Wounded Loons need points in Houston

Two weeks ago, Minnesota United seemed to be impossibly short of attacking players. Mid-season signing Franco Fragapane was dealing with a medium-term injury. Leading scorer Robin Lod injured his calf in training. And first-choice backup winger Niko Hansen hurt his hamstring, leaving manager Adrian Heath to play Hassani Dotson out of position at left wing.

The Loons gritted their teeth and tried to make the best of things. With a two-week rest coming after tonight’s game against the Houston Dynamo, Minnesota’s best hope was to pick up as many points as possible with a makeshift lineup, before getting healthy over Labor Day.

It turns out, when it comes to injuries, we hadn’t seen anything yet.

Three more Loons have since been added to the injury ward. Midfielder Jan Gregus sprained his ankle against San Jose. First-year winger Justin McMaster injured his thigh last week. And worst of all for United, Sporting KC so repeatedly kicked do-everything playmaker Emanuel Reynoso that he not only missed the midweek MLS All-Star Game, he’ll miss the game against Houston.

Even new signing Joseph Rosales, who we’ve yet to see with the first team, is already listed as out with a knee problem. Add in striker Juan Agudelo, who’s listed as questionable, and defender Bakaye Dibassy, who’s suspended due to yellow card accumulation, and it was almost easier to list the available Loons instead of the unavailable ones.

Despite the signing veteran striker Fanendo Adi, whose greatest skill at this point of his career is his ready availability, manager Adrian Heath may well not be able to fill out an entire eight-man bench for tonight’s game, unless he drafts in all four goalkeepers.

Social media stood ready to draft in 17-year-old keeper Fred Emmings, who stands 6’5”, as an emergency striker.

Heath has shown a willingness to change from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to a more compact 4-3-3 on the road. With the injuries, though, who knows?

Here’s the available squad:

GK: Miller, St. Clair, Zendejas, Emmings DF: Métanire, Boxall, Kallman, Gasper, Raitala, Taylor MF: Alonso, Trapp, Dotson, Hayes FW: Finlay, Weah, Hunou, Adi, Agudelo (questionable)

On defense, Michael Boxall returned to the lineup against Sporting KC last Saturday, replacing Brent Kallman. “It was a really difficult decision, because I don’t think Brent Kallman has done an awful lot wrong - in fact, he hasn’t done anything wrong,” said Heath.

The change may serve Minnesota well, in that Boxall now has a game under his belt. He and Kallman, who had started eight consecutive games before last weekend, will likely be the center backs.

17-year-old Patrick Weah got his second appearance of the year last Saturday as a forward, though Heath described him as a “work in progress.” Said Heath, “He’s got a lot of natural talent. A lot of natural ability. The one thing he can do, he can beat people one on one. It’s a project. But there’s certainly some talent there.”

It seems unlikely that Weah would get a start, but Heath’s other choices might be Agudelo, in some unknown state of healthiness, or Adi, who hasn’t played this season.

(Spend enough time moving the available pieces around the board, and you’ll utterly convince yourself of your own unlikely arrangement. For me, that was a three-man central defense with Boxall, Kallman, and Jukka Raitala, and Hunou playing as a second striker while Adi plays as a target forward. Try your own version!)

At least, Heath was optimistic that some reinforcements might be ready by the time the Loons go to Seattle on September 11. “I’m hopeful when the two weeks are over, Lod will be available and Fragapane will be available,” he said.

The Loons’ three-game stretch last week was unkind to their spot in the standings. With only two points from the three games, United dropped into fifth place, seven points behind the LA Galaxy in fourth.

The only comfort is that many of the teams nearest them in the playoff chase are in disarray. Freddy Juarez, the coach of sixth-place Real Salt Lake, quit midweek to take a job as an assistant with Seattle, a bizarre turn of events even by MLS standards. Eighth-place Portland has managed just five points in its last seven games. Ninth-place LAFC has lost four in a row. 10th-place Vancouver, despite an eight-game unbeaten run in the league, just fired their own head coach.

Heath often says, “I’ll never turn down a point on the road,” but playing at Houston is a different story. The Dynamo is on a 14-match winless run and has plummeted to last place in the West.

The two-week break won’t look so positive to Minnesota if they don’t get a good result in Houston. And things don’t get any easier after the break. It’s another stretch of three games in eight days, and they’re all with teams in the Western Conference top four: at Seattle, at SKC, and home against the Galaxy.

The schedule is about to get quieter. If the Loons are lucky, they’re about to get healthier. But the only thing for sure is that, for the Loons and their quest for the playoffs, things are not about to get any easier.

