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An MLS Moment: What the Chivas USA Controversy Tells US About the State of US Soccer

March 6, 2013 — by Ryan

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In a recent podcast for Grantland, Roger Bennett and Roger Davies reflected on MLS’s current fortunes. After nearly two decades, they argued, the league had made it through the leanest years intact, financially healthy, and ready to expand its market share. Indeed, soccer remains one of the nation’s most popular youth sports and perhaps more importantly, among 17 – 24 year olds, as was widely reported last year, soccer ranks second just behind American football in popularity. Undoubtedly, as evidenced by their recent success in the English Premiership, American players, most of them former or current MLS standouts, have become increasingly common. From grunge era throwback Brek Shea’s recent debut for and Geoff Cameron’s starting role in Stoke City’s side, Clint Dempsey and Stuart Holden’s (when healthy) long standing runs, and Landon Donovan’s past successes at Everton not to mention Jozy Altidore’s 24 goals for AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, the skill level of American players in MLS has risen to the extent European clubs now see promise. Indeed, if one watched the raucous March 3 Portland Timbers/NJ Red Bulls home opener, a cracker of a 3-3 draw, one would think MLS had arrived.

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Yet, during halftime of Sunday night’s fixture in Portland, ESPN soccer analysts Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas delved into one of the few non-Landon Donovan controversies/talking points of the new season: Chivas USA and their apparently pro-Mexican/Latino recruiting model. The two former US national team members highlighted Chivas’ recent commitment to building the team’s ties to Mexico by openly recruiting and signing Latino, often Mexican, surnamed players. Lalas lamented to Twellman that though the policy fell short of racism it remained “exclusionary.” Though league President Don Garner supported Chivas’ efforts – “We need teams that look and feel different,” he told Lalas – the two analysts clearly disagreed with the commissioner’s policy. “Here’s my question for Don Garner.” Lalas began. “If you were a young boy playing soccer in Southern California and you don’t have Mexican or Hispanic heritage, do you have an equal opportunity to play for both your teams in Los Angeles and right now the answer is no and I don’t know if this is the message the league wants.” As Cultfootball co-editor Suman Ganguli commented in an email exchange with fellow football bloggers, “I think Lalas just played the white man’s burden race card …. Amazing.” Ganguli along with fellow CF editor Sean Mahoney sketched out the perfect film treatment for America’s first MLS oriented movie:

Johnny Football (Futbol?) toiling away in the hot SoCal sun on beautifully manicured fields (thanks to those illegal landscapers working the sprinklers), housekeeper washing his training kits. Just hoping to make it to the big leagues someday (or at least one of the local MLS sides). Maybe use his signing bonus to buy his parents a (2nd) house, say a nice little ski cabin in Mammoth.

As noted by Ganguli, the film’s narrative arc already had its trademark song lined up, Frank Ocean’s “Sweet Life”: “You’ve had a landscaper and a house keeper since you were born/The starshine always kept you warm.” Can we get Ryan Gosling in the lead?

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One might also note a bit of irony in Lalas making such statements. Remember, after a star defensive turn in the 1994 World Cup, the flamboyant long-haired, guitar-strumming ginger signed with Padova of the Serie A. Now if everyone is honest, they will acknowledge that Lalas was never even remotely an elite defensive back, just a really good American athlete who scrapped, fought, and competed really hard. If anything, Padova signed the guitar-slinging jugador (his band the Gypsies put out two albums and even opened for Hootie and the Blowfish in the 1990s) because of his novelty: a prototypical American athlete that could play football in the Italian professional league. Padova signed Lalas because of his nationality, not, at least by international standards, because he was good. Sure, he anchored their defense and scored three goals, but Padova barely survived relegation.

