Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia sports’

El Pescadito Returns to Pennsylvania

February 28, 2011

Last week, the Philadelphia Union signed 31 year-old Guatemalan international forward Carlos Ruiz, a.k.a. “El Pescadito” (“the little fish” in Spanish), throwing a confusing curveball to Philadelphia sports fans. My guess is we’ll be hearing the nickname more around here, since the Phillies already have a Central American player named Carlos Ruiz on their roster (he’s their catcher, hails from Panama, and is nicknamed “Chooch,” which I’m guessing we’ll be hearing a lot more around here now as well).

The Philadelphia Union logo.While the Guatemalan, soccer-playing Ruiz has competed all over the world and is well known in his homeland as the country’s all-time leading goal scorer in international competition and is well known among Major League Soccer fans in this country from his days with the L.A. Galaxy and FC Dallas, what people might not know is that he’s played in Pennsylvania before — in central Pa., particularly.

Way back in 2000, when he was a promising 20 year-old playing professionally for Municipal in Guatemala and a member of the country’s U-23 national team, the North American qualifying tournament for the Summer Olympics was held, bizarrely, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, of all places.

Unlike the World Cup, the Olympics are contested by countries’ U-23 teams, rather than the full national teams. I was actually lucky enough to have met Ruiz back then, as each of the colleges and universities near Hershey basically adopted one of the national teams and hosted all of their training sessions. I was in charge of athletic communications for the school that got Guatemala, and I got to work with them quite a bit in coordinating local media coverage.

HersheyPark Stadium

The scene of the 2000 Olympic qualifiers.

That wasn’t an easy task, as the head coach was a little more than slightly paranoid about anyone from the other teams turning on the local TV news and seeing anything that might potentially give away the tiniest detail about their training sessions and game strategies. For the first day or two, they were more like the Brigadoon national team, as they would mysteriously vanish when cameras approached, and then magically reappear when they retreated. Eventually, we got things sorted out.

On the whole, though, it was a great experience, especially since at the time I was still in my first year out of college and was the same age as nearly all of the players on the team. Carlos Ruiz certainly stood out back then, but I never would have guessed that in another two years he would jump from Municipal to the Los Angeles Galaxy and end up as the MLS Most Valuable Player his first year in the league, nor would I have guessed at the time that he would eventually become Guatemala’s all-time leading scorer in international competition.

His signing now is definitely a good pickup for the Union. After an offseason largely spent finding ways to plug up the obvious defensive holes from their inaugural season, bringing in Ruiz fills another big need, which is taking some opposing defensive pressure off Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga. Even if he isn’t quite at the same level as a goal scorer he was when he played for L.A., he’ll be a helpful presence in relieving pressure. Also, having Le Toux take corner kicks, which seemed kind of strange for much of last year when he was the team’s only reliable scorer, would make more sense now with Ruiz on the field at the same time and Mwanga with a year of pro experience under his belt.

Besides, I’m of the opinion that he still has quite a few productive years left. While he struggled to score in the first half of the 2010-11 Greek Super League season for Aris Thessaloniki, somebody doesn’t score three goals in a handful of Europa League games over that same span by being washed up. Context is certainly going to be key for Ruiz’s scoring opportunities, and potentially having Le Toux and Mwanga on the field at the same time will definitely create opportunities for him.

Philadelphia-New York, the USA’s Answer to Millwall-West Ham

October 18, 2010

If there is any place in the United States most likely to spawn legions of angry, bitter, European-style soccer hooligans ripped to the gills on Yuengling and setting fire to stuff just for the hell of it, it’s probably Philadelphia.

— Me, almost three years ago (then, in the comment section to that post, some wag humorously predicted that Philly would someday be the site of the first MLS fan fatality).

The time is right to trot out that blast from the past after yesterday’s final Philadelphia Union home game of the club’s inaugural 2010 Major League Soccer season, which took the form of a 2-1 win over the stupidest soda commercial of all time New York Pink Cows Red Bulls.

