Nathan Nipper

Dallas Texas

nipper.nathan@yahoo.com

Nathan Nipper grew up primarily in Arkansas and Dakar, Senegal.  He graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in 1999 with majors in history and communication and Regent University in 2002 with a master’s degree in communication.  He spent several years working as a television writer until 2010 when he began coaching soccer and teaching American history.  His varsity boys high school soccer team won back-to-back Texas private school state championships in 2013 and 2014.  In addition to his blog Total Football Cafe, he is a frequent contributor to World Soccer Talk.  He lives near Dallas – 4,754 miles from Stamford Bridge and 32 miles from Toyota Stadium – with his wife, daughter, and two sons.

Total Football Cafe: Overdue Update Edition

Another busy soccer coaching season is behind me, so it’s time to dust off the ol’ soccer blog just in time for the start of the 2015 MLS season as well as the home stretches of the EPL and Champions League seasons.

MLS is back, baby!

MLS is back, baby!

I’m excited to announce that I’m now contributing weekly fan-perspective articles for the Dallas Morning News’ soccer blog.  I’ll be chiming in there throughout the 2015 MLS season on FC Dallas and MLS topics.  Here is what I’ve come up with so far.

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I’m also still writing the occasional article for World Soccer Talk.  Last week I wrote one about the human rights abuses plaguing preparations for the ludicrous Qatar 2022 World Cup.  I was inspired to write about it after re-watching this excellent E:60 report by Jeremy Schapp.  I saw the report when it originally aired last May but failed to act on my impulse to write about it until now.

Back on the fan front, I was very disappointed that Chelsea squandered their opportunity to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals, losing to Paris St. Germain via the frequently maddening away-goals rule.  Chelsea played very poorly, so there aren’t really any excuses, however, it was one of the most poorly officiated matches (at such a high level) that I’ve ever seen.  The match was a textbook example of why soccer needs to use video review.  I don’t understand why purists are so set against video review.  It’s simple – just limit reviewable cases to red cards (including second yellows that result in red) and calls in the box.  In other words, just limit video review to decisions with the most potential to alter games.

Not a red card.  Thirty seconds or less of video review would've kept Ibrahimovic on the field.

Not a red card.  Thirty seconds or less of video review would've kept Ibrahimovic on the field.

In the aftermath of the Chelsea loss, I’ve been surprised by the widespread criticism of Chelsea players for surrounding the referee, presumably influencing his (erroneous) decision to red card Ibrahimovic.  Have these critics never watched a professional soccer game before?  This crowding around the ref happens in every game in every league on the planet!  I’m not saying this behavior is right, just that it’s not remotely rare, and certainly not unique to Chelsea.

Just remembering better Champions League times for Chelsea...

Just remembering better Champions League times for Chelsea...

That’s it for this edition.  Hope you’ll stop by in the coming months, as there will be lots of exciting soccer to discuss.  If you haven’t yet read the award-winning Dallas ‘Til I Cry: Learning to Love Major League Soccer, I hope you’ll check it out and feel free to let me know what you think about it as I always enjoy hearing from readers.

Dallas ‘Til I Cry - "Best Book" Nominee...

Yesterday, out of the blue, I received exciting news that Dallas 'Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer is a "Best Book" nominee for the 2014 MLS Talk Awards from World Soccer Talk.  I sincerely appreciate the nomination.  My competition is fierce - one of the other nominees is a book written by some guy named Tim Howard.  Anyone can click here to vote and I must admit I hope you will vote Nipper!  

Search "Major League Soccer" on Amazon and guess which book appears first?

Search "Major League Soccer" on Amazon and guess which book appears first?

   

Total Football Café: International Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo Edition

Well, it’s been way too long since my last post.  The busyness of fall is creeping up on me, thus crowding out things that don’t pay the bills, fun things like this blog.  Funny how that works.  Anyways, I’m about to enter soccer coaching season so the blog cupboard of the Total Football Café may look increasingly bare in the coming weeks, but I’ll do my best to slap some posts together as often as possible.  I hope the semi-bare nature of the cupboard doesn’t drive you away altogether.

In the spirit of slapping posts together, herein are some thoughts on several topics that have kept the American soccer world buzzing during yet another international break.  By the way, I can’t remember international breaks being so close together.  I know time flies when you’re having fun, but didn’t we just have an international break? 

If we have to have international breaks, we might as well take the opportunity to brush up on world geography.

If we have to have international breaks, we might as well take the opportunity to brush up on world geography.

Recently the debate resurfaced about whether the EPL should play some regular season matches in the U.S. (in future seasons).  I don’t like this idea.  I like the simplicity of each EPL team playing every team in the league twice, one at home, one away.  In fact I look forward to the MLS being able to switch over to a similarly streamlined system.  A “39th game” played in the U.S. as part of the EPL fixture list would be a superfluous money-grab.  I really don’t like the idea, yet if they ever decide to do it, I’ll be one of the first hypocrites in line to buy a ticket.  As for a UEFA Champions League Final played in the U.S. someday, bring it on!

