June 02, 2005

U.S.A. vs. England in Chicago: A True American Experience

It had been 28 years to the same Memorial Day weekend since I had been in Chi-Town. In 1977 as a member of the U.S. Air Force I was attending Firefighter Training School at Chanute Air Force Base outside Champagne, Illinois. A small group pooled our money, rented a van and headed north to the Windy City for a weekend of fun and frolic at the now defunct Playboy Club. I was a year removed from high school and this was one of those weekends that was soon forgotten, which in those days was a clear sign that you had a good time. The 2005 trip to Chicago would be much different: I was with my wonderful wife and we were meeting 15 wacky Brits living in Houston who belonged to the same club I coached and briefly played for before my move to New York, Houston Celtic FC. Most importantly, we were there to see the U.S. play England in a friendly at Soldier Field. My wife Gail and I arrived in Chicago on the Thursday before the Saturday afternoon game from Dallas after a whirlwind 8 day vacation through Texas that saw us visit Houston (twice), Big D and Austin, which we both consider the greatest city to live in America. We were staying at the Wyndham in downtown Chicago and although the drive from O’Hare was less than impressive, downtown Chicago is clean, well organized and easy to get around. The people are friendly and hospitable and eager to assist a tourist. What an amazing city Chicago is. Great food, reasonable prices, beautiful architecture, no pollution…Chicago epitomizes the Great American City. The lads arrived from Houston Friday afternoon and it was the equivalent of herding cats to get them over to the pub. Getting Brits to a pub is usually no great challenge but after a few pops on the plane the boys were all over the place with what they wanted to do and see. The concierge at the Wyndham suggested the Elephant and Castle Pub which was only one block from our hotel and attached to the Radisson which, conveniently enough, was housing the U.S. National Team along with their family and friends. The manager at the Elephant and Castle, a really warm Irishman (is there any other kind?) whose name I didn’t catch, was kind enough to put together tables for the 20 or so people that would be arriving soon, or so we thought. Gail and I waited…..and waited….and waited…the 2 of us sitting there with 18 empty chairs. Anyway, while we waited we decided to have a bite and look out the window where we saw Landon Donovan, Greg Berhalter, Eddie Johnson and Marcelo Balboa, who I suppose was there to announce the game for ESPN. So, after about 2 hours of waiting the lads finally get to the pub and immediately start with the singing… “Engerlund, Engerlund, Engerlund” you know the rest. Of course with family, friends and fans of the U.S. also there the obligatory “U.S.A!, U.S.A.! U.S.A!” started ringing through the pub. It was all good natured and things never got testy, which I suppose is what a friendly is all about. Through all the shouting a woman leaned over to where we were sitting and said something about her son playing for the U.S. and playing in England but I couldn’t really understand what she was saying so I asked her, “Who is your son?” to which she replied, “Bobby Convey.” Apparently she was sitting by herself so after she settled into her seat again, I went over to talk to her. Being a U.S. National Team supporter as long as I have and also being a big fan of her son, I just wanted to see if she was open to talking to me and she was very friendly and warm. We ended up talking for 3 hours. That day, May 27, happened to be Bobby’s 22nd birthday and his mom, Nancy, couldn’t have been more proud. All I’m going to say about our conversation is that Bobby has a very close and loving family and he sounds like a remarkably thoughtful son. As the night was winding down U.S. coach Bruce Arena popped into the pub and to me it appeared he was making sure all the players made bed check, which they had, or at least they were smart enough not to do their drinking in the pub attached to their hotel. Saturday was game day and while we were getting dressed in our 1950 commemorative U.S.A. jerseys we could see the weatherman once again missed the target as the forecasted sunny day was being invaded by light but steady showers. However, once we were in the beautifully revamped Soldier Field we had a bit of rain about 15 minutes before kick-off and that was it. Bring on the game! After both national anthems were respectfully observed on this weekend of remembrance, the game finally begins and the U.S. team looks nervous and shaky from the start. We’re giving England too much respect and soon enough, we pay for it. Within 3 minutes, Eddie Pope of the U.S. fouls Andy Johnson at the edge of the penalty box. Up steps Keiran Richardson, earning his first cap for England. He sends a curling, dipping free kick over the U.S. wall and past the diving Kasey Keller. 1-0 to England. Sheeeez. This is not how we wanted the game to start. The U.S. fights and battles for the remainder of the first half but our efforts bear no fruit. Landon Donovan comes close twice, once on a curling free kick that hits David James' post and once again when he’s sent clean through with a beautifully weighted header from the industrious Josh Wolff, but Landon hits it wide to the keeper’s right. He really should have scored there. The bad finishing for the Americans finally comes back to bite them just before halftime when England break through Joe Cole, probably the best player on the field this day, who squares the ball and Richardson makes no mistake for his second goal of the half. Not a bad performance in the first game for your country. 2-0 England. During the opening period, it took the U.S. about 20 minutes to get settled…we were no longer in awe of the players who mostly ply their trade in what many consider the best league in the world, the English Premiership. The Americans start the second half much hungrier and determined as they make run after run at the England goal but are continually thwarted by the makeshift England defense. I look at the clock for the first time in a breathless second half and it reads 75 minutes, 14 seconds. Friendly or not, we want to at least get a draw out of this game. We have less than 15 minutes plus stoppage time to get it done. In the first half, David James' goal was right in front of the “official” U.S. supporters group, Sam’s Army. This is a group I’ve admired in the past for showing their passion for the team and country I love. On this day, I was a little embarrassed. Whenever James would take a goal kick, Sam’s Army would belt out “You suck, Asshole!” As if that weren't bad enough, one of the Army’s chants was the very original “It’s called saw-ker!” Yikes. Someone just shoot me. Is that the best we can do? Three minutes after the time check the U.S. gets a free kick to the right of England’s goal which is whipped in by Donovan and met by the sliding Carlos Bocanegra. The ball rebounds off James’ legs where Clint Dempsey, a fellow Texan and easily the hardest working player of the game, meets the ball with a simple header. Soldier Field explodes with pent-up anticipation. 2-1 England. The U.S. continues to attack for the remainder of the game but to no avail and England walk away with the win. I was left with an empty feeling, knowing we outplayed England and at least deserved a draw, but it wasn’t meant to be. With more belief early on, we could have taken this game. Another point: I hope Bruce Arena puts the boys through loads of shooting practice this week. We need players who can score goals with two World Cup qualifiers coming up in the next week. We leave Chicago the following day to fly home to New York with the satisfaction of spending time in an incredible city and a little disappointment that our team didn’t do better, but we are Americans ‘til we die. Oh well….it’s only a game, right?

posted by Texan_lost_in_NY to commentary at 03:30 PM - 0 comments

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