Friday, June 30, 2006


RIP Randy Walker 1954-2006

Sad, sad story. Walker was so young.

I always liked Walker. After Gary Barnett oozed and weaseled his way out of Northwestern to go be slimy at Colorado, I figured Wildcats football, which had been the nations's biggest joke prior to Barnett's arrival, would slip back to where it cam from: the pits.

Walker, however, despite being handicapped by strict academic standards, always kept the Wildcats competitive, going to three bowl games and even winning a Big Ten title in 2000. Of course, even when the Wildcats weren't at their best, their wild, mad scientist offense was always entertaining. Always.

Walker will be missed.

Sad, sad story.

Look Closely

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Random Stuff

Jay the A site dedicated to bashing Douche Mariotti? The world needed this. (Hat tip, White Silk.) By the way, Mariotti has apparently been suspended and absent from the Sun-Times the last three days. Let's make this stick, people. Please.

Babes of the World Cup. Click, click, click away.

Check out this ambitious cover version of the U2 classic 'Sunday Bloody Sunday.' Nice job.

Oh, and if you didn't already think Italian fans are jackholes, run a Yahoo image search for "Italian fans." I think that about sums it up. (Might not be safe for work.)

The Quarterfinals Analysis

Well, dear readers, the quarterfinals of the World Cup are set to get underway in less than fifteen hours now, and I say thank goodness. They couldn't come quick enough. These last two days of no games have sent me into an awful, body-rocking state of hellish withdrawal. I feel like Ewen McGregor in 'Trainspotting' when he goes cold turkey and has visions of the dead baby on the ceiling. But worse. And I can't get Jan Koller and his bald head off my ceiling.

Anyway, I figured the least I could do is offer you all some in-depth, high-quality analysis of each game.


The pick? Germany 2-1


The pick? Italy 1-0


The pick? England 1-1 (Brits through on penalty kicks.)


The pick? Brazil 1-0

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Welcome to Chitown

Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha.

A Note On The Officials

This World Cup, unfortunately, has been hampered by some very questionable officiating. There is no way around this. In fact, on I even saw a poll asking if the poor officiating has ruined this World Cup and made it the worst edition since the ultra-defensive version of 1990. Hearing and seeing stuff like this just makes my heart sink. And while I certainly don't agree with the sentiment that a batch of questionable calls has ruined things - nay, I've enjoyed it all immensely - I can't deny that a few games were sadly marked forever by referees who found themselves front and center.

Anyway, I mentioned the officiating the other day in here and a reader, Paul, sent me an e-mail that was well-reasoned and eleoquent, and funny, so I figured I'd just share it in its entirety. Paul, I hope you don't mind, but I figured someone other than just myself might get something out of it. Well done.

First off, I'm American and a Liverpool supporter who's been involved with the sport for over 30 years. If it will add to my credibility, I was also US National referee for 5 years. Let me start off by saying I appreciate you for not having a go at the referees with fang tooth and a Welshman's knife as the most of the uneducated media has done. If you are an officianado of the Laws of the Game, you had to see this coming. Most of FIFA's law changes have been designed to (a) promote more scoring, and (b) reduce time wasting to allow for (a). When you add in the human element the gray area for interpretation can get sketchy. But at the World Cup, whether people like it or not, you are dealing with the creme de la creme of officiating from each country. When implementing the Laws of the Game, one needs to understand 4 simple principles, they were written to (a) promote player safety (without the players there is no game), (b) emphasize Fair Play (FIFA's motto), (c) allow the referee to demonstrate common sense (I'll get back to this), and (d) the Laws are written by players for the benefit of players. The referee is there as a neutral, unbiased, third party simply to enforce these Laws. Unfortunately, when reviewing (c) we have seen quite a few travesties throughout the tournament. Yesterday's Italy v. Australia match is a good example. I thought the red was justified because if you analyze the foul, it was careless, wreckless, and was done with excessive force. These are all the basic, common ingredients for a Red Card. Had Ivanov sent off Boulahrouz as he should have for his foul on Ronaldo in the Holland v. Portugal match, you probably wouldn't have had the quantity of yellows. Your commentary remarks were spot on. The referee didn't commit the fouls and was essentially forced into a corner and had no recourse but to come out carding. Most experienced referees have all had matches similar to Holland v. Portugal and vividly remember the entire match for the rest of their lives. When you have two teams who have consistantly demonstrated their preferred styles of play, the Dutch niggly fouling reinforced with a little brutality and the Portuguese (beautiful people as long as they are no where near a football pitch) who are nothing more than Brasilian wannabe's you have a recipe for disaster that I'm not quite sure even Collina could have sorted. It's going to happen and you have to stand there and do the best that you can while hopefully remaining calm like the captain of the Titanic as the ship is going down. From watching the referees, I don't think Ivanov was all that bad. If you watch him closely, you have to admire how he maintained his composure while subliminally realizing he was being dragged into his ultimate slaughter. What folks will winge about is consistency but good refereeing is nothing more that classic operant conditioning, conditioned stimulus - conditioned response. He can't help it if the players from both sides were there to play each other rather than the ball.
I could write more but I'm at work and gotta go. In closing, if that had been me in the center given the same situations, I would have said WTF and thrown one more yellow just to get in the record book. I doubt you'll see another card fest anytime soon.

If you want to blog more send me a note. The bottom line is this has been an exciting tournament and you have to figure the human element in officiating is going to make it continue to be so.

All the best, Paul

Thanks, Paul. And I couldn't agree more. As I said following the Portugal-Holland debacle, what can you expect from a referee when both teams go out on the field and act like petulant twats? That game was headed in that direction from the moment it began. Ivanov was only along for the ride.