Thanks to their enthusiastic new owner Anthony Precourt, the Columbus Crew finally ditched their puzzling, quasi-Gap ad logo with the three hard-hat dudes for a new, more traditionally soccer-ish crest.  The change is long overdue, but a good one nonetheless.  For all the fanfare surrounding its launch, the new crest is, well, it’s a crest.  Very tasteful, and light years ahead of the hard-hat trio, but like most MLS club crests it’s ultimately rather bland.  But hey, the important thing here is enthusiastic ownership and renewed vigor for one of the league’s inaugural teams.

According to this helpful diagram of the new Crew crest, the outer rim is a "circle".  #themoreyouknow

According to this helpful diagram of the new Crew crest, the outer rim is a "circle".  #themoreyouknow

Like most U.S. soccer fans, I’m sad to see Landon Donovan retire.  He has been simply the best.  Yes, there may always be some “what ifs” related to his career – I really enjoyed watching him during his brief stints at Everton, for example, and would’ve liked to see him play some full seasons in the EPL – but I also really admire him for sticking it out in MLS.  It’s easy to forget that he was grinding it out for several seasons during the league’s pre-Beckham glitz era, when the stadiums were a lot emptier and the perks sparser.  So for all he did for the U.S. National Team, he’ll also be remembered as a pivotal star for MLS in establishing and growing the league.

I’m also sad to see Donovan retire because it seems too early.  When I saw him play in-person in the 2013 Gold Cup semifinal against Honduras, Donovan looked better than ever.  His was a commanding performance, with two goals and masterful passing in the U.S.’ 3-1 victory.  At that point I never imagined he wouldn’t be included on the U.S.’ 2014 World Cup roster, nor that he would retire from soccer just over a year later.  I still believe he could’ve been a difference-maker at the 2014 World Cup.  Imagine him coming on as a sub against Belgium in the final half hour.

Landon Donovan kicking tail and taking names in the 2013 Gold Cup semifinal.  It was awesome.

Landon Donovan kicking tail and taking names in the 2013 Gold Cup semifinal.  It was awesome.

During all of the farewell Donovan coverage leading to his final U.S. match against Ecuador, there were rumblings of Donovan writing an autobiography.  This is a fantastic idea and I hope it materializes.  If Donovan requires co-authoring, he should definitely consider J.R. Moehringer who co-wrote Open, Andre Agassi’s superb autobiography.  I can see Donovan’s frankness resulting in a similarly fascinating book.

Unfortunately, team USA looked pretty flat with Donovan (1-1 draw vs. Ecuador) and without him (1-1 draw last Tuesday vs. Honduras).  Between the friendlies, Jurgen Klinsmann renewed his rhetoric regarding his preference that U.S. National Team players challenge themselves in Europe’s elite leagues if possible.  He seems particularly disappointed about Clint Dempsey’s and Michael Bradley’s decision to return to MLS rather than tarry on the bench for their former European clubs.  Klinsmann’s been saying this for a while now, never mind the fact that he selected many MLS players for the World Cup squad over Americans playing in Europe.  I get why Klinsmann says these things and I like the way he continues challenging the status quo in U.S. soccer overall.  MLS commissioner Don Garber on the other hand is apparently fed up with Klinsmann’s opinion on the matter.  As he explained during a rather unusual mid-week conference call with reporters, Garber takes Klinsmann’s comments as slams against MLS.  I also understand Garber’s point of view and don’t blame him for trying to defend the league.  Overall, the Klinsmann/Garber tussle is positive for American soccer.  They’re both right.

It’s unlikely I’ll forget last week’s Klinsmann/Garber war of words anytime soon because I actually received a handwritten note from Garber on Friday thanking me for sending him a copy of my book!  It was a very classy gesture of him and I sincerely appreciate his taking the time to write.

Can Fabian Castillo lead FC Dallas to MLS Cup glory?  Yes, yes he can.

Can Fabian Castillo lead FC Dallas to MLS Cup glory?  Yes, yes he can.

FC Dallas has clinched their first MLS playoff appearance since 2011.  They booked their playoff spot with a 2-1 win over Landon Donovan and his LA Galaxy.  The winning goal by Fabian Castillo in the 87th minute was thrilling and on a very short list of the best FC Dallas moments I’ve ever experienced at Toyota Stadium.  Now that FCD’s in the playoffs, anything can happen.  Seattle and LA have the most points in the league, but neither will want to face Dallas in the postseason.  It should be a blast!

Total Football Café: Weak Blatter Edition

So this past Monday we learned FIFA Dictator, er, President, Sepp Blatter plans to run for a fifth term as FIFA prez, to which the entire soccer world exhaled an enormous sigh of joyous relief that we won’t have to endure a brand new president and with him/her the potential prevailing of common sense or the rooting out of corruption.  “My mission is not finished,” says Blatter, to which we can only assume he means sucking up every last crumb from every last Cindy Lou Who in every last vulnerable Whoville country left on the planet.  As long as there are countries left to fleece, he’ll be there to see the mission accomplished.

