Wednesday, June 17, 2015
My Toronto on the Road series took a hit earlier this season when the Blue Jays went 0-3 at the games I saw in Houston. I was hoping for a return to .500 with a win in Queens, where I happen to live these days. I had to miss Monday's game (which they lost 4-3 in extra innings to snap an 11-game winning streak) returning from Europe which left me a battle between Matt Harvey and Scott Copeland, making his second career start.
Considering the Jays had never won while visiting the Mets (they were swept in 3-game series in 1997, 1999, and 2001), the chances of that streak snapping in this game were pretty low and when Copeland gave up 3 runs in just 4 innings (including an RBI double to Harvey), the Jays had some catching up to do.
Harvey completed 7 scoreless before being replaced and the Jays finally managed a rally against Carlos Torres. Ryan Goins walked and pinch hitter Kevin Pillar singled. Jose Reyes then singled to right but third-base coach Luis Rivera held Goins at third, respecting Curtis Granderson's arm for some reason. Pillar was not paying attention and didn't stop at second, making him an easy out, the old 9-3 putout at third base. While I was cursing Pillar's preoccupation, Josh Donaldson walked to load the bases, and the Mets brought in Bobby Parnell. Jose Bautista (above) hit a sacrifice fly to score the Jays first run of the evening and Edwin Encarnacion singled to make it 3-2. But Chris Colabello struck out and the Jays went down in order in the ninth to lose 3-2 and give Parnell a 5-out save. Ugh.
The Jays are now 0-11 all time in Queens. My next Toronto on the Road game will be the Leafs, and with the NHL schedule due out next week, I'll be adding a few of those games to my schedule shortly. Check back to see which rinks I'll be visiting in 2015-16 to see the new Leafs begin the long road back to respectability.
Monday, June 15, 2015
If it's Sunday, it must be Sweden! The third and final stop on my wacky weekend was Stockholm to see the Swedish national team take on Montenegro. A short flight from Copenhagen took me to Arlanda Airport, again without any passport check. It happened to be the 30th anniversary of the Schengen Agreement and I marvelled at how 26 countries have combined to make traveling in Europe so easy and pleasant.
From Arlanda to Stockholm Central (above) is about 40 minutes on the slow SL commuter train (known as Pendeltåg), though other options are available. I ended up boarding an SJ intercity train which I shouldn't have, but nobody checked my ticket and so I reached downtown in around 20 minutes. Remember that you will pay 85 SEK (1 USD = 8.2 SEK) as a passage fee whenever you use the SJ or SL trains to or from the airport; if you are under budgetary constraints, buses are the better choice.
Friends Arena is where the national team their matches. The stadium is located in Solna, just two stops on the J36 or J38 Pendeltåg from Stockholm C, from there a short walk takes you to the venue. It is only 3 years old, and with a capacity of 50,653 for soccer, it is the largest indoor venue in the Nordic countries. The naming rights were purchased by Swedbank, who donated them to Friends, a nonprofit organization against school bullying. From close proximity, the exterior design makes it look more like a concert hall with its silver facade.
You must enter by the gate indicated on your ticket and you cannot move to the upper level from the lower or vice versa once inside. You can walk the entire concourse, except for the area in which the visiting fans sit. It is wide enough and there are your typical food and drink options, including unlimited refills on your soda as the machines are self-serve.
The stadium has a retractable roof which remains open for the soccer games. It had been raining earlier in the day but by the time the game started, it had cleared up and the game was played in fine conditions.
I had arrived quite early for the 8:45 pm start and enjoyed the empty stadium for a while.
By kickoff though, the supporters had filled the seats and were making plenty of noise in anticipation of an easy victory over minnows Montenegro.
I had a seat in the first row, which is not the best for watching the tactical battle, but I enjoy being close to the action. When the teams came out for the anthems, the Swedes were accompanied by children in Montenegrin uniforms and vice versa.
There wasn't much to the first 30 minutes of the game, although Zlatan Ibrahimović (below), Sweden's longtime star who now toils for PSG, had a beautiful volley parried aside by keeper Vukašin Poleksić just before the half-hour.
It was obvious that Montenegro were outmatched and only a matter of time before Sweden found an opening. It came as the clock struck 37 minutes when Albin Ekdal crossed into the box and Marcus Berg eluded two defenders and headed the ball past Poleksić.
Just two minutes later and Ibrahimović weaved some magic, dribbling away from two defenders near the left end line, moving to the top of the box, turning, and firing that Poleksić really should have stopped. Just before halftime, Ibrahimović chested down a long pass from Sebastian Larsson and broke into alone on goal, making no mistake to give the Swedes an insurmountable 3-0 lead.
The Montenegrins enjoyed a consolation goal on a penalty in the second half (below), and almost added a second only to have Andreas Isaksson make a spectactular save off Fatos Bećiraj.
You can view the highlights on UEFA's Euro Qualifying page, this was a very entertaining game and well worth the $60 to see a genuine international superstar.
Sweden was my 40th country to visit (including overseas territories and protectorates) and 24th in which I've seen a game.
There are four more Euro Qualifying Matchdays this year but they take both place on two consecutive three-day periods: September 3-8 and October 8-13. So if you want to see six games in six countries in six days, this is the time to do it. I won't be doing anything quite so crazy, this past trip gave me little time to sightsee or relax, and doubling the length of the journey would me it truly exhausting. I do hope to combine games in England and Ireland with the Rugby World Cup, NFL, and EPL in early October, so check back to see when that plan is announced.
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Day 2 of my weekend trip to Matchday 6 of the European Qualifiers started with an early flight to Copenhagen on WOW Air, which bills itself as Iceland's most punctual airline. Considering that Iceland has but two international airlines, this is not saying much. Regardless, I slept the whole way as my tired old body is not adjusting to the jet lag very well, and the flight arrived on time. Even after checking in to my accommodation, I needed another nap and didn't wake until 6:00, just a couple of hours before Denmark took on Serbia.
Fortunately, I was only a short walk from Telia Parken, Denmark's national stadium. Located about 20 minutes from Østerport station, the stadium was opened in 1992, replacing the old national stadium which had been mostly demolished. As the locals referred to it as Parken, that is what it became. Only last year did telecom provider Telia take over naming rights, and it now provides high-speed wifi throughout the venue.
A large statue of three soccer players marks the main approach to the stadium along Øster Allé, which is the street you will take from the station. The stadium itself is quite large but architecturally bland from the outside. It looks more like a shopping mall; only the large banners of past Danish soccer greats alerts you to its real purpose.
There was a fan zone that was serving beer (Carlsberg naturally) and had a few other sponsor tents. It was crowded with drunk Danes, so I only made a cursory inspection before heading inside.
The four stands inside are separated so once you have entered, you are stuck there for the match. This is typical of soccer venues in Europe as it keeps fans from mingling. I wasn't even able to get to the upper levels in my own stand, so all the pictures are from the same spot.
Note the retractable roof; this reminded me of ballparks in Arizona and Seattle, though on a slightly smaller scale. The roof remains open for soccer games even if it is raining, as it was on this night, though all seats are covered. The venue is also used for concerts which is where the roof comes in handy.
The panorama gives you an idea of the entire stadium, which seats 38,065, with no standing room areas.
Food here is pretty standard, as I found it to be in all three stadiums I visited on this weekend jaunt. The hot dog comes outside of the roll, which is actually a hollowed out tube of bread. You put your ketchup and french sauce inside the tube, then insert the wiener (no jokes please). It is described as Czech style, but I found it a lot cleaner than the normal dog, when the condiments drip out the side onto your clothes. Another item worth noting here is that you can buy 5 large beers at once for 200 DKK (about $30). They are served in a cardboard carrying case equipped with a handle, and a moderately heavy drinker can purchase his game's supply before kickoff and then never have to leave his seat for the two hours, assuming his bladder can handle the load.
There are two scoreboards in opposite corners that showed highlights of past Danish victories before the game, but they did not show any live action during the game. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that smoking is allowed in the seats. I have gotten so used to smoke- free venues that at first I thought the person smoking was in violation of the rules, but security did nothing. I then looked around and noticed several other patrons puffing away. Turns out smoking is banned in all indoor locations and the family stand, but not where I happened to be sitting. Something to keep in mind if you ever find yourself there for a game.
Speaking of the game, the Serbs were in town to do battle in this Group I match. This group is the only one with 5 teams, so they only play eight games instead of ten like the other 8 groups. Denmark was second with 7 points, 2 behind Austria and tied with Albania. Serbia had only 1 point despite a forfeit win over Albania, because UEFA docked them those three points. Details of that incident are laughable if they weren't so depressing. At any rate, it did not seem as if any Serbian fans had made the trip and the visitors section was empty.
Denmark opened the scoring in the 13th minute when Nicklas Bendtner laid a sublime pass off the side of his foot to Yussuf Poulsen (above) who slotted just inside the left post for his first international goal.
Just after the half hour mark, Serbia committed a foul in the box, leading to a penalty attempt by captain Daniel Agger (#4 above) but it was brilliantly saved by Vladimir Stojković to keep the Serbs in the game.
Denmark maintained their 1-0 advantage until the 87th minute, when substitute Jakob Poulsen converted another Bendtner (#11 below, applauding the fans after the match) pass, beating Stojković to the right side this time.
That was the final as Denmark are pretty much assured of a spot in the tournament. They won it all in 1992 so they should never be counted out.
The stadium is also home to F.C. Kobenhaven, whose initials might cause alarm in English speaking countries.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
The Euro 2016 soccer tournament will take place in France next year, which means qualifying is taking place this year. There are 53 countries participating, divided into 9 groups. Each team plays each other in the group both home and away which means that 10 "matchdays" are required between September 2014 and October 2015. Each matchday consists of 26 games played over three consecutive days, which is perfect for a sports road trip to tiny Europe (though with Asian countries Israel and Kazakhstan part of UEFA, it is not so tiny after all).
Each matchday has several possibilities for a trip. The best option is to find 3 neighbouring countries that are all part of the Schengen Area so you can limit your travel time and passport controls. UEFA's matches page makes it easy to eyeball potential journeys, keeping in mind that the home side is on the left, not the right as we are used to in the States. Checking out matchday 5 in March for example, you could have seen games in Spain, Andorra, and Portugal in three consecutive days.
Matchday 6 between June 12 and 14 came with a few more opportunities. An important criterion is that the visiting team is competitive and the match will be meaningful, and the top game for the first day was surprising Iceland hosting the Czech Republic. With Reykjavik just under 6 hours from New York, this meant an overnight flight would get me there on Friday morning. Saturday's options included Denmark hosting Serbia, Hungary traveling to Finland, and Ireland welcoming Scotland. Sunday's menu was quite limited though, as I needed a quick flight home on Monday and most of the countries lacked inexpensive direct flights to New York. I decided on Montenegro at Sweden, which meant that Saturday's best bet was Denmark. As I have already been to Iceland and Denmark, I also wouldn't regret spending such a short time in these countries. Flights were booked and I eagerly waited for June 11, when I would begin my whirlwind 3 games in 3 countries in 3 days trip.
I arrived in Reykjavik early on Friday morning and, unable to check into my hotel, ventured to Laugardalsvöllur, the national stadium. It was empty but you could wander around and look inside, which is what I did, taking the pictures you see above. A very beautiful setting.
The statue above is Albert Guðmundsson, Iceland's first pro soccer player, who played for Rangers in Scotland among other teams.
I eventually got into my lodging and slept off some of the jet lag before rising around 4:00 to make my way back to the stadium. The game, a 6:45 pm start, was sold out, so I was hoping to get there early in case tickets were released. I asked at the ticket window and was told that no tickets would be made available. I then wandered inside and took a few pictures of the stadium, such as the empty concourse above. I took a seat to rest but was soon asked to wait outside, and so I went back to the ticket booth. I overheard a gentleman asking how much the tickets were, and when he received a response, it became clear that tickets had been released after all. Excellent! I lined up behind him and was happy to see dozens of tickets laid out on the counter. I guess these were returns from UEFA, whose fat cats didn't want to travel to chilly Iceland during the warm European summer. There were several other fans, including tourists from Canada and Japan, who had also ventured here in the hope of finding tickets and all were rewarded, as there were a few empty seats at kickoff.
The visiting Czech fans were out in force as well, making lots of noise before gates opened (above).
The stadium is very simple, there are two stands for seating: the main stand facing east (above), and the secondary stand facing west (above). The organizers had laid out placards for the fans that spell Ísland, which is how the locals pronounce the name of their nation.
There are no end zone seats, though in the south there is an open fence and you can stand there during the game and watch for free, which many fans did. At the opposite end is the simple scoreboard with that mountain backdrop.
My seat was in the main stand midway between midfield and the goal line, a bargain at 6,000 ISK (about $45).
As soccer games do, it started right on time, with the players marching out ten minutes before kickoff for the anthems and traditional photos. Quite majestic and a welcome change from the hype that characterizes so many American sports.
The Czechs came in atop Group A with 13 points from 5 games, a point clear of Iceland, who had lost 2-1 in the reverse fixture back in November. The first half was not particularly thrilling and finished without a goal, though Iceland had a great chance off a free kick that was parried aside by Petr Čech, his helmeted form famous from his years with Chelsea (above).
Ten minutes into the second half, the Czechs struck when Bořek Dočkal received a pass at the top of the box and let fly with a wicked rising shot that beat a diving Hannes Halldórsson and stunned the fans. Five minutes later though, Iceland knotted things when Ari Skúlason lofted a long ball that beat the Czech defense and found the head of captain Aron Gunnarsson (above), who directed behind Čech.
