Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reflections on Year Two

What 36,000 Sounders fans sound like

This will be one of those posts where I deviate from the statistics and talk about the more human element of my soccer experience.

Being a US soccer fan in a city with an MLS team, my season runs from March through November. With the elimination of my Sounders last weekend, I felt it was appropriate to reflect on my top experiences of my second year of soccer fandom. In reverse order, here are my Top 5 moments of the last year.

5. Arsenal's opening weekend win over Liverpool

This event was significant on its own, but is also represents the fun I get to have every so often with the friend who got me to fall in love with the game and the EPL as my "foreign league". Liverpool, his favorite club, had a rough off season, but that didn't matter. We'd marked this date - the opening of the 2010-2011 season - when the schedule was released early in the summer and realized our teams met that weekend. It was the perfect beginning to another EPL season and Saturday's at the George and Dragon.

When Arsenal went down 0-1 at the opening second half, I thought "Great, another self destruction at the half way point!" For the next 45 minutes I was sure that Arsenal was going down, and I would have to face my friend as a loser for the first time in three matches against Liverpool. Then, the game turned on a Reina's bad play on a Chamakh's header. Half of the George and Dragon erupted, the other half despondent. Never had a tie been so nice - sadly, at the expense of my friend. All he could do was shake his head and hope that maybe the fourth time would be the charm.

4. Sounders FC 0-4 loss to the LA Galaxy

No matter what sport I follow, I believe in using market forces to provide feedback to the ownership when the team isn't worth the price of a ticket. After having a great inaugural season in 2009, the Sounders struggled at the start of the 2010 season. The team chemistry was way off, and it was clear the team wasn't going to make the playoffs if performance didn't improve. The nadir of this stretch of the season was a 0-4 loss to the Galaxy.

Being a divorced dad of two young girls, I get very few weekends where I can go to soccer matches. Given that reality, I probably have an unrealistic expectation of value for my ticket to a match. That match was truly awful. It was only 0-1 at the half, but soon after halftime the Galaxy scored in the 52nd and the 56th minute. Landon Donovan had set up all three of those goals, and he decided he wanted in on the action by scoring the fourth. By the 70th minute, we walked out of the stadium fed up with the lack of effort on the part of our team.

What happened next was amazing. The team put it's money where it's mouth was, and immediately issued credit worth one game ticket to each season ticket holder. That put everyone on notice that the management wouldn't put up with failure. Soon the troublemaker, Freddie Ljungberg, was shipped off to a team we were competing against for a playoff spot and the season turned around.

3. Statistically Blogging the World Cup

This year's World Cup was the first in which I was a dedicated fan, and I ended up preparing well for it. I kicked off the Spring (and this blog) with the completion of Soccernomics. A May business trip to The Netherlands prompted me to read Brilliant Orange - a fortuitous event given the Dutch showing in the World Cup. And then, just before the start of the Cup, a wonderful study that created a system for measuring player's contribution to team performance was released and an associated World Cup database was quickly created by the authors.

This series of events provided all the inspiration I needed to blog my way through the World Cup. I built an entire spreadsheet around the Soccernomics model for predicting the outcome to international matches, and was able to show when it was most accurate. I ended up not being so good when using the Footballer Rating system. Along the way I met many people on Twitter via my posts, and had a blast live blogging the final matches. There was only one moment from the World Cup that surpassed my blogging experience, and it is my number one moment of the year.

2. Sounders FC win the US Open Cup

Very few clubs get to play for a trophy on their home pitch. It's a 50/50 chance in the US Open Cup as one of the teams in the final will host the match at their home stadium. Last year, the Sounders had to go on the road for the final and came away with the improbable win. In their second year, the team won the bid to host the final and attempt to become the first MLS team to win the Cup two years in a row.

As I mentioned in moment four, the season did not start so well for the Sounders. After a midseason trade, a few overseas acquisitions, and some much better play the Sounders were back in the playoff hunt by early October. On October 2nd I attended their 3-2 win over Toronto FC, and then returned to the stadium on the 5th to watch them defend the cup.

The Boys From Seattle went down 0-1, but came back strong to win 2-1. In the process of repeating as champions, the Sounders made the Cup our own competition. We've embraced it like no other team before us. We shattered the record for attendance at a final, and none other than the definitive US Open Cup website has recognized the Sounders as the major force behind reinvigorating the competition.

After a tumultuous season of doubt, it was absolutely wonderful to stand tall with 30,000 supporters and reward our boys with our voices for their awesome work. Next year we look to be the first team to threepeat since Greek American Atlas Astoria won the 1967, 1968, and 1969 competitions. I have no doubt they can do it.

1. Landon Donovan's late goal against Algeria

Every American soccer fan knows where they were when they saw, or heard about, Landon Donovan's epic late goal. I won't try to re-create the moment on the pitch in South Africa, but I will relay on my experience.

I chose to go into work late, pushing the limits of our core hours policy. I had a feeling the match would be special, and I refused to let work get in the way. The same Liverpool friend who got me into soccer and shares weekends at the George and Dragon with me was with me that morning. We set up shop at an outdoor table at the Market Arms, consuming several Bailey's and Coffee throughout the morning. The match inevitable continued to build in tension, with all of us standing and praying for a breakthrough. We all know what happened next, but the reaction is one I will never forget.

The picture below was taken at the Market Arms the moment the goal was scored, and will be a moment I will never forget. I've never seen so many grown people yell, hug, high five, and cry as I did that day. It's was a perfect way to celebrate my first World Cup, and earned my top memory of the year.

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