a blog on the thinking man's game

Tale of Two Cities, Tale of Two Halves

June 17, 2014

​by Tom McCabe

The text message came through as "URGENT." Sylvers Owusu, a former student and player, wrote yesterday: "We just received a city permit to block off Ghanaian Way in Newark for today's GHA vs. USA match. Please join us for a watch party! DJ Albert will provide music to entertain the crowd. Let's go Ghana!"

The plan was now hatched: first half in Newark, and the second half a few miles away in what has been called "the cradle of American soccer." I watched several games at the Scots American Club in Kearny in 2010, including the Algeria match punctuated by Donovan's last-ditch winner. (I also watched Ghana knock the USA out there).

GPS helped us find "Ghanaian Way," a short industrial strip in Newark's South Ward, not far from Weequahic Park. The street's anchor for the last twenty years or so has been the African Ethnic City Market, where Newark's Ghanaian community can buy nearly anything from Accra like goat meat, yams, spices and Fu Fu. Sylvers gave us a pre-match tour of the market and we were gently teased about Ghana would once again beat the USA in a World Cup match. 

Next door to the mart some 300 Ghanaian-Americans gathered for kick-off. Drums pulsated, fans sang songs, AND Clint Dempsey slalomed into the Black Star box to score 30 seconds into the match! I grabbed my son's arm and that was the extent of our muted goal celebration. A handful of Ghanaian-Americans, draped in the Stars and Stripes, chanted "USA! USA!" A man mountain standing next to me fired back, "That's because you have a green card!" It was the perfect start! 

Back at the Scots Club there was a much more joyous celebration to Dempsey's early strike:

* Thanks to Chris Garing of the famous Kearny Army for photos and video from inside the Scots Club

Ten minutes later the Ghanaian congregation began singing a song, unrecognizable to my ears. Sylvers whispered to me: "It's a gospel song. We need God now." Ghana grabbed control of the game, but the USA threatened on several occasions to double the lead. It was an intense, physical start to a must-win match.

At the half-time whistle we headed outside and took in the street scenes. DJ Albert had the place jumping and after some dancing and chanting we got back into the car and headed for the Passaic River. Kearny, home to American stars (John Harkes, Tab Ramos, and Tony Meola), the Scots Club, and the second half beckoned.

We arrived ten minutes into the second half as parking was scarce around the Scots Club, but the USA still had that slim one-goal lead. The bar-end of the social club formed in 1932 was packed with people in red, white and blue. "USA" chants rang out as well as repeated frustration about how the Stars and Stripes couldn't hold on to possession. 

After Ghana leveled the score in the 82nd minute it seemed that they would go on to find the winner, but against the flow of the second half John Brooks powered home a precisely-placed Graham Zusi corner. Understandably, there was bedlam inside the Scots Club once again. Hugs, high-fives, chants, and more hugs. It was a major victory in "The Group of Death" that sets up an epic battle against Portugal on Sunday. 



Chris' Croatia Land

June 13, 2014

​by Tom McCabe

I planned on opening my World Cup-inspired tour of New Jersey in Newark's Ironbound, home to a large Brazilian-American population. That was until I received an e-mail from my friend Chris Martinović, a Croatian-American born in Queens and raised in Jersey. 

It read: "Game details: Little tiny long-shot Croatia (4.2M population) versus the big, bad, mighty, five-time World Cup winner Brazil (200M population). The numbers don't look good. However, as Davor Suker, the Golden Boot winner from the 1998 World Cup, said after the Croatia's third-place finish,  "The charm is that a small country can beat a major one. We proved it and people respected us ever since."

The charm of soccer, and in particular the World Cup, is being invited into someone's home to share in a different culture. And Chris' "agenda" was far too appealing and tasty to pass on.

3:00 PM - Warm-up by sampling Croatian beer (Karlovačko), Croatian Prsut (freshly sliced by me), cheeses, etc.
3:55 PM - My favorite part...the National Anthems!
4:00 PM - Game time!
6:00 PM - We celebrate (or sulk) with some more Karlovacko 
6:00 PM - Kids (by now all wearing the red & white checkers) play 3v3 on FIFA approved field in the backyard
7:00 PM - Dinner. Croatian Cevapci will be the Daily Special on the grill

8:00 PM - Dessert. Croatian cookies and chocolates

Chris' home sits neatly in a typical North Jersey suburb, and was duly decorated for the opening match, inside and out. The former Seton Hall University star forward set up the backyard field while his wife Marcy readied the inside. Truth be told, Chris, like a lot of suburban soccer dads, made sure the backyard was soccer compliant before he bought the home. He painstakingly lined the field so his two sons and friends could play pick-up soccer after the game. They did so in a steady rain. (At halftime the kids traded Panini stickers).

Croatia started well and the living room erupted when Marcelo's own goal deflated the host country (it was a fitting yet ironic start as Brazil has been scoring OGs for some time with stadium delays, unfinished infrastructure, and street protests). Chris ran downstairs to the basement to revel in the goal with the kids. Of course, Brazil recovered when Neymar scored the all-important next goal, and was completely rehabilitated when the referee gifted them a penalty kick. Neymar again, barely. 

