Sunday, September 27, 2015

Stoke City Versus

I didn’t mean for it to happen, but the Stoke City vs. AFC Bournemouth game (Saturday, Sept 26th) had me glued to my chair for 90 minutes. Soccer fans out there know the feeling of having to schedule life 45 minutes at a time but it’s something I haven’t thought about since sometime around 2010 when I drifted away from watching foreign soccer and started focusing on and writing about Major League Soccer and the Columbus Crew.

To set the stage for this particular Premier League match up - before this week Stoke had not managed to win a game through the first six rounds of this season, putting them uncomfortably in the bottom three. On the other side is recently promoted Bournemouth, who has managed to win two, draw one and lose two. Good enough for a mid-table start.

On the surface, it’s easy to say that nothing about this screams “match of the day” type stuff. In a world known to me 20 years ago I would have said a match-up like this would be like a midseason Kansas City Wiz vs. Dallas Burn (two poor to below average teams) and nothing more. It is more, though, so much more.

This is a world of an organized, double round robin and tiered system with promotion and relegation. These type of matches become some of the most intense and interesting of the whole season. Stoke, who have become a regular mid-table team who feeds and survives off the bottom half (occasionally slaying a world beater) vs. Bournemouth - a thus far over achieving, newly promoted side.

What I’m saying is that both Bournemouth and Stoke need points in these games to stay afloat in the Premier League and the match didn’t disappoint.

Stoke City, predictably, came out strong as they were playing at home and can consider themselves as EPL veterans now (8 years! Who would have thought). Easy to see that the Potters wanted that early goal to take charge of the match. After 30 minutes of pressing a goal finally came, but at a cost. Bournemouth started growing into the match and were gaining confidence each minute.

The second half started off with manager Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth still in full flow, pushing Stoke into defensive positions for long periods of time. The goal finally came in the 76th minute off a nice finish from 25-year-old central midfielder Dan Gosling.

1-1 does Stoke no favors. Earning full points from a newly promoted team at home is the only acceptable result, but Bournemouth is still pressing (proving, surprisingly, they have the capacity to do so) for another goal and Stoke isn’t able to maintain possession for any length of time.

Enter Jon Walters (or - enter again, as he had the Potters goal).

In the midst of defending for the entire half and conceding a goal, he trots halfway over to the sideline with what looks like a rib / side injury. Not serious enough for the trainers, not fake enough to lather up the opposing players -> but well enough to break the dominating play of Bournemouth and allow players to get some water. It was an innocuous moment to most, but I don’t think it was for Walters and manager Mark Hughes.

Intentional or not, Bournemouth’s continued run of attacking pressure and momentum was broken. Stoke immediately took control of the match and scored when Glen Johnson whipped in a beautiful cross to sub Mame Biram Diouf in the 83rd minute.

Stoke hung on to win 2-1. The teams now sit next to each other, 16th and 17th, on the table.


Also happening yesterday was the #BlackAndGold20 anniversary promotion game for my local professional team Columbus Crew SC of Major League Soccer. Round 31. Or, at least is was for the Crew. It was round 30 for their opponents, Portland Timbers. Others in MLS are on 28 and 29 games.

Beyond that, it was also a “East” vs. “West” conference matchup between two teams that play different schedules and qualify for the post-regular season MLS Cup differently. Were both to qualify and work through the playoffs, they could meet again in the MLS Cup final. That said, the result does play a part in the Supporters’ Shield trophy (the one given to the team with the best record). Got all that?

The game was energetic and the crowd was large (I would like to think it was the 20th anniversary that filled the stands over the dollar beer and brat night, but it was probably the beer). I want to say that the game was good. I really do. “Energetic” is all I can muster, though. There was no flow to the match, no giant swings in tactics (outside Portland grappling with the league’s leading scorer to the tune of two to one ratio in fouls) and no real consequence for the final result. Sure, Columbus could have moved up a spot in the East and Portland solidifying their playoff spot in the West, but what if the result were different? Take it further and ask - what it both these teams just forfeited the rest of their games?

Columbus plays the best soccer in MLS and as such, along with the team’s location, is the most likable team in the league. We are spoiled here in town. Ultimately though, where does a good season go? How about a bad one? I enjoy the players effort and taking stock of the good and bad but find myself asking these questions a lot.


I didn’t ask fundamental questions about English league structure when I watching Stoke and Bournemouth today. The match was about the intense competition on the pitch just two months into the season. For me, the result easily blew past even the biggest regular season MLS match and then easily surpassed MLS playoff games with a purpose, rhythm and flow that almost never happens here.

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