Sunday, March 27, 2011

U.S.A. 1-1 Argentina: Cold Night, Hot Game

Last night was 2 firsts for me: My first time inside the new Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and my first time watching the U.S. national soccer team.

If I ever do either again, it will not be at the same time. Forget the fact that the huge number of Hispanics in the New York Tri-State Area almost made it seem like a road game for the U.S. -- a factor also in cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston and Miami.

But the one thing everybody hated about Giants Stadium was the wind. The brand-new $1.6 Billion stadium having no roof at all, and a nasty wind swooping in off the wide Hackensack River and slicing through the concourses, turned it into a giant meat locker. I actually had to wear my U.S. national team jersey over my winter jacket. (Now I'm glad I got the XXL size.)

Let me get the most important thing out of the way and say that the fans were great. The Argentines were loud and waved a lot of flags, but caused no trouble at all. And their legendary grilling prowess did something I thought impossible: It made the Meadowlands parking lot smell great.

The Americans got a little stroppy after some perceived bad calls by the officials -- only one of which was bad enough to upset me -- but nobody took it out on the visitors, at least that I saw.

The crowd was announced as 78,936, making it the largest paid attendance that's ever included me, and 3,630 short of capacity, although the place looked absolutely full and the public-address announcer said it was a sellout. So the discrepancy is probably due to complimentary tickets.

Not surprisingly, there were a lot of fans in Barcelona shirts & other Barca-themed items, because of Argentina's Lionel Messi, who plays for Barca. Very surprisingly, there were at least a dozen people wearing Arsenal items -- myself not one of them, but it was so cold I wished on a few occasions that I'd brought a scarf. I saw a couple each of Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United (one fan had the green & gold Newton Heath scarf, one of these "Love United Hate Glazer" people, and I told him, "Nice Norwich scarf, pal!"). One fan wore an Everton shirt with Landon Donovan's name and Number 9 (10 for the U.S.), and there was a guy in a Fulham shirt with Clint Dempsey's name and Number 23 (8 for the U.S.). A few Real Madrid items because of Angel Di Maria, a few Internazionale (a.k.a. Inter Milan) because of Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, and several Argentine clubs I didn't recognize, along with the 2 that I would, the 2 giants of Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors and River Plate.

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In a way, this game was the exact opposite of a lot of Arsenal matches I've seen:

* The team in red (usually the U.S. wears white or navy blue, this was the debut of the red shirt with the navy sash) looked very much overmatched by a team that was passing around as if toying with them. I got the feeling that, like Arsenal, Argentina could have turned it on and won this game easily any time they wanted to.... But they didn't.

* A big (in hype, at least) striker missed some easy shots. Messi was not "the best player in the world" last night. His dribbling is sick and he can really pass, but his shooting was so far off the mark that the U.S. goalie, North Brunswick, New Jersey native and Everton star Tim Howard, made none of his saves against Messi. It reminded me of Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner -- even if Messi's height didn't (he's officially 5-foot-7, Bendtner's listed as 6-foot-3 1/2), nor his hair (although it was equally silly).

* A big star on the dazzling team got hurt -- or seemed to. Like a lot of Spanish and Hispanic players, Messi dives in order to win favor from the referees. On one play in the first half, he ended up rolling around like he'd been sprayed by shotgun pellets. There was a 3-minute delay (but only 1 minute of injury time was added), and a stretcher was brought out. Guess what: He got up, took a couple of minutes to shake it off, got back on, started the Argentina goal, and was still on at full-time. Diva twit.

* The overmatched team decided to get a little rough. There were no cards for Argentina, and 4 yellow cards for the U.S., and I have to admit all but 1 were deserved. We made some good clean tackles, but also made a few that were rough, including a couple we totally got away with. It really was like cheering on a Dirty Northern Bastard team against an Arsenalesque one. I felt dirty.

* And, of course, the team that would have been happy with a draw was.

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Nonetheless, the U.S. should have lost this game 4-0. The Argies kept coming and coming and coming. I don't know what the possession percentage was, but if you told me it was 70-30 Argentina, I'd believe it.

It was only through heroic defending that the scoreboard did not show that we got shellacked. Even on the Argentina goal: Just before the half, Messi set up DiMaria, and Howard (easily the most popular U.S. player last night, though our being in New Jersey may have had something to do with that) ended up making 2 amazing saves; unfortunately, a 3rd was required, and before he had a chance to get up and grab the rebound, Cambiasso slam-dunked it in. The goal was no fluke, very well-earned.

I can't say that about our goal. The New York Red Bulls were missing half their roster due to international duty or injuries (including Thierry Henry), and one of them was Juan Agudelo, the 18-year-old Colombian-born, Barnegat, New Jersey (Shore)-raised Red Bull, who came on in the 2nd half for the useless Jermaine Jones, and took advantage of Argentine goalie Sergio Romero's inability to hang onto a Maurice Edu shot, and dinked it in for the equaliser.

After his goal, a photo was taken of Agudelo, sticking out his tongue. The model here is not basketball legend Michael Jordan, whom Agudelo is too young to remember well, but former Arsenal Captain Patrick Vieira, now running out the string with Manchester City.

After 40 minutes scoreless, I would have loved a draw; once Cambiasso scored, I began to beg for a draw. I think a lot of us were begging, and we got it. The place went mental: You'd have thought it was Donovan's injury-time winner vs. Algeria in the World Cup all over again, while the Argentines were stunned that they let in such a bad one. (Again, it was just like watching Arsenal... in reverse.)

The last 20 minutes were agonizing... and this game didn't count for a damn thing! But when the referee mercifully blew his finale whistle, with 1-1 being the final score, the reactions were as I would have expected if you'd told me beforehand it would end in a draw: The Argentines didn't care, they knew it was a friendly and a night out and a chance to spend a weekend in New York City and environs; the Americans were overjoyed that they held one of the world's defining football nations -- and a much better team than their own -- to a draw.

Men of the Match: For the U.S., Howard, then Agudelo. Defenders Jonathan Spector (West Ham United) and Oguchi Onyewu (AC Milan) were great, Captain Carlos Bocanegra (St-Etienne) was awful in the 1st half but great in the 2nd, and even Donovan played a little defense. For Argentina, Gabriel Milito (like Messi, of Barcelona), then Cambiasso. Javier Mascherano (also Barcelona) was a pain in the ass, too. I just now realized there was no sign of Manchester City's Carlos Tevez -- is he hurt? He could have made a huge difference.

All I wanted was to not have it be miserably cold, and for my national team to not get embarrassed by one of the world's footballing powers. That wish, like the game itself, was a draw: The weather sucked, but the game was cracking. Not only did we not get embarrassed against a team that tried to make that happen, but we held our own, protected our house. Nobody drank our milkshake.

No, U.S. soccer isn't there yet. But, as the song goes:

We're on our way!
We're on our way!
We'll hit the big time!
We're on our way!
How we'll get there, we don't know!
How we'll get there, we don't care!
All we know is that we're on our way!

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