At last, the first of the Spring Training games are upon us, and baseball fans across the country are filled with hope that their baseball club have what it takes to make it to October and even a championship.
I’ve got the Mets/Cardinals game on, but this all a preview to 7pm, when we get the first Cubs Sprint Training game against the A’s. The Marquee Network has all the coverage and if you’re in Des Moines, you’ll find it on Channel 768 on Mediacom or on DirecTV or Hulu.
Tomorrow, the Cubbies face the Dodgers and from all initial looks, LA looks strong this season.
While we’re on the topic, New Era rolled out new Spring Training caps, which are a mash-up of the home and away logos. While some look reasonable, what was the thought on the Cubs’ cap?
But, on the other hand, the Blue Jays and the Yankees seemed to have gotten it right with a more straight-forward design with heavier contrasts and a better blend in their designs.
In some ways, the FA Cup (The Football Association Cup) is the finest of all soccer competitions in the world. It brings together English clubs from each of the tiers, with exciting play where lower teams have a chance to topple larger clubs. Many of these matches will be absolute crackers, with teams you’ve never heard of stepping up to bravely take on some of the biggest names in the sport. For the back history on the FA Cup, check the wikipedia page.
Throughout the full soccer season, these English clubs battle their way down to the final match in May. This weekend, we hit the Third Round of proper competition, so you’ll see clubs from the Premier League and Championship League battling for dominance in knockout rounds to stay in the competition.
Here are the matches I’m really looking forward to:
Brighton v. Sheffield Wednesday. You know I’ve got to support the Owls. It is still (as I write this) 0-0 at the beginning of the second half. I’d have thought Wednesday would be a bit stronger than they’ve looked, but Brighton seems to be full of surprises.
Reading v. Blackpool. At the half, Blackpool was up by a goal. This match feels more evenly spread between the teams.
Man City v. Port Vale. This will be a fun game to watch, though City may absolute destroy Port Vale. I love watching smaller teams play the big boys. Port Vale have nothing to lose and I hope they play with a strong heart.
Chelsea v. Nottingham Forest. This is going to be a match of pure fun too. I watch a lot of Nottingham’s matches and I think they’ll give Chelsea a good run. But, I ultimately hope Chelsea pulls it off.
Crystal Palace v. Derby County. Derby has Wayne Rooney on their side. This should be an absolute smash-up.
Gillingham v. West Ham. Up the Hammers, of course.
Arsenal v. Leeds United. I’m anticipating Leeds makes it up the Premier League next season as they currently sit atop the Championship League table. It’ll be a good test of Arsenal’s metal to see if they can make it past Leeds United.
The first day of 2020 brings us a full day of Premier League, thank goodness. Here’s the schedule and if for some unfathomable reason, TheBlackPitch.com is your main source of soccer insights AND you’re a Chelsea fan, I hope you have some other reminder to wake up early for the first match, because we’re only hours away at this point, and you’re likely still out in the streets, whooping it up and drinking yourself into the abyss that was 2019.
PSA: Don’t drink and drive. If you’re gonna drink, don’t drive and if you’re gonna drive, don’t drink.
Of course, tomorrow (or today, depending on when you’re actually reading this) will be a good day to have NBC Sports Gold Premier League Pass. The Watford v. Wolves match should be interesting, as should the West Ham v. Bournemouth. It’ll be West Ham’s first match at home with newly-reappointed manager David Moyes. Typically, you’d expect a bit of a rebound bounce from a club bringing in a new manager, so we’ll see what the actual turnaround might look like for The Hammers. Of course, the standard NBCSN lineup will provide plenty of fun for the day, as I anticipate you, like me, won’t be leaving the couch.
2020 New Year’s Resolutions
The bigger thing I’ve been thinking about is resolutions for the new year, as it relates to my indulgence in soccer/football/the beautiful game. Here are my Top 5 Resolutions for 2020.
Make a better effort to consistently catch the NWSL and Women’s FA club matches. As much as I’ve caught matches here and there, both leagues haven’t been in my regular rotation as much as they should be. Part of this was tracking down a better way to watch, which I think I might have a solution for, but some of this really comes down to putting together a viewing calendar to make sure I’m not tuning in last minute, all of the time. I do this for Premier League, Bundesliga and MLS, so I simply need to add these leagues to the rotation.
See at least four of the Des Moines’ Menace’s home matches this season. I like the Menace. I have a ton of fun watching the lads, especially in recent seasons. Part of being a supporter of local soccer is getting out to the soccer you have in your community. Sometimes, and this is me being totally transparent, but our local club can be a bit of out-of-sight, out-of-mind for me, and remember, soccer is my favorite sport. Part of this is the ease of watching the bigger clubs with the better viewing options. While it allows me to be a soccer fan and digest a lot of matches, it also allows me to be a lazy fan. I have to be out supporting the community in which I live if I hope that we ever have a real chance at fostering a club in a larger league in the Des Moines area.
Regularly watch USL Championship and USL One matches on ESPN+. While these aren’t new additions to ESPN+ (I believe), I simply need to add them to the rotation. In recent months, my attention has turned to interests in the more localized/regional soccer options. These are all great clubs and I don’t mean this in any type of disrespect, but it’s simply easier to be a fan of the biggest clubs in the world. Soccer has to be, first and foremost, local for it to grow and flourish. So, while our Menace will be playing at the League Two level and I’ll have to see it in person, I can help the audience grow by watching the matches on ESPN+.
Watch at least half as many Sheffield Wednesday matches as I watch Chelsea FC matches. One of these days, the Owls will be in the Premier League. Then, my heart will be tugged into two parts. But, until that day, I need to do a better job keeping up with SW.
Finish hanging my new Chelsea FCand Sporting KC flags in my home office. Typical me. Received two brand-new, beautiful flags to hang in the home office, but both are sitting, folded neatly on my desk. There’s got to be a break in the action on New Year’s Day, right?
You really have to give it to Jurgen Klopp. He knew what it was saying when he told the world that he’d turn “doubters” into “believers.” Today, just one match shy of the halfway mark in the season, they lead the table by 13 points, with a crushing performance against the second place team, Leicester City (Liverpool 4:0 Leicester City). Today’s match, as in nearly every match since the season began was beautiful, with Liverpool playing with the confidence of champions the world hasn’t seen since the early 90’s Chicago Bulls. This team is truly special (and this is from a Chelsea fan) and it is clear proof that Klopp is a genius.
Tottenham scored a brilliant second goal against Brighton (reminder thanks to my brother-in-law, Keith, who wasn’t in a Theraflu-induced morning nap like this guy was). Bournemouth/Arsenal was a dumpster fire that ended in a draw. Somehow, Watford punched above it’s class to result in a draw with Sheffield United. In the fight for the bottom of the table, Aston Villa outpaced Norwich, which leaves the Canaries at the bottom of the pile. Crystal Palace squeaks one out on West Ham (Happiness for pals Molly and Sarah who I believe got to watch the match live from a box). Everton beats Burnley, Man United sticks it to Newcastle and Liverpool brings the hammer of God down on the Foxes.
So, Boxing Day leaves us with this view of the table.
If Man City beat the Wolves, they’ll put Leicester City out of the second position, but a draw will keep ’em even.
Just a reminder of what is on, in the event that you’ve somehow just tuned in to what is important in life. Premier League is going full tilt all day with some great match-ups on NBCSN and the NBC Sports Gold Premier League Season Pass.
If you’re wondering why we watch soccer on Boxing Day and not actual boxing, read up on the holiday here. Also, if you have to ask why you would need a reason to watch soccer, you’re clearly in the wrong place.
Thursday, December 26 will be no day to sleep on. The Premier League will be in fine form with enough matches to get you through whatever Xmas-hangover you may be experiencing.
Me? I’ll be starting the day really early with Tottenham and hanging around for the Chelsea match. Then, of course, I’ll double-dip on a ManUnited and a Leicester v Liverpool cracker. I’m not sure how quickly NBC Gold’s Premier League Season Pass will have the OnDemand content up, but I’ll definitely be coming back for the Crystal Palace v West Ham match.
Today was the kind of day that you wait weeks for, and it wasn’t just because the Blues came out victorious with a win at Tottenham. The match was a pure 90+ minutes of incredible play, showing Chelsea in rare recent for.
Frank Lampard set the boys in with a new formation, one that worked very well to their comfort zone. Both of the goals were scored by Willian, first at the 12 minute mark and then again right before the whistle blew for half-time. There wouldn’t be another goal in the match, but Chelsea held off Tottenham thoroughly throughout the remainder. Tottenham simply couldn’t get it together.
Though Chelsea had only a little more than half of the possession, check out how dominate and effective the Blues’ play was. More shots, more shots on target, better pass accuracy. Tottenham is a fairly technically proficient team. They simply weren’t creating opportunities today.
Now for the Ugly Bits
Sixty minutes into the match, Rudiger fouls Son, who then kicks his foot up (cleats up) into Rudiger’s chest and Rudiger goes down. It looks blatant. Son gets the red card after a bit of theater from the Spur and gets sent off. Shortly thereafter, you could hear the Spurs crowd taunting monkey noises at Rudiger.
The referee halts the match momentarily to handle the report from Rudiger that he’s being verbally taunted and Spurs supporters in the stands are making monkey gestures at him. As all of this is happening, someone throws a drink out onto the pitch at Chelsea’s goalkeeper, Kepa. There are three different PA announcements about refraining from racist behavior in the stands. Three. You can’t make this up.
And this is the sour to a great match-up. Going in, you had all the drama of the story line between Spurs’ Mourinho and Chelsea’s Lampard, the master and the student. You have a young Chelsea team that are steadying their pace as they hold onto the top tier of the table, while Tottenham is working to right the ship as they’ve come out of a dark period under their former manager. Lampard brings in a very effective formation and things start clicking immediately.
Then you have the idiot Spurs supporters who caused all the ruckus in the stands near the end of the match and swayed all the attention from a perfectly good Chelsea thumping to a storyline of racist actions by supporters.
There should be cameras everywhere in the stadium. As Tottenham review the incident, they should be able to figure out who was behind this ugly distraction. And, to be completely transparent, an ugly distraction is the watered down version. I can’t imagine that whoever is behind the incident are REAL supporters. And, if they are, it says a lot about the state of our beautiful game. A lifetime ban from English football would be a starter. Getting a good thwacking from some visiting St. Pauli’s guests would be one better.
People from all different walks of life and places the world over come together to make soccer the greatest sport ever played. If, as a supporter, you have to rely on vile, racist/homophobic taunts and insults to defend your club’s short-comings, cash in your chips and get out of the game. I hope the Premier League, and every league for that matter, make a very strong stand that individuals who display these ugly tendencies have no welcome in our stadiums. They’re not real soccer fans. They’re not true club supporters.
Honestly, as a subscriber to ESPN+, I’m stoked to watch USL Championship and USL1 teams this season. And, in my opinion, there are a bunch of teams doing the right things to engage their club and community.
The Fun Teams: Here are a few teams that just look like a riot to follow and really build that fan experience.
Forward Madison FC: Are you part of the Flock? Seriously, try to wander this site and not fall in love with FMFC. You know you want to be a ‘Mingo. They have built something incredibly unique in this Wisconsin town and they’ll prove they’re no novelty.
Las Vegas Lights FC: What do you think of when you think of the Vegas strip? All of the lights have to come to mind. This colorful club is bringing a sense of energy to the community with the team’s choice of colors, but it is also building on the right foot with strong media content on the site and engaging social media. Almost makes me want to fan from afar. Considering Vegas is one of my favorite cities anyway, the odds are pretty good that I’ll catch a match in the near future.
New Mexico United: Forget for a moment my dissing of “state” named clubs. Honestly, New Mexico United rolls of the tongue better than any specific community in the state, other than maybe Santa Fe United. Regardless, this team took it to the near-end of Sirius XM’s battle of the jerseys and brought a killer look to the world competition. Again, what the team is doing with social media is creating a buzz and giving their supporters something to really sink their teeth into.
The Historical Names: These are the teams that are drenched in history and are leveraging it with their supporters.
Birmingham Legion FC: Yep, they dropped the city and are now just “Legion FC”, but they kept the iconic crest nearly the same. Honestly, they haven’t been around that long, but don’t let that confuse you. Just check out the “about the crest” pic from their site which drums up all sorts of historical feels.
Charleston Battery: Founded in 1993, the Battery is one of the oldest continuously operating professional soccer clubs in the United States, tied with the Richmond Kickers. To draw on history, check out their “Behind the Battery” web series.
Charlotte Independence: They’ve been around since 2014, but that doesn’t stop they from pushing that historical perspective. They have a whole section on their American Legion Memorial Stadium. Not too shaby.
The Player’s Teams: These are teams that put the players front and center.
Saint Louis FC: Just look at their website. That’s a nice large and literal image of Forward Kyle Grieg. The roster is front and center and news includes hot updates on signings and player status.
Hartford Athletic: Much like SLFC, player news and information is front and center. Video content on the site focuses on performance and recaps.
There are very few things that excite me as much as the thought of a USL team finding a home in Des Moines. As news pops up here, here and here, the anticipation builds. In the spirit of not completely armchair quarterbacking this whole thing, and realizing I’m just a fan sitting in a comfortable chair in a suburban neighborhood of the Des Moines metro, I just have to throw out some ideas that I believe would be for the best of the development of a Des Moines club.
Design the stadium for capacity scaling. The reports suggest the stadium will be between 6,000 and 8,000 capacity. As of Week 33 in the USL Championship matches, the average attendance was 4,476. Now, building a stadium that has a much more capacity would leave a lot of empty seats. Imagine the last band you saw play in a venue like Wells Fargo. If the venue was half-full, you might think it is more indicative of the quality of the band, than the folks at Wells Fargo anticipating other larger attractions that could roll through. On the other hand, building the seating to be scaled would be appropriate. Watch a match at Nottingham Forest or Sheffield Wednesday and you’ll sometimes see the seats lowest to the pitch partitioned or covered with flags. This could be some ideal areas for signage/advertising, as the better seats are going to be at a second level anyway, as you’ll want more of that higher angle to properly see ball movement. Please don’t build a stadium that sits half-empty during match play.
Just name the club Des Moines FC or Des Moines SC. Create the connection between the club and the community. The best teams do this. Also, it’s something that everyone can get behind. Yes, I’m a Menace fan as much as anyone else and they have had an incredible history. But, I feel like this could be a fresh start and a giant canvas to build something even bigger. Des Moines has grown and evolved so much over the past twenty years. Allowing the club to live in the greatness that has evolved since would be an appropriate honoring of the work that’s gone into it. Also, it wouldn’t need to focus on any specific history of the community. It would simply celebrate the whole community. And, it doesn’t need to be the state’s club; it would be a Des Moines-area thing.
Here’s a freebie for a badge/crest/shield. A while back, I had a podcast called The Three Bridges Show. My buddy Pat designed it. I’d suggest something like this for the club badge. You can see it on the ends of scarves, on t-shirts and any other appropriate memorabilia. Simple, direct and classy.
Mascots are for the children. Yeah, that’s harsh, but it’s true. Think of the role of any mascot in professional sports. It’s meant to take the edge off of a serious and high-pressure situation and help kids connect to the game. Soccer doesn’t need it. Diehards won’t appreciate it and more often than not, mascots become a focal point for mocking anyway.
Leave some space in the stadium for a band. Embrace the sounds of soccer culture. No one needs a playlist of today’s Top 40 hits. Have a section for local marching bands to lead the rhythm of play. Connect with high school music groups to come up with easy to remember club supporter chants. Create a songbook with chants from each of the CIML’s high school music bands/choirs. Put the band spot behind an end zone. Put concessions behind the opposite end zone.
Open concessions to local food trucks and restaurants go work. Set it up like the vendor spaces at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. If food trucks can work on the go or at a place like The Hall, it could work here and bring the local cuisine of Des Moines to its supporters and visiting guests.
Open a space for fans to hang out andcelebrate the beautiful game. Yeah, Royal Mile, Keg Stand and The Library are good places to catch a match, but having a central, neutral spot to watch and share in the experience of competitions like the World Cup, the MLS playoffs and other international competitions (including MX, Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, EPL and EFL, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and more), would help bring fans from around the community together.
Don’t forget that a club begins with a community. The plans are impressive. Nothing that folks do around town is short of anything less that incredible. But, to make this club work, it needs the backbone of a community and the community’s support more than any fancy new stadium could foster. People have to believe in the club and see it as something more than entertainment. It has to represent them, because any soccer team in the world plays for its club and its supporters first.
Support the endeavor. With that, I’ll humbly step off the soapbox and get back to hot takes on the Premier League’s season. As a side note, if you haven’t already signed up to follow the progress of this initiative, head over to USL Pro Iowa and get signed up today. Not sure why the county list is so messed up when you select Iowa as your state, but I’m sure that’s an oversight. Programming forms is more difficult than you can imagine.
Yeah, there are a lot of leagues to capture your attention. Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, MLS, MX. The list goes on and on. But, if you want to go full diehard US soccer fan in 2020, the league to watch is clearly going to be the USL.
Soccer, at its roots, begins with the community. Where the USL prevails above the MLS is that it is simply more connected with communities throughout the United States. With three levels of competition, plus an academy league, there is simply a team for nearly any community in the US to follow. And, with ESPN+ covering all the matches through 2022 (USL Championship and USL1), it makes it super easy to watch and follow any team, anywhere.
The USL Championship is one of the most successful professional soccer leagues in the world, reaching a population of more than 84 million and fueling the growth of the game across North America. In 2018, The Championship had the biggest season in its history, with almost 3 million fans attending games over the league’s regular season and postseason
Favorite USL Championship Teams
As a Sporting KC fan in the MLS, I have to go with Sporting KC II, formerly Swope Park Rangers. Their branding switch allows existing SKC fans to take a look at the USL team, without much of an additional investment.
Tampa Bay Rowdies and Birmingham Legion FC have historical roots in the game and bring a unique character to the league.
Building off a historic inaugural season in 2019, the 2020 season will see all 12 clubs play six teams three times and a home-and-away series with the remaining five. The 2020 regular season will open on Friday, March 27 and conclude on Saturday, October 3 with four matches on the final day of the season.
Favorite USL1 Teams
I’m really curious to watch Forward Madison and Union Omaha this season.
While a few of these teams feel, from a brand perspective like a younger sibling to their MLS counterparts, you can assume the academy funnel will bring these teams some quality players and keep the matches interesting.