"My mission is not finished," says Sepp Blatter.

"My mission is not finished," says Sepp Blatter.

On Friday, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said he would like MLS to be the world’s first league to test a video replay system for reviewing referee decisions during matches.  The system would likely entail coaches being able to challenge one or two calls per half.  MLS is the perfect league to test such a system – which has been way too long coming – because Americans love to see correct calls made, plus, MLS refs need all the help they can get (just ask DC United head coach Ben Olsen).

Every time this video replay debate arises in soccer circles, I’m always amazed how many pundits groan that the review process would take too long, ruin the flow of the match, etc., etc.  They also say it would be impossible to draw the line as far as which decisions to review.  I don’t understand this at all.  You simply review the decisions that have the biggest impact on a match’s outcome.  That means, red cards, PKs, maybe the occasional offside call.  I would like to see mandatory review of all decisions that occur in the box, but a coach’s challenge system would likely be sufficient.

MLS Commish Don Garber, smiling at the prospect of MLS showing the world that video replay can indeed work.

MLS Commish Don Garber, smiling at the prospect of MLS showing the world that video replay can indeed work.

Whenever someone objects to video replay in soccer, I simply point them to Thierry Henry’s “Hand of Gaul” assist on the extra time goal that sent France to World Cup 2010 instead of Ireland.  Ridiculous.  It is almost the year 2015 people, the time has come for video replay in world soccer.

Thierry Henry:  still the most popular player in Ireland.

Thierry Henry:  still the most popular player in Ireland.

Saturday was a good soccer day with news that Brek Shea had an assist in his loan debut for Birmingham City, Diego Costa continued burning up the EPL with his hat trick in Chelsea’s defeat of Swansea, and Blas Perez scored two in FC Dallas’ defeat of Vancouver.  I was at the FCD/Vancouver game last night – the atmosphere was terrific, with unusually mild fall-like temperatures and a hint of MLS playoffs in the air.  I was also excited to see Mauro Diaz get a longer run out in the second half.  His ball control and distribution are terrific and he could be a huge difference maker for FCD in the playoffs.

If you’ve thought about checking out my book Dallas ‘Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer but haven’t quite taken the plunge yet, all obstacles are being removed as the Kindle version is 50% off this week.  Hope you’ll check it out and recommend it to your soccer buddies!

Total Football Café: International Break Blues Edition

So this was week one of one of those two-week FIFA “international breaks” in which national teams around the world assemble their stars for mostly meaningless friendlies.  This is the international break that always sneaks up on me because of its awful timing.  The new Premier League season is just gaining momentum when FIFA slams on the brake (pun intended) and makes fans wonder what to do with all this extra weekend time on our hands.  Meanwhile, MLS sails along with regularly scheduled matches as if FIFA doesn’t exist.  The more we learn about FIFA’s hulking, iron-fisted ways, the more I kind of love it that MLS continues to just do its own thing.

Before the international break really got rolling with friendlies however, we had transfer deadline day to keep us entertained.  I still don’t understand why the transfer window closes several games into most European league seasons, but I’ve never really investigated.  Seems it would make more sense for the window to close before the first match of the season, but then when do the decisions of monolithic soccer governing bodies like UEFA make much sense?

This guy was apparently in charge of Man U's transfer deadline day strategy... which explains a lot.

This guy was apparently in charge of Man U's transfer deadline day strategy... which explains a lot.

Speaking of not making sense, for all of pro soccer’s supposed modernization with technology, analytics, etc., transfer deadline day reveals many clubs still seem to be flying by the seat of their pants.  You would think the mega super clubby clubs would have access to the best intel and thus spend their riches wisely.  Yet this year Real Madrid seemed most interested in buying up dudes who can help them sell the most jerseys, never mind whether they’ll have chemistry in the way of an actual formation or anything.  I mean, Chicharito?  What do they need that guy for?  On second thought, they need all the help they can get selling that hot pink away jersey which is hands down the current worst jersey on the planet.  Manchester United’s transfer strategy seemed mostly reactionary to their awful start to the EPL season – just throwing player ideas at the wall to see what sticks.  For once, Chelsea came out of this window looking calm, cool, collected and downright genius.  They even scooped up a decent substitute striker in Loic Remy to replace Torres who was loaned to AC Milan.

Woof.  This jersey deserves a FIFA infinity ban.

Woof.  This jersey deserves a FIFA infinity ban.

