Sunday, June 20, 2010
(Pictures by Craig Cappy, the guy who takes the Dream's pics for SportsPageMagazine.com. The gallery is right here. My own pictures are at the bottom of the post.)
Okay, you're probably more than a little confused by now. You're thinking "Excuse me? This is an Atlanta Dream basketball blog. This isn't some soccer blog. I've never even heard of the Atlanta Beat. What about the Dream's loss in Indiana?"
To which I reply, "Chill, pickle. Relax. It's Father's Day, a festive occasion. I write about lots of things on this blog, so why can't I write about soccer if I want to?"
This story has its start with a visit I made last year to my in-laws in Dallas, where I met Ethan. Ethan was the writer of a blog called Actionless Activity back then which I enjoyed reading for its insightful comments about the WNBA. I don't get down to Dallas that often, so it's the only time we've ever spoken in person. I went back to Atlanta to continue working on Pleasant Dreams, and he started writing the Mister Women's Sports blog.
Anyway, Ethan has been following soccer since 2007 and he had hoped to come to Atlanta and see an Atlanta Beat game and invite me along. Myself, I was indifferent to soccer. I did not loathe it, I did not despise it, I could simply take it or leave it. I didn't begrudge anyone their soccer fandom but I saw myself tied down enough to the WNBA and I didn't want to make the effort in following some other sport.
A few days ago, Ethan offered me some free tickets to the Beat's game against the Chicago Red Stars. He wasn't going to be able to come to Atlanta, so he sent his free tickets on to me. So, my question was, "should I spend several hours of my weekend watching a women's soccer game?" I did agree to go to this game, I was 99 percent sure that WNBA Live Access would deliver another staggering failure and I really had no reason not to go to it. After asking my wife to accompany me - who turned me down flat - I took off for sunny Kennesaw State University to find their soccer stadium.
Yes, KSU has a stadium devoted to soccer. In a public-private partnership, the university shares its stadium with the Atlanta Beat. I didn't know anything about soccer going in, so I decided to look up a few facts.
I knew that this was the first year of the Beat and that they were 0-5-2 going in. Winless.
I knew that the Atlanta Beat had been a successful franchise when the old WUSA was still in business, and that this franchise was named after that one.
I knew that Hope Solo was on the Atlanta Beat squad, and that she's a goalkeeper of some note.
I knew that Atlanta had an infusion of new blood due to the folding of St. Louis Athletica, another WPS franchise.
That's about all I knew. I couldn't find out any information about how to watch soccer from internet sources, but one website gave me some good advice. Namely, that soccer is a game of action and reaction: "Every action from a soccer player causes a reaction", just like a law of physics. If you see players that are running around mindlessly without the ball, it isn't mindless running around - they want to set up something. Players sprinting across the field caught my eye as much as players without the ball.
So here's a list of my random observations about the Beat/Red Stars game and about the whole experience in general:
1) My seat at the game was behind the goal. I thought at first that this was a good thing. That I'd get to see the offenses of each team up close and personal.
Then, with the first errant warm-up kick, I realized my foolishness. I would indeed see the offense up close and personal, because if a player sent the ball off the pitch while trying for a goal, the ball was quite likely to end up bouncing off my skull. More than one ball ended up in the seats, and we were warned by the announcer to watch the ball. If I go again, I'll wear a protective helmet. I felt sorry for anyone sitting near a goal who was nursing a beer.
2) It was indeed a minor league experience...in the best sense of that term, and not in the sense of "second rate". Local community eating popcorn and soda and watching a soccer game together. Sunny day, not a lot of hustle and bustle. A pastoral spectacle instead of the indoor arena spectacle of basketball or the crowd-is-half-intoxicated spectacle of football. (For clarification "football" will refer to the carry-the-ball sport known elsewhere in the world as American football, and "soccer" will refer to what the rest of the world calls "football".)
3) Noisemakers. They had them. Oh, not the vuvuzela that is causing all that controversy, but some local company was handing out cowbells as a promotional item. Can you imagine the crowd at Philips Arena armed with anything louder than thundersticks? To paraphrase the call to arms broadcasted randomly at KSU, "Guess what? Philips Arena's got a fever, and the only prescription...is more cowbell!!"
More cowbell. Think about it, Kathy Betty.
4) The Red Stars were wearing white/blue shirts with blue shorts. Across the bosom were three non-descript looking Red Stars. You need to red up that kit a bit.
5) At some point in the game, I saw a Swiss flag to the left of me. This was to honor Ramona Bachmann, a Swiss native who is playing for the Swiss National Team. A crapload of players were missing in Atlanta - including Hope Solo - but I didn't quite understand why. I still don't really.
6) I was surprised at how much smaller everything looks in soccer when you get away from the TV set. When you watch TV, it distorts how you watch games. On TV, the pitch looks absolutely gigantic, but when you're there, the pitch looks much smaller and you get a better view from your seats than you do on TV.
