Monday, June 29, 2015

Montreal Impact 2 at Philadelphia Union 2 - June 27, 2015

Major League Soccer is celebrating its 20th season this year and despite Chivas USA folding after last season, the league is in good financial health and ready to join the Big 4 as a true major league sport. It won't be long till sports road trippers include the 20 MLS venues in their goal to visit all major league stadiums. With the NHL expanding in the next couple of years and MLS adding teams in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, and Minnesota, Club 122 will become Club 148 for the next generation.

For me though, I can't wait that long, so I'm going to try to visit every MLS pitch over the next three seasons. I've only seen games in three active venues so far (New York Red Bulls, NYCFC, and DC United) which means 17 to go between now and 2017.

The closest remaining stadium was PPL Park in Chester, PA, home of the Philadelphia Union so I looked for a weekend when both they and the Phillies were home. The last weekend in June happened to fit the bill perfectly, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (home of the Rocky statue) had a new exhibition going on, so I was able to convince my wife to come along. Which was a mistake.

The Union were hosting the Montreal Impact on Saturday night, for which the weather forecast had been for rain. I told my wife to head back, but she decided to tough it out, another mistake. After spending the afternoon at the museum we headed over to 30th Street Station to grab a SEPTA train (once an hour, so don't miss it) to Chester, from where a free shuttle bus would take us to the stadium. There was a steady drizzle falling as we made our way along the Schuylkill River but by the time the train reached Chester, we realized the forecast had understated things, as we emerged into a torrential downpour with gusty winds rendering umbrellas quite useless. It was too late to turn around so we waited with several other morons who had nothing better to do than get soaked on a Saturday evening.

The shuttle dropped us off a couple of minutes from PPL Park and by then, the surrounding streets had huge puddles, making the walk to the stadium all the more pleasant. At the stadium we found a small overhang under which we could stay relatively dry while we waited for my friend Andrew, who was on his way from the rained out Phillies game. There were a few other fans around, including one woman who lamented the free tickets her husband had received.

Andrew arrived a few minutes before kickoff and we vainly looked for a scalper, but of course, they were taking the day off. So we forked over $27 at the box office for the cheapest ticket (MLS has entered the Big 4 in terms of pricing!) and made our way into the stadium after having to give up our umbrellas. Yes, no umbrellas are allowed inside and all bags were searched for this contraband item, with those in possession of one forced to dump it by the gate. This policy is not unusual and many venues prohibit umbrellas, but I really don't understand the reasoning. Why not ask fans to keep their umbrellas closed? Oh yes, now I remember. Fans are idiots and can't follow the most basic instructions. Ironically, an umbrella would have been useless on this day as the winds would have destroyed it, not that there were any fans to disturb anyway, as you can below. My wife was particularly upset as she thought that those crafty umbrella thieves that plague Philadelphia would steal ours, but fortunately they too were taking the day off.

There were worries that the match might be postponed but the Impact had already several games moved to later in the schedule after their run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, so this one would be held as planned. The rain was heavier than any other sporting event I have attended, and although we stood on the concourse atop the seating bowl but despite being covered, it offered no protection from the elements. Most fans had brought ponchos but we travel light and had nothing of the sort, leaving us at the mercy of Mother Nature. It was tough to complain though as the players were soaked by the time they had lined up for the national anthems.

You will note the two puddles in the midfield circle above, it gave the impression that the pitch was waterlogged but in fact the opposite was true. The drainage system worked perfectly and the field was not a factor during the game, other than when a few players slipped while trying to shoot. I had expected a 0-0 draw, but instead was treated to one of the more entertaining events I have seen in some time.

The Union scored in the 7th minute when Eric Ayuk (top center, above), a rookie from Cameroon who had played in the lower divisions in Thailand last season, one-timed a beautiful touch pass from C.J. Sapong, beating a helpless Evan Bush from the top of the box. Twenty minutes later the Impact knotted things up as Ignacio Piatti dribbled past a couple of defenders and found the far corner behind  Brian Sylvestre, a great long-range effort.

Halftime allowed fans a chance to dry off and when the second half started, the rain had slowed somewhat, but the action on the pitch did not. First, Impact captain Patrice Bernier received a second yellow card to send him to the actual showers in the 67th minute. Montreal was not fazed though, taking the lead just two minutes later. Former Union Jack McInerney (above), a substitute who was booed upon entering the game, took a breakaway pass from Andres Romero, turned around Richie Marquez and beat Sylvestre, again from the top of the box. Five minutes after that though, the Union had a corner that was cleared to Fred outside the box and he unloaded a wicked shot that was saved by Bush. The rebound fell to Maurice Edu who was all alone and tucked the ball home to tie the game at 2. The Union had the advantage with the extra man, but just a couple of minutes after the goal, Ayuk was sent off for his second yellow and the rest of the game was uneventful.

There were 4 minutes of extra time, during which we were making our way to the exits to avoid the umbrella rush, so my final shot of the score is from a bad angle, but we did stay until the end. The game highlights are here and worth a look, some great goals despite the weather. Upon reflection, a much more memorable event than it would have been had the weather been better. Still, I'd like to return to PPL Park on a sunny day (the Gold Cup 3rd Place match is there on July 25 which is a possibility if Canada makes it) as I didn't get to fully enjoy what it has to offer.

Next Up

A quiet month on tap for July, with a short trip to North Carolina next weekend to see a couple of minor league parks and my first Major League Lacrosse game, and then the following weekend in Baltimore for the Gold Cup quarterfinals as well as a return to Nationals Park for Star Wars Day. As mentioned, if Canada makes the final four of that tournament, I'll be returning to Philadelphia to watch that match (the final is at Lincoln Financial Field on July 26). As always, keep following along to see what transpires in the world of sports road trips!



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Toronto Blue Jays 2 at New York Mets 3 - June 16, 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

Montenegro 1 at Sweden 3 (Group G, Euro 2016 Qualifying) - June 14, 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

Serbia 0 at Denmark 2 (Group I, Euro 2016 Qualifying) - June 13, 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. (Update: Denmark went on to draw both Albania and Armenia 0-0 before losing to Portugal and thus being eliminated by surprise qualifier Albania).


The stadium is also home to F.C. Kobenhaven, whose initials might cause alarm in English speaking countries.



Saturday, June 13, 2015

Czech Republic 1 at Iceland 2 (Group A, Euro 2016 Qualifying) - June 12, 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 (below). 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.