With 15 minutes left, Kolbeinn Sigthórsson (above) intercepted a silly back pass in the Czech box and moved in alone on Čech, deking to the left and slotting home the eventual winner. A great result for this tiny country, which is looking to make its first major tournament appearance. With just four matches left, they have a pretty good shot to do so.
Iceland's population is around 300,000 yet they are ranked 37th by FIFA, giving them the highest FIFA points per population in the world. Definitely a team worth rooting for.
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
With the Blue Jays playing the Nationals on Monday, I needed to find another game on the weekend to make the trip to Washington worthwhile. Fortunately, D.C. United was home on Saturday, so I left New York that morning and after a very cheap Megabus ride ($1), arrived in Washington in the early evening.
D.C. United plays out of RFK Stadium, former home of the Senators, Redskins, and Nationals, among others. Located on the eastern edge of town, walking is not advised, though it is easy to get to on the DC Metro, with the Stadium/Armory stop leaving you just a short stroll away. Note for those taking the Metro - invest in the SmartTrip card, the $2 cost is saved on your first two rides (the cost of each paper ticket ride is $1 more). Coming out of the subway and turning onto Capitol Street SE, you will see the stadium looking resplendent at first glance, but that will quickly change as you notice the peeling paint on the facade. The stadium was opened in 1961 and it shows. Interestingly, there are two older venues in MLS: Providence Park in Portland (1926) and the Citrus Bowl in Orlando (1936) but I'm guessing those are better maintained.
Tickets go for as low as $20 here, and that is what you should buy. There are three levels of seating, but they are all in the lower orange sections as you can see below, with the higher seats actually offering better views of the action across the entire pitch. Soccer is not a game that lends itself to sitting close, but most fans fail to realize this, so you can take your pick of seats in the upper rows of the 300 level. Having said that, there are no good seats here, as the lower bowl forms a semi circle on each side, placing you farther away from the pitch than you need to be. Good soccer stadiums have you right next to the touch line, not 50 feet away as is the case here.
I sat here around here, not bad, but the scoreboard is partially blocked by the overhang, though there are ancient TVs around showing the game live.
The concourse is large enough, with fairly boring food options scattered throughout. As soccer is only 2 hours long, you should save your appetite for one of Washington’s fine restaurants, though I do recommend the $4 lemonade if you get thirsty.
One end of the field has United’s four championship banners (1996, 1997, 1999, 2004) and members of the hall of tradition.
That is really all there is to say about RFK, for soccer at least. The club is looking to construct a soccer-only venue and the sooner that happens, the better. MLS needs to provide top notch venues if it is to be considered a top notch league.
The Philadelphia Union were in town in a battle of uncreative nicknames, one of my big complaints about MLS. The two clubs had played 10 days ago with Philly winning 1-0 on a last gasp winner. This time, it took them only five minutes to score when Andrew Wenger (in white below) easily dispossessed Steve Birnbaum in the penalty area and passed to a wide-open Sebastian Le Toux, who drove the ball past an aggrieved Bill Hamid to stun the locals.
Birnbaum had a chance to redeem himself but a shot off a corner was saved off the line by defender Fabinho. A few minutes later Wenger drove one off the crossbar, and that miss would be rued. Just as the announcement that there would be one minute of added time, Taylor Kemp played what seemed like a harmless cross into the Union box and Chris Pontius (below) rose to deliver a spectacular header that beat a surprised Brian Sylvestre.
The second half saw both teams with golden opportunities only to have the keepers make great saves. A draw was looking likely, but in the 82nd minute, a long, looping cross found the arm of Union defender Zach Pfeffer in the box, leading to a penalty called by the sideline official. Chris Rolfe calmly slotted it past a helpless Sylvestre (below) to give the home side the 2-1 lead.
That was all she wrote as Union really had no chance to equalize and DC United snapped a three-game winless streak with the victory, pushing them 4 points ahead of New England for first place in the Eastern Conference. United have not lost in 19 straight at home in all competitions, and look to be a solid bet in the playoffs.
These fans had the best sign of the game. They may still get their wish.
The club partnered with Make-A-Wish to welcome a 17-year-old Liberian battling blood cancer to the fold, going so far as to put him on the cover of their match day program.
The Blue Jay game on Monday was rained out, rather annoying as I had a seat in the first row just down from the Blue Jays dugout. The powers that be decided to make the doubleheader on Tuesday a split (i.e. separate admissions). I would have stayed if it had been a single admission DH (Toronto sees few of those) but it wasn’t worth it for two separate games. So I’ll have to revisit Washington next time the Blue Jays are there (2021 at the latest) and stay for the whole series.