Also, I find the constant bitching by both the official media and bloggers alike tiresome. The worst case of this was ESPN announcer J.P. Dellacamera, who one day was bitching about how too many cards were being distributed and how bad the officiating was overall. But then during the Ukraine-Switzerland game, when the ref was letting all kinds of contact go on, rarely blowing his whistle or giving out cards, Dellacamera was bitching - on numerous occasions, mind you - because the ref wasn't calling enough.

It was driving me insane. How do you want it, J.P.? You can't have it both ways. So if you're going to bitch, fine, but pick one side or the other. You can't bitch from both sides of the fence.

Personally, I still think the ref ruined the Italy-Australia game. If it was me, a guy wuld have to be mugged at knifepoint in the box before I'd call for a penalty kick at that late, late stage. But overall, the officiating hasn't been much worse than usual. In any sport, you will always, always have questionable calls. Always. So deal with it and move on.

By the way, Paul, I also would have given out one more card in that Portugal-Holland game to earn the record. Why not?

Fun With The Fire

So I went to the first-ever game open to the public in the Fire's new stadium, Toyota Park, on Sunday night. My mama purchased tickets for my old man, two of my brothers, and myself as sort of a soccer family night out for the lads. Moms are great for that sort of thing. This did, however, sort of cramp my style with all the hotties walking around the stadium - and there were some definite hotties walking around. Chicks dig soccer players. Believe it. I've been told they like the muscular and visible legs.

Anyway, although I'm decidedly retarded when it comes to changing technology - disposable cameras are a challenge to me - I borrowed a digital camera for the evening to share some photos on the internet here. Alas, I'm no Annie Leibovitz, and other than the specific instruction of "push this button right here," I had little clue what I was doing. Even worse, about halfway through the game the camera's battery started dying and I was reduced to shutting it off then turning it back on to quickly snap a pic before it went back off. I repeated this annoying, futile routine several times before the battery said goodbye for good. Thus, the photos are far from art. In fact, if they came out even remotely clear, I was satisfied...

Overall, my first impression of the stadium is a resounding thumbs up. I was a bit worried that MLS would run with a bunch of cookie cutter stadiums that lacked personality. The little bit of the new stadium I've seen in Dallas didn't strike me as overly imaginative and I was concerned that once inside the Fire's new digs, I would find it little more than a bunch of seats thrown around a field.

But I was wrong.

The place is fantastic. As soon as stepped from the concourse, down my aisle and into view of the field, I was sold. The sun was shining, almost everyone was wearing red, people were chanting, drums were being beaten, and I knew this would be a place I'll enjoy coming to for years to come.

Home sweet home.

Oh, and most importantly, the Fire won 2-0 in what was surely just the beginning of one of the most dominant, notorious homefield advantages in sports. Book it.

This is the main entrance to the stadium. I like how it's designed to look like the main entrance to an old firehouse.

This was taken from my seat as the Fire and New York Red Bulls lined up for the playing of the first-ever national anthem in the stadium.

The Fire fans have long been underrated. They're lively, loud, devoted and totally into it. Too bad that, in the past, they were largely drowned out in the cavernous Soldier Field. They revealed this giant banner during the pregame ceremonies.

Unlike most stadiums where your ticket stub is vehemently checked by ushers, I was free to roam anywhere. This shot was taken from the front row in the southwest corner of the stadium. As you can see, the fans are extremely close to the field. Extremely. Which is awesome. They're right on top of the acton, about ten feet away all around the field.

This pic isn't me zooming in. No, that's actually how close I was to the corner flag. (Very blurry, I know.)

For this shot, I moved to the upper deck on the west side. I'm looking north.

This is a view of the field from the top row of the upper deck. If you look past the far corner flag and past the top of the stadium you can see the Chicago skyline.

Of course, this is the South Side we're talking about, meaning the factories and smoke stacks are never far away. This shot is taken from the outer concourse looking west.

This is looking south from the north conscourse. All of that stuff you see behind the south goal is actually an area for a stage which can be erected for concerts. More on that later.

For this shot I moved down directly behind the north goal. Again, you can see how close the fans are to the action. Yes, that's the Red Bulls - and American legend - Tony Meola in the net.

This shot is taken from the same spot behind the north goal as the last. It's looking up into the craziest section of fans in the stadium. I believe they call themselves "Section 8" or the "Barn Burners" or something. I'm not sure, but these are the cats I normally sit near during Fire games. While I tend to just watch the action, these people go out of their way to chant endlessly, never sit down (ever!), bang drums, heckle the opponent (which is awesome considering they're within spitting distance of the field), and generally try to make as much boisterous noise as possible. They're totally into it...and most are probably very drunk. To their credit, they make the atmosphere similar to something you'd find in other parts of the world where soccer is taken very, very seriously.

Short story: I didn't see it happen live, but when I got home and watched the replay, there was a point in the game where someone from this section threw a beer bottle on the field. Meola picked it up, tossed it back, and began pointing to someone in the crowd.

Now, on the one hand, this was total garbage from the dickbag fan who tossed the bottle. He was obviously a drunken lowlife and should have been booted, maybe even banned for good. Unacceptable.

On the other hand, a part of me had to laugh. It's good to know that the Fire has fans this crazy and this into it. Take away the part where the guy is a bottle-tossing piece of shit, and we'll be onto something.

This is a large drum that some dude was beating among the "crazy" fans I just mentioned. To be honest, this section was so crowded and packed together, I legitimately wondered how he was able to beat the drum without hitting people around him. It was mayhem in there. Once MLS totally breaks big, this area will be rampant with arrests.