Even though I’m bummed to miss EPL games during international breaks, I do look forward to seeing the U.S. in action every time, even if it is just a friendly.  Wednesday’s match in Prague versus Czech Republic reminded me of a freshman game after a big group of seniors graduates.  Though there were many familiar faces from last summer’s World Cup squad, we also got to see a lot of young newcomers.  It was a reminder – particularly in a week when former U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra announced his retirement at the end of this MLS season – that the U.S. is undergoing a major changing of the guard ahead of World Cup 2018.  My favorite newbie in the U.S./Czech match was forward Joe Gyau.  He is certainly raw, and perhaps didn’t help defensively as much as he might’ve, but I loved his speed and assertiveness with the ball.  There is a lot of potential there.  While I didn’t relish my man Petr Cech getting scored on (by Alejandro Bedoya), we are talking about Team USA here, so I’ll take that 1-0 victory any day.

Carlos Bocanegra:  another trusty American soccer warrior retires.  

Carlos Bocanegra:  another trusty American soccer warrior retires.  

On the MLS front, LA Galaxy have turned on the afterburners.  LA stomped the Colorado Rapids 6-0 on Friday night.  Landon Donovan looks so relaxed and unstoppable since his retirement announcement.  If the World Cup were next month, would Klinsmann leave him off the U.S. roster?    Two months ago, LA seemed pretty ordinary.  Right now they’re clearly one of the best teams in MLS. 

Last night FC Dallas lost a painful one at Real Salt Lake 2-1.  Dallas didn’t play poorly, the top four teams in the Western Conference (Seattle, LA, RSL, Dallas) are just closely matched.  Dallas should still make the playoffs without a problem, which would be a definite improvement over the last two seasons, but they’ll still have to muster their utmost discipline.  They play nothing but big Western Conference games from here on out, including home and away against LA, and home against Seattle.  Good times, but nervous times.

For much of the season Sporting KC seemed a lock to win the Eastern Conference, but now they’ve lost four in a row and look all vulnerable.  Meanwhile, Houston is just now starting their season as usual.  They never start playing until August, thereby conserving energy for most of the season and disguising themselves as mediocre, before springing a trap on unsuspecting teams in the run-up to the playoffs.  Dynamo are now just three points out of a playoff spot in a conference that is mostly wide open for the taking.

This is Houston beginning their annual end-of-season playoff run.

This is Houston beginning their annual end-of-season playoff run.

If you need a good way to get yourself through week two of the international break blues, check out my soccer fan memoir Dallas ‘Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer.  Here is a review from a recent reader:

Dallas ‘Til I Cry" is a fun, quick read.  I personally have an issue with American soccer fans who refuse to acknowledge the growth of or lend support to Major League Soccer, so it was refreshing for me to read of the author's journey from "Euro snob" to purposefully giving MLS support a chance… Overall, this a great read for FC Dallas fans, MLS fans in general and those interested in knowing a little more about what it means to support the top-tier domestic league in the United States.

Total Football Café Weekly Roundup: Jermaine to Jermain Edition

Wouldn’t you know it, just as I’m putting the finishing touches on last week’s post, in which I mentioned the confusion over this Jermaine Jones-in-MLS-thing, a deal gets finalized sending Jones to play for New England Revolution.  Apparently, MLS’ secret society player allocation process involved the use of the sorting hat from Hogwarts Academy to determine whether Jones would go to Chicago or New England.  The whole episode is kind of strange and evidence of a still relatively young league figuring some things out on the fly as the league grows.  One thing’s for certain – the league will have to relax its grip on its franchises sooner than later and grant them more autonomy in how money is spent on players.

Behind-the-scenes view of the MLS Player Allocation Thingamajig.

Behind-the-scenes view of the MLS Player Allocation Thingamajig.

Jurgen Klinsmann named his first U.S. roster post-World Cup 2014 for the September 3 friendly at Czech Republic.  The list includes most of the regulars but plenty of newcomers as well.  The newbies include keeper Cody Cropper, midfielders Emerson Hyndman and Alfredo Morales, and forwards Joe Gyau, Jordan Morris, Rubio Rubin, and Bobby Wood.  I’m particularly intrigued by Hyndman (grandson of former FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman) who has started at Fulham in the Championship this season.  Another interesting roster inclusion is Brek Shea, who is rumored to be heading to Southampton.  Shea was a favorite Klinsmann prospect early on in the Jurgen era.  Shea has struggled to find playing time at Stoke City since he moved there from FC Dallas in early 2013.  I thought Shea had a ton of potential in his first couple pro seasons in Dallas.  Now it seems he may have made a premature leap to Europe and perhaps would’ve matured better as a player had he stayed in MLS.  Klinsmann apparently hasn’t thrown in the towel on him yet however, and it’s good to see Shea get another U.S. nod.

U.S. Shea will take another crack at it in Prague on Wednesday.

U.S. Shea will take another crack at it in Prague on Wednesday.

The Champions League groups were drawn this week.  While one declares groups in the Champs League “easy” at one’s own peril, Chelsea certainly has a cushier than average group.  If they can’t get past Schalke, Sporting Lisbon, and Maribor (from Slovenia’s second-largest city as it turns out – who knew?) then they don’t deserve to darken the UCL door in the first place.  I like Chelsea’s Champs League chances this season.  I’d love to see them knock Real Madrid off their perch in the final.