The reason it’s fitting to bring up is because of the security measures taken by the Union’s management for that game, which were unprecedented in the entire history of sports in Philadelphia. Here’s the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The roughly 400 New York Red Bulls fans who made the trek to PPL Park on Saturday were herded like cattle into the visitors’ section . . . Once they were in, they were there to stay – surrounded and confined in that area by security for the duration . . . They had their own concession stands, their own restrooms, their own smoking area. “These fans hate each other,” noted one Union security guard.

Right now, Philadelphia and New York probably share the most intense — and ugliest — soccer rivalry in the United States, and probably one of the craziest in all sports in the U.S. (although if I had to guess, I’d say it will probably be superseded by Seattle and Portland next year once the Timbers begin playing in MLS).

How the bad blood between Philly and New York escalated so quickly to the point that the Philadelphia Union felt the need to add extra security and keep the entire contingent of RBNY supporters groups physically separated from the rest of the stadium to such an extent that they’d even have segregated concession stands and bathrooms is an interesting story.

Millwall fans in their natural environment, surrounded by cops in riot gear.

Millwall fans in their natural environment, surrounded by cops. From guardian.co.uk.

Long before the Philadelphia Union existed, and well before MLS even announced in February 2008 that the city would get an expansion team, a group of soccer fans from the Philadelphia area decided that if the region was ever to get a local team for them to cheer on, they would have to first demonstrate that a robust fan culture was already in place. So, they created a supporters’ group, the Sons of Ben (SOBs for short, with typical Philly grace), for a team that didn’t even exist and wasn’t even on the drawing board yet. These are the magnificently crazy people who today fill up the entire River End of PPL Park in Chester. One of their regular activities in those early, pre-Union days was heading up to the Meadowlands en masse, where the Red Bulls played back then, and spending the entire game taunting the home team and its fans.

Of course, this didn’t sit well with the long-suffering fans of New York which, despite being one of the original MLS teams that began playing 15 years ago, have yet to win a single title. No MLS Cups (the playoff championship), no Supporters Shields (awarded to the team that finishes first overall in the regular season standings — the equivalent of a league title in Europe), and no U.S. Open Cups (like the English F.A. Cup). The Red Bulls are 0 for 45 in opportunities to win a trophy — actually 0 for 46 if you count their hideous performance in the continent-wide CONCACAF Champions’ League last year. They’re practically in Chicago Cubs territory already.

Red Bull New York logo.

Someone should keep them away from the vodka.

So, it’s the New York fans who actually became the first to transform into “angry, bitter, European-style soccer hooligans,” although I doubt they’re drinking Yuengling. After years of hearing these weird Philadelphians calling themselves SOBs and pointing out that their non-existent team has won as many championships as their own has, something snapped in Red Bull Nation’s collective mind when the Philadelphia Union played New York for the first time.

As the teams played each other twice over four days in April at the Red Bulls’ home stadium (first for the MLS regular season, then for the U.S. Open Cup) New York fans threw rocks and bottles at a bus carrying Philadelphia fans and managed to shatter one of the windows. So, at the teams’ first meetings, the tension between their fans had already escalated from verbal taunting to physical violence.

Adding insult to injury, this year the Red Bulls were knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup by the USL-2 Harrisburg City Islanders, a Philadelphia Union third tier minor-league affiliate.

Fast-forward to July, when the Union hosted an international friendly match against Scotland’s Celtic F.C., and a group of people from — you guessed it — New York City, decided to light a bunch of flares in support of Celtic in PPL Park near the end of the game.

So it comes as no surprise that, given the history of violence that already exists, said the Daily News, “police and event staff littered the Red Bull area with a keen eye on anything that went beyond insults. Union president Tom Veit felt the need to keep things safe required extra vigilance.

‘”It’s necessary. We have an obligation to our fans to keep it safe and enjoyable,” Veit said. “So with that said, I’d rather have a lot of guys standing around doing nothing, than a few having to do something.”‘

While the source of the violence so far has clearly been from New York fans, I suspect the decision to partition the stadium yesterday was also probably rooted in a desire to prevent any reprisals from Philadelphia fans, who naturally had the New Yorkers heavily outnumbered.

I can only wonder what’ll happen next year.

[Not So] Great Scots!