By the way, I think I'd like to bang a drum. I think I could be that guy and have fun with it. Seriously. I may have to purchase a large drum and just show up to a game with it one day.

Looking from the north stands towards the west sideline.

This was taken seconds after Thiago scored for the Fire. He then raced to the crowd beyond the far corner flag. If you look closely, you can see the entire Fire team celebrating with the crowd in the corner. You can also see four Fire substitutes, who were warming up, running to join th fun. (They're the four dudes with the yellow pennies on.) Like I said, great, lively, loud, bositerous atmosphere. At one point, as the Fire subs were warming up behind this north goal, they all looked up at something going on in the crowd behind them and started pointing and laughing. You know you have good fans when they're so crazy that they're cracking up the home team. Awesome.

Another shot showing how close the fans are to the field. That's Thiago lining up to take a corner kick.

Behold what a pristine, clean men's bathroom looks like in a new stadium. It won't be long until drunk dudes are pissing in the sinks to avoid long lines and the floor is little more than one gigantic puddle of urine. (By the way, when that guy taking a leak spotted me and my camera, he screamed "Fag!" and beat the hell out of me.)

A shot from the east concourse looking west.

Chicago's world famous Jesse White Tumblers perform at halftime. That's me just about to land and go directly into a sommersault. I'm kidding, I'm kidding. I'm actually just hitting the trampoline.

As you can see in this shot, the stadium has all of the bare necessities. (Incidentally, I was glad to see that the Patio, a local food establishment from rght down Harlem Avenue, has a spot in the northeast corner. Fantastic grub.)

The west stands.

The south endzone. At first, I was a bit disappointed that an edzone would be compromised by a stage. I figured it would be better if more seats for soccer were in place. But it's not that bad. The large video screen is nice and the small strip of seats are right on the field. Also, those two small buildings you see on the right and left will serve as luxury boxes during Fire games, but during concerts that's where the performers will hang out backstage. I think it's kind of cool that some rock stars will be hanging out where I'll hopefully plant my butt someday. As a rock star myself, of course. Or as Fire fan. Either way.

A shot of my little bros. As you can see, I've taught the young padawans well: Never smile for a photo unless you're drunk or wearing a badass pair of shades. The force is strong with these two. (By the way, check out the blonde, shaggy kid mugging for the camera in the background. I have no idea who he is. Dork.)

Your truly. Ladies, ladies, calm down now. Calm down. My e-mail is at the top of this blog. One at a time. I'll go through each of your love letters one at a time and get back to you. Those of you who send pictures, though, will earn bonus points. Just for the record.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

France 3 Spain 1

Well, it happened. Not that there was ever any doubt that it would. But it did.

The sun rose, the sky was blue, and Spain crumbled into the abyss of false promise. Once again the World Cup will come and go and the Spaniards will be little more than a footnote of potential squandered and things that could have been.

How bad was it? Immediately after the game, Eric Wynalda compared Spain to the Chicago Cubs. Ouch. Now that's harsh. Listen, when you're being compared to the Cubs, King of Losers everywhere, you know you're in a bad, bad way.

However, as easy as it is to dismiss this outcome as simply another Spanish choke job, let's not overlook France's accomplishments. Other than a stretch here or there, they controlled the game's tempo from the opening minutes and always looked the more dangerous side, even after David Villa put Spain ahead in the 28th minute with a penalty kick following a questionable call. This may not have been the same French side that won the 1998 World Cup and EURO 2000, but it certainly wasn't the side that looked so lethargic in the opening round. Can they beat Brazil in the quarterfinals? I wouldn't bet on it, but I wouldn't doubt it, either. They defend with precision and will always be dangerous with Thierry Henry roaming up top, no matter how much he fails to live up to his Arsenal glory while in the uniform of Les Bleus.

Frank Ribery scored France's equalizer in the 41st minute and was arguably the man of the match, causing havoc down the right flank all day long. It's always refreshing to see a guy who pushes the pedal to the medal and looks to go ever forward. The dude is exciting and looks to make things happen. You have to like that.

Now, to be fair, France's second goal, scored on a Patrick Vieira header, was set up in dubious fashion after Thierry Henry earned a free kick with thespian skills straight out of Hollywood, even earning Spain's Carlos Puyol and his Def Lepard guitar tech haircut a yellow card in the process. Puyol did nothing wrong, let's be honest. Yet Henry went down like his heart suddenly exploded, and the ref bought it. Of course, following Arsenal's Champions League final loss to Barcelona, Henry criticized the refereeing and proclaimed, "Maybe next time I'll learn to dive." Well, if nothing else, I suppose you have to give Henry credit for being a man of his word. And a fantastic actor.

When the old maestro, Zinedine Zidane, scored France's third just before the end, the joke was complete. Not only was Spain sorrowfully crashing out yet again, but now the clown cars and dancing bears were unleashed. It was hysterical. I'm sorry, but it was. I mean, at least if Spain had gone out in a shootout or had been done in by questionable officiating as they were in 2002, you could respect them a little bit more. But now it was 3-1 and there was nothing left but the laughter.

If you want Spain in a nutshell, here it is: With the score tied 1-1 in the 54th minutes, Luis Aragones subbed out both Raul and David Villa. What a cowardly move. Why take out your all-time leading scorer (Raul) and your young gun up top (Villa) who had already scored three times in this World Cup? Aragones was choosing against any offense in favor of letting the game dissolve into a defensive stalemate - and he didn't even have the lead. He was playing scared, and surely, his team picked up on the vibes. Granted, I like both of the guys he brought in. Joaquin is splendid on the right flank and I was surprised he wasn't a starter, and Luis Garcia has long proven his mettle at Liverpool. But if you blatantly turn your back on your offensive capabilities and play merely not to lose, you deserve whatever you get. I thought it was a chickenshit move. Maybe that's just me.