Ahh, Champions League nights are about to return.

Ahh, Champions League nights are about to return.

In other Chelsea news, the Fernando Torres fiasco appears to be over as he is going on loan to AC Milan.  I’m pretty sure Chelsea has never had a more frustrating player since I’ve been a fan of the club.  I always wanted Torres to succeed at Chelsea, but it was pretty evident from the start that the club wildly overpaid for him.  My theory is he never fully regained confidence after his 2010 knee injury.  Even if that’s true, however, it’s still baffling how little he resembled the Liverpool version of himself during his time at Chelsea.  Enjoy these vintage Liverpool Torres goals – you won’t recognize him.  For Chelsea it’s good that he’s moving on, but I do hope he goes and lights up Seria A.

This guy never arrived at Chelsea.

This guy never arrived at Chelsea.

Chelsea’s 6-3 win at Everton Saturday - wow.  If you didn’t see the match, I’m sorry.  It was awesome.  Chelsea’s back line will want to spend some time reviewing the game tape, but overall it was a terrific win.  Perhaps most encouragingly, Diego Costa scored twice – four goals in his first three Chelsea matches.  I was really uncertain about the Costa acquisition, primarily because he was injured and ineffective in the Champions League final and a non-factor for Spain at the World Cup in Brazil.  I thought it might be another case of Chelsea buying damaged goods.  But so far, he has been precisely the missing striker link Chelsea needed.

Already the man at Chelsea:  Diego Costa.

Already the man at Chelsea:  Diego Costa.

FC Dallas’ 10-game unbeaten streak unfortunately ended Saturday night in Chicago.  They were on the verge of snaring a point, but an 83rd minute Chicago goal ruined the plan.  You knew the streak would eventually end, but I was hoping they’d ride the wave until they were on top of the Western Conference.  Instead, they’ve slipped to fourth place with 42 points, one point behind Real Salt Lake and four behind LA Galaxy.  Seattle is still in first place after beating Colorado to go up two points on LA.  Dallas is still relatively comfortably in a playoff position (8 points ahead of fifth place Portland).  With eight games remaining however, FCD cannot get too comfy.  Dallas’ next match is a biggie:  at RSL this Saturday.

FCD Head Coach Oscar Pareja:  "Do not tell me another player is injured..."

FCD Head Coach Oscar Pareja:  "Do not tell me another player is injured..."

The remarkable thing about FC Dallas this season is their resiliency with so many injuries.  If you’d told me at the start of the season they’d be in fourth place at the beginning of September with midfielder Mauro Diaz missing most of the year and center back George John missing the entire year, I would not have believed it.  That said, Dallas could really use a healthy roster for the home stretch.

Looks like Toronto FC fired their entire first team coaching staff yesterday, including head coach Ryan Nelsen.  I’ve never really understood coach firings this late in a season – especially when your team is (somehow) still in playoff contention (they’re in a three-way tie for third place with 33 points).  It’s just really weird how incompetent things seem to be at Toronto FC.  Once they were one of the league’s most promising franchises, perhaps even a potential MLS “super club”.  Now they’re a cautionary tale.  MLSsoccer.com even has a blurb about Toronto “mulling” offers for their 2014 mega DP signing Jermain Defoe.  After all that hype and cash-splashing, now they might just let him go after less than one season?  Very odd.

"Ah well, it's super cold up here anyway.  What about that new Miami team?"

"Ah well, it's super cold up here anyway.  What about that new Miami team?"

Finally, thank you to everyone who entered the GoodReads contest to win a copy of my book Dallas ‘Til I Cry: Learning to Love Major League Soccer.  The contest is now closed and the winners have been drawn.  If you didn’t win this time, don’t let that prohibit you from reading the book as it is readily available in paperback and Kindle versions

Total Football Café Weekly Roundup

I’m not sure the new EPL season could have had a better opening weekend, primarily because Manchester United lost, at home, to Swansea City.  If Man U keeps up this utter mediocrity, which began last season, I might eventually have to stop disliking them so much.  It’s interesting to me how much disproportionate post-match hand wringing has occurred about the sky falling at Manchester United.  It is only the first game of the season, and like the best action-movie villains, you predict Man U’s demise at your own peril.  They will live to attack another day.

"Zero wins."

"Zero wins."

While I greet each opening weekend of the EPL season with as much enthusiasm as the next fan, it’s always a little disappointing starting every season knowing that only five or six teams have much of a chance of winning the league (with the exception of Chelsea of course – I always want them to win it).  What I mean is, aside from the fun of occasional upsets, three-quarters of the league’s teams have very little chance of actually winning the title.  I wish the EPL had a bit more parity.  I’ve read the anti-parity arguments, that every league needs its super clubs (Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski make a good case for this in one of my favorite soccer books Soccernomics), but I just think it would be more fun if an Aston Villa or Stoke City had a realistic chance of challenging for the title.  At least the EPL has a handful of teams that could win the title – the parity (at least as far as how many teams could actually win the league) seems much worst in La Liga and the Bundesliga.

