides ever. He's starting to come good after some very un-Julio Cesar-like performances and her certainly looks the part in his Brazilian ninja kit. Also, my other realistic choices were Ali Al-Habsi and Rob Green. Al-Habsi isn't an awful choice, but he's got to be backup to Cesar. Green is like a poor man's goalkeeping version of Fernando Torres. In a little over two years the guy has gone from England's number one to a warm seat on the bench of the worst team in the league. If Clint Dempsey ever winds up poisoned, I'm going to want to hear Green's alibi.

He'll be damned if Chamakh is going to score on him. I like that in a goalkeeper.
My back four is Maynor Figueroa, Nicky Shorey, Ryan Nelsen, and Ivan Ramis. Basically, this is a crap shoot. None of the bottom three teams are particularly adept at scoring goals, but they're really freaking good at letting them in. Whoever you stick back there is going to be somewhere way down the ladder from Gary Cahill, Rio Ferdinand, and Michael Dawson. Gary Caldwell, Armand Traore, Stephane M'Bia, and Fabio - Has he not been playing quite well of late? - all probably could have found their way into this Best XI Bottom III back four, but I went with my gut. Figueroa is an athlete who can bomb forward when needed. Nelsen is an old school center back general and a natural leader. Ramis is a big oaf who can kick you. Shorey can occasionally serve a ball. Seems like balance to me. 

In midfield we've got Shaun Maloney, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Junior Hoilett, Adel Taarabt, and Samba Diakite. A few things: 1- I never said these players had to be currently fit. This is my fantasy/nightmare side and I can select whoever I want as long as they're on the roster of a bottom three side. 2 - How in the hell is QPR the worst team in the Premier League with the players they have on that roster?! 3 - Samba Diakite is a butcher and sometimes you need that. 4 - Shortest midfield ever? 5 - I don't want to put Taarabt on this team at all, but he's the closest thing to a gamechanger on any of the bottom three rosters. Seriously, look at who is on these rosters. I'll wait. 

This brings us to my one forward selection. On hype it has to be Loic Remy. On Looks it has to be Pavel Pogrebnyak. On hair it's Arouna Kone. You won't be surprised to learn that no forward on any of the bottom three sides has scored more than eight goals. Again, there's a reason they're in the bottom three. You might be surprised to learn, however, that that eight goal scorer is Reading's Adam Le Fondre. Go on, Adam! Be a hero!

So, could my Best XI Bottom III side challenge for a league title? In a word: no. In five words: Not a chance in hell. But with Adel Taarbat pulling the strings behind a front running Adam Le Fondre, Hoilett and Wright-Phillips providing width on the wings and sometimes collapsing in to allow Figueroa and Shorey to overlap, Diakite kicking people, Maloney being one too many attacking players on the field, Nelsen marshaling the defense with Ramis mouth breathing next to him, Cesar getting a steady workout in the goal, and Martinez looking dapper and gesticulating madly on the touchline, this would be one fun team to watch!

Probably wouldn't be dead bottom either......or have a wage bill as large as QPR's. But we would play at Loftus Road. Nothing like watching a train wreck up close! 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Great Moments In US Men's National Team History

I'm not quite sure what to make of this photo. Some off-the-cuff thoughts:

To whom were these stickers marketed? If it was to young, American soccer fans the marketing clearly failed as I was a young, American fan when this sticker was produced and I have never seen it until recently. 

That I completely forgot Celo and Lalas were on this vintage of the USMNT is a measure of just how forgettable France '98 was to American soccer fans.

Take away any mention of soccer or the bits of jersey that peak out from the bottom border of these headshots and you've got half of a grunge band...or mugshots of vegan, animal rights extremists. 

Does anyone remember Celo's insane bicycle kick goal from early on in the MLS? Also, I remember Lalas doing a 60 Minutes thing right before the '94 World Cup in which he shattered some plexiglass with a shot and also did the balance-the-ball-on-your-head-and-roll-it-forward-to-kiss-it-then-roll-it-back-on-your-forehead trick. Blew my 13 year old mind. 

Lastly, pirates. 

That is all.  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Rose, By Any Other Name, Would Smell As Sweet

I'm back! I know, I know, you can hardly contain yourselves. You've missed my incredible wit and such snarky classics as "The Premiership Best Hair Side" and recurring posts like "Great Moments in US Men's National Team History." Well, rest assured said posts are forthcoming and we have a first half of Premiership drama to dissect along with a January transfer window in the throes of insane wheeling and dealing. But...

For now, it's time to focus a little on my adopted hometown and the massive soccer (football) week that is currently unfolding in The Circle City. For those of you not in the know, and that includes an alarming number Circle City residents, The Circle City is none other than Indianapolis, Indiana. Why The Circle City? Well, there's a monument in Indianapolis located smack dab in the middle of downtown Indianapolis and that monument is further located smack dab in the middle of a roundabout which, I'm sure you've guessed, is circular in shape. Is there another kind? Clever, no?

The MLS Super Draft took place earlier today in downtown Indy and the NSCAA convention is in full swing right beside it. These are great events for the city to host, but for Indy residents they don't mean much substantively beyond the week in which they're held. National soccer figures descend upon the city, some college kids go pro, patterns of play and innovative training methodologies are discussed, our bars wind up a few kegs lighter, and everyone goes home.

What does mean quite a lot for the city beyond this week and what has Indianapolis soccer fanatics firing back and forth with one another on the interwebs is the announcement of a new Indianapolis professional soccer team that will begin play in the NASL in 2014. Halle-freakin-lujah! Many of us, myself included, have already reserved our season tickets and are temporarily ignoring the fact that it's the middle of winter with only Dr. King Day to look forward to before we see the sun again or anything green and leafy that we're not eating in a restaurant.

There are plenty of questions yet to be answered surrounding the new team. Where will they play beyond a temporary set up on the campus of IUPUI? Who will be the coach? How many homegrown players will the side field? Am I too old to entertain the idea of trying out and, in a Disney-like feel good dream, make the team and lead it to glory? ...Or even just sit on the bench and get to wear the uniform?

All of those are questions that will be answered in time. Well, maybe not the last two. I'm pretty sure those were answerable as soon as I finished typing them. *Sigh*

The question that is probably most pressing and least functionally important is what this new team will be called. The sheer cacophony of opinion that currently surrounds this discussion is overwhelming and, frankly, scares the hell out of me.

"C'mon. Scares the hell out of you," you say?

"Hyperbole much," you continue?

Yes, scares the hell out of me, but maybe not for the reasons you would guess. From where I sit, and I know it's been said so many times before that it's a cliche, soccer in this country is at a tipping point. Granted, that tipping point isn't exactly the tiny point on a fulcrum it's been made out to be before. It's actually more like a gently sloping, wide curve that isn't terribly efficient and has taken some time to move soccer culture in this country from where it was before to where it will be Tomorrow (capital T), but it's a tipping point nonetheless.

On either side of that wide, sloping tipping point I see two distinct approaches to soccer in the US, broadly speaking, and I see both of those sides already staking their claim to Indianapolis' new NASL team.

My apologies while I generalize for a moment. Obviously there are gray areas and inconsistencies here, but I'm not dealing with one or two standard deviations from the middle (ie, now). I'm dealing with what has defined soccer culture in the United State and what will define said soccer culture in the future.

Side One: The Past

Side one is the soccer I cut my youth team teeth on. Side one did not show soccer on television, save for the World Cup every four years and a little blip in the 70s and 80s that was more of a curiosity than an actual cultural sea change. Side one did not have the internet beaming immediate transfer news and match results from the best leagues in Europe. Side one did not have many American players plying their trade overseas, and when it did it didn't have the TV and internet infrastructure I just mentioned to allow American fans to follow their heroes in real time. Side one did not have, even in major US cities let alone places like Indianapolis, soccer specific bars like The Chatham Tap in which one could find knowledgeable, passionate American fans supporting their favorite foreign teams.

Side one was defined by suburban white kids playing soccer on relatively manicured fields. They got orange slices and Hi-C at half time. Their coaches were their parents and those coaches literally read Soccer For Dummies on the touchline during the match. Many of those kids stopped playing at 14 or 15 so they could focus on their "real" sport. Those that didn't played for pay-to-play select teams with ridiculous names like Houston Texans Elite Red West and Chicago Magic PSG NPL '98. Even the rules were different; descending clocks, timeouts, 35 yard shootouts, unlimited substitutions.

I'm not saying that any of this was unimportant or even inherently bad, but those kids have grown up and had kids of their own and soccer is no longer exclusively the pearly white, everybody-gets-a-trophy    sport it has been in the United States. Side one is shrinking.

Which leads us to...

Side Two: The Future

Side two is comprised of people who grew up playing soccer and continued to play up to and through college. Side two wakes up at 6AM to be at the bar to claim a spot for themselves and their friends before it fills up for the 2PM USA v England World Cup 2010 match. Side two supports a team (at this point probably still a European team) religiously and is well versed in all the club politics and personalities. Side two is probably 40 and under and still plays on as many indoor and outdoor teams as their creaking knees and swollen ankles will allow. Side two jokes about parents who used to yell "Boot it!" during their youth games, has a child of his own, and can explain to him how and why an outside midfielder should be as wide as possible in a 3-5-2  when the ball is near the opposite touchline. Side two can't imagine what life would be like without soccer, bleeds for the national team, knows what "El Tri" means, and hates them with every fiber of their being.

Side two applauds the creation of MLS academy teams and hopes more clubs will invest more money in order to diminish the effects of pay-to-play. Side two probably sees college soccer as a waning if not dying influence in the development of future American talent. Side two is growing.

I'm not one of those people who thinks soccer in this country is just five or ten years away from ruling the realm Lord of The Rings style. I will say, however, that as baseball, hockey, and to a certain extent basketball, continue to screw themselves up, more and more space is being created in the public sporting sphere for the United States to embrace soccer as a domestic passion. Add to that the number of kids who are all grown up and not only played growing up but played nothing else and were actually really freaking good at it and are having kids of their own, and you've got an emerging and uniquely American soccer culture that is becoming a significant enough force that a city like Indianapolis can announce the formation of a pro team and do so to much fanfare and excitement.

This is where my barometer for the degree to which the fulcrum is tilting kicks in. Essentially, what's in a name? The fact of the matter is, Indianapolis, home of the pork tenderloin and Plump's last shot,  has a professional soccer team and, regardless what it's called, all Indiana soccer fans should rejoice. However, what this team is called places it firmly in the balance between Kansas City Wizards and Sporting KC. Between Dallas Burn and FC Dallas. Between Soccer moms and Side One and the ownership of passionate soccer fans and Side Two. The fulcrum is tipping. But how far has it tipped? What will this team be called?

On the website under the entry "Name The Team" there seems to be clear reason for fear.

A Sampling:

Circle City Stealth

I'm pretty sure those are all either U-10 team names or WNBA team names.

Ideally, the team would quietly form and organically decide on a name and climb the ranks of the leagues and eventually be a MLS side, but this is professional sports in the 21st century and those sorts of things just don't happen anymore. A little less than ideally, the franchise could adopt a name that reflects the unique history of Indiana and/or Indianapolis and conform to some of the conventions of traditional soccer club names without pandering to their European roots. Racing Indianapolis seems a tailor made fit, but apparently the Indy Racing League (people who drive fast and turn left) have killed that possibility.

My modest suggestions would be Indiana 1816 and White Star Indianapolis (You know, the whole city flag thing). When it comes down to it though, I'm just ecstatic that my hometown is entering the ranks of American professional soccer cities. Maybe "scared as hell" was hyperbole.