Besides, Aragones once called Henry a "black shit," so I found some definite satisfaction in watching Henry and his numerous black teammates celebrating wildly in front of Spain. Karma's a bitch, Luis.

Sadly, no more Spanish hotties will be on view for the world. This is a damn shame.

Brazil 3 Ghana 0

To hear Marcelo Balboa tell it, Brazil is a dysfunctional collection of loosely-knit stars who aren't really anything special.

Balboa actually said during this game that he didn't get the feeling that the Brazil players got along, at one point even accusing Adriano of refusing to pass to Ronaldo on a two-on-the-goalie break for what would have been a sure goal - except for the fact that Ronaldo very well may have been offsides. Balboa also said that Brazil played flowing, attractive soccer against Japan in the first round, but that they didn't look so pretty against the tougher sides of Croatia and Australia and that the Brazilian fans didn't like it.

At this point, Balboa actually said this: "Brazil played good, solid soccer and that's something the fans aren't used to."

Let me repeat the quote so that it truly sinks in:

"Brazil played good, solid soccer and that's something the fans aren't used to."

Wow. I'm speechless. It's a good thing my fingers are still functioning.

Granted, I know what Balboa was implying - that the tougher style of Croatia and Australia didn't allow Brazil to play its famously stylish soccer, but still, that has to be one of the most ridiculous sentences I've ever heard come out of another person's mouth.

Ah, I'm just giving Balboa a hard time. The guy actually cracks me up. I was particularly amused today when Dave O'Brien cited a list of some of the all-time World Cup upsets and Balboa sounded genuinely insulted that he didn't list USA over Colombia in 1994. Sure, that was a nice win for us, but I don't think it resonates in the hallowed annals of legendary soccer moments the way Balboa thinks it does. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

But Balboa has been strangely hard on the Brazilians in this tourney. Today he even said that Ronaldinho has produced for Barcelona but has been a disappointment with Brazil. Huh? Just because Ronaldinho hasn't scored - which isn't his role on this team - doesn't mean he's been a disappointment. In fact, as the midfield general, Ronaldinho has done a dandy job of keeping the machine humming nicely. Brazil doesn't need Ronaldinho to get his, and he understands this.

That said, Brazil didn't look all that great today. Ghana controlled much of the game and had their share of solid of chances. They represented themselves admirably, for sure. So perhaps the scariest thing about Brazil is that, even though they haven't always looked at full speed, they still won today 3-0 and have outscored their opponents 10-1 thus far. What can we expect when they, at last, supply a performance that leaves no doubt?

Or are we expecting too much? Has the bar been set too high?

Ronaldo scored in the fifth minute by making Ghana goalkeeper Richard Kingston look silly. He's now the all-time leading World Cup goalscorer with 15. But I'm sure Balboa still isn't impressed in the slightest.

A Letter To A Douchebag

"Hey, I'm Rick Morrissey. I write for the Trib. Perhaps you've read me...No?...Heard of me?...No?...Hello? Hello?...Why won't Around the Horn call"

This is an actual letter I'm sending to the Chicago Tribune's Rick Morrissey, who is a mostly inconsequential columnist here in Chitown...

Dear Rick,

I don't recall ever writing a letter to a columnist before regardless of how pleased or angry he/she made me, so congrats on being my first. Your column on Saturday, "Wimpy soccer doesn't deliver for U.S. males," drove me to it, and I'm guessing I'm not the only soccer fan who will be so inclined.

First of all, this column follows one you wrote only twelve days before, "He's a header case," in which you state that - oh, woe is you! - you just can't get into soccer. Now, my first question is, Didn't your mom teach you anything? Didn't she teach you that if you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything at all?

This is what I don't get: You don't like soccer. Fine. Dandy. That's your opinion and your entitled to it. But why do you feel the need to waste valuable column space saying so? If you don't like the World Cup, then why not just let it pass without casting your negative judgement? Simply ignore it if you must, but don't rain on the parade of others. This is very small of you. Very small.

But back to your latest column on "wimpy soccer." Let's break down some lines here...

If soccer doesn't toughen up, it will never be a major force in U.S.

Well, right off the bat you're mistaken, if only slightly. Granted, soccer may not be a "major force in U.S." yet, but if you don't see that it has grown immensely, and continues to grow, then you're simply choosing not to. Every game of the World Cup is being televised. The ratings (relatively speaking) have been fantastic. The highlights are getting major chunks of airtime at the beginning of SportsCenter and on ESPNews. Newspaper and internet coverage has been immense. There are now two all-soccer television channels, 24-7, 365 days a year. More and more MLS teams are getting their own, private stadiums.

But go ahead, Rick, and pretend it's still the 1970's and that soccer in America is little more than a handful of kids playing in AYSO behind a park district somewhere. For a guy who very recently criticized Jay Mariotti for not going out to meet a story, you seem strangely out of it yourself.

Things you won't hear from your average, red-blooded American male:

• Honey, what book do you want to discuss this month?
• Would you mind if we just cuddled tonight?
• I'm pretty clear on what Phil Donahue would have done, but what would Oprah do?
• This World Cup soccer extravaganza—it's right up there with "Wicked," wouldn't you say?

Rick, this isn't necessarily related to your opinion on soccer, but let me offer some constructive criticism: you're not funny. Sorry, but you just aren't. Every column you have your moments exactly like the one above. These moments, in fact, are a staple of your writing style. You try really, really hard to be funny, but you aren't. There are few things worse than someone who isn't funny or witty trying really, really hard to be funny and witty. I'd say that, as a writer, this is your greatest weakness. Bernie Lincicome you are not.