Ladies and gentlemen... Fabian Castillo!

Ladies and gentlemen... Fabian Castillo!

Meanwhile, over in the ol’ MLS, FC Dallas is turning into quite the story this season.  Despite a ton of injuries to key players throughout the year, they keep on keeping on.  They’re building a lot of confidence at a key point in the season and might just end up winning the Western Conference.  I was skeptical about rookie Tesho Akindele during his first few appearances this season, but he has steadily improved and now looks like a future franchise DP and permanent starting striker (especially after his hat trick at San Jose last Saturday).  FCD’s other current standout star is Fabian Castillo who is probably the league’s fastest player in the final third with the ball at his feet.  I wrote about Castillo in my book, mostly marveling about his speed with the ball, coupled with his very poor finishing and passing ability in the final third last season.  This season he has finally matured and is living up to his potential.  His decision-making in the box is significantly better.

I can't really stand RSL, but this guy's cool.  How could he stand those dreads in Manaus though?

I can't really stand RSL, but this guy's cool.  How could he stand those dreads in Manaus though?

Real Salt Lake is my least favorite team in MLS.  Their “Goal Gong” at Rio Tinto Stadium makes me dislike them even more.  I don’t have a rational reason per se, the “Goal Gong” just strikes me (pun intended) as cartoonish-ly goofy and all wrong for soccer.  Because of my disdain for RSL, I reveled in being at Toyota Stadium Friday night to see FC Dallas defeat them 2-1 (Castillo scored his 9th goal of the season, a career high).  FC Dallas won playing with 10 men in the second half no less, after Blas Perez received a second yellow card just before halftime.  Perez frequently brings these punishments on himself with diving, embellishing, and generally running his mouth, but in this case he was innocent of both cards.  It was a ridiculous decision by the referee.  But, beating RSL with 10 men just made victory all the sweeter.  Remarkably, Dallas is now in a three-way tie for first in the Western Conference with RSL and Seattle.

It's gonna be a good season...

It's gonna be a good season...

In other favorite team news, Chelsea looked comfortably dominant in their season opener at Burnley.  As with the Manchester United hand wringing, the media overhyped Chelsea’s win a bit – this was just newly promoted Burnley after all.  But, Chelsea looked very good.  Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas made more of an immediate impact than I anticipated.  Costa scored a goal that strikers should score, but frankly, it was the kind of goal poor Fernando Torres has missed buckets of the past few seasons, so it was great to see Costa smash the ball in with such authority.  That Fabregas pass to Schurrle for the second goal was jaw dropping.  I also got a thrill out of seeing Didier Drogba jog onto the field for a few minutes at the end.  It’s going to be fun having him around this season.

You'll always be number one in our hearts.  And so will that helmet.

You'll always be number one in our hearts.  And so will that helmet.

The only mixed feelings issue I had with Chelsea’s opener was seeing Thibaut Courtois replace Petr Cech.  I understand progress and I’m not surprised that Courtois got the starting nod.  And a big part of me wants to transition to Courtois because he’s so awesome.  But I mean, Petr Cech.  And Petr Cech’s helmet.  And it almost doesn’t seem like a legit Chelsea match without the helmeted Cech tending goal.  If this transition to Courtois is permanent, I think it would be easier to swallow if we had a proper changing of the guard ceremony.  Maybe Cech could remove his gloves and hand them to Courtois.  And then Cech could remove his Cech helmet, place it on Courtois’ head, and fasten the chinstrap.  Sorry Courtois, but if Cech has to go, the helmet has to stay.  From this point forward Chelsea keepers should have to wear the Cech helmet.

"Ha, ha!  Take that, FIFA ban!"

"Ha, ha!  Take that, FIFA ban!"

In other soccer world news, Luis Suarez’s appeal of his post-bite suspension partially worked.  He’s now allowed to train with Barcelona and even featured in a friendly last week.  I already thought he was getting off easy with the length of his “ban”.  Now it’s barely a ban at all – it’s a paid vacation.  He gets to train and play in meaningless friendlies without the pressure of performing in legit matches.  Ridiculous.

"Just call me Super Mario.  No, seriously, that's the only thing you're allowed to call me.  Because I'm Super.  Mario."

"Just call me Super Mario.  No, seriously, that's the only thing you're allowed to call me.  Because I'm Super.  Mario."

In other wacky-player news, Mario Balotelli is apparently now a Liverpool player.  Not sure what Brendan Rodgers was thinking.  It’s hard to see much upside in that acquisition.  I certainly wouldn’t want to take a risk on Balotelli.  At least he probably won’t end up at Chelsea now.  Speaking of Liverpool, Fox Sports must give us a where-are-they-now-type Being Liverpool special so we can see what football poet Dave Kirby’s been up to.  Plus, I’d still like to know who was in the three envelopes!