Chris and his friends did not "sulk" in their Karlovačko, a tasty Croatian pilsener, as they were proud of the way The Vatreni/Blazers played. They pushed the Brazilian giants to the brink, and could've earned a draw if not for some poor calls and goalkeeping. They will fare better against Mexico and Cameroon.

The post-game pick-up game was watched from the deck as Chris grilled Croatian beef and pork sausages in the rain. It didn't dampen the spirits either as it was a beautiful start to my Garden State World Cup odyssey. I'm not yet sure of my plans for today, but maybe I'll take a ride to Passaic for the Mexico match, or to Club Espana for the Spain-Holland tilt. 

Or maybe, just maybe, I'll get an email inviting me to a friend's house to enjoy more World Cup hospitality! 

"Be The Boss"

June 11, 2014

​by Tom McCabe

This was one of those fun ideas that never went anywhere. With the help of Jeff Bradley, freelance journalist and member of one of American soccer's First Families, I created a World Cup-inspired playlist for "Be The Boss" on E Street Radio. We never heard back, but thought it was worth sharing here.

Here's what we proposed for a tentative playlist, complete with the sometimes tenuous links to soccer:

"The River":  Soccer has always been played along the great rivers of the world, whether it's Merseyside in Liverpool or the Rio Plate in Buenos Aires. Kearny, New Jersey is home to America's first soccer neighborhood, a small, tight-knit town that saw generations of immigrants come here to work in her mills. Its the type of town that Bruce sings about throughout his storied career. Built along the Passaic River, these mill companies formed some of the first soccer clubs in the country. So, we have to start where it all began: "The River." (McCabe)

"The Ties That Bind" Ever the historian, Tom, but I'll stay with "The River," too. I've been to more than 100 live shows. My brother Bob indoctrinated me in 1980 at Madison Square Garden when one of his teammates stood him up. I was told Bob paid $50 - which seemed like a lot at the time - but I learned years later Bob paid much more. Bob coached the United States in the last World Cup in South Africa. We won the group, but got knocked out in the Round of 16. His son, my nephew, starred in that World Cup and is a central part of the squad again this summer. Michael Bradley is a fan of The Boss, too. One of their favorite songs, a true team song, is "The Ties That Bind." (Bradley)

"American Land":  I played for your brother in college and remember those long bus rides up and down the east coast. He'd listen to The Boss on his Walkman and talk Springsteen to anybody who would listen. This next song came out of the Seeger Sessions, years after I stopped playing for Bob. But it reminds me of all those ethnic soccer clubs in the Garden State. The German American Kickers in Trenton, Calabria of the Italian-American League, Vistula from Garfield, and the Scots-Americans. These hyphenated-Americans are what Springsteen sings about in "American Land." From the 19th century till today, they have come here to work. But let's not forget that they played, too. They have constantly renewed the game of soccer in this country and have often done so with "the fire down below." 

"Land of Hope and Dreams":  After Bob left the United States team he moved to Cairo to coach the Egyptian national team. He went there in the wake of the Arab Spring and all the turmoil in the Middle East. He brought Egyptians hope that they could qualify the country for their first World Cup since 1990. As "The Pharaohs" cruised to the last leg of the playoffs people said that Bob was more popular than Barack Obama in Egypt. He brought this song to the team. From "Wrecking Ball," "The Land of Hope and Dreams."

"Reason to Believe":  As a storyteller, one of my favorite Bruce albums is Nebraska. Stripped-down and sparse, yet full of great images and characters, he wrote these songs in his bedroom in Colts Neck, not far from where Jeff lives along the Jersey Shore. One of the chants that Sam's Army, the main supporters group of the national team, belts out each game is "I Believe That We Will Win." We're in "The Group of Death" with Germany and Portugal, who are both ranked in the top 5 in the world. Plus, Ghana is our "bogey" team, having knocked us out of the last two World Cups. But, there's always a "reason to believe." (McCabe)

"Blood Brothers":  A great song for any team. (Bradley)

"The Rising," (Live in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2013): The last time we played both Germany and Portugal in a World Cup was in 2002. I went to the previous tournament in France in 1998, months after our son was born. But in the wake of September 11th and the birth of our daughter, I couldn't muster the courage to travel halfway around the world to Japan and Korea. I was scared. As many guests on this show have said previously, "The Rising" came at just the right time for me. It's release also coincided with the USA's "rising" profile in world soccer. After beating Portugal in the opening match and Mexico in the Round of 16, we faced off against Germany for a ticket to the semi-finals. A German defender cleared Jersey Boy Gregg Berhalter's shot off the line with his hand. The referee blew the call and we lost. Here's to beating Portugal again and avenging that defeat against Germany, and further raising the profile of American soccer. Let's go back to September, 2013 Sao Paulo, Brazil for a live version of "The Rising." (McCabe)

"Badlands (Live)":  Here's a hard-driving favorite of mine that European soccer fans changed forever live. Listen for the "wooah, oh oh oh oh!" (Bradley)"

No Surrender":  A never-say-die attitude has been a defining characteristic of the United States of America. It is also a trait of our national team. This team will be fit, tactically ready, and fight until the last minute of the game. They will need this quality in abundance in Brazil. From Born in the USA, "No Surrender." (McCabe)