Now, I bring all of this up because, for many of us red-blooded American males (RAMs), the enduring image of the 2006 World Cup will be:

American Claudio Reyna getting the ball stolen in front of the U.S. net by Ghana's Haminu Draman and Reyna immediately being carried off the pitch on a stretcher after Draman's easy goal.

I'm sorry, soccer fans, but it looked awfully wimpy. That's the image, though perhaps not the reality. As it turned out, Reyna had injured his left knee and later gamely tried to play on, but the damage was done—to the game of soccer in this country. All I could see was a huge population of RAMs rolling their eyes at how soft it looked without knowing the extent of the injury.

Actually, all I could see was the ceiling because I was rolling my eyes too.

Actually, Rick, only days before the World Cup, Reyna's status was questionable. He's been hobbled. The guy is old in athletic terms and his health has long been an issue. Oh, and Reyna is very overrated and, truth be told, kind of sucks, as any smart American soccer fan could probably tell you. If only he could have gone down for good before the tourney even started perhaps the U.S. may have fared better.

Besides, does a guy have to go out like Joe Theisman getting broken in half by Lawrence Taylor before a tough guy like yourself - and, clearly, you're a tough, tough guy - gives him the benefit of the doubt?

Fair or not, one of the problems the sport has in the United States is that it seems to be perfect for the faint of heart. Players are forever falling on the grass writhing in pain after minimal contact.

In a country that lives for NFL Sundays, it's difficult to see a man in agony one moment and up on his feet, suddenly recovered, the next. I'm sure Ozzie Guillen would have a word for this.

Come on now, Rick. Ozzie is from Venezuela, which you should know considering you've written numerous columns berating his rough-around-the-edges style and proclaiming his status as a foreigner as a weak excuse. Venezuela, Rick. That's South America. And while Venezuela's soccer team is to South American soccer what Northwestern is to Big Ten hoops, the sport is beloved there nonetheless. So, yeah, I'm guessing Ozzie doesn't have a problem with soccer. And, yeah, I'm guessing he's a fan. In fact, one of my favorite moments from the White Sox' postseason run in 2005 was the ALCS game in Anaheim (or was it the World Series?) when Ozzie put an official Chicago Fire jersey on over his White Sox attire to do his postgame interviews on the field. I don't know why he did so, but it was sure nice to see that Fire jersey right there on the telly during the baseball playoffs. That was awesome. Pure class by Ozzie. He was representing for both his city and the sport of soccer.

And how dare you cite Ozzie as support for your cause after all the spite you've tossed his way. (Ooooh, Ozzie said 'child molester,' the sky is falling, the sky is falling!)

Is that simplistic? Is that taking a few plays out of an otherwise good sport and passing judgment? Is that throwing the baby out with the bath water? Will I ever stop asking myself questions?

Rick, here you go again with that thing where you try to be funny, but you aren't. You should reconsider this tactic. Seriously.

The answer is no. These are important issues for soccer in the United States.

There are fundamental reasons why the sport hasn't taken off in this country the way its proponents have hoped it would for the last 30 years. There is something basically flawed about the game—or at least flawed in combination with something very elemental to our country.

We like things a little rough around here.

Oh, great. This is the very predictable part where the American who watches soccer once every four years tells the rest of the world - the BILLIONS of people who follow, play, and love soccer all over the planet - that they're all wrong, and that he's right. Billions of people love soccer and have done so from generation to generation and now you, Rick, are going to tell them all the sport is flawed. Well, Rick, I gotta tell you. Now this is funny. I'm laughing here. You're funniest when you're not trying to be. (Although, to be fair, is still isn't overly funny.)

The player being carried off on a stretcher, the stretcher held by two men, it's so … so … so overly dramatic, so over the top as to be almost comical.

Until soccer figures out a way to toughen itself up, it never, ever will be a force in the United States. For a nation raised on bare-fisted, county-fair boxing matches, for a nation whose pastime still includes beanball wars and raised spikes, the sight of all these theatrics is just too much to take.

We're not big on nuance.

The onus is not on the rest of us in this country to embrace soccer. The onus is on soccer to deliver a product that meets the needs of our culture. And, frankly, seeing players perform the suicide scenes in "Romeo and Juliet" with dramatic precision after every collision just doesn't fit us.

Rick, here's a clue: While some of the players being carted off are genuinely hurt, some are wasting time. Their team has a lead so they roll around and get carted off as valuable seconds tick off the clock. So in a sense, you're correct. This is garbage. In fact, there are plenty - plenty! - of soccer fans who will agree with you. The fake injury/time wasting routine is an aspect of the sport that even the biggest soccer apologists will admit is garbage. But it has nothing to do with players being wimpy; they're being smart in a sneaky, contrived way allowed to them by a loophole in the rules. It's gamesmanship and it is unacceptable as far as I'm concerned. But it isn't wimpy.

Also, have you ever taken the bottom of a spiked cleat directly to the knee or shin? It hurts, Rick, it hurts a lot.

Tied in with all of this is that, in a tournament that has been full of incredible athleticism, the U.S. team lacked toughness. Would a U.S. team member like to start lifting weights? That probably would be a good idea for 2010. Did you happen to check out the upper bodies of Ghana's players? Think that might help a little while battling for the ball?

Our display didn't look close to the best athletes a nation of 280 million people could muster up.

But it's one thing to lack speed, which the United States surely did. It's another to be outmuscled, which the United States surely was. That's called a lack of training and preparation. And we looked like the rich kids who had the money to buy all the best equipment but didn't know how to play the game.

Of course, Rick, you'll be first in line when the next wave of columns criticizing steroids come out. You'll bemoan the fact that modern, professional athletes are getting bigger, stronger, faster and that kids nowadays are getting caught up in it all and turning to unsafe performance enhancers and when - oh, when? - will the explosion of America end? Why does America have to always be bigger? Stronger? Faster? Why is it never enough to compete as is? After all, according to a column by you (if I remember correctly), Babe Ruth did it on hot dogs and beer.

Right, Rick?

You're a hypocrite. And while the U.S. team could have been more athletic - what team in any sport couldn't, Rick? - that has nothing to do with why they lost. Nothing. They lost because they failed to show up against the Czechs, played with only nine men against Italy, and gave up Reyna's horrible mistake against Ghana while also being the victim of an absolutely horrible penalty kick call.

It's as if you didn't actually watch the games, Rick. Or perhaps you watched with your negative, spiteful, inevitable column already formulated in that tough, tough noggin of yours.

The World Cup, in all its glory and weakness, is on stage. The play has been impressive, the pageantry almost as impressive. There's a lot to like about something this big.

But for us RAMs, there needs to be something a little more RAMly, for lack of a better term. There needs to be a lot more players like England's Wayne Rooney, who was spitting fire when he was taken out of a recent game against Sweden, and fewer guys getting escorted off the pitch. On a stretcher.

Rick, please, please stop talking about RAMs. I mean, you of all people?

Listen, you're biggest weakness as a writer, other than being sadly unfunny while pathetically trying to be so, is that you're the exact opposite of a RAM. You're wishy washy. Your columns have no bite. No blood and guts. It's usually you just whining about something and covering up your lack of balls with vain attempts to be humorous.

This is probably why your columns come and go like a fart in the wind. Hey, I dislike Mariotti as much as the next guy, but I'll give him credit for one thing: He gets noticed. Your boring, spineless columns generate about as much buzz as Clay Aiken would if John Lennon and George Harrison awoke from the dead and the Beatles reunited.

As long as I'm writing you, Rick, I'll let you know exactly when I had you pegged: Thanksgiving weekend, 2001. At the time, Chicago sports, which can be notoriously lousy at times, were on an upswing. The Bears were enjoying that shockingly successful 2001 season. The White Sox and Cubs both had winning records that summer, which is a rarity. The Illini football team was en route to winning the Big Ten title (though headed to the Sugar Bowl instead of the Rose) and the basketball team was starting its season ranked second in the polls. Northwestern's football team was going to a bowl. Even the Blackhawks were enjoying a solid start to the season and destined to make a rare playoff appearance.

The point is, Rick, Chicago sports were actually looking good. So what did you do on Thanksgiving weekend? You wrote a column imploring Chicago fans to enjoy it while it lasted because things were all going to end badly. Nice, Rick, real nice.

But that's you in a nutshell, Rick: a whiny, wishy washy, negative dude who isn't funny.

The Unknown Column

PS - Another memory I have of you is Mike North having you on his radio show. You said you were talking while driving and North asked you what kind of car you had. You said you were in your wife's Suzuki. OK, maybe it wasn't a Suzuki - my memory is foggy here - but it was definitely some decidedly womanly vehicle.

Being driven by a RAM such as yourself.

Ah, the irony. You can't make this stuff up. Hysterical.

Ukraine 0 Switzerland 0 (3-0 PKs)

It may not have been pretty, but Ukraine will surely take it. And for a team as handsomely-challenged as Ukraine, I'm sure aesthetics mean little to them.

Good lord, have you taken a look at the haircuts on some of these guys? Hysterical. I mean, you can't make this stuff up. There's mullets and mustaches all over the field, and apparently no combs in Ukraine. Half of these guys look like they should be getting drunk on cheap beer in the backwoods somewhere while hitting on each other's homely sisters. They look strangely Canadian.

But then, who cares? Ukraine is onto the quarterfinals, and now that they face Italy next, I am their biggest fan.

This game was quite ugly, and aside from both teams hitting the post during a short stretch in the second half, not many legit chances were to be had. And then in the shootout the Swiss showed why they have no army. Apparently, they have no balls. No nerves. No guts. I can honestly say this was the first time I can recall a team missing three consecutive penalty kicks. That's just absurd. And to think, Ukraine's biggest star, Andrii Shevchenko, opened the proceedings by missing his kick, which probably should have served as an omen if the Swiss didn't fold like Peyton Manning in Foxboro on a snowy night in January.

Have you noticed the trend where in every World Cup at least one Eastern European team with several glorious mullets and dudes who look like they should be hanging out in a cemetary in the middle of the night in Transylvania makes a run deep through the bracket? In 1994 it was Romania shocking Argentina and reaching the quarterfinals and Hristo Stoickkov-led Bulgaria shocking Germany to reach the semis, in 1998 it was Croatia in the semis, in 2002 it was Turkey also in the semis, and now Ukraine in 2006. I need to remember this in 2010. This is like the good old "a 12 seed ALWAYS beats a 5 seed in the NCAA tourney" logic. If, say, Belarus qualifies in four years time, I'm booking them for the semifinals.

I can't say I'm disappointed with Switzerlands's exit. I've had a bone to pick with the Swiss ever since they helped knock Ireland out of the World Cup in their qualifying group. Them, one unreal strike by Thierry Henry, and Israel's decision to all of a sudden be a player on the scene. I'm still not over it. Aye, but the lads will be back.

As ugly as this game was, there was one aspect I did appreciate. The ref let the dudes play. All game long, there were several calls that would have not only been whistled in other games in this World Cup, but probably yellow cards. Even more impressive, late in the second half and into extra time, there were a handful of debatable calls that happened in the penalty box - on both ends of the field - and the ref let it all go. Which was wise. Yes, there was some contact, but nothing worth deciding the game over, especially in the knockout stages of a World Cup. As the Italy-Australia debacle proved, a close game should never be decided at such a late, late juncture by a whistle-happy ref unless the foul is atrocious, brutal, blatant, and obvious. This ref, to his credit, let the game play out to its ultimate conclusion on its own. Fair play to him. And fair play to both Ukraine and Switzerland, neither of whom used the ref's decision to let them play as motive to start taking out legs with malicious intent. Both teams played hard but fair. It may have been ugly, but that's all you can ask.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Italy 1 Australia 0

I hate to point it out again, but my post a few weeks ago criticizing the Italians was spot on and today proves it. First it was De Rossi elbowing Brian McBride in the skull in the game against the U.S., today it was Fabio Grosso diving in the box to earn a game-deciding penalty kick in the 93rd minute. Cheaters and divers. Italians. Fuck 'em.

Total bullshit.

Total fuckin' bullshit.

Look, Italy had no right winning this game. None. They pretty much sucked, let's be honest. Things were fairly even before Marco Materazzi was red-carded in the 60th minute (a bit unfairly, true) and Italy was thoroughly dominated thereafter. Dominated. Thoroughly. Australia controlled the game undeniably, surging forward while Italy rarely sniffed the Australian net, rarely venturing past midfield and dissolving into little more than a defensive shell, which is what Italy does best anyway, but the cowards were even more blatant about it today.

But then, so, so predictably, typical Italian antics changed everything, and for the worse. In the 93rd minute, with the game looking set to head to extra time, Lucas Neill slid for the ball in his own box but touched nothing. Not Grosso, not the ball, nothing. Grosso lunged over him and dove forward as if he'd been hot. He initiated the contact. The ref bought it, Franceso Totti converted the penalty kick, the final whistle was blown, and that was that.

Yet another game in this World Cup tainted by horrendous officiating.

How bad was the call? My buddy J called immediately upon the final whistle to bitch and, for the record, he's not Australian. Usually when you get the "I'm so pissed off I have to bitch as soon as this is over" call, somebody screwed up. I'd look up the ref's name but I'm tired of learning the names of these men who should remain nameless. Jorge Lorriando. Vanentin Ivanov. Why do we learn their names? Because they suck, because they damage the game, because they're incompetent.

It's baffling that that FIFA has allowed these officiating travesties to continue on game after game after game.

FIFA needs to take a long in the mirror. I hesitate to jump on the "Hey, the refs, suck!" bandwagon because, frankly, the bitching about the refs in this World Cup has become tiresome, but there really has been some bad decisions. It makes you wonder, Is it really that difficult to ref a game at this level?

Or do the guys FIFA has hired to ref these games simply stink?

I don't know, but I think I smell incompetency.

Even worse, the Italians will now get the winner of Ukraine and Switzerland. On paper at least, this is a game the Italians will be favored in, meaning they are flopping and diving, tripping and crying right through the easiest portion of the bracket. Fuckin' Italians. This is like watching Duke get all the calls while playing an NCAA tournament game game on a "neutral" court in Greensboro. Like J said, this is reminiscent of the Italy getting Bulgaria in the 1994 semifinals. Lucky breaks for the pretty boys.

Any captions?

Italy stabs a man in the back. Cheating fuckers.

Now That's A Beer

(Almost) Magic

Tadahito Iguchi last night...

With the White Sox trailing 9-2 in the eighth inning he belted a three-run homer.

In the ninth, with the Sox still trailing 9-5 and with two outs, Iguchi belted a grand slam to even things.


It was a shame that when he led off the twelfth he didn't end the game with a walk off solo shot. If he had, it may have gone down as the best late-game heroics I've ever seen. As it stands, Iguchi's effort is still up there.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Weekend Wrap-up

Germany 2 Sweden 0

If Germany's Miroslav Klose isn't the player of the World Cup so far then I don't know who is. Already the leading goal-scorer with four, Klose set up two Lucas Podolski goals in the first twelve minutes here as the Germans struck early and then held on for the remainder of the afternoon.

When playing on the road, the last thing you want to do is give up an early lead and get the crowd rocking, and Sweden did exactly that. It was over early. Listen, overcoming a two-goal deficit to the Germans in Munich is a bit like Ozzie Guillen taking the high road and suppressing his true feelings. It isn't happening.

It's also advisable not to miss a penalty kick, but Henrik Larsson was guilty of this offense as well.

Germany continues to play with an attacking style that is both entertaining and quite out of character and Jurgen Klinmann continues to jump around on the sideline with the joy of a little kid. I can't help but be a fan of these guys. It will be interesting to see what happens in their quarterfinal against Argentina, which in another dimension could be the final. It's almost a shame they have to meet at this juncture.

Argentina 2 Mexico 1

The story? Right here...

Welcome to World Cup lore, Maxi Rodriguez. Your winner in the first period of extra time will be one of those majestic goals that is replayed again and again down through the years. It wasn't enough merely to score such a beauty, but to do so in extra time? Well played, my amigo.

Rodriguez's goal makes me wonder why FIFA has reverted back to its policy of no golden goals. The last two World Cups briefly switched to the idea that extra time was sudden death and a goal ended things instantly. I like that. Now things are back to the way they used to be, and while I certainly don't have a problem with that, I like the intensity and pressure that hangs in the air when you know that one instantaneous, shocking strike such as Rodriguez's ends things immediately. Sure, there is still all kinds of pressure, but why not raise it up a level or two? It's no big deal, though. Works for me either way.

As for Mexico, yet again they are heading home after the second round. I don't know if we should be impressed with Mexico's ability to get out of the group stage, or if we should snicker at their ability to choke once the knockouts begin. Considering the Mexicans like U.S. soccer about as much as I like Jay Mariotti, which is to say not at all, I think I'm going with the latter. So snicker, snicker.

England 1 Ecuador

Great. Here we go again. David Beckham "bends" a free kick to score the only goal of the game and now the world we'll be talking about how great he is, how amazing he is at curling the ball, and how fine Posh looks cheering him on in the stands. (Actually, this last part isn't so bad.)

Of course, the world will also neglect to mention that Beckham does pretty much nothing the other 99% of the time he's on the field or that yesterday he spent the second half dry heaving all over the place and barely able to move.

Oh, well. Listen, I don't dislike Beckham. He seems like a nice enough chap. But his reputation, at least at this late stage of his career, is completely unwarranted. But then again, when you score the only goal in a World Cup knockout game, you deserve some props. So I'll give him props. Well done. I'd just like to see something a little more dynamic from the dude before the world gets back on its knees for him again. Call me salty. I'm just jealous I don't have a Posh cheering me on.

England, meanwhile, continues to look wretched while winning. In four games thus far, I have yet to see the spark that suggests this is a potential World cup-winning side. They do just enough in a boring, workmanlike fashion to beat teams they're supposed to beat - which there is nothing wrong with per se - but they're going to get bounced by a big boy sooner than later and it won't be pretty. It may just happen against Portugal even with Deco and Costinho on the sideline.

Portugal 1 Netherlands 0

Easily the ugliest game of the tourney so far. Easily. This one made the USA-Italy affair look like Swan Lake.

Just like the USA-Italy debacle that ended up with both teams shorthanded, this game ended up being nine vs. nine with the ref looking lost in the middle of it all. But unlike the USA-Italy game, in which both teams eventually settled down and played cleanly, Portugal and the Netherlands seemed intent on proving which team could most make the likes of Bill Romanowski proud. I'm surprised nobody was spit on and no face bones fractured. To call this soap opera a disgrace would be an understatement.

In the end, give some props to Portugal for gutting this one out. Long regarded as a side that wilts early and disappoints, the Portuguese grabbed the lead on a strike by Maniche in the 23rd and then endured not one, but two, lengthy periods of the Dutch having a man advantage. The effect of Luis Felipe Scolari is clearly evident. Scolari reminds me of Bill Parcells, the type of no-nonsense hard man who makes a team tougher the moment he signs on the dotted line to take charge. I'm almost positive Portugal would have lost this game in the past.

Let the second guessing of Marco Van Basten begin. After leaving several established Dutch vets off of the roster heading into the World Cup, he was given the benefit of the doubt because he had an unblemished record as coach. But some of those vets may have come in handy for a Dutch team that exited having scored just three goals in four games. Meanwhile, Van Basten's decision to let Ruud Van Nistelrooy rot on the bench againt Portugal was even more perplexing than the Dutch decision to not wear their traditional orange garb, which come to think of it, must have lessened their mojo. It was one thing to leave Van Nisteltooy out of the starting lineup, but to ignore your star striker even as you're down a goal and holding a man advantage? That's just wrong and moronic. There must be some friction between Van Basten and Van Nistelrooy that the world doesn't know about. Which would be so Dutch. Friction in the camp has long been cited as the Dutch achilles heel, from one generation to the next, and this was like watching the New York Knicks.

Anyway, good riddance. The Dutch are normally regarded as one of the beautiful teams, whatever that means. You watch a Dutch game and you expect some attacking soccer and ample skills on display. Total football, as they like to call it. But this Dutch team was ugly. It started early in the game when Khalid Boulahrouz nailed Christiano Ronaldo with a vicious assault that sent the Portuguese star limping to the bench, and it all went downhill after that. Boulahrouz, who - surprise, surprise! - is nicknamed the Cannibal, was later ejected for elbowing Luis Figo in the face. It's surprising a Van Basten-coached team would assume such a hard, pseudo-dirty identity considering Van Basten himself was an amazing talent whose career was cut short by violent defenders who chose to repeatedly hack his ankles rather than deal with his skills. Perhaps Van Basten took all the wrong lessons from this experience.

After Boulahrouz set the tone, there was no going back, and the second half saw several heinous fouls, a couple of scrums, and even Figo, the supposed captain and wise sage, head-butting a dude. It was lunacy. Ugly and disappointing, but strangely compelling.

Russian ref Valentin Ivanov had little choice but to start dealing yellow cards left and right, totaling 16 by the end of the game. While the immediate reaction will be to blame Ivanov for being trigger happy with the cards, as has been the resounding cry during this tourney, he didn't have much choice. Both teams willingly danced the ugly dance and payed the price. As bad as the officiating has been in this World Cup, it gets tiresome when two teams blatantly choose to act like complete dickheads and then the world casually blames it all on the ref. Sure, it may not have been Ivanov's best day, but to blame him here is to miss the big picture. He was in the middle of the mess, but he didn't create it.

Now Portugal will be without Deco and Costinho for their quarterfinal with England. That sucks for both Portugal and for fans, but neither Costinho nor Deco have much room for criticism. They committed stupid fouls. That's their own damn fault. Um, Deco, you can't grab the ball in hand and walk away with it in the final moments and not expect the ref to card you for time wasting. That's just stupid. Extremely stupid. Ivanov didn't make you act so stupid. Nobody did.

Anyway, not everything was so ugly.

Good god. That is all. Good freakin' god...