Friday, July 11, 2008

The Beautiful Game

During my UCLA experience and working as a sportswriter for the Daily Bruin, soccer in the fall and tennis in the spring were my bread and butter for two years. I watched match upon match, practice upon practice as these well-trained athletes plied their craft. The soccer in the fall was a particular blast, as those Bruin squads were packed with guys who went on to play Major League Soccer and even for the US National Team
It had been a long time, nearly 10 years to be exact, since I got to watch the most popular sport in the world played live. Not only was lack of opportunity a problem, but lack of motivation as well.
Last night, the drought was broken, and boy did the cup runneth over!
Myself, The Jess, Mr. Triathlon, and his wife Femme Futbol made a pilgrimage yesterday to Carson and the Home Depot Center to watch the Los Angeles Galaxy play right before our eyes.
What an amazing homecoming it was, having spent my undergrad years at UCLA fighting that traffic, only to find the 405 freeway wide open through Long Beach at the peak of rush hour. This was the gas crisis in specific relief, because usually this road is bumper to bumper from Mission Viejo to Westwood. We seized the opportunity; however, and plunged into Carson on a mission. First, though, we needed to quench a more primal instinct: pre-sport beer and grease.
What better place to slake this need than at Shakey's Pizza. Oily, cheap, massive quantities of pizza, potatoes, and chicken, Shakey's was a college standby and was the stuff of many post-bar snacks.
The munching commenced on our way into the parking lot for this sold out affair, then a quick tailgate, and in we went. What an atmosphere! Singing, scarves, air horns, just what you'd expect at a soccer match. We had fallen bassackwards into a rivalry match between two first place teams!
There has been much talk since the 1994 World Cup in the US about when and if soccer will ever translate into a major sport in America. I don't want to revisit the whole debate here, but the essence is and will remain television. The sports-watching public here gets its fix not from actual attendance, but watching on TV: live, replays, highlights, chat shows.
Soccer, to the detriment of our society, does not translate well on a television screen. It is not simply a game played in the direct vicinity of the ball; it is a fluid, spontaneous, kinetic ballet played out over the entire pitch, and to be able to grasp that you have to be able to see it
The TV screen, unfortunately shows us the ball and the men right around it. You can't see an attacker moving into space to receive a pass, or a fullback tearing up the sideline into wide open space. The charge of a defender, or the choices of a keeper to move up or stay in the goal mouth are all widely evident to the peripheral vision of the fan in the stands, but sadly absent on television.
The TV fan is left only with goals and shots on goal to give them joy, but the game is just so much more. There really is so much artistry and creativity as a skillful midfielder maneuvers the ball forward. The technical ability and staggering dexterity of these men only really comes through by watching live.
Of course it will never translate into American households, because the constant need for action isn't satisfied. Tragically for us, the action is endless, the tension stupendous, and the talent magnificent.
The perfect encapsulation of this, and I mean this sincerely, is David Beckham. Think what you will about the hype and ballyhoo around him; I agree it's way overdone and not a little annoying.
Be that as it may, the man is a spectacular soccer player.
Remember in your youth sports days there was always that one kid. A little bigger, a little stronger, a little sharper vision, a little more creative. And a whole lot better. That's David Beckham playing in MLS.
I don't say this to denigrate the quality of America's longest running major soccer league, I say it in appreciation for this man's ability, even in the twilight of his career. The touches this guy puts on the ball, the spin, the control, and the speed are really amazing to see in person.
The beauty of this is not that it always leads to a goal, or even an opportunity, it's that a man can pluck a ball out of the air with the outside of his foot, redirect it with a defender draped over him, and fling it to a teammate who is able to collect it without breaking stride.
Setting the daunting physical requirements it takes to pull this off aside, only a player with tremendous vision, confidence, and creativity would even attempt such bold moves and Beckham has that skill set. His risky and audacious maneuvers sometimes caught his teammates unawares, and they would relinquish possession.
To thoroughly appreciate such talent, and to get past the Beckham hype machine, you have to see it up close. Not only the move itself, but the development of the play, the sprints of the players around him, the chess board developing.
The game we saw was also the perfect encapsulation of what makes this sport so beguiling, because even though he is that much better than other players, he is unable to simply take over a game. Stauch defense, brilliant goal-keeping, and bold tackling frustrated nearly every Beckham-ignited Galaxy attack, of which there were many.
The Chivas side launched assault after assault of their own, and that's exactly how it looks live, like a military offensive. Players surging forward, sprinting through openings, defenders scrambling back looking frantically over their heads for the ball.
The first goal of the match came off the foot of Ante Razov, an old acquaintance of mine from UCLA and a brilliant striker. This effort was a sweet little bender from the top of the box that curled just past the diving keeper.
It looked like that might be the only strike of the match until the 79th minute, when we witnessed this gem... (damn, my wife is so cool!)

Oh, that weird dark hole that fills the screen in the final second? That's Mr. Triathlon's nostril.
Thanks to Edson Buddle's 11th goal of the year, the Galaxy pulled even and the game ended in a 1-1 draw. Not before a phenomenal last few minutes where the teams tore up and down the field creating chance upon chance, only to be denied at the end.
If Carson was just a bit closer, then season ticket holders we would be, because this was sports-watching at its very best. Viva the Galaxy, Viva MLS, Viva Futbol. It was really special to watch the beautiful game live again, and it will not be another decade before it happens again!

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