All other keepers wish they were Tim Howard.  Except Petr Cech who is his own brand of cool.

All other keepers wish they were Tim Howard.  Except Petr Cech who is his own brand of cool.

Then there’s the business of Tim Howard announcing he’s going to step away from the U.S. national team for a year to spend more time with his family.  I say more power to him.  It shows he has his priorities straight.  Plus, it’ll probably just make him all the hungrier to return and make a big impact when his sabbatical is over.  In the year leading up to World Cup 2014 I was ready to see Brad Guzan take over for Howard.  I thought Howard’s best goalkeeping was behind him.  Then he goes and has an amazing World Cup.  Howard’s not done yet.  I hope he enjoys the break and then returns to his Matrix-like shot-stopping ways for Team USA.

Random pic of Brad Evans in a Crew warm up suit because I did not remember Evans ever played for Columbus.

Random pic of Brad Evans in a Crew warm up suit because I did not remember Evans ever played for Columbus.

The Columbus Crew announced this week they’re unveiling “new branding” in October.  The only surprise here is what took them so incredibly long?  That Crew crest has befuddled me since the league kicked off in ’96.  The new crest could be a plain white circle with “Crew” written on it in Sharpie and it would be a vast improvement over The Village People that populate the current version.

Atlanta.  Georgia.  United States of America.

Atlanta.  Georgia.  United States of America.

Speaking of new stuff in MLS, the latest expansion franchise in Atlanta announced they’ve already sold over 14,000 season ticket deposits and the team doesn’t even kick off until 2017.  Very impressive.  Good job Georgians!  Now let’s just hope the club doesn’t get named Peach Fury or anything like that. Or have any Village People in the crest.

While I’m all about healthy, responsible MLS expansion in cities where there is demand, MLSSoccer.com ran an article this week about Austin, Texas making overtures about landing an MLS franchise.  Though I live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and would enjoy seeing another intra-state MLS rival for FC Dallas, I don’t think an Austin franchise is a good idea.  Dallas and the Houston Dynamo should be league powerhouses in attendance and support, but they are not.  Despite enormous soccer communities in the big Texas cities, we still don’t support the MLS teams we have well enough.  I say give the next franchise to a city with Seattle/Portland-type demand.  That means Miami should also be scratched off the list.  Sorry, Miami.

"Hey, I'm just as confused as you are here..."

"Hey, I'm just as confused as you are here..."

Lastly on the MLS front, this Jermaine Jones saga is weird.  No one understands MLS’ “allocation” process, except MLS and maybe Alexi Lalas, but seriously, why can’t the league just sign Jones already?  The World Cup is long over and he could’ve been playing for an MLS team all this time.  Who is dragging their feet in this deal?  If Jones wants to keep playing pro soccer anywhere, why would he allow such a long delay?  If MLS isn’t going to work out, he’s already missed the beginning of the Euro league seasons.  Strange stuff.

I’m doing some more regular articles for World Soccer Talk in case you’re interested, including a piece on yesterday’s Chelsea v. Leicester City match.

There is only one week left to register to win a free copy of Dallas ‘Til I Cry: Learning to Love Major League Soccer from GoodReads (see the box at the top of this page).  And if you don’t want to go the contest route, the book is available on Amazon.

Feel free to leave a comment, email me, or follow me on the Twitter machine.  Thank you for your support!

 

 

Happy Premier League Eve

Wow, a lot can happen in the soccer world in two weeks.  As soon as I post a celebratory bit about Frank Lampard’s move to NYCFC, he’s loaned out to one of Chelsea’s fierce league rivals Manchester City.  All I can say is mega boo to that.  Not cool.

Guardiola rocking his Al Borland from Home Improvement-style plaid.

Guardiola rocking his Al Borland from Home Improvement-style plaid.

The MLS All-Stars beat Bayern Munich in the big MLS All-Star game in Portland.  The result matters little, but since Pep Guardiola treated MLS All-Stars coach Caleb Porter so jerkily after the match by refusing to shake his hand (Pep was perturbed by a couple poor challenges courtesy of Osvaldo Alonso and Will Johnson) I was very glad Bayern lost.  The challenges by Alonso and Johnson were boneheaded for sure, but not worth Guardiola getting his Euro briefs in such a twist over.

Then there was the news tidbit the day after the All-Star game that Landon Donovan is hanging up his boots at the end of the season.  I’m disappointed.  Donovan’s accomplished a ton – certainly the greatest American player of all-time in my book – but since he’s only 32-years-old I really thought he might still have a late career surge in him.  I even maintained a sliver of hope that he might redeem his 2014 World Cup snub and make the 2018 squad.  Looks like that won’t happen.  It’s been a good run for Donovan and I hope he enjoys his much deserved victory lap during the last couple months of the MLS season.  I’ll definitely look forward to his last game at FC Dallas in October.

L to R:  Davo & Rog.  Good times.

