Posts Tagged ‘Union’

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.

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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.

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.

Download the 2010 Philadelphia Union Schedule

February 4, 2010

I apologize for yet another lame blog post of no substance, but I figured I’d post the links to download Philadelphia Union’s 2010 inaugural season schedule that showed up on the club’s Facebook feed a couple of hours ago in case anybody wants them.

The schedule is available in iCal (.ics) format (for iCal, Mozilla Sunbird, Mozilla Thunderbird with Lightning, Outlook, and a heap of other PIM programs) here: http://bit.ly/aYx4kO

It’s available in XML format here: http://bit.ly/aVPZ8w

It’s in HTML here: http://bit.ly/avvkKq

That is all.


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