The most popular soccer league in the USA is not in the USA

Twice a year, when Mexican soccer begins anew, I’m reminded of the hidden truth of soccer in the United States: the most popular soccer league in the USA is not the one that’s in the USA. By TV viewership, the way that we measure everything in the United States, Liga MX is the most popular league in the USA. It’s not particularly close.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t realize this for years, though, because A) I was too busy comparing MLS to the most famous leagues in Europe and B) I didn’t have the Spanish-language cable channels.

Find those channels, and you’ll be kind of amazed at just how much Mexican soccer is on TV. There are times when the same match will be on both TUDN (Univision’s sports network) and either Univision or UniMas, which would be like putting the same match on both NBC and NBCSN at the same time. There are times when the same match is on both TUDN and ESPN Deportes at the same time. That seems unfathomable to me, the English-speaking viewer. Can you imagine FOX and NBC showing the same NFL game at the same time?

Maybe the most amazing thing is how consistently you can watch every single Liga MX game, if you so choose. Virtually every one is on Univision, ESPN Deportes, FOX Deportes, or Telemundo. Monterrey, Santos Laguna, and Tijuana even have regular English-language cable broadcasts on FS1 or FS2, with their Spanish broadcasts on Fox Deportes. Chivas occasionally has English-language broadcasts on NBC Sports, too.

Let me just stress here that this means that all 18 Mexican soccer teams have, effectively, a national broadcast contract in the United States. If you speak Spanish, every single one of these teams is the Atlanta Braves on TBS Superstation in the 1980s. Even if you speak only English, you have three and occasionally four teams that broadcast their home games, nationally, in your language.

When you realize this, you begin to understand why MLS and Liga MX are so eager to hook together their wagons. For MLS, it’s a chance to tap into the die-hard interest in its southern neighbor. For Liga MX, it’s a chance to reach a loyal market that’s north of the border.

Take the annual Campeon de Campeones match, played between the winners of each half of the Mexican season. Since 2015, it’s been played not in one of Mexico’s cathedrals of fútbol, but in the United States, specifically in the LA Galaxy’s home stadium, the StubHub Center / Dignity Health Sports Park / whatever we’re calling it today.

This year it was Cruz Azul, finally champions after years and years of painful near misses, against Club León. The surprise, seeing it on TV, was that there were some fans in the stands in Los Angeles that were NOT wearing Cruz Azul’s blue and white. It seems like virtually all of Mexican soccer is focused on the three Mexico City teams, Club América, Pumas, and Cruz Azul; on Chivas, the most popular team in Guadalajara, Mexico’s traditional second city; and now, grudgingly, on Monterrey and Tigres, the two teams in Monterrey, which has grown into the second-biggest metropolitan area in the country.

(As an aside, it’s hard not to get a real 1951 Major League Baseball vibe from Mexican soccer, sometimes. Three teams in Mexico City, two in Guadalajara, two in Monterrey, with scattered other teams around the country. You could probably even assign pairs, down the lineups: América is the Yankees, Cruz Azul the Brooklyn Dodgers, Pumas the New York Giants; Chivas is the Red Sox, Atlas the Boston Braves. Monterrey is the White Sox, Tigres is the Cubs. Ignore the implications of the American League vs. the National League for purposes of this paragraph, please.)

The stands in Los Angeles were absolutely packed to see Cruz Azul win 2-0. Put Cruz Azul most places in the United States and you’ll draw a full house. Which is why both MLS and Liga MX are interested in finding as many ways as possible to put Cruz Azul, and any others they can, most places in the United States.

The MLS-Liga MX tie-ins that already exist can be a little hard to keep track of. The one that’s best known, the CONCACAF Champions League, is continental, not just specific to North America - though the later rounds do tend to feature Mexican teams beating up on teams from Canada and the United States. The Campeones Cup is newish, meant to be a showpiece between the the Mexican champions and the MLS Cup winners; this returning at the end of September, Columbus against Cruz Azul. The Leagues Cup is meant to supplement the Champions League, and involves the best four teams from both leagues that did not make it to the Champions League; that one begins next week.

This year’s Leagues Cup could be kind of fascinating, especially in the sense of “which of these teams will take this seriously.” The MLS representatives are Seattle, Kansas City, New York City, and Orlando; Liga MX is sending León, Tigres, Pumas, and Santos Laguna.

On the MLS side, Seattle is second in the league, but the whole team is injured, and they’ve already been reduced to playing teams made up of teenagers and stadium vendors in MLS matches. Who knows who they’ll put on the field? Orlando is having its best season in some time, but in the space of a few weeks, they got beat 5-0 by NYC and lost to Chicago, which is probably more embarassing than losing 5-0. NYC is repeating its yearly commitment to being good without actually winning anything, and for the 40th year in a row, Kansas City is almost-but-not-quite the best team in MLS.

I find the Mexican teams impossible to predict, simply because there’s no telling which players will be on the field. I’ve been watching El Rebaño Sagrado, the Amazon Prime documentary about Chivas, and it’s fascinating to see the club’s attitude towards Copa MX. It’s clearly very important to the team that they do well and win it, but at the same time, it’s the opportunity for guys who aren’t getting on the field in Liga MX to show their stuff.

I have zero doubt that every one of these Mexican teams will want to dominate, and in the past, Liga MX second teams have been capable of beating MLS first teams (the benefits of depth, in action). With the Europa League vibe of the Leagues Cup, I’d expect more Copa MX teams in action.

That said, the first time around in the Leagues Cup, the same thing was true, and all four Mexican teams beat their MLS counterparts, and we were treated to the silliness of an all Liga-MX final in Las Vegas. Ah well.

No matter how this year’s edition goes, though, I think you can expect to see as much MLS-Liga MX collaboration as the two leagues can manage. It’s in both of their immediate interests, and it fits with the joint 2026 World Cup that’ll be held across North America.

And for those of us in the United States, brush up on that Spanish. If you really want to know what’s going on in American soccer, you’ll need it.

Theoretical mustards, ranked

In my fridge, I have a bottle of what is labeled “Irish mustard.” How it got into my refrigerator is not important; suffice it to say that this came from a neighboring state, with a sterling recommendation from some residents of said neighboring state.

I won’t bring up the name of the company that sells this mustard because there’s no reason to drag them into the discussion, but there is a story on the side of the bottle. According to this legend, the recipe originates with a local with an Irish surname, who made homemade mustard that was locally famous.

You can find a lot of foods, especially condiments, with similar stories on the side of the bottle; they are the ones that are on the top shelf at the grocery store and generally cost at least 50% more than the most widely sold version of the same condiment. The stories are plausible without sounding true, like a campfire story.

This “Irish mustard” is fine, tasty even, but it doesn’t really taste like mustard. It certainly doesn’t taste like American mustard, the kind that comes in a big yellow bottle and tastes like a little like mustard and a little like turmeric. It also doesn’t taste like brown mustard or Dijon mustard or whole-grain mustard or any other familiar mustards.

What it does taste like is sugar. In this, I suppose it’s most comparable to honey mustard, though even honey mustard is probably more tangy than this “Irish” mustard. It tastes like if Sweet Baby Ray made a mustard barbecue sauce, and also didn’t care whether one tablespoon had more sugar than an entire can of Mountain Dew.

The thing that really has made me ponder about this mustard is this: why “Irish”? Though I am not a mustard expert, the Irish mustard in my fridge doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Emerald Isle. If anything, the Internet says that Irish mustard is whole-grain mustard that’s whiskey- or Guinness-infused; this mustard is neither of those things.

Technically speaking, almost any regionalism could have gone on the bottle, as long as you came up with a plausible surname to plug into the story. And given that mustard is pretty close to a worldwide condiment, one of those spices that connect the cuisine of Europe and Asia and the Americas and Africa, almost anything is technically in play.

However, knowing that this one is being sold in the north-central United States, it’s interesting to consider the regionalisms that wouldn’t work. “French” suggests either Dijon mustard or French’s yellow mustard and so must be eliminated. “German” is too associated with the type of whole-grain brown mustard that you get if you order a bratwurst at a German restaurant. “Canadian” is out because this mustard doesn’t taste like maple syrup.

When you consider the whole range of worldwide cuisines that use the mustard seed, the surprising part is probably just how few regionalisms could even be considered for a Midwestern mustard like this one. It almost certainly would have to be “from” a Northern or Eastern European country. It probably couldn’t be Scandinavian, because Midwesterners would assume it was a thinly-disguised cream sauce. It probably couldn’t be British, because we’d assume that it was something else entirely, given the Anglo-American differences between (for example) pudding.

And so, I give you the following ranking of potential regionalisms for theoretical Midwestern mustards, based on how delicious I think they would theoretically be.

  1. Polish mustard
  2. Hungarian mustard
  3. Ukrainian mustard
  4. Irish mustard
  5. Czech mustard
  6. Belgian mustard
  7. Bulgarian mustard
  8. Dutch mustard
  9. Slovakian mustard
  10. Romanian mustard
  11. Swiss mustard (ranking dropped significantly thanks to existence of Swiss chard)
  12. Icelandic mustard
  13. Austrian mustard
  14. (tie) (any other former Soviet republic) mustard

Americans can see the whole soccer world

Mid-season form

The European soccer season ended on Sunday with the finals of the European Championships, and began again yesterday with the beginning of preseason friendlies.

Arsenal played at Hibernian, and it was like the offseason never happened. Actually, because all of the players Arsenal loaned out were back in the fold, it almost felt like most of last season had never happened. There’s Ainsley-Maintland Niles. There’s Sead Kolasinac. There’s Willian, whanging passes that land twenty yards from anyone. I was expecting Mesüt Özil to stroll onto the field, arm-in-arm with Gunnersaurus, just to complete the whole group.

Proving that time is a flat circle, Arsenal gave up a comedy goal that came after a brain-dead back-pass and a goalkeeper air-kick, missed a penalty, and lost 2-1. It was all very familiar! I am very aware that pre-season friendlies mean absolutely nothing, that any reaction other than “huh” is silly given that pre-season training started about three days ago, but still.

The most amazing thing to me, though, was how I watched the game. For UK viewers, possibly across Europe, I read on one site or another that Arsenal members could email the club for free access to watch the game on the club’s website, but otherwise, those fans would have to purchase an outrageously-priced pass.

That’s not what I did! I clicked on ESPN, where the game was being broadcast both in English (on ESPN3, online) and Spanish (on ESPN Deportes, on actual TV).

Every so often, I remember to be amazed at the amount of soccer that I can watch, in America. It’s true that I subscribe to a near-embarrassing number of services and packages, including both old-fashioned cable and online, but even with basic cable, or only ESPN+, or only Paramount+, or only one of several other packages, it’d be a never-ending smorgasbord.

For the longest time, I was as caught up as anyone in the evangelistic nature of American soccer fandom, and I’ll admit to you it was purely selfish. I just wanted soccer to be popular enough that the games, especially the big games, were on TV so I could watch them (without paying $20 for pay-per-view, as I remember doing for big Premier League games back when I did not have $20 to be throwing around on such things). Now I can watch Arsenal play Hibs in a meaningless friendly in two different languages.

Fortress Wembley

“We run a stadium, not a fortress.” – Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham, quoted in The Athletic, upon being asked why Wembley Stadium didn’t have more security for the Euro 2020 final

Sunday, thousands of fans managed to force their way into Wembley Stadium to watch England play Italy in the Euro 2020 final. It was a throwback to the bad old days, in the sense that these stories were commonplace at one time in English soccer; there’s a chapter in Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” about going to Wembley, finding that people had broken into the stadium and stolen his seats, and being able to do absolutely nothing about it.

In another sense, of course, it wasn’t a throwback at all. The video footage of people rushing at barriers until they broke, of crowds stampeding where they weren’t supposed to be, of random acts of violence utterly not in keeping with the location and the occasion, is obviously fairly familiar to anyone who has watched American news at any point over the last year or so.

The same day as the Wembley incidents, the U.S. men’s national team played its own home game in a continental championship, taking on Haiti in Kansas City in the Gold Cup. The stands were maybe half full, because tickets were ridiculously expensive, as they always are for the national teams. The real shock was that anyone at all paid that kind of money to watch the USA’s B-squad struggle against Haiti in a game that most people will have forgotten by this time next week.

And so, I can’t quite come up with a good American soccer comparison, or even an American sports comparison, for England playing in its first major-tournament final in 55 years, at home. Maybe if the Dallas Cowboys played in the Super Bowl in their home stadium, except that it was also the last Super Bowl ever played, and also maybe they were playing a team of extra-terrestrials for control of Earth?

The experience of watching soccer in England has changed entirely from the old stories you read about, where fights and stampeding crowds and hooliganism were weekly occurrences. Every once in awhile, though, those stories break through, like a TV broadcast that bounced off a far-flung planet and was reflected back to Earth, fifty years later.

Messi isn’t coming to Miami

Every time Lionel Messi was rumored to want out of Barcelona, there would be rumors that what he really wanted was to play in Miami, where he could… be reunited with Gonzalo Higuain? Play for Phil Neville? Frankly I could not understand anything you put after “could” in that sentence, but it’s all moot now, as ESPN reports that Messi has signed a new five-year contract with Barcelona.

He also is said to have taken a “significant” pay cut, but given that his last deal paid him $149 million a year (according to that same article) (I can’t believe that’s not a typo), he may well be able to afford a few years of relative poverty. Especially since Barcelona are famously out of money and are currently trying to sell anything that’s not nailed down.

Inter Miami continues to be one of the most remarkable clubs in MLS history. Not for what they’ve done on the field, but even if they win the next six MLS Cups, it will never not be funny that in their first year, they secretly signed five designated players, got fined huge amounts for doing so once the very obvious fraud was discovered, and still finished in 19th place.

International soccer is the top of the game, even when it's forgotten

“Not a chance. These have been the best six weeks of my life.” - England backup center back Conor Coady, when asked if he regrets not playing a minute in the European Championships despite being part of the squad

The soccer season is a long, long season. Europe is consumed between the beginning of August and the end of May, give or take a few weeks at either end or in the middle. Terrible weather in the United States forces MLS takes the three worst months of winter off, and even that short break is one of the longest breaks of any league in the world.

This makes it easy to forget that there’s anything important besides club soccer. That there are three or four competitions all going at the same time contributes to the breathless quality; speculation abounds whether (say) Manchester City can conquer the Champions League, finally, and if they can defend their Premier League title, or win the League Cup again, or the FA Cup, or all four at once.

And because of this, the media and the fans spend all year assigning glory to teams and coaches and players based on what they accomplish with their clubs. Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp have reached near-sainthood; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has redeemed himself from (insert redemption arc here if we can ever figure out what he did wrong except be reasonably successful); Jose Mourinho has been cast into the pit of fire, or at least sent to Rome.

Then the summer tournaments roll around. Then the players form these temporary teams – yes, they play during the year too, but only for weeks at the time, as minor interruptions to the clearly more important things like the Champions League group stage or the FA Cup sixth round – and after a couple of weeks of training and a few games, it becomes obvious.

These big international tournaments, these temporary brotherhoods and sisterhoods, these times where entire nations come together: they mean way, way more to everyone than club trophies.

England’s trip to second place at the Euros has been notable on the pitch, sure. Wise Norwegian sage Lars Sivertsen probably put it best:

What’s happening on the pitch isn’t the most notable thing about England, though. Off the pitch, it seems like the team has all fallen in love with each other, and in turn, the country has fallen in love with the team. Every player has publicly spoken about the brotherhood of this team, the deep bonds of the shared experience, and this from the country that absolutely pioneered the “national team broken apart by club rivalries and also possibly conflicts between significant others” model.

It’s not to say that this is guaranteed, of course; France is still stuck in the throes of a reckoning about what one player’s mom said to, and about, another player’s dad. And don’t dismiss this just because they are, you know, French; after winning the 2018 World Cup, everything I said about England could probably have been said about France. Winning breeds brotherhood, it’s true.

Of course, if there’s anyone who shouldn’t forget about the importance of the national team, of the profound and unshakeable bond among a national team and in turn between fans and the team itself, it’s people in the United States. We’re currently in the midst of another epoch of dominance by the U.S. Women’s National Team, and all of the greatness that England has just re-discovered is stuff that we’ve seen for going on five, or ten, or 35 years now.

I could spend four thousand words just buried in statistical minutiae, trying to paint a complete picture of how great the USWNT has been, but in the context of England I’ll go with this one: the England men’s team went 55 years without reaching the final of a major tournament. Since FIFA finally deigned to play a Women’s World Cup in 1991, and the Olympics started playing a women’s soccer tournament in 1996, the longest the USWNT has ever gone without reaching a major-tournament final is five years.

This is also their longest drought without winning a World Cup or a gold medal, in case you were wondering.

The point, though, is that every time the USWNT wins one of these tournaments, the quotes from the players don’t focus on how much talent is on the team or how great the NWSL is for players or how the culture of the national team breeds success. It’s on how close the team is – “23 best friends,” as one of the 2019 World Cup winners said.

This brotherhood and sisterhood is important because it paints a picture of how important and special these experiences are for the players. But while they’re important to the players, for the fans it’s absolutely the pinnacle of the fan experience.

As all-consuming as the Premier League and the Bundesliga and MLS and Serie A are, I rarely hear stories of how the club game sucked in new fans, except in the sense that those fans were indoctrinated by parents and grandparents and siblings and uncles and aunts. There’s a certain inevitability to the “my dad took me to watch [club] every week” story; it’s like telling someone that you’re six feet tall because your dad was six feet tall.

National teams, though, bring in people who were never fans before. Half the men’s soccer fans in the United States are fans because of the 1994, 2002, or 2010 World Cups – and given the instability in women’s club soccer, the percentage of women’s soccer fans with similar stories about the too many USWNT triumphs to list has to be far, far higher.

When these international tournaments roll around, it’s so easy to be blinded by the myopia of club soccer. The European Championships seem like too much to ask of players, after the longest club season ever. That the NWSL and MLS take a break around summer tournaments seems broadly unfair, even more so when you consider the teams who lose players for national-team duty.

And then the tournament takes over, and we remember. For the players, this experience can be the pinnacle of their careers. For the fans – new fans and old fans – these tournaments are the time of their life. For everyone, this experience is far more meaningful than anything club soccer will ever have.

Fussball ohne fans ist nichts

Tonight, Argentina meets Brazil in the Copa América final. Tomorrow, England meets Italy in the Euro 2020 final.

These are similar games, in that they’re the continental championships of soccer’s two biggest continents. Brazil and England are both playing home games, somewhat unexpectedly — Brazil because it’s only hosting the tournament after Colombia and Argentina couldn’t, England because Euro 2020 is a strange pan-European beast, but they had to put the final somewhere. (And also it’s a surprise because England’s in it.) Which brings up the other similarity, which is that both have a strong “can they stop the streak” flavor; Argentina hasn’t won anything since the 1993 Copa, England hasn’t won anything or even played for anything since the 1966 World Cup.

Even so, though, these games are going to feel remarkably and wildly different. Brazil-Argentina at the Maracanã, England-Italy at Wembley, it’s hard to come up with fixtures that are much bigger than that. But Wembley will have 65,000 fans, 64,000 of which will be living and dying with every English action. The Maracanã will be at… 10% capacity, it sounds like? Seven or eight thousand fans?

Fullish stadiums have been slowly coming back for awhile now. Most American states have ended restrictions on large gatherings, and so MLS games are back to full capacity (or in the case of Dallas, their usual 40% or so — zing, tip your waitresses, try the veal, etc). The CONCACAF Nations League final between the USA and Mexico put 37,000 fans in Denver’s NFL stadium, about half capacity, enough that there were roars on both sides like the usual Stateside cross-border game.

The one I’ll really remember, though, was the first match at Puskás Aréna in Budapest, for the game between Hungary and Portugal in the group stage at the Euros. They mostly packed it, with more than 54,000 baying Hungarian supporters in the stands, and after a year of empty stadiums, even the televised experience was overwhelming.

The noise! The roars shook the camera and rolled through the stadium like water in a bathtub. Every time the referee called something against Hungary, the dismay from the crowd was palpable, almost physical. A year and a half ago, this would have been normal; after all this empty-stadium time, it was almost overwhelming, even on TV. I expected the stadium announcer to plead with the fans: PLEASE, FOLKS, THE REFEREE IS JUST DOING HIS JOB. CAN WE HAVE QUIET? QUIET, PLEASE, FOR THE SOCCER.

It was like seeing the sun after a day trapped in a basement, or putting a bucket over your head and screaming after being shushed in a library. I forgot about that! I forgot about that physical sensation of crowd noise, that earthquake of people that shakes the camera and affects the game.

And that, of course, was one of the reasons that sports are great. They call soccer “the beautiful game,” but the truth is that in every single sport, you can find someone writing about it in idyllic terms — about the crack of the bat in baseball or the sound of skates on ice in hockey or the powerful WHOOMP of a car going by in auto racing.

It’s reductionism, an attempt to find meaning in the game itself, and it’s valid as far as the in-person experience goes, or the experience of playing a sport goes. Hitting a perfect shot in golf is to feel like the universe is at your command. Seeing someone hit a top-corner volley in soccer is to feel the life of the universe flow through you.

As it turns out, though, that experience is interesting on television, but in the same way that the Weather Channel is interesting. If you stick around for an hour, you’ll find yourself murmuring about low pressure and cold fronts, but sticking around for an hour is a challenge; either you’ve got a passion for meteorology for its own sake, or you’re life-threateningly bored, or a combination of both.

Without the crowds in the stands, soccer — and all sports —turned out to be no different. I watched a lot of sports without crowds over the last year and a half, and I enjoyed them, but not nearly in the same way. Unless I had a personal rooting interest or a genuine curiosity, like I wonder how Kimmich and Goretzka are going to fare in the same midfield against PSG — you know, something utterly crucial and important like that — it was hard to get involved, even for a genuine nutcase like me. I spent a lot of the year turning on a game and failing to get interested in it because I couldn’t remember which team was which. Without crowds, it’s just red-shirted people against white-shirted people, kicking a ball.

And so I find myself trying to find specific things to get interested in with Brazil and Argentina tonight. There are lots! Starting with Messi! Lionel Messi has lost final after final with Argentina, un león con varios gatos, and he’s running out of chances. He’s driven the Argentinian bus, foot on the gas, through the whole tournament, but he usually does that; can he finally drag his team through Brazil, which has been a juggernaut lately? More to the point, how will he play — facilitator or protagonist, scorer or assister, calm or desperate, joyful or angry? They could put the camera solely on him and it’d be its own opera.

But England-Italy, now that is going to be some Sports right there. Brazil-Argentina is a film, but England-Italy is going to be a movie, the Movie-Going Experience Of The Summer, See It In Surround Sound and Gorgeous 3D. Sinews will be strained. Italian names will be shouted. (Try it yourself, it’s genuinely joyful: Locatelli! Insigne! Immobile! Chiellini! Donnarumma!)

Everyone wants fans back in the stands. Fans want to be there, teams want them to support the team and spend some money, TV broadcasters need the roars — and as much as anything, we all want the pandemic to leave us alone, and large group gatherings have become as much of a sign of that as anything, as the first thing banned and the last thing to return.

The Bundesliga was the first league to come back, in 2020, and the first week it came back, the Borussia Monchengladbach ultras put a sign in the stands that said FOOTBALL WITHOUT FANS IS NOTHING.

After this last year and a half, I understand how right they were. And if you watch tonight’s game and tomorrow’s game, I expect it’ll make sense to you too.

The Gold Cup, the hipster's choice

Man, Euro 2020 (*2021) was sure fun to watch. And Copa América was too! And we here in the United States now get to watch our own continental championship: the Gold Cup, which is a poor imitation.

For the Star Tribune, I wrote about what the United States can do about this. The answer probably isn’t a change of circumstances, but a change of attitude

Even if it's bad, we can't get enough international soccer

For all the talk about tactics, international soccer will never be a playground for the same smoothly-purring machines that we see in club soccer. The teams are one step beyond all-star teams, but the games are so meaningful that we love them anyway.

At the Star Tribune, I wrote about why the teams aren’t as good, how the U.S. Women’s National Team is an exception to this rule - and why we love international soccer all the same.

The European Super League is dead, and lives on

The European Super League would have concentrated all the money and all the power in the hands of a few elite superclubs in Europe. Now that it’s dead, possibly forever, we’re left with a system where… all of the money and all of the power are concentrated in the hands of a few elite superclubs.

For the Star Tribune, I wrote about how the European Soccer League is dead, but the current system isn’t really that much different.

The end (?) for Joe Mauer, the normal legend

On the way to Sunday’s Twins game with my brother, I mentioned something offhand, that I’m sure a lot of people were thinking on their way to Target Field: If this was going to be Joe Mauer’s last game, I was glad we were going to be there for it.

I have made as many Mauer jokes as anyone, all of them centered on his ability to be private in public: Joe is bland. Joe is boring. Joe is too decent and polite to be interesting. Back when the Twins used a scoreboard to show lightweight biographical facts about players, I remember Mauer’s biggest fear displayed as “disappointing his parents.” It all seemed too normal.

That was Mauer’s persona: normal. It never seemed forced or calculated or cunning, like it does with some athletes, especially the greats that want to come across as Everyman for marketing purpose. Mauer, who was inarguably great, just seemed normal. His defining characteristic was his lack of defining characteristics. He seemed exactly like the ten thousand other Minnesotans I’ve met, even though he’s been locally famous since he was a teenager. All my jokes were, really, a wish for intimacy, a desire to know Mauer’s genuine, authentic self: please, Joe, we want to know who you really are. Tell us what you’re really like.

I knew how good he was, the numbers spoke for themselves. It wasn’t until he signed his contract extension, and started becoming the subject of endless ill-considered and mean-spirited criticism, that I started really pulling for him. I felt protective of him, I guess, because it seemed so unfair that some people treated him so poorly – a sense of injustice that only multiplied when a concussion cut his catching career short.

As Sunday’s game wore on, I wasn’t surprised to find myself rooting hard for him to do something good on his last day, since it suddenly seemed so obvious that he would retire after the game. Unexpectedly, the Twins pulled out the stops to honor him; his twin girls were on the field pre-game, the scoreboard showed a few old favorite advertisements he’d done, and every time he came to the plate, he was greeted with a standing ovation.

He hit a couple of ground balls – more fodder for the critics, I squirmed internally – and when he came to the plate in the seventh inning, it was obvious that this could be his last time up. What if he struck out? One final at-bat, and it felt like it was a referendum on his entire career, and after all that had happened to him, the worst thing would be if the critics won, in the end.

When he lined the ball to left field, I was afraid it’d be caught. When it landed, and he rounded first base at speed, I was terrified he’d be thrown out. When he slid safely into second, I was overwhelmed by relief – he did it! – and then not properly on guard for the outpouring of emotion. The crowd was ecstatic. Mauer gestured to the dugout and the fans and touched his heart. Of course it was a double to the left-center gap. Could it be anything else? I had tears in my eyes.

I thought that was the end. I thought that the Twins would let him take the field in the ninth inning, then put in a defensive replacement, to give the fans one more chance to express their gratitude and appreciation. When the fans nearest the Twins dugout started roaring, before the ninth inning began, with the field completely empty, I knew I was wrong.

Players always want a chance to go out on top, and fans want that too, but in some ways Mauer’s goodbye was better. Alone on the field, with his catching gear on, behind the plate where he had always wanted to be. He fought back the tears, and won, sort of. The camera found plenty of fans who lost that battle. Maybe Mauer’s most impressive accomplishment was getting a bunch of stoic Minnesotans to cry in public. It was cathartic, it was heartwarming. He was happy, and knew we loved him; we were happy, and knew he loved us.

It occurred to me then that I’d been wanting Joe Mauer to show us who he really was for two decades, beyond the politeness and the respect and the niceness and the normality. I’m the same age as Mauer, give or take a year. My friends and I played every sport we could and went to Minnesota high schools and married Minnesota girls, and now we have kids and are dealing with oft-failing, creaking bodies and graying hair. Joe isn’t one of my friends, but he always seemed like he could have been, and like the rest of my friends it’s not so important who they claim to be as who they genuinely, authentically are.

What I had failed to realize until Sunday is that maybe the politeness and the respect and the niceness and the normality was Mauer’s way of showing us who he genuinely, authentically was, all along.

A September bushel of posts

Fall is right around the corner - where has September gone?

For the Star Tribune: the soon-to-debut Miami MLS team introduced its rather complicated name, and I wrote that names like “Inter Miami” make the league seem more fake, not more authentic. I previewed the NWSL playoffs, focusing on North Carolina and Portland, which thankfully turned out to be the right call. And I wrote about why I love the Champions League this year, and in general, since the soccer world’s biggest competition kicked off recently.

On the Minnesota United side of things, for 1500 ESPN, I graded the ten most important personnel moves of the MLS version of the franchise so far, a post that could have run to 20 moves and 2500 words, if I had the space. And, in an attempt to be positive, I wrote about the most positive thing I could think of: that the team even exists at all.

La Liga and MLS have one thing in common: they don't care about fans

When sports leagues do things that are barefacedly anti-fan, I get a little bit peeved. Enter La Liga and MLS, both of which are doing their best to make it hard on fans.

Side note: This is the first week of something new, in that the Star Tribune is going to post my column on Friday during the day, rather than waiting until Friday evening / Saturday to post it online. So far, the extra interest that this is garnering has been pretty nice to see.

A European Soccer preview for 2018-19

With the Premier League preview out of the way, I thought I’d preview the rest of European soccer for the year. The problem is that superclubs - Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain - dominate. So instead, I gave readers five other teams to watch instead.

(Yes, I am aware that this is a group that includes two near-superclubs, in Borussia Dortmund and Atlético Madrid, as well as an Italian powerhouse fallen on hard times. But bear with me. I wanted to make it relevant for semi-casual fans, rather than telling everyone to watch Atalanta and Real Betis.)

Minnesota United is in a month of upheaval

This has the potential to be a make-or-break month for Minnesota United, as the team clings to the fringes of the playoff race - and still traded its best striker, Christian Ramirez.

Earlier this month, I wrote for 1500 ESPN about the team’s road struggles, and how the team’s month-long road trip could derail its season.

Then this week, United traded Ramirez, a move that I just can’t understand. This has the potential to be a defining move for the front office and the coaching staff. Ramirez, of course, underlined the point by getting two goals in his first start for LAFC.

How European friendlies in the USA help build American soccer

I’m not sure I quite hit the point I wanted to make in this week’s Soccer Insider column. I was trying to connect the dots on something that someone involved with Minnesota United told me once, who I will now paraphrase: “You know, if you can afford to fly to London every week to watch Chelsea, or to Mexico City to watch Club América, you should definitely do that. But for everyone else, there’s a team here in town to support too.”

You can see Tottenham or AC Milan or Chelsea or whoever come to U.S. Bank Stadium, and my guess is that you’ll be left wanting something more. Something real. Something that matters.

I was at the Minnesota - Seattle game on Saturday night, possibly one of the best wins ever for the Sounders, definitely one of the worst losses ever for the Loons. You can’t tell me that didn’t matter. You can’t tell me that that kind of thing isn’t exactly the kind of atmosphere that people are really searching for.

Or, heck, maybe it’s just me.

The balance of Liga MX power moves north - and makes inroads into the USA

You can watch Liga MX on national TV in the United States now. In English. Club Tijuana and C.F. Monterrey have both sold their TV rights to FOX Sports, and so FOX is showing the games in Spanish on FOX Deportes, but in English on FS1 and FS2 (and on its regional networks in the southwest).

As Liga MX kicks off its year, it was a good time to preview the season - and about how Mexico is coming for soccer fans north of the border.