July 20, 2010

Three New York residents apparently comprising some of the Glaswegian diaspora’s finest, described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as “boneheads,” Philadelphia Union president Tom Veit as “idiots,” and Chester Police Chief Joseph Bail as “fools” running on “brown bottle courage,” took it upon themselves to set off some flares (a big no-no in any stadium in the United States) in support of their team’s losing effort in the Philadelphia–Celtic F.C. friendly Wednesday night.

The story interested me at first because, for once, here was some stupid, loutish, alcohol-drenched behavior taking place at a Philadelphia-area sporting event that wasn’t the product of local fans. My immediate reaction was, “HOLY CRAP!!! IT WASN’T US!!!” That’s right up there with “Man Bites Dog.”

It interested me even more once I saw the video of the incident and noticed that it took place just a couple of rows directly behind where I sat during PPL Park’s previous game between the Union and San Jose just four days prior. That makes me feel safe . . .

Who wants to bet they’ll be back when the Red Bulls come to town?

Philly Sports Fans Behaving Badly

April 28, 2010

I’m not sure how on Earth I missed this one from nearly two weeks ago, but here’s an incident at a Philadelphia Phillies game that’s bad even by our standards:

Cops: Man Purposely Vomited on Girl at Phils Game

Apparently an off-duty cop from Easton, Pa. took his kid to a Phillies game. He said this: “When I say disgusting, there was not only insults and vulgarities directed at us, but also beer was thrown at us . . .  I actually heard the individual behind me say, ‘I’m gonna get sick’, then I couldn’t believe what I saw. He actually had his fingers down his mouth and into his throat to make himself vomit. He vomited and lurched forward and it was hitting my daughter.”

On behalf of Pennsylvanians everywhere, I’d like to take this moment to point out that the alleged perpetrator was from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. New Jersey is, as we all know, now most famous for being the home of exemplary individuals like “Snooki” and “The Situation” and, perhaps soon, this guy.

And it wasn’t even ten-cent beer night in Cleveland.

Independence + Union = 1970s Oakland Raiders?

April 21, 2010

A “criminal element.” That was Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach Chuck Noll’s description of the Oakland Raiders’ defense in 1977.

After seeing last week’s games on TV, it’s my belief that maybe, just maybe, Philadelphia’s two professional soccer expansion teams, the Union and the Independence, are supposed to be the respective MLS and WPS equivalents of the Raiders teams of yore.

The Union of Major League Soccer have been getting into card trouble from the very beginning; we all know that. From piling up three ejections in a preseason game against FC Dallas, to the season opener at Seattle where it took the team less than 40 seconds to get its first regular-season yellow card and less than a half of play to get its first red, it became very obvious very quickly that this would be a rather physical team, to say the least.

Still, I don’t think anybody would have predicted that defender and team captain Danny Califf would deliver an on-the-run clothesline to Dwayne De Rosario to get a red card in the first half against a sad-sack Toronto FC side Thursday night, thereby helping to blow a game the Union really should have won. You can see it close up in the video below at around the one minute mark.

Upon watching the replay, Califf said, “After seeing it, I would have thrown myself out.” The thing that Califf was lacking on that play was the wiliness of Philadelphia Independence defender Heather Mitts.

I admit that, at first glance, the roster for the Independence of Women’s Professional Soccer did not scream, “goon squad.” Sure, one of the team’s defensive starters didn’t get to play in their opening game because she had to serve out a suspension from getting red carded in the WPS title match the previous season. Sure, they’ve also got a player who’s nicknamed “The Beast.” Sure, in their opener against Atlanta, the Indies racked up a lot more fouls than the visitors, but it didn’t seem like an overly physical game. Then they went to Boston on Sunday.

It took just six minutes or so into the game for Mitts to outdo Califf, as she managed to get former Breakers teammate Kristine Lilly in a brief headlock, spin her around, and pull her down, all in one quick motion, and all in the box. And here’s the best part: while the referee immediately called a penalty kick for Lilly, the call was reversed right away. Turns out Lilly was offside just before the Mitts mugging occurred. The result? Philadelphia got the ball, and Mitts got away with the whole thing. That’s how you play defense, kids.

Take a look at the foul that somehow didn’t end up as one in the beginning of the video below, and “recognize awesome” (although probably not in quite the same manner the WPS marketing folks hoped you would):

At around 4:15 in the same video, you can see another Independence player, Jen Buczkowski (who happens, like Califf, to be a team captain), flatten a Boston player for her second yellow card in the game, resulting in an automatic red card and ejection. The difference between Califf’s red and Buczkowski’s is that latter occurred so late in the game that it didn’t have a chance to make an impact on the final score, which was a 1-1 tie. Once again, the Independence seem to indulge their violent impulses more intelligently.

It’s probably fitting that the Philadelphia teams are playing in such an aggressive, and perhaps overly-aggressive, style. After all, if there’s anything sports fans have historically loved around here, it’s goons and teams that are basically a collection of oddballs and psychos. Plus, one of the things MLS and WPS have been lacking is a team in a villain role, one that everyone — except its borderline sociopathic followers — loves to hate.

Every great pro sport needs a Snidley Whiplash, and Califf and Mitts came close to at least supplying the whiplash part. American soccer fans, it appears your old-school Oakland Raiders are here at last.

Update: The apparent essence of Philadelphia soccer has been distilled into a single image. The Independence front office actually just posted the photo below on the club’s Facebook page with the caption, “Okay, we can admit it…we may have gotten a liiittle lucky with the offsides call on Sunday.”

Heather Mitts gets Kristine Lilly in a choke hold.

From the Philadelphia Independence Facebook page.

It’s a Big F#$&ing Deal

April 8, 2010

I have no idea how the Philadelphia Union has managed to get Joe Biden to be part of the opening kick ceremony during the club’s first ever home game at Lincoln Financial Field Saturday night, but they somehow pulled it off.

The Philadelphia Union logo.

Joe the Biden in the house, y'all.

The upside to this is that no matter what your political leanings may be, you have to admit this is probably the highest recognition domestic professional soccer has ever received in the United States. The fact that the Vice President is doing the opening kick at a Major League Soccer game is a watershed moment for the sport in this country. No matter what you may think about the guy, this is a big f#$&ing deal. Heck, I’d be excited about it even if the Vice President in question was Sarah Palin (shudder).

The downside to this is that the security presence at the game, as well as in the area surrounding the Linc, is going to be a big f#$&ing nightmare.

The upside to the downside is that the rumors I saw on Facebook of some people who will be in the same section as me wanting to bring flares into the stadium probably won’t pan out now, so at least I no longer have to worry about my hair getting lit on fire by beer-lit pyromaniacs. Still, it would have been fun to have that extra element of Euro-craziness at the game.

A Philadelphia Hat Trick

March 16, 2010

Presuming that the 2010 Major League Soccer season actually gets a chance to begin (hopefully on time as well), the new Philadelphia Union may fit in quite nicely with the gloriously ignominious tradition of Philadelphia’s professional sports history.

The Philadelphia Union logo

The Seaport Drive Bullies?

In the first ever game against an MLS opponent, a pre-season “friendly” (in name only) against FC Dallas a few days ago in Florida, Philadelphia lost 2-0. In the process, the Union racked up three red cards.

When one player scores three goals in a game, it’s commonly called a “hat trick.” It doesn’t happen often. When three players from the same team get ejected in the course of a game, that’s a uniquely Philly variation.

The fact that this ugliness broke out in a game against a team based in Dallas, Texas (home of the infinitely hated Cowboys of the NFL) just makes it even more uniquely Philly.

Oh well. If you can’t beat ’em, at least you can beat the hell out of ’em.

Let’s Please, Please, Please Not Screw This Up

March 9, 2010

One encouraging sign in the ongoing fiasco/soap opera that is the Major League Soccer collective bargaining agreement negotiation process is the fact that both sides have now agreed to bring in a federal mediator.

Another encouraging sign is the fact that tonight, the first competitive match of 2010 will take place as scheduled, even without a new CBA, when the Columbus Crew hosts Toluca in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. MLS owners have declared that they won’t lock players out under any circumstances this year and are willing to play the 2010 season even without a new agreement, and while the players’ union has not made a similar commitment not to strike, the fact that the preseason and now, international competition continues to go on as scheduled without a new agreement — an almost unprecedented thing in pro sports here — seems to indicate a lack of willingness to strike — for now.

The problem is that, unlike many labor/management conflicts, in this case both sides have really, really good points that are largely incompatible with one another. From the ownership standpoint, it probably is the strict adherence to the MLS single-entity model that has allowed the league to survive, expand and prevent an NASL-style flame-out over the last 15 years. And the owners do have a very strong case that this still is a very young league that isn’t yet on firm financial footing, so the single-entity system must be continued for now.

From the players’ standpoint, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the lack of free agency the single-entity model creates just isn’t right. No other professional sports leagues in the US and Canada do this, nor do the other soccer leagues globally. It is ridiculous that if a player is signed by one team, because his contract is technically owned by the league, if he gets cut from that team, he has to hope the team that cuts him is able to work out a trade with another team in the league that wants him in order to keep working, because he is not allowed to sign with another team as a free agent after being cut.

But, that’s part and parcel of the single entity model. Trying to work out a compromise between these two positions is something akin to squaring a circle, and I don’t envy the negotiators nor the mediator one bit.

But they must get it done somehow. A work stoppage now would not only likely halt all the momentum the sport is building here (MLS has now leapfrogged the NBA and the NHL in average per-game attendance, TV revenues are up and TV exposure of soccer in general is way up, the U.S. men’s national team is actually starting to get taken seriously by the rest of the world, etc.), it would likely lead to the destruction of top-level pro soccer here for another generation. AGAIN. Which, I think, is why both sides have so far been so unwilling to engage in posturing and brinksmanship and will hopefully remain unwilling to do so.

Which brings me to why I’m writing all of this. I’m from the Philadelphia sports market. I was born in 1977. Philadelphia hasn’t had a top-level men’s soccer team since 1979, when the Philadelphia Fury of the NASL pulled up stakes and moved Montreal after the season concluded. The NASL itself went belly-up in 1984. I was too young to remember any of this. By the time Major League Soccer began its first season in 1996, I was in college. We got an all-too-brief taste of pro soccer here on the women’s side from 2001 to 2003, when the Charge played in the absurdly mismanaged WUSA.

Now it’s 2010. Philadelphia is finally about to get both women’s and men’s teams again. I’ve actually already bought my ticket for the first-ever WPS game for the Philadelphia Independence April 11. I’ve made arrangements to be able to go to the first home game for the MLS Philadelphia Union April 10, but I haven’t taken the plunge and purchased a seat for that one yet, no matter how much I’ve wanted to, and no matter of the fact that I’ve been looking forward to that hypothetical day for years.

I’m holding off. As a stay-at-home-parent raising two kids in a family with one income, I am absolutely not willing to blow money on a ticket for a game that may or may not end up happening. And, I’m sure I can’t be the only one in the Philadelphia area who’s been hesitant to do so, either. Actually, I’m pretty sure that I speak for a lot of soccer fans around here who have been waiting years for this moment when I say that if it is snatched away right at the start like this, it will be unforgivable.

So, for now I continue to wait to see if a new collective bargaining agreement gets signed between now and the start of the MLS season March 25, or if one doesn’t get implemented, whether or not the players decide to go ahead with the season anyway. Hopefully, there will still be some tickets available at the Linc by that point.

Jim Bunning: Now Worse than Michael Vick in Philly Sports History

February 28, 2010

It’s time to revisit the unique nexus of baseball, politics, senility and weirdness that is Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning. Over the last several days, an old post on this site from way back in 2008 called, “Whither Jim Bunning?” suddenly started getting a bunch of hits — far too many for it to be a coincidental spike.

A closer look revealed that the most common search term bringing people here was, “Jim Bunning asshole.”

“Oh, jeez,” I thought, “What the heck did he do now?”

It didn’t take long to figure out that he did this. Yes, Jim Bunning is the reason that 1.2 million laid-off Americans will lose their unemployment benefits. He single-handedly filibustered an unemployment extension. The Republican caucus, to its credit, had nothing to do with it and didn’t go along with his filibuster.

Bunning clearly suffered greatly for his efforts, having complained at one point during his filibuster of having to miss a basketball game.