Still, despite any implicit irony, others noted that Lalas’s comments and Twellman’s overly enthusiastic agreement held some merit. Fellow Cultfootball editor Sean Mahoney defended Lalas’s comments to some extent: “A club shouldn’t focus on just one ethnic group to recruit,” he noted, “But his delivery was as deft as you’d expect coming from the likes of him.” After all, soccer, in Europe, Latin American, Africa, and Asia, often comes draped in nationalism and ethnocentrism. Sure, it might be the world’s most popular sport and international football leagues contain some of the most diverse locker rooms around the globe, but it also remains rife with racial and ethnic prejudice. One need only look at reference books like How Soccer Explains the World or witness frightening displays of anti-semitism and racism in European leagues to see how these issues often manifest themselves among fans and players. One does not exaggerate when they claim football matches have sparked civil wars and international conflicts. So the fact MLS seems devoid of these tensions, thus far at least, should be seen as a positive, therefore some could argue Chivas’s policy to be a can of worms the league wants to reseal.

While others have highlighted Chivas’s new direction, some writers have noted the strategy isn’t new. According to blogger and broadcaster Jonathan Yardley, Chivas’s recent front office decisions actually reflect a return to previous incarnations. “[T]hey are basically re-starting the club and returning to its original intent: to be an American version of Chivas Guadalajara, playing a Mexican style and fielding a mix of Mexican-Americans, Mexican players on loan, and Californians,” he noted in a recent post. According to Yardley, rumors abound that all front office staff are expected to know Spanish and Chivas jettisoned English-language broadcasts. Still, though he expressed reservations, Yardley also admitted that if Chivas succeeded in putting a superior or at a minimum a very different style of play on the field, it might increase interest as American (though it remains unclear just what “American style” soccer is) and Mexican approaches to the sport “clash.” Moreover, considering the amount of antipathy between Mexico and America’s national teams – between players themselves and fans – Chivas might serve as a the “heel” of the league. A 2013 version of the Detroit Piston Bad Boys of the 1980s, an effective but hated opponent: “They could be a hated rival for every team with a fan base that loves the U.S. national team.” Then again, one wonders if this might slip into unhealthy jingoism that painted every game as some sort of battle between an invading Chivas’s Mexican “other” and whatever random MLS team they play against. While Mexican immigration has dropped precipitously in recent years, to the extent that Asians have replaced Mexicans as the largest group immigrating to the US, tea partiers, birthers, minutemen, and others continue to blow nativist dog whistles and ring xenophobic bells. Soccer as foreign scourge threatening US values may be a diminishing trope (google “soccer” and “socialism” and see what you get), but it persists. Perhaps, Chivas’s new direction might exacerbate this tension.

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Of course, one needs to consider Chivas’s financial situation. Professional sports remains a business and when competing with the L.A. Galaxy – even if devoid of the magically inconsequential David Beckham – drawing fans has proven difficult. Remember, the second largest city in America still doesn’t even have an American football team, having failed to keep both the Rams and Raiders. Only 7,121 fans attended Chivas’s home opener this year; the smallest home opener in league history. Even worse, numerous observers alleged that the real attendance may not have even reached 4,000. Granted, league wide attendance for opening weekend declined by nearly 10% but 4,000 spectators at the Home Depot stadium does not spell success. When one considers that NBC recently fell behind Univision in network television ratings, maybe all-Spanish broadcasts of their games makes more sense. In this way, can anyone blame Chivas for trying to capitalize on the millions of Southern California Latino Americans in the Los Angeles and yes, Orange County area (Latinos make up 1/3 of its population and Asian Americans another 1/4)? In its initial years the MLS played with ethnic affiliations in cities like Chicago, purposely placing Eastern European players on its roster in hopes of drawing more Polish and other Slavic residents to home games. Currently, the national team under Jurgen Klinsman has been openly courting American players of German descent to the point that some simply call them the Von Trapps (see Sound of Music). The aforementioned Davies and Bennett frequently joke about the illegitimate offspring of U.S. G.I.s and Germans as the life blood of American national team hopes. If Chivas’s move is so offensive then why does no one complain about a national team that focuses on its German American descendants?

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Some of this has to do with MLS’s audience and the league’s grasp of it. This greatly complicates matters. In late January, Lalas provided some water cooler talk with the following tweet: “You’re not a true American soccer fan if you ignore MLS, you’re part of the problem.” Whatever you think of Lalas’s line in the sand, it gets at a core issue: what does MLS mean to American soccer fans? Mahoney expanded on this, pointing out that while the dominant cultural sport in most of the world, soccer’s popularity in America stemmed in no small part to its outsider status. Being a soccer fan in the US, for a particular segment of the audience, includes an aversion to other American “big time” sports. Less generous observers describe these followers as sort of “sports hipsters,” interested as much in a statement about aesthetics and politics than just sports. “In part, the situation is this sort of ‘hip’ subculture that exists as a group of people who are anti-big American sports (which is really anti-all that goes along with big us sports culture, e.g. big fat sweaty (white) guys who are usually some combination of racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic),” noted Mahoney. Unfortunately for the MLS, most of this demographic prefers La Liga or the EPL to MLS. The key, argued Mahoney, lay in finding a connection between this “’underground cred’” and MLS. However, not everyone sees this as a realistic enterprise. “Manufacturing Cred,” fellow football blogger and CF writer Ron Kirby argued, “So you cultivate credibility, and then kids who abhor stadium commercialization will attend? Better to pair underage booze with underground [football] in illegal nightclubs.”

Competing with European and Mexican league sides places the MLS at a disadvantage. No matter what league officials say, the MLS remains a solid but middling league, perhaps on par or near parity with Mexico’s professionals but still greatly apart from the EPL and many other European associations. Convincing white hipsters, immigrants, and others that MLS has the better product continues to be a dicey proposition. Lalas never said ignore those other leagues, but getting people to fill a Brooklyn pub or San Diego beer hall to catch the latest clash between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids in the same way they do for national team games, the Euros, World Cup, or even EPL derbies, continues to be one of MLS’ greatest challenges. Grantland founder and editor Bill Simmons frequently highlights the fact that Americans like soccer, but they want to watch it at the highest level, no matter where it happens, rather than what some, perhaps incorrectly, perceive as an inferior MLS product.

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If you’re wondering about the league’s racial makeup in terms of players, coaches, and administrators, MLS does quite well regarding gender and race. A November 2012 report by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) gave the MLS a B+/A- for “racial hiring practices” an A+ for its diversity initiatives and the multi-ethnic/racial background of its players. It also improved representation in management circles. However, it should be noted, while the league went from a D to a B- regarding general managers, it also dropped to a C+ in terms of head coaching positions. Though the percentage of assistant coaches rose from 18% in 2011 to 19% in 2012, last year, Chivas and Colorado were the only teams led by minority head coaches. In the end, the league improved its overall gender and racial diversity enough to move from an overall B in 2011 to a B+ the following year. Honestly, when one thinks of recent incidents in the EPL – John Terry and Anne Hatheway look alike Luis Suarez – the MLS seems a bastion of tolerance.

In America, for better or worse, soccer continues to be a largely suburban sport punctuated by white faces. One of the ironies of Twellman and Lalas’s angst is the way in which they ignore the infrastructure that radically favors these players. Sure, suburbs are changing – more Latino, black, and Asian families have put down stakes in suburbia and by extension this infrastructure. However, under 17 tourneys, regional ODP teams, or local club soccer requires time and a parent willing to chauffeur and pay for this development. MLS officials, thus far, are not delving into working class Mexican American enclaves or inner city communities for footballers. No, for American players, the pipeline to the MLS still travels through the land of soccer moms and SUVs. For Lalas and Twellman to pretend otherwise misses the MLS’ far more complicated, if also promising, predicament.

AfricaHistoryLong ReadsNews

2012 Egyptian Stadium Massacre Still Killing

February 26, 2013 — by Rob Kirby

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Expect more deaths on March 9 in Egypt—both from judicial death sentences and the inevitable post-verdict riot—in the continuing fallout from the demise of the Hosni Mubarak regime in late January 2011 and the Port Said soccer stadium massacre in early February 2012 on its near-anniversary. On the second anniversary, the courts sentenced 21 to death for their part in the soccer stadium killings, which then sparked a riot that claimed 30. But let’s rewind a year.

After portside rival Al-Masry defeated Cairo’s most successful club Al-Ahly 3-1 in Port Said in February 2012, fans set upon one another with rocks, fireworks, broken bottles, knives and reportedly even swords. Or rather, the locals set upon the traveling Cairo support. According to the Egyptian interior minister, 13,000 Al-Masry fans attacked the approximately 1,200 Al-Ahly away fans. Al-Masry fans jumped a low fence, invaded the pitch and stadium lights went suddenly dark, turned off at the switch by the orchestrators of the massacre. Riot police chose to stand by as Al-Masry’s ultras attacked the hated opposition. The police did not intervene because a year earlier, the Al-Ahly ultras had formed a battle-tested enforcement core for protesters that supported the anti-Mubarak uprising in Tahrir Square and brought down the regime. This was payback. It happened so fast that Al-Ahly players were seen running for the locker room, but the Al-Ahly manager got caught in the fray. Al-Masry attackers detained and beat him until Al-Ahly supporters helped pull him loose. Al-Ahly goalkeeper Sharif Ikrami was also injured.

Actively allowed and encouraged by Egyptian police, the riot at the Al-Masry soccer stadium killed 74 and injured 1,000-plus—almost exclusively fans of Al-Ahly. A year gone, the fallout continues and the body count rises. Late January 2013, a judge sentenced 21 Al-Masry defendants to death, which reflexively caused another riot in which an angry group stormed the city jail and chaos spread throughout the city. In addition to 30 dead, close to 300 lay  injured. The police definitely broke out the truncheons this time. However, the court still hasn’t said its final word. The January ruling failed to address everything in one comprehensive verdict, so now the judge will announce the fates of the remaining defendants on March 9th, meaning more death sentences and more reaction-riot deaths in response. It has gone full family-feud Hatfield & McCoy, and it shows no signs of stopping.

The verdict and the riot did not occur in a vacuum. Al-Ahly ultras sing anti-police songs at matches, venting the hatred some Egyptians feel toward security forces that perpetrated the dirty work of Mubarak’s regime. The army and the police, even post-dictatorship, still call the shots. The court unwisely synchronized the verdict with the second anniversary of the revolt that ousted the former president. Since the revolt succeeded in part due to the muscle of Ah-Ahly ultras, the military and the police that backed Mubarak, himself a military man, had a score to settle. In Al-Masry fans, they found volunteers only too happy to serve as proxy enforcers.

Al-Ahly has won six African Champions League titles and 36 domestic league titles. That generates a fair amount of resentment alone, from a rival’s perspective. But incur the anger of the Egyptian military and expect bloodshed, post-haste.

At the Al-Ahly vs. Al-Masry match in February 2012, police apparently waived searches on Al-Masry fans and opened strategic doors to expedite passage for armed Al-Masry hooligans, who descended onto the pitch from the stands in swarms. The police conversely locked the doors of a narrow corridor that would have served as an exit for fleeing, unarmed Al-Ahly supporters. Fleeing fans didn’t merely find locked doors—the steel doors were welded shut. The fix was in. Al-Ahly would pay the price for having gone against the regime. Mubarak may have been dead and gone, but the lasting regime of the Egyptian army and its civilian police arm had unfinished business with the Al-Ahly ultras. Exacting their wrath through the incitement of others gave them the perfect alibi. Astoundingly, the manager of Al-Masry even told TV station ONTV, “This is not about soccer. This is bigger than that. This is a plot to topple the state.”

Fans trampled others pressed against the welded steel gate. Some suffocated, some got sliced up by the pursuing rival fans that trapped them. The scene of the massacre was literally a dead end. Except for Al Ahly fans that scrambled to the upper balconies of the stadium, where some jumped and more were pushed off. Hundreds of black-clad, helmeted stormtroopers with riot shields stood aside in a sort of at-ease formation and did nothing, almost as if following orders for a death sentence that hadn’t been officially announced—not announced to the Al-Ahly supporters, at any rate.port-said

As antigovernment sentiment mounted in the 2011 leadup to the Arab Spring that kicked off with the revolution in Tunisia, a faction of Al-Ahly supporters—similar to the English hooligans and Italian ultras demonized by the international media—organized into a tactical unit called the Ultras Ahlawy. The natural cohesion of club loyalty made it a surprisingly crack paramilitary unit, which then joined forces with the fighter fans of Cairo club Zamalek SC, who self-identified as the Ultras White Knights.

When protesters occupied Cairo’s high-profile Tahrir Square to denounce Mubarak, the two ultra groups backed them, providing the muscle needed when defying a dictator and the military that kept him in power. They won, but as the stadium massacre shows, the victory did not come without casualties.

