Columbus Tally a Trillium

The Columbus Crew’s 2-0 victory over Toronto Saturday night marked the 1st game in the 2015 Trillium Cup. Now in its 8th edition since Toronto was formed, the Ohio crowd was happy to see their team get back to its winning ways after the Canadians swept the series last season. Historically dominated by Columbus, the rivalry has never really been of much importance to either team. Named the Trillium Cup since the trillium is both the state flower of Ohio and provincial flower of Ontario, the two clubs have been forced into this rivalry due to their geographical proximity around the Great Lakes. Although the Crew would claim their old foes Chicago and D.C. their true enemies and more bad blood exists between Toronto’s Canadian counterparts, this hasn’t stopped both clubs’ supporters from getting excited for this particular matchup.

In fact, it is the supporters that have kept this rivalry alive. Most contests see the two supporters groups, Columbus’s Nordecke and Toronto’s Red Patch Boys, put all their pageantry on display. Brawls have even been known to break out in past encounters. Saturday’s match was no different. A huge group of traveling supporters came down across the border to unveil a huge banner on the south side of Mapfre Stadium that read, “home or away we are with you.” However, a strong second half performance from the Crew had the Columbus supporters singing their state capital’s name until the end.

The Red Patch Boys will make their journey back north reflecting on what went wrong. Their team started out hot and had the better of the play during the first 20 minutes. Michael Bradley was able to transition Toronto into offense, getting the ball onto Sebastian Giovinco’s feet. Giovinco then used his speed to quickly push into the attacking third, finding Jozy Altidore in threatening areas. However, momentum started to shift and it was completely gone by the end of the first half. Justin Morrow was sent off after he brought down Ethan Findlay, who the official deemed had a clear path to the goal. Columbus then went on to use the man advantage to take all three points.

Although the call was questionable, Toronto fans cannot argue that the red card is a symptom of a large issue. Their defense continues to be the weak spot of the team and the front office did nothing over the offseason to address that weakness. Although Altidore and Giovinco will most likely make Toronto one of the most formidable attacks in the MLS, they will be unable to operate to their full effect if the back line continues to let opponents in behind them. After going down to ten men, Columbus had acres of space and every deficiency of Toronto’s defense became obvious. Their complete inferiority in the air saw both Iraqi international Justin Meram and newcomer Kei Kamara score on headed goals. The back four was disorganized throughout the match and Federico Higuain found it way too easy to play through balls past them.

Bradley and the failed Jermain Defoe experiment took much of the blame for Toronto’s failure to make the playoffs last season, but their defense was the real culprit. While it is still way too early in the season, things look to be heading in the same direction. Nothing has been made easier by the addition of New York City FC and Orlando City in the East. If the defense continues to leak goals, then expect Toronto to be in the market for a Center Back this summer.

The next installment of the Trillium Cup will be on July 25th, when Toronto returns south for their rematch. A Columbus win will guarantee them their 6th Cup in the rivalry. The Red Patch Boys will hope otherwise. They’ll have their passports on file, because the next time they unroll that banner in the south end of Mapfre Stadium, they’ll be expecting some structure to their back line and the Bradley, Giovinco, Altidore trio to be charging down the field.

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AFCON Preview

After the fate of the tournament was up in the air for several months leading to a change in location, the Africa Cup of Nations will nevertheless kick off this Saturday in Equatorial Guinea. The original hosts Morocco pulled out due to the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa. This year’s edition of the Cup of Nations will take place in the backdrop of the same instability and tragedy that Africa always faces. With the outbreak of deadly viruses and the news of Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram massacring thousands in the villages of Baga and Doron Baga, it is hard to see why this tournament would be important at all to the people of the continent.

International football can give countries going through tough times two very important things. The first is that it can present a national identity on a global stage. National teams will sometimes take on the responsibility of being a symbol for the political and social situations within their countries. There are the stories of the Egypt national team trying to qualify for the 2014 World Cup while revolution was breaking out in Cairo. There is Rwanda, who continues to rise in FIFA rankings, while their country begins to stabilize after mass genocide in the 90s thanks to the structured changes of president Paul Kagame. Unfortunately, defending champions Nigeria failed to qualify and will not get to show the resiliency of their nation in a time of tragedy. Still there are other teams whose time in the tournament will mean more than simple sport. Tunisia is still developing its new democracy, Democratic Republic of Congo continues to be politically unstable, and there is the mostly black South Africa team who competes while racial disparity remains post-apartheid. Football allows these issues to reach those who might not have known otherwise.

The Cup of Nations will also give Africa some feeling of consistency. The tournament takes place every two years regardless of existing turmoil. Looking from the outside Africa often looks chaotic, but the Cup of Nations proves that they can organize and come together in a common goal. Therefore, I’m going to treat this like any other tournament, providing group breakdowns, players to watch, the usual. I feel like this is what Africa needs, some normalcy, and a brief distraction in a celebration of sporting excellence.

Group A: Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Congo

This group is up for grabs. Equatorial Guinea took Morocco’s place as host country, but with a FIFA ranking of 118 gracious hosts is mostly likely all they will be. This leaves a competitive trio between Congo, Gabon, and Burkina Faso, ranked 61, 62, and 64 respectively. Congo is the only team in the group to win the Cup of Nations previously, a 1972 victory over Mali. Gabon is led by their high profile forward, Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. A young team on the rise has the chance to make their first significant statement in the Cup of Nations. Burkina Faso came close to winning the 2013 Cup of Nations, but was narrowly edged by Nigeria in the final. The Stallions arguably have the strongest squad of the four and will rely on the defensive efforts of Lyon Center Back Bakary Koné and captain Charles Kaboré.

Player to Watch: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

In a group that is wide open, a strong individual effort could take a team over the top. If his Gabon teammates can get Aubameyang on the attack, then he can use his pace to expose defenders.

Group B: Zambia, Tunisia, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of Congo

Low key an interesting group. Zambia, Tunisia, and Cape Verde all are in FIFA’s top 50 with Tunisia coming in as high as 22. At the same time DR of Congo could play spoilers. They have an illustrious footballing history under their former name Zaire. They were the first Sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the World Cup and won the Cup of Nations twice. Zambia’s Cup of Nations glory came in a 2012 final victory in penalties over the powerhouse Ivory Coast. However, most of their squad plays in their domestic league, which could be a disadvantage in terms of experience against top talent. Cape Verde is the Cinderella of the tournament. A nation of 500,000, the collection of islands off the coast of West Africa surprisingly sits at 40 in the FIFA rankings. Their previous history with the Portuguese (still official language) has given their young talent the chance to develop in the Primeira Liga. Cape Verde could be the Costa Rica of this year’s Cup of Nations. Group favorites Tunisia won the tournament in 2004 and were the first African side to win a World Cup match in 1978 beating Mexico. Tunisia will most likely be strongest in the back, where Monaco’s Aymen Abdennour plays in the center.

Player to Watch: Yannick Bolasie

If the Democratic Republic of Congo wants to defy odds and advance to the knockout rounds then Bolasie will have to be at his best. Bolasie has been one of Crystal Palace’s best players this year and hopefully the winger can provide the same width for DR of Congo that he does for the Eagles.

Group C: Ghana, Algeria, South Africa, Senegal

GROUP OF DEATH! Ghana and Algeria participated in the 2014 World Cup, South Africa joined them in the 2010 version, and Senegal have a lot of talent and are on the come up in the rankings. The most intriguing group will see two of Africa’s best rise to the occasion and two fall short. Algeria is the favorite to the top the group. The Fennecses pushed world champions Germany to their limits in the World Cup Round of 16 and have arguably gotten stronger since. Other teams will find it hard to stop their high-powered attack with Sporting Lisbon’s Islam Slimani up front and Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli and Porto’s Yacine Brahimi right behind him. Ghana will not be as confident as they normally would for a tournament like this. The 2014 World Cup was tumultuous for the Black Stars, seeing infighting between players and manager. Now with a new manager and the troublemakers missing, particularly Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sully Muntari, they’ll hope to get the ship back on course. Senegal has become a favorite of mine. Never successful in the Cup of Nations, this year could be their chance to shine. They have plenty of attacking talent to advance through the group. Sadio Mané, Papiss Cissé, and Mame Biram Diouf have been brilliant in the Premier League. A controversial decision to leave Besiktas’s Demba Ba out of the squad will be forgotten if these three can continue with their performances. Much of the hype surrounding South Africa when hosting the 2010 World Cup has dissipated thanks to a dysfunctional domestic league. Bafana Bafana will really find it difficult to advance from this tough group.

Player to Watch: Sadio Mané

Mané has been a revelation since joining Southampton in the summer. He has been a critical part in their 3rd place standing. With his pace and skilled dribbling, he creates havoc on the wing. No Demba Ba means he will be the leader of the Senegal attack. If he can keep up his club form at the international level then look for Senegal to create problems.

Group D: Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon, Guinea

ANOTHER GROUP OF DEATH! All four in the top 50 and two participants in the 2014 World Cup, look for this to be as “anything goes” as Group C. There is one certainty however, Ivory Coast should not struggle to advance. With African Footballer of the Year Yaya Touré and his new teammate Wilfried Bony, the Elephants have too much talent to go home early. The real question for Ivory Coast will be can they lift the trophy. Despite their talent, they have never been known as finishers and have only won the Cup of Nations once in 1992. Cameroon’s time in Brazil last summer was disastrous. Their -8 goal differential never saw them receive their winning bonuses that they argued over. Now with no Alex Song or Samuel Eto’o the team has a new look that could provide new hope. Mali has finished third in the last two Cup of Nations and will struggle to make it even that far this year. Mali’s biggest story this tournament will most likely be the potential swan song for 35-year-old former Barcelona man Seydou Keita. Guinea is going through troubling times considering the country was at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak. However, with their 39 ranking and their neighbors hosting the tournament maybe their fans can show up and give their nation a moment of positivity.

Players to Watch: Wilfried Bony

With no Didier Drogba, the striker position is all Bony’s. Bony has a lot to prove and he can start with this tournament. He needs to show that he can lead this attack into the future as well as impress his new club Manchester City. Imagine the scenes if he wins the Cup of Nations, something that Drogba could never do.

I’m not going to predict a winner. In fact, I think there are several teams that can win this competition. All I want to see from this Cup of Nations is each player going out there and playing hard. The people of Africa suffer through too much to see these players treat this like a mini-vacation from club football.

Behind Boxing Day

While America is hungover on Christmas spirit, today the country’s football passionate still celebrate. Thanks to NBC Sports’s excellent coverage of the English Premier League, US fans are becoming acquainted with the British holiday Boxing Day and have started to adopt it into their holiday festivities. While the meaning behind Boxing Day may be lost in between the Atlantic, fans have begun to make their own traditions.

Head down to Piper’s Pub on the South Side of Pittsburgh and you can see how Boxing Day blends with American soccer culture. Many of the ex-pats overseas come home for the holidays, reconnect with old friends, and share stories of their time spent abroad, all while cheering on their Premier League club. Rivalries are put aside for a day of relaxation watching the sport that brought them together in the first place.

The origins of Boxing Day are mysteriously hard to pinpoint. The holiday can be traced back to the Middle Ages, but some believe it can be ever further linked back to the late Roman period. Essentially, it is a day where members of the lesser class receive gifts from employers or those more fortunate. Since members of the servant class would have to wait on their masters during Christmas, the following day they were allowed to visit their families. As a sign of appreciation for their hard work, their employers would give the servants a box containing gifts, money, and often times left over food. It also seems to be a reference to the Alms Box in churches that collect donations to the poor.

Football has been associated with Boxing Day almost ever since the sport’s existence. The first match on Boxing Day took place on December 26, 1860 between Sheffield FC and Hallam FC. Sheffield and Hallam are recognized as the two oldest association football clubs in the world. Sheffield prevailed 2-0 in the first ever inter-club match. This was the beginning of a proud English footballing tradition.

Boxing day matches have existed in the top flight of English league football since the inaugural 1888-89 season. Preston North End showed no mercy for Derby County on a day supposedly for benevolence. Preston won 5-0 on their way to the first league championship, going undefeated in the process. Christmas Day matches accompanied Boxing Day matches up until 1963, when it was decided to keep the two holidays separate. Christmas became a day for family, Boxing Day a day for football.

The football pitch has long unified the British people around the holiday season. Stories are passed down of the historic Christmas truce game in 1914 between British and German soldiers during the fighting of World War I. For one day, the two agreed to put down their weapons and kick the ball around on the battlefront of Northern France. It is an inspirational tale that shows how differences can be put aside thanks to a game that so many love.

Now there are massive stadiums for fans to share their love. Boxing Day sees some of the largest attendance numbers in the Premier League season. With English football clubs comes a sense of community. They sing together, they cheer together, and at times they act like drunken buffoons together. Families share experiences in those seats around the pitch. I can only assume that many fathers and sons look back fondly on the Boxing Day games they attended. Scorelines are hardly what matters on this one occasion; the day carries a much larger significance. It’s about celebrating a love for the game with the ones you love.

However, don’t tell that to the players and coaches. Boxing Day for them is hardly about feelings of good will. It is all about survival. The holiday comes right in the middle of a stretch of four games in two weeks. The players will need their jerseys cleared of the grass stains fast because they’ll be right back at it on Sunday. Hamstrings are put in danger. Conspiracies often swirl that players will dive into reckless challenges to pick up a 5th yellow card so they are suspended a game, giving their bodies a temporary respite. The whirlwind of games sees mass upheaval in the tables. If a mid-table team catches a poor run of form they could come into the new year near the relegation zone. There is simply no time for the players to think about the larger importance of football on Boxing Day.

For me, not much changes on Boxing Day. Eyes glued to the computer screen watching 7 hours of consecutive football is more of a daily tradition at this point. Yet there’s still something a little bit more special about these games. Maybe it’s the added energy from the fans, or the historical context, or hell maybe I too am still slightly tipsy from the Christmas spirit. Regardless, I love football therefore I love Boxing Day.

 

Marrakech to Mumbai

Yesterday, Real Madrid defeated the Argentine side San Lorenzo 2-0 in Marrakech, Morocco to win the FIFA Club World Cup. I wouldn’t hold it against you if you had no idea either. The footballing community has reached a general consensus that this is an irrelevant tournament, which is unfortunate because the Club World Cup is an appealing idea. The tournament brings together the best team from each the 6 continents, giving clubs from Africa and Asia their chance to be introduced to the world often for the first time and determine internationally who is the best club.

Except the best club is predetermined before the tournament even starts. The European team comes in and half asses their way to the title. Real Madrid only had to give about 35% to coast past San Lorenzo. In the last 8 years, the European team has won the title 7 times. It’s impossible for there to be parity in this tournament. The framework for club football in Europe has existed far longer than in any other continent. The only one that can come close to matching the history of European football is South America and it’s no surprise that Brazilian clubs have won the other 4 installments of the tournament. So if the Club World Cup comes down to 2 teams while the other 5 clubs (champion of the host nation’s league also gets a bid) travel halfway across the world just for the chance to shake hands with Cristiano Ronaldo, what’s even the point?

That’s simple, there’s money to be had. The sponsorship deals that accompany the tournament are too much for Sepp Blatter and his FIFA henchmen to walk away. If scraping the whole thing isn’t an option, then steps need to be made to improve it. One improvement that I believe will introduce a little more parity is making the tournament biennial. The tournament at the moment is just a major inconvenience, coming right in the middle of the European season. Having it every other year could present the opportunity for a two-week break in the season where club football pauses and focuses their eyes solely on this tournament. Also a tournament every two years would mean more teams, each continent now being represented by the past two winners of their respective Champions Leagues. They even could have a playoff between winners of the Europa League and Copa Sudamericana to give Europe and South America a third team. More teams would mean a group stage. As we saw at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the group stage can create chaos (see: Spain, Costa Rica). However, what can truly make this tournament more exciting is obvious. The sport’s infrastructure needs to improve in the other continents.

On the same day Real Madrid were giving their lesser opponents the business, Asian football made a huge stride forward. In Mumbai, Atlético de Kolkata stole the Indian Super League title from Kerala Blasters with a 95th minute header. In the inaugural season of the Indian Super League, the experiment has largely been heralded a success. The league was created to make football a top sport in India as well as a major player worldwide. Viewership statistics for matches has been in the hundreds of millions. The competition will surely be back next year and hopefully will push the sport further into the consciousness of the country.

Asia is an untapped market begging for the football world to reach out. While the gap between the Indian Super League and English Premier League is still immeasurable, quickly developing countries like India are finding the resources to close this gap fast. Most professional leagues in Asia have only been around for a couple of decades, but their popularity among their people was instant. With Asia’s ever expanding economies, these leagues are at no loss for sponsors and have seen huge amounts of cash infused into promotion of the sport. Sponsors and television deals lead to new training grounds and more money for coaching and youth development. These effects are already coming to the foreground in the Indian Super League. The final was not dominated by the aging Premier League rejects, but rather by the young Indian homegrowns. 22-year-old Mohammed Rafique, born and raised in the West Bengal region, scored the decisive 95th minute goal for Kolkata. With the Indian Super League gaining such popularity, the country will start to see their best athletes choose football over the nation’s pastime cricket.

Don’t get me wrong, India still have a long way to go in becoming a superior football nation. The Super League has presented the sponsors and interest though to make it a fast climb. Countries often use sport to showcase to the world their rise as a global power. India looks like they’re making football their sport of choice. It will be interesting to see in the upcoming decades whether Asia’s increasing capital can begin to cancel out a century of European domination. While it might be smooth sailing for Europe in the FIFA Club World Cup right now, competition is coming in the near future.