I never thought it possible for someone to rank below Michael Vick and Pete Rose on the Philadelphia sports history All-Jackass Team, but “Senator” Bunning has done it. Throwing a perfect game for the Phillies does not make you any less of a worthless excuse for a human being, sir.

And that, folks, is the unique nexus of baseball, politics, senility, weirdness, and douchebaggery that is Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning.

A Health-Conscious Gastronome’s Tour of Southeastern Pennsylvania

February 27, 2010

Via the Philadelphia Independence Twitter feed:

Help her out #Philly fans! RT @karinaleblanc Just got in trouble…Cheesesteak = not healthy. What else u got, Philly (that’s healthy)? #wps

Picture of a cheesesteak from Pat's in Philadelphia.
I’m shocked, SHOCKED, that this isn’t good for you.

Being expansion clubs, it’s likely that many Philadelphia Independence and Philadelphia Union players — not just Karina LeBlanc — are unfamiliar with the unique foods of southeastern Pennsylvania and are anxious to try them. It’s also likely that, being professional athletes, they would like to seek out healthy eating options.

While the cheesesteak — grilled mystery meat and onion shreds on a bun smothered in Cheez Whiz —may not be the healthiest dining option, we in this corner of the country have plenty of nutritious foods befitting highly active lifestyles.

Philadelphians cannot live on cheesesteaks alone, which is why there are many other gastronomic emblems of the city. Among them are the soft pretzel: carbohydrate-laden dough baked until fluffy, covered in big chunks of salt, and usually smothered in Cheez Whiz — okay, never mind about that one, either. But never fear, there are also cheese fries: nutritious, all-natural potatoes sliced into strips, deep fried until crispy, and smothered in Cheez Whiz — okay, this clearly isn’t working.

A plate of scrapple.

Scrapple. Appetizing, eh?

While the city of Philadelphia may itself be a cesspool of Cheez Whiz, the surrounding area will certainly have healthier eating options. Let’s look at that wholesome region called “the Pennsylvania Dutch Country,” to which the Independence headquarters in Downingtown is conveniently adjacent. One regional delicacy here is something called “scrapple.” Basically, you take whatever’s still left over after hot dogs have been made, grind it up and press it into a vaguely loaf-like shape with the consistency of chunky pudding intermingled with goo. The best way to serve scrapple is to cut it into slices like bread, fry them up in a pan, and them mash them up with a bucketload of ketchup.

This being Pennsylvania, you must know that there is only one kind of ketchup, and that is Heinz. Nothing else counts.

So maybe scrapple isn’t so healthy, either. But don’t worry, we also have things like “Lebanon bologna” and “sweet bologna.” These are tubes of mystery meat generally made from whatever’s left over after scrapple has been made and eaten in chunks. Another very traditional delicacy is something called “pig stomach,” which, you guessed it, is a pig’s stomach stuffed with sausage, potatoes, and spices, baked for several hours and basted in its own juices.

Shoo-fly pie.

Sugar goo and sugar powder. What could possibly go wrong?

Okay, maybe you can forget about meat-based healthy main-course traditional dining options around here. One good local vegetarian (but not vegan) dish is called “corn pie.” Healthy corn, potatoes, and celery are baked into a crusty pie with lots of eggs, butter, whole milk and heavy cream. Okay, maybe you can forget about all healthy main-course traditional dining options around here. But, I’m sure we have some healthy desserts and snacks.

One iconic Pennsylvania Dutch dessert is something called “shoo-fly pie,” which allegedly received its unusual moniker because it is so full of molasses and sugar that it attracts flies. It attracts so many flies, in fact, that you constantly have to shoo them away while eating it. We are also quite proud of our snack foods. The first commercial pretzel bakery in the nation was founded in Lititz, Lancaster County, and our local potato chips are much better than any national brand, probably because we fry them in lard instead of oil.

I won’t even bother getting into Fastnacht Day, and cup cheese should probably never be mentioned by anyone in polite company.

So, in summary, “what else u got” that’s healthy? Nothing. We got nothing. Sorry, folks. Wilkum, and try not to starve while you’re here.


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