The deadliest event in Egyptian soccer history resulted in a death tally of 74 and over a thousand injured. Courts have thus far identified 21 defendants with guilty verdicts worthy of capital punishment. In the aftermath of the verdict, 30 more died. But the death designations are still not yet complete. By March 10, we’ll learn the next chapter. Few expect a happy ending.

Euro 2012News

Matchday 1: Poland-Greece & Russia-Czech Rep

June 8, 2012 — by Suman5

 

It’s the opening day of Euro 2012.  Join us in the comments if you’re watching either of today’s two fixtures

Poland Poland Greece Greece
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP) – Stadium: National Stadium Warsaw, Warsaw (POL)

(Two time conversions to keep in mind: 18:00CET = 12pmET and 20:45CET = 2:45pmET.  All matches kickoff at one of those two times!)

Russia Russia Czech Republic Czech Republic
Referee: Howard Webb (ENG) – Stadium: Municipal Stadium Wroclaw, Wroclaw (POL)

 

Your daily link roundup:

CommentaryNewsUnited States

U.S. Youth System Fired

January 10, 2012 — by Rob Kirby

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We’ll keep you posted. More on this at 5.

Wait, start from the beginning.

Out of seemingly nowhere, the U.S. Soccer Federation has cleared house. Today, the power that be announced U.S. U-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera will leave his post at the end of January.

The Colombian, 44, was appointed U-17 coach in 2007, and led the side into the second round at both the 2009 and 2011 World Cups. Not nearly enough, apparently.

His dismissal follows that of Thomas Rongen, coach of the U-20 team; Mike Matkovich, manager of the U-18 side; and Jim Barlow of the U-15 team.

What the French, toast?

Without other info, perhaps it stems from the appointment of former U.S. international Claudio Reyna as youth technical director of the U.S. Soccer Federation in April. If he were queen, we imagine him saying, “We are not amused.” Or perhaps it’s totally unrelated. Whatever will be, whatever was, is/will be.

That made perfect grammatical sense to me.

AsiaCommentaryNews

Sawa Snaps Marta’s Ballon d’Or Streak

January 10, 2012 — by Rob Kirby

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If history is anything to go by, expect 2011 Women’s World Cup winner Homare Sawa to be collecting her second Ballon d’Or prize this time next year. At the World Cup, Sawa also won the tournament best player and top scorer trophies.

Marta had won five years running as the top female player in the world, but no more. At least not for now. (The Brazilian is considered the best female player ever, after all.)

Japanese midfielder Sawa is only the fourth woman to win the award, inaugurated in 2001, because curiously no woman has never won simply once, not to mention consecutively.

Mia Hamm won the first two, in 2001 and 2002. Germany’s Birgit Prinz then carried home three between 2003 and 2005, before Marta’s five brought us to the current day.

Marta and American striker Abby Wambach were the other two finalists for the award.

Oh yeah, and Messi won his third. In a row.

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Brek Shea To Train With Arsenal

November 4, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

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Arsenal disregards all conventional wisdom and messes with Texas. For a month, at least.

Brek Shea’s season may have ended when the New York Red Bulls knocked FC Dallas out of playoff contention last week, but the 6’3” winger will spend a month training with Arsenal after the upcoming international friendlies in France and Slovenia (November 11 and 15). The Texas native has been linked with a move to Europe and has publically stated he would like to ply his trade in Europe one day. If he impresses, perhaps Arsenal will make an offer Dallas cannot refuse.

According to Dallas FC, “The decision to send Shea to train with the Gunners was made after USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann encouraged his MLS-based players to spend the off-season training overseas to enter January camp in top shape.”

Shea, 21, scored 11 goals in 31 league appearances in 2011.

Without a doubt, Dallas does not want to lose Shea. He still has three years on his contract. But the MLS season doesn’t start up again until March. Perhaps a loan deal could be in the cards.

Update, 11/10:

Wenger mooted the idea that Shea may play a game with the Arsenal reserves, if possible.

Wenger told ArsenalTV: “(He’ll) practice with the top team when it’s possible, practice with the best prospects of the club as well outside the normal sessions and have a contact with top level football in the world and there’s no better place than the Premier League to do it.”