L to R:  Davo & Rog.  Good times.

This week began with the surprising news (to me at least) that the Men in Blazers (Roger Bennett and Michael Davies) are jumping ESPN’s mother ship and heading to NBC Sports Network where they’ll have a weekly TV show.  I’m a big Blazers fan, a GFOP as it were, and never miss an episode of their frequently hilarious podcast.  I discovered their pod on Grantland a couple years ago and it quickly became a weekly mainstay for me, a required supplement to watching EPL matches every weekend.  I was excited to see ESPN give the MiB’s a segment on the net’s daily World Cup Tonight show during their World Cup coverage this summer.  The MiB’s took the opportunity and slammed it out of the park.  They were terrifically funny during the segments – just the right blend of witty and ridiculous.  They even got Michael Ballack to crack a couple smiles, albeit barely.  Their segment became a real highlight of every World Cup Tonight episode.  It is precisely the success of their segments that makes it so surprising ESPN is letting them go to NBC.  Certainly, this deal has probably been in the works for a while, but I still find it curious ESPN failed to keep them.  Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to a MiB TV show.

Tuesday night FC Dallas lost to Philadelphia Union in their U.S. Open Cup Semifinal match in the most maddening way possible:  the dreaded PK shootout.  Dallas has been on a rare hot streak in MLS play – they’re undefeated in eight straight games – but trophies continue to elude.  I was excited about Dallas potentially hosting the Open Cup Final, alas, we’ll have to hope for an MLS playoff berth instead.  The most concerning aspect of the loss to Philly were the injuries to defender Walker Zimmerman and midfielder Mauro Diaz.  These guys can’t catch a break.  They both seem to have tons of potential but can’t stay injury-free long enough to explore their potential.

Then there’s the little matter of the Premier League kicking off tomorrow.  Can it possibly be time for a new season already?  It seems to be arriving early this year.  Not that I’m complaining.  Seemingly every writer/pundit around is picking Chelsea to win the league, which now probably ensures they won’t.  I’m hopeful though and examining their roster it’s hard not to like their chances.  You can read my Chelsea season preview for World Soccer Talk here.

Finally, the unexpected highlight of my summer came in the form of a tweet from the great football commentator Derek Rae who apparently actually read one of my articles:

Go ahead.  Make my day...

Go ahead.  Make my day...

Speaking of, I am finally on Twitter now:  @nathannipper96.  Don’t forget to register for a chance to win a free copy of Dallas ‘Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer – only 16 days left until the winners will be drawn.  That’s it for now.  Enjoy the new EPL season!

Farewell Lampard, Welcome Back Drogba!

As a Chelsea FC fan, I’m sad to see Frank Lampard depart.  Not that it was unexpected of course.  He had a more limited than usual role under Jose Mourinho last season, plus his contract was only extended one year at the end of the 2012/13 season.  Still, he’s Chelsea’s all-time leading scorer and a club legend, so it’s hard to see him go.  To me, he will always represent the prototypical Chelasean.  I just liked his style of play – a gritty, hardworking midfielder who could also score goals.

Fortunately, two factors ease this reluctant end of an era feeling regarding Lampard.  For starters, Frank’s not retiring, he’s coming to America!  He’ll be lacing up his boots for MLS’ expansion New York City FC next season.  It will be fun to see a player of his professionalism and stature complete in MLS.  Hopefully this means I’ll get to see Lamps in action up close and personal in 2015, assuming NYCFC play at FC Dallas.

Secondly, the loss of one Chelsea legend has brought the return of another… one Didier Drogba!  I’m pretty pumped about this development, for purely nostalgic reasons mind you.  I don’t expect Drogba to get many starts, but to see him run onto the Stamford Bridge pitch a few more times this season, even as a substitute, will certainly warm the heart.  And, even though Drogba is 36, teams who assume he’s over the hill do so at their own peril.  I got to be in the stadium this summer when Drogba scored a sweet, vintage goal for Ivory Coast in their World Cup tune-up match against El Salvador.  He’s not the same Drogba who won the Champions League for Chelsea a few years ago, but he’ll be good for a few more Chelsea goals this season and I can’t wait to see them.

I’m not usually one to clamor for player autographs, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to acquire Drogba’s signature when Ivory Coast were in Dallas during their pre-World Cup tour.  I had him sign my Kings of Europe book commemorating Chelsea’s Champions League title.  Little did I know then that we’d get one more victory lap season with Drogba as a Blue!

Drogba moments before he signed my Chelsea book, which undoubtedly inspired him to return to his beloved Blues for one more season...

Drogba moments before he signed my Chelsea book, which undoubtedly inspired him to return to his beloved Blues for one more season...

Total Football Cafe

Greetings!  Welcome to my brand new soccer blog site Total Football Cafe.  This will be my regular stomping ground for all soccer/football/futbol-related ramblings.  Thank you for visiting and I hope you will return regularly.  In the meantime, please check out my brand new non-fiction book Dallas 'Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer.