Clint Dempsey and the Future of American Soccer

1. Most American soccer fans, broadly speaking, have two long-term goals in mind when we talk about soccer in the States. One is the success of the national team, especially in the World Cup; the other is the growth of professional soccer in America to the point where we have a strong and well-attended domestic league, where there is general interest in the sport, and where soccer can be comfortably mentioned with the “big four” sports.

1a. To an extent, the first goal is also a means to accomplishing the second. The World Cup is the biggest stage in all of sports. An American team that plays well in the tournament and captures the attention of the country can lead, in turn, to long-term growth. (Just look at the health of MLS over the last three years, after Donovan’s epic game-winner at the death over Algeria.)

2. How do you make the domestic league — MLS — stronger? The main thing is acquiring talent at all levels: more talented homegrown American players, foreign imports with upside, and star players who are in the late-prime or tail end of their career.

2a. Of those three groups, the last group is the most important for drawing fan interest. While the league’s overall quality doesn’t rest on its core of stars, the casual fan is most easily engaged with superstar players — you can see the way attendance swells both in MLS (Beckham, Henry, Donovan) and other American leagues (LeBron) when star players visit as an away team.

3. Clint Dempsey is transferring from Tottenham Hotspur to the Seattle Sounders of MLS.

3a. Despite scoring 57 goals in the Premier League and 37 at the international level, not one team in England was willing to pay the $9 million transfer fee to acquire his services. (The Sounders, on the other hand, are driving several dump trucks worth of money up to his house — at $8 million per year, he’s now the highest paid player in MLS history.)

3b. Dempsey is the captain of the U.S. National Team and probably its most potent offensive weapon. He is, in the world of American soccer, a superstar.

4. With the World Cup just eleven months away, some have criticized Dempsey’s move back to MLS as a step down, potentially weakening his form ahead of the biggest tournament in sports — a tournament that the USMNT, under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, suddenly has a tremendous amount of momentum towards.

4a. Regardless, the United States are not going to win the 2014 World Cup.

4b. In June of 2014, the difference in form between Clint Dempsey after a club season playing semi-regularly for Tottenham and Clint Dempsey at the mid-point of an MLS campaign will be marginal — or, at least, small enough that it will not be the sole determinant of whether the U.S. advances out of the group stage of the World Cup.

5. The project of U.S. Soccer is a long-term one. Maybe the team performs slightly worse in Brazil next year. But I think that’s a fair trade for an acquisition that changes the trajectory of MLS and the game as a whole in this country. And if Dempsey remains in top form, it will help bury the idea that MLS is not an internationally competitive league.

In the long run, an American superstar in his prime returning to MLS is unquestionably a good thing for American soccer. Clint Dempsey will become the face of the league, his battles with Landon Donovan and other U.S. internationals driving media coverage and fan interest. And, like Beckham and Henry before him, Dempsey will continue to legitimize the league — only this time, it will be for young Americans who will one day grow up to replace him.

The Paraguayan War

This summer, I’m working with professors at Columbia on a couple of research projects; thus far, the one I have been most engaged with is a political science study on the effects of interventions. Basically, an intervention is any time one country invades another in order to place itself between the second state’s government and its people (a clear-cut case: Iraq War, 2003). My role involves going back through the last two centuries of wars and classifying their outcomes (e.g. did the intervened-in country become more autocratic or democratic?).

However, this does mean that I’m learning a little bit about almost every military conflict since 1800 — and because history is endlessly fascinating and complicated and frankly a little absurd, some of these conflicts are both obscure and worth learning about.

So I want to talk for a second about the Paraguayan War (also known as “the War of the Triple Alliance”). Fought between 1864 and 1870, Clodfelter’s Encyclopedia of Warfare and Armed Conflicts notes in its typically dry fashion that “in terms of bloodshed and suffering meted out and endured, [this war was] the greatest conflict between the nations of the western hemisphere.”

Here’s my highly paraphrased and abridged summary of the war. Essentially, Paraguay had a dictator — Francisco Solano Lopez — with major delusions of grandeur. So he stuck some troops in the middle of a civil war in Uruguay, drawing the ire of Brazil (who backed the other side), Argentina, and (later, once the Brazilian faction was victorious in civil war) Uruguay, which soon expanded into a wider conflict. To put the relative populations of these nations in contemporary terms, this is roughly like Wilmington, Delaware and its suburbs going to war with the whole of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

Lopez believed that Paraguay was destined for greatness. So, even though hopelessly outmanned, Lopez chose an aggressive war of conquest, spending six years invading the surrounding nations — except for one minor victory, every battle for six years ending in a vicious defeat. In one battle in 1866, 5000 Paraguayans were killed and another 8000 were injured. The slow destruction of his army was compounded by the periodic, paranoid purges of his top generals — Lopez was Stalin before Stalin was even born. The war only ended once Lopez himself was killed on March 1, 1870 — the dictator and his last 400 followers were cornered by 8000 men of the triple alliance, and Lopez was stabbed to death with a lance.

In six years, a country of 450,000 people had its population reduced by more than 50%. Paraguay’s three opponents lost only 50 to 100,000 dead, while Paraguay lost over 220,000.

What blows me away about the Paraguayan War was that this was not a defensive war, where stronger powers devastated Paraguay because there was something they wanted. Thucyidides wrote, of relations between states, that “the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must.” But, in this case, the weak seemed to believe that they were the strong despite years and years of evidence to the contrary.

We often assume in “political science” that humans (and, by extension, states) are perfectly rational actors. But history never fails to remind us that humans are often far from rational, driven by greed or power or sex or undiagnosed mental illness or the afterlife or a lack of air conditioning. And often the results are inexplicable.

Sometimes, it’s too much to comprehend — but we suffer what we must.

You crazy bastard

Fireball

It hung in the sky like a giant fireball, I thought to myself. Not that there was anyone to hear me if I had said it out loud; I was two hours into the two hour and fifteen minute trip from New York City to Wilmington. I had started in the city around 6 in the evening, relieved to finally get my car out of a place that was actively hostile to its presence.

The drive is basically a straight shot, heading south, the sun very definitively on my right as I zoomed through the rather pointless state of New Jersey. I say pointless not to dismiss its many contributions to American history — whatever they may be — but rather because it’s the only landmass between my home and my school, and usually I want to be at one or the other.

But, so, the fireball. Near the end of New Jersey you get off the Garden State Parkway and head onto a different road, US-322, which heads towards the Commodore Barry Bridge. The bridge, in turn, takes you from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, spitting you out right on I-95 about ten minutes from my house. And in order to do this, US-322 points west, right towards where a setting sun would be.

It had been a clear, hot day along the East Coast, the only clouds wisps of haze that seemed to be many miles above the land. As I began to cross the bridge, I looked out at the horizon, where the sunset was beginning.

The sun was a pure and radiating orange, transforming the sky around it with shades of pink and blue and purple, the sort of color you could replicate in photoshop but it wouldn’t feel real, somehow, you just have to see it and know what sort of a day it had been and how this glorious, beautiful moment could have come to pass. Maybe now you just created some mental image of the moment I’ve just described; rest assured that you are still far from the spectacular truth.

And that’s when my internal monologue, which had been keeping me entertained throughout this solo adventure, decided to try to describe it. People have been staring at sunsets for as long as there have been people. Generations upon generations of writers have been trying to describe the great sunsets of their time; how could I, in one simile, even hope to convey what I saw over the Commodore Barry Bridge?

It hung in the sky like a giant fireball, I thought to myself, and it wasn’t until I stared at the sunset for a few more seconds until I realized what a banal and pointless simile I had constructed. For one, the sun is literally a giant fireball, so I’m not sure what another person could gain from describing it as what it is. But, perhaps more importantly, calling the sun “a giant fireball” is a woefully inadequate way to describe the beauty and complexity of the moment. Some sights need more than a few words, or a few dozen, or a few thousand. Some moments you cling tightly to because they’re yours, and no language in the world can fully describe them.

Some thoughts on Man of Steel

A movie about Achilles: Man of Heel

A movie about Bambi: Man of Veal

A movie about Justin Timberlake: Man of Biel

A movie about FDR: Man of Deal (credit Ben Sheng, @cbbsheng)

A movie about Tebow: Man of Kneel (credit Ben Sheng, @cbbsheng)

A movie about Madoff: Man of Steal (credit Ben Sheng, @cbbsheng)

A movie about Dan Marino: Man of Teal

A movie about a traveling preacher: Man of Zeal

A movie about Hitchcock: Man of Reel

A movie about Tropicana: Man of Peel

A movie about a ship captain: Man of Keel

A movie about Emeril Lagasse: Man of Meal

A movie about a carnival barker: Man of Spiel

A movie about Stevie Wonder: Man of Feel

Okay, I think I’ve just about beaten that to death.

(p.s. I really enjoyed Man of Steel, though I enjoyed even more the new seats installed at the 84th Street AMC theater — they recline completely. )

Beach reading

Some thoughts on a couple of books that I read while relaxing at Rehoboth Beach last week. I also read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time, which was just as great as advertised — but I don’t want to tread old ground too much.

The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, Sasha Issenberg

Issenberg, a political writer at Slate, has written an engaging history of new techniques used to win campaigns. Generally speaking, these techniques are driven by the ability to collect large amounts of data on the electorate and a new willingness to conduct experiments with all this data — culminating in the 2008 and 2012 Obama re-election campaigns. While I’m skeptical of a lot of trends in political science (an overreliance on jargon, an tendency to simplify complex political decisions to fit neat proclamations), it seems that voting behavior is much more fertile terrain. Particularly when, as Issenberg points out, many of the assumptions of campaign operatives and consultants is based on little more than “gut feeling” or how it’s been done in the past. Some of the discussion on data management was of special interest to me, having been on the other side of it working with the database on Beau Biden’s reelection campaign in 2010.

Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, Jonathan Wilson

I bought this book in England around the middle of April. (It’s football in the European sense, not the American one — though that’s a book I’d also like to read.) The fact that I’m just finishing it now is a testament to (a) how hectic my life has been over the past month and a half and (b) how difficult it is to make the history of football tactics engrossing. The book is deeply researched, integrating contemporary accounts from newspapers (aka my favorite thing about history) and personal stories to demonstrate how observers and participants reacted to the slow yet vibrant history of tactical innovations in football. Wilson is at his most entertaining when he assaults proponents of “direct football” — punting the ball long downfield at every possible opportunity — for elementary errors of math in their analysis. And even when the tactical talk gets a bit dry the book remains a very effective introduction into the footballing histories of about ten nations. Between this and Soccernomics, which I read in March, a good few months for investigating the sport.

New name

Hi yall! I’ve changed the name of the blog to pfandrews.wordpress.com to more accurately reflect the fact that I’m no longer in London. You’ll need to type in this new URL to access the site. Rest assured that none of the old content has gone away!

What’s wrong with the Philadelphia Union?

This evening, I went to my first Philadelphia Union game of the year with my family. (As expert readers of the blog know, I went to quite a few football games while in Britain, but this is my first in America.) The Union pulled out a 2-1 win in the U.S. Open Cup — the American version of the FA Cup — over a fourth-division semi-pro team from Ocean City, N.J.*, that was playing only their fourth competitive match together. The Union looked sluggish and wasteful in the final third, never quite able to crush a group of amateur college players. Here’s an excessively long analysis of what’s wrong with the team right now.

A mysterious lack of depth

The Union have 25 players on their active roster, but there’s basically no squad rotation going on. This week is the second consecutive stretch where the team will play three matches in eight days. This would be a time for the Union to find out what depth they have on the bench. Instead, the Union traded one of their top three central defenders (Bakary Soumare) and a versatile LB/LM (Gabriel Farfan) away. Manager John Hackworth is completely unwilling to give the full range of his squad an opportunity, instead rotating the same fourteen players every week. (And no, throwing Leo Fernandes out there tonight does not count.)

There might be three negative consequences of this rigidity. First, Hackworth’s squad is going to suffer unnecessary wear and tear. He says these players are his Best XI — but if we believe this, then the worry has to be whether these players can survive a full season. Jeff Parke, coming off a hamstring strain, took a number of whacks in the game tonight that he could have avoided (particularly at age 31). Second, squad complacency might set in. What incentive do these guys have to work for their place in practice if there’s no evidence Hackworth will play his backups? The team also falls into the trap of being predictable — opponents can gameplan to take Danny Cruz’s speed out of the equation, completely neutralizing his value.

What would I be doing differently? For starters, we shouldn’t have traded Farfan and Soumare without picking up a quality MLS player in return, because our options are severely limited. But I’d be giving more playing time to Roger Torres and consider recalling some of our players on loan at Harrisburg, particularly Cristhian Hernandez, Greg Jordan, and Don Anding. Here’s how I would have set the lineup for the Open Cup tonight.

MacMath

Williams — Okugo — G. Jordan — Anding

Fernandes — Torres — Carroll — Kassel

Casey  — Hoppenot

One caveat: I don’t know what the USOC rules are on cup-tying, so I’m assuming any Union players on loan to Harrisburg City who played in the second round are ineligible.

Who killed Roger Torres?

Hey, do you remember Roger Torres? Little guy, from Colombia? Notched an assist on the first Union goal of all time in 2010, tallied three goals and eight assists across 2010 and 2011 (including his first in MLS, which downed the Red Bulls in April 2011), easily the most exciting and creative midfielder on the team?

John Hackworth has, almost literally, chained him to the bench. Last year, Torres’s minutes dropped from 930 per year to a measly 180 — admittedly, Torres was recovering from injury at the time. In the offseason, Hackworth challenged Torres to show up to camp fitter and more prepared to deal with the physicality of MLS. By all accounts (including Hackworth himself), he did that, dazzling in his preseason minutes in Disney and (in my eyes) performing as the best player on the pitch.

And then… poof! He’s gone! Roger hasn’t even made the 18-man roster for the last two games, hasn’t played since garbage time of the opening day drubbing by Kansas City. Hack has, at times, made various excuses for this: it wasn’t the right moment in the game, he’s got to learn to play in the system. Tonight, it was simply that Roger has to “play better” in practice. If I were Torres, I’d be banging my head against the wall, trying to understand the incomprehensible American manager who seems to believe that Danny Cruz brings more to the team with his leaden touch and low soccer intelligence because “he always runs hard.”

It might be time for the Union to part ways with Torres. But I’ll be really sorry when it happens. And John Hackworth deserves the blame for ruining the career of this promising talent.

The Colombian Question

Torres isn’t the only Colombian whose disappearance from the Union has had negative consequences on the squad. Carlos Valdes, the team’s captain, best player, and MLS All-Star last year returned to Colombia on loan, which was presented as a necessary move to secure World Cup qualification and a place on the team in 2014. Obviously, this is a lifelong dream and I’m happy the Union were able to help him chase it — and it didn’t seem to be an issue with the U’s defensive depth in Jeff Parke, Amobi Okugo, and Soumare. Of course, Soumare isn’t on the team anymore, Parke has been good but not great, and Okugo has regressed slightly from last year. The Union are weaker up the middle without Valdes and his aggressive defense harassing opponents all around the box.

The bigger departure to me, though, is Faryd Mondragon. Mondragon is a legendary, if ancient, keeper from Colombia who played in Turkey and Germany. He is perhaps best known for standing on his head and almost saving Colombia in the 1998 World Cup. Mondragon spent 2011 as the Union’s starting GK, immediately being named captain and leading the team to the playoffs. What he lacked in reflexes he made up for in vocal leadership, commanding a backline that became known for its stinginess. To be honest, I absolutely loved the guy. He was a little crazy, but I loved that he wore his heart on his sleeve and seemed completely dedicated to the Union and its fans.

Mondragon returned to Colombia before the 2012 season, where he joined his childhood team Deportivo Cali. Faryd has also worked his way back into the national team as a backup and talisman for the young Colombians. In his place, Zac MacMath has been the Union’s unchallenged number one. MacMath is a good shot-stopper, but he shows none of the leadership qualities that Mondragon brought to the table and struggles immensely with crosses of all types. The decision to not have an experienced veteran backing him up and pushing him for playing time hasn’t helped his development.

Over the last two years, the Union defense has collapsed from one of the best in the league to a group that regularly gives up four (vs. LA) or five (vs. Montreal) goals per game.

The way forward

John Hackworth makes me angry. But, although he’s been the team’s manager for one year, he’s only had one offseason to mold the team into a contender. Though I hate large chunks of the team he’s put together (don’t get me started about Cruz, Keon Daniel, or our LB situation), he deserves time to make the team work. To me, there’s only one situation in which Hack doesn’t get another year with these guys — if the Union finish a distant seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference this year. The MLS is a league with lots of parity, and the Union have the talent and fan base to not accept mediocrity. Make no mistake — I believe John Hackworth is a mediocre manager, and if the results this year bear out my belief than he should be on the first train to manager purgatory, waiting for a phone call from D.C. United.

*Correction: The Nor’Easters play in New Jersey, not Maryland. Why are there so many places named Ocean City on the East Coast? Probably because there’s an ocean right there. Nevertheless, my bad; thanks to @ventur514 on twitter for pointing it out.

Back in America

Well, I’m back! I returned to the United States of America on Sunday via U.S. Airways (motto: “We hate you, passengers!”) and have already been to New York City and back, been to Rita’s and WaWa, and generally enjoyed the company of my family and friends.

The last event of my time abroad, which I’m not going to cover in much detail, was a three-day trip to Barcelona to visit my friend Nate. It was great! The city is very relaxed and nothing costs very much money; I got to visit the Sagrada Familia and practice my Spanish. Also Nate made me eat octopus which I did not like quite so much.

The interior of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. The greatest work of religious architecture in the world.

The interior of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia: the greatest work of religious architecture in the world.

I want to thank all of you who’ve been reading and commenting on the blog all semester. You might be interested in some statistics about “Lion in London” — you also might not be, in which case I suggest you skip the next four bullet points.

  • 1,760 page views
  • 51 comments 
  • Top commenter was Aunt Laura with 16, followed by Aunt Diane with 5
  • 28 posts

I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of my time abroad and what I’ve learned. And the simplest answer is also the most complicated: I don’t know, entirely. But what I do know is that I will never again underrate the effect that family and friends have on a person’s happiness. Studying abroad, as much as I might have made it seem, wasn’t all sunshine and roses. I’m really appreciative of all of you who took some interest in my travels, and I hope I’ve repaid you in turn with some moderately entertaining blogs. (For the record: I think this Browbeat piece makes a fairly stupid argument.)

What’s going to happen to this space going forward? I don’t really know. But I do have a lot of thoughts about things, and it’s possible I’ll be writing about them here. It is my belief that far too many people, twenty-somethings included, feel that they have interesting thoughts which are in reality self-absorbed drivel. The only way to avoid that trap, though, is to practice a bit. So let’s see where this goes.

That’s all for now. Good night, and good luck.

God save the Queen and her Navy

A busy week with my parents here in London! Here’s a highlight, from Thursday’s Victory Day celebrations. (The concert was commemorating the end of the Second World War, as well as the sailors of the Royal Navy who served in the Arctic convoys to Russia — including my grandfather, Peter G. Andrews!)

The Belfast's guns have a range of twelve miles. So watch out, suburbs.

The Belfast’s guns have a range of twelve miles. So watch out, suburbs.

We’ve also seen three plays, which I will review for posterity below.

  • One Man, Two Guvnors: The most British play I’ve ever seen, a slapdash comedy set in 1963. Hilarious, even if a certain percent of the jokes went way over our heads. There’s some extended improv sections that bring the house down. A
  • Singin in the Rain: A stage adaptation of the greatest movie musical of all time. This version suffers in comparison, as the leads can’t quite match the charisma of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds. But nonetheless it’s entertaining, and the audacity to actually dump gallons and gallons of water on stage for the titular number is a bold move that pays off. B+
  • Jersey Boys: Not my cup of tea, so much. The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, your enjoyment of the play will basically depend on your patience for their music. I didn’t find their story particularly compelling — and listening to British actors wander around with JOI-ZEE accents for two hours can be torturous — but everyone else seemed to be having a good time. (Median age: 65.) C

also we have been eating lots of tasty stuff before the theater like this lamb shank

also we have been eating lots of tasty stuff before the theater like this lamb shank

Finally, and perhaps most excitingly, we saw the Queen! Wednesday was the State Opening of Parliament, which is like the State of the Union but with everyone on horses and substantially more gold. The Queen delivers a speech — written by the PM and the Government — outlining the legislative plan for the year. (Unlike the SOTU, this Speech takes about four minutes.) But first there’s lots of pomp and ceremony, including the Queen and the Crown Jewels being transported from Buckingham Palace to Westminster. So we went and camped out near the Palace, giving us a chance to watch the Horse Guards set up their posts and the various Jewels to trot past in carriages. Finally, the Queen zoomed by, and it was cool.

pretty nice car you got there, the Queen

pretty nice car you got there, the Queen

this band is very happening

this band is very happening

One week left here! Also great as always to see my Aunt Joan twice, and finally visit the house in Chiswick where she and my grandfather were born in the early 1920s. It’s been a great week and a very good way to close out my time here.