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WWC: Erica Turns on the Style

July 8, 2011 — by Mark1

Sure, Copa América has Messi, Forlán, and Neymar.  Yes, it will be a very interesting test for Mano Menezes.  Yeah, it’s nice to see the young Brazilian and Argie talent that’s been shining in leagues around the world.  And I’ll grant you that, despite lackluster performances from Brazil in its first game and Argentina in its first two, there are good reasons to expect both to put on an offensive show in this Copa America.  Both Brazil and Argentina are using very offensive schemes, and both have players who can make things happen. Plus the third traditional power in South American soccer, Uruguay, has a pretty good team, the one that went farthest in the last World Cup and the one with the best player from that tournament.  And we can’t forget Chile or Colômbia, both of which bring some interesting players.  There are lots of reasons to watch this Copa America.

But the best goal you will see this week has nothing to do with the umpteen forwards on Argentina’s roster or the other offensive stars playing in Copa America.  It’s from the Women’s World Cup, up in Germany where it’s warm (it feels weird writing that).

Specifically, from the Brazil-Brazil… er… Equatorial Guinea – Brazil (about 2/3 of the EqG players on the field were Brazilians) game played yesterday.  Not surprisingly in a game between two teams with Brazilian players, this goal was scored by a Brazilian.  It was a real Brazilian Brazilian wearing Brazil’s colors.

Oh, OK, you say.  It must be Marta.

Surprisingly, no.

Just watch what Erika does to score the first goal.

Then watch it again and marvel at how natural she looks doing this unbelievably difficult thing PERFECTLY without having time to plan or prepare for it.  Oh. Mah. Gahd.

If anyone beats that at all in either of these tournaments, it’s likely to be Marta, but I doubt even she will do it.  She was involved in both of the other goals in the EQG-BRA game, both scored by Cristiane.  She had a nice assist on the second goal and was fouled in the area, leading to the third on the PK.  She let Cristiane, who hadn’t scored in the tournament before the second goal in this game, take the PK and get to two goals.  If I understood correctly, if Marta had taken it and scored, she would have become the all-time highest goal scorer in WWCs, like Ronaldo is in the men’s version.  I guess she figures she’ll still have time to get there.

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International Football–at Citi Field

June 9, 2011 — by Suman

We’ve been slaking our thirst for footy action with mostly meaningless international matches–the 4-0 hiding the USMNT suffered against Spain last Saturday afternoon in Foxborough, followed up by a lackluster 2-0 victory against Canada in their opening Gold Cup match Tuesday night; the Netherland’s scoreless draw against Brasil Saturday down in Goiânia, and then their 1-0 loss yesterday against Uruguay in Montevideo (apparently the Dutch gamely undertook this two-match South American tour to give the two South American powers both a chance to warm up for the upcoming Campeonato Sudamericano Copa América (July 1-24 in Argentina) as well as a chance to avenge their eliminations from WC2010

A rare full house at Citi Field

One that slipped under our radar was a friendly played a mere handful of miles from the CultFootball headquarters–Greece and Ecuador played to a 1-1 draw in front of a packed house of nearly 40,000 fans–at Citi Field, the 2-year old home of the Mets.  That would be Major League Baseball’s hapless Mets.

Here is the NYTimes’ Goal blog on the match:

Citi Field’s inaugural soccer game Tuesday night between Ecuador and Greece drew a boisterous crowd of 39,656, most of whom were cheering for Ecuador, and provided a festive atmosphere at a stadium that has been home to its share of bad news this spring.

Fans agonized at every scoring opportunity lost and voiced their displeasure with each tackle. In the end, the game ended 1-1, and featured six yellow cards.

The Greeks had the better scoring chances in the first half and drew first blood when forward Alexandros Tziolis, who plays for Racing Santander in La Liga in Spain, buried a cross past Ecuador goalkeeper Maximo Banguera in the 16th minute.

Ecuador dominated in the second half, and the crowd roared when the Ecuadorians, who are preparing for the upcoming South American championship, the Copa América, responded with a goal from center back Fricson Erazo in the 58th minute.

But obviously more interesting than the result was the fact that they played at Citi Field. More from the Goal blog’s writer: