Thursday, March 31, 2005

Guatemala Goes Down: My Night in Birmingham

As an initial matter, I've been composing this post since last night and at this stage, it feels like how Dylan described writing "Blonde on Blonde": I'm just going to have to vomit it out. In other words, it isn't voluntary at this stage. I'm merely channeling. Enjoy.

I went to the game with my brother Dan and a friend of his. We left Atlanta at 4:45 for an 8:05 p.m. (EST) kickoff. Even with a 20-minute break to inhale some wings, we were in downtown B'ham around 7:20. That's when the fun began. The following list will illustrate why Alabama has always joined Ohio and New Jersey on my list of intolerable states:

1. The traffic was backed up for over a mile before the exit for Legion Field. When we got to the exit, we found out why. Instead of creating one way traffic on the way to the Field, the cops at the two intersections on the way were letting traffic go for about a minute, and then were stopping traffic so Billy Ray and the gang wouldn't be inconvenienced on their way back to Leeds or Brompton after a hard day under the hood. (And what's with all the English names, B'ham? You aren't fooling anyone. If you're going to pretend to be British, then where's the friggin' Tube to get me to the game on time?) As a result of the cops acting like traffic lights, ignorant of the fact that there was a massive flow of traffic going in one direction, thousands of cars were sitting, almost idle. If it's possible for the crack Atlanta Police to get 30,000 fans in and out of Turner Field expeditiously 86 times per year, then we're not talking about a task on par with splitting the atom or selling Ashlee Simpson as a pop star.

2. In fairness to the traffic geniuses at BPD, they had a hard time making chicken salad from chicken shit and Legion Field is the very embodiment of chicken shit. The stadium has minimal parking and sits a bit more than a mile from the Interstate. It's in the middle of a neighborhood (and a crappy neighborhood, at that.) Stadia nestled into neighborhoods are cute in West London or the North Side of Chicago where there's plenty of public transportation to move thousands of fans in and out, but they suck in a state where public transportation ranks up there with the metric system and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment on the list of priorities. We ended up having to park in the front yard of some local residents, who didn't have the sense to charge more than $5 for parking, when I wouldn't have blinked at paying $20 since I had no other option. (Gosh, living in a big city has really jaded me.) On the other hand, the residents decided that the game was a good occasion to do some yard work, so my car was covered with grass dust at the end of the game.

3. I like to collect ticket stubs, but the woman working the gate has apparently never pondered the existence of perforation on tickets, because she ripped off almost all of my pass. Thanks. Not that the ticket was useful to me anyway, since we were sitting in Section A and all of the portals at Legion Field are numbered, not lettered. (Naturally.)

4. The bleacher we were standing on moved to and fro every time I shifted my weight. I know I should weigh less than 180 at 5'10, but I don't have THAT much mass. Really confidence inspiring.

5. Like amenities? Legion Field has...um...nothing. It's a miracle that the SEC ever had its Championship Game here. Let's see: have the game at an ultra-modern stadium in the largest city in the South, complete with tons of hotel rooms, the busiest airport in the world, public transportation (such as that may be in Atlanta,) and nudie bars galore, OR have it at Legion Field, a rusted-out relic with no amenities to speak of in a slum with no modern ingress/egress in a city that left Atlanta's development track because of its love affair with segregation? Maybe I'd feel differently about Legion Field if I was a grizzled Bama fan whose fondest memories are of sitting in the bleachers watching Bear Bryant lean against the goalposts from having had too much to drink.

Other than that, I have nothing bad to say about Legion Field.

On to the game itself.

The crowd was good-sized and quite loud. After going to a bunch of pro sports events over the past year, it was nice to see a game with actual fan passion. The crowd was probably 60% US fans, and they were making most of the noise, as I'll get to in a minute. The Guatemalan fans seemed to be having a great time. Regardless of the result, I assume that they simply enjoyed getting to express their love for their homeland. Nothing wrong with that. We sat with Sam's Army, which was a lot of fun. Plenty of singing and chanting, although the chants really leave a little to be desired. You can tell that soccer in the US is more of an upper middle class phenomenon, since everyone was far too polite to sing anything nasty about the opponent. The fan culture surrounding the US team seems a little forced, but over time, that should change.

The team played extremely well, dominating a fairly decent Guatemalan side from start to finish. Landon Donovan played like the star-in-the-making that he promised to be during the 2002 World Cup. He's far better suited to playing in the hold behind the strikers than he is out on the wing. He needs the game revolving around him. It's not surprising that he never made it with Bayer Leverkusen, since he needs the offense to run through him and no major European club is going to give those reins to a 23-year old American prospect. Donovan set up the first goal with an intelligent back-heel and he scored a beautiful header that was wrongly ruled out for offsides. His skill level is terrific, and if the Europeans don't get that, then he'll just have to remind them in 2006.

Eddie Johnson played very well. He's a better striker than anyone the US has had before. He's got both speed and ball-control. Plus, he doesn't fluff shots. He scored once with a perfect shot, assisted on a second goal, and forced two additional strong saves. He's good in the air, which was important because Eddie Lewis dominated the left flank and pumped balls into the box all day. The English would have been impressed with his game.

As for the Guatemalans, I've never seen a team flop more. Every time there was a modicum of contact (and often when there wasn't,) they fell to the ground with plenty of velocity. The ref bought some of their acting, but not all of it, and finally gave Carlos Ruiz a yellow card because of his frustration with their prostration. Otherwise, Guatemala didn't impress much. They only generated one or two good chances. (That's probably a compliment to Onyewu and Gibbs, who barely put a foot wrong all game.) They did have a free kick late in the game that nearly snuck inside the post from a good 30 yards. On the other hand, they had two free kicks from 20 yards out (one from a truly egregious dive) that they pumped directly into the wall. Their keeper Trigueno kept them in it with several good saves.

Overall, a very good night for the US, especially with the rest of the group tying one another and dropping points. With six points from two games and home dates against Trinidad & Tobago and Panama to go, the U.S. will have to make a major collapse to miss out on Germany. Now, if only someone will build a 20,000 seat soccer stadium near a MARTA stop...

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