I suspect that one of the reasons that soccer never took off in America (besides virulant xenophobia) is that fact that there's nothing "incremental" in soccer. Soccer is purely continuous and play doesn't stop for the most part. It's a flowing sport and the TV screen can only show you a small part of that flow. It's also why hockey isn't really a great TV sport.
7) When the ball hits the protective barrier near the stands -- WHHAAAAAPPPP! The clang gives you an idea of how fast that ball is traveling when it's being kicked.
We were reminded that there was a first aid section on the West Concourse and that EMS was present during the game. Good idea.
8) I was surprised at how lily-white the crowd was. Well, this is Cobb County, Georgia, the former congressional seat of Newt Gingrich. After attending all of those Atlanta Dream games where you see people of all races and all backgrounds, it was very odd to find myself suddenly in the middle of white-bread suburbia again.
Race is inextricably bound up not just with basketball in the United States, but with all sports. If you want to generalize, soccer is a sport for yuppie professionals, and basketball is the sport which has traditionally been the ticket out for urban youth. I am now really starting to wonder if the (unspoken) reason that the WNBA gets so much hate is not that its women playing basketball, but black women playing basketball.
9) There were lots of kids there, many of whom were wearing various-colored soccer kits. Maybe they could be called "soccer kittens".
10) There wasn't a whole lot of fun stuff going on with the loudspeaker. Which might have been a good thing, since you weren't distracted by wacky vocal antics during the game. However, they could have done a lot more with their jumbotron, which only showed three things:
a) the Atlanta Beat logo (rotating) and the score
b) the occasional substitution, and
c) a lot of promotion of local business.
What? No toilet races? My wife would tell you that it isn't a sports experience without toilet races.
11) And now, about the game.
I was surprised most by Mami Yamaguchi, who is listed as a midfielder from Japan. I saw great footwork that reminded me of how Chamique Holdsclaw moves the ball at her best. I don't know if Yamaguchi is the Chamique Holdsclaw of Japan, or the Chamique Holdsclaw of the WPS or even the Jennifer Lacy of the WPS. All I know is that I saw some weird shit done with a soccer ball that I don't think I've seen before. Those players must practice by moving the ball past fallen logs in the forest, because I could swear that Yamaguchi was deliberately bouncing the ball off of her defender's shins.
12) So how does someone who doesn't watch soccer characterize this match? It was sort of like a boxing match. The Red Stars were a jabber, like Floyd Mayweather trying to win the match on points. They had control of the ball for much of the first half, and I suppose they thought that if they controlled the ball on their half of the court, sooner or later it would fall into the enemy net based on sheer random chance.
As for the Beat, they were sluggers. They didn't have the ball much in the first half, but when they did they would set up a combination and go for the throat, trying to set up the jab. If you look at the box score, Atlanta took 17 shots and the Red Stars took only four.
13) 42 minutes into the match, Monica Ocampo set up Tina Ellertson. The writeup says it was a header, but I thought it went off the body. However, there was much cowbell ringing.
13b) The writeup also lists why Hope Solo wasn't there - "humanitarian mission in South Africa". Does that mean "left to watch the World Cup?"
14) Halftime was a little weird. The pitch was turned over to several kids teams who split the field among themselves. It looked like a youth soccer practice out at Marist High School.
There was a dance contest among three fathers. The prize was a ride in a limo. I'm sure it was a nice promotional idea, but it was kind of hard to tell what was going on from where I'm sitting.
14b) One young woman was wearing a jersey numbered #78. I can guess what player is her favorite player - Hope Solo, a popular goalkeeper (in some quarters) for the Beat.
15) And with the Beat up 1-0, the hope was that we could keep the advantage in the second half. Neither team changed their strategy much, but it seemed that the Beat had better control of the ball. With the Red Stars unable to throw any punches - so to speak - the crowd waited and anxiously watched the clock run down.
When the clock hit 90 minutes - the time of a regulation soccer game - the announcer announced how much extra time would be added. Time in a soccer match isn't on the jumbotron, it's kept by a timekeeper. Time runs continuously, but for some kinds of stoppages the timekeeper adds extra playing time. For example, during the first half of the game five minutes were added.
The timekeeper announced that the minimum amount of time would be added - one minute. One minute later, the Beat had their first victory and there was much rejoicing.
16) Total attendance: 3,589. I suspect that attendance is counted in the same way as it is in the WNBA. However, the crowd was very into the game and the little kids - and there were a zillion of them - were going crazy waving their rally towels.
Did I have fun? Yes. Would I see another game? Let's put it this way: I wouldn't be adverse to seeing another game. The problem is that the WPS season runs concurrently with the WNBA season, and it's hard for me to even squeeze WNBA games into my schedule. But hey...it could happen, and I wouldn't mind it happening.
Nearing the venue....
Where it all happens.
Buy your Atlanta Beat gear here!
Lots to do, too.
My view from my seat.
Jumbotron watches ALL.
Red Stars are a blur warming up.
Notice the Japanese flag.
Action (?) on the pitch.