Saturday, September 29, 2007

Hell hath no fury like a goalie scorned

Why should female athletes be any different? The backstory going into this past Thursday: US Women's soccer team goalkeeper Hope Solo had been playing extremely well during the current World Cup, single-handedly preserving a tie against North Korea and providing some much-needed stability and calm to a US defense that has, at times, shown a remarkable lack of composure. In addition, the US was coming off their best performance of the tournament, a 3-0 domination of an excellent England team during the quarterfinals. Thursday's semifinal match paired the US against Brazil. For those of you not familiar with soccer, Brazil has completely dominated the sport on the men's side over the past fifty or so years, winning five of the last thirteen World Cups, and consistently playing the best overall soccer of any country, featuring an aggressive but extremely elegant and crowd-pleasing style. Up until the last eight years, the Brazilian women were serviceable at best... but man, they've really turned on the jets since then, progressing by leaps and bounds. This year, they've been absolutely phenomenal, playing like the soccer equivalent of this year's New England Patriots. In other words, they've not only won their matches, but looked well-nigh unbeatable in the process and, much like their male counterparts, have won the adoration of all the bandwagon f*ckheads. For the record, I like Brazilians, but absolutely loathe their soccer team; I'm bitter, remember?

Anyhoo, US women's coach Greg "Lenny" Ryan decided to pull Hope Solo in favour of Briana Scurry for the match against Brazil. Scurry was, at one time, an outstanding goalkeeper, quite possibly the best the US has ever produced... but she's entering her late thirties, and had received no playing time over the past few months (rust! rust!). Why the switch, then? Coming into Thursday's match, Scurry was undefeated against Brazil. Unfortunately, she hadn't faced the Brazilian squad since 2004 and, as mentioned previously, Brazil has improved dramatically since then. Coach Lenny's move was not only exorbitantly idiotic, but also smacked of panic, and so gave the Brazilian squad an enormous shot of confidence and momentum going into the game. In addition, it completely disrupted the US team's defensive alignment and chemistry -- Solo was an attacking midfielder back in high school, so she's comfortable receiving passes from overwhelmed defenders; Scurry, on the other hand, has always had enormous trouble with her possession game, so as an outlet, she's a major liability. But hey, coach Lenny played his idiotic hunch, and Solo was benched for an aging, way-past-her-prime, rusty goalkeeper... smooth move, Ex-Lax!

The result of coach Lenny's blunder was entirely too predictable: Brazil scored their first goal on a defensive miscommunication that led to a US defender heading the ball into her own net while Scurry did an uncanny impersonation of Venus de Milo; the second goal was the result of a blazing run by Marta, the breakout star of the tournament, but the shot itself could have/should have been stopped (Scurry's former teammate-cum-homer announcer Julie Foudy even admitted this); a few minutes later, US defender Shannon Boxx was sent off thanks to an egregious error by the referee (Brazil ALWAYS gets these ridiculous calls -- is it any wonder I detest them?), and the rout was on; the third goal was not Scurry's fault at all, but the fourth goal, again coming after an astounding series of moves by Marta, was also preventable -- Scurry even got a piece of the ball, but not enough to prevent it from dribbling in. And so, both Solo and Scurry were placed in extremely unfair positions by coach Lenny and his moronic tactics, and now it's on to the meaningless third-place game. I won't take the time to address coach Lenny's non-existent tactical adjustments following Boxx's expulsion, because there just isn't enough cyberspace to store my contemptuous venom... but if coach Lenny is retained beyond this tournament, the US soccer governing bodies shan't be receiving invitations to join MENSA anytime soon.

The real fireworks came after the game, when a downcast Solo was walking past a group of reporters. She was asked a question, and when a US press officer practically forbade her from answering... MEOW!

Ah, how I love fiery girls with arching eyebrows... Miz Solo just skyrocketed into the top ten of the "Future Mrs. Clevelander" charts. Unlucky her!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

2K7 Division Champs !!!

Ladies and gents, your 2007 American League Central Division Champs, my beloved Cleveland Indians!

Back to the playoffs after a six-year drought... let's kick some ass, Tribe!


Friday, September 14, 2007

Soccer chicks

One of my biggest weaknesses, probably second only to chocolate, is an obsession with sporting events, especially those that involve whole countries and therefore allow me the opportunity to root rabidly for and against teams in sports that would otherwise not even merit a nanosecond's worth of thought. Case in point: women's soccer. I pay absolutely no attention to it until the World Cup rolls around, then follow the tournament religiously. Unlike men's soccer, where the US is woefully behind most of the world when it comes to player talent and skill, the US women's squad is a powerhouse, having won two of the last three events, and having produced arguably the greatest two soccer girlies of my lifetime: Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm. This year's World Cup takes place in China, and the US team played its first game on Tuesday at 5:00 in the morning, against a surprisingly tough North Korean squad. Since Tuesday marked the 6-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, I decided to show my patriotism by getting up at 4:45 to cheer on the US chickadees. A few random observations from the game:

  • The lovely Heather Mitts is out with an injury. Without her on the team, the only decent-looking player is the goalkeeper, Hope Solo. What a terrific name! I wonder if Springs Vader and Eternal Skywalker are on the bench?
  • While we're on the subject of names, the Ironic Nomenclature Award goes to US defender Shannon Boxx, who appears to be more of a man than I'll ever be. How manly is she? Let's just say Sam Elliott's on the phone to her 'cause he wants his mustache back.
  • Speaking of ugly players: the entire North Korean squad is so unattractive, they make the Firecat cheerleaders look sponge-worthy by comparison.
  • Play-by-play announcer John Paul Dellacamera (translates into "Of the camera" -- more irony!) informs us that the North Korean squad is the youngest in the field of qualifying nations, averaging just under 22 years of age. This is very surprising news to me, since they all look like the 900-year old incarnation of Lo-Pan in "Big Trouble in Little China."
  • The US coach appears bent on playing the size advantage card -- the American girls tower over the Lo-Pans. Unfortunately, the size advantage is a moot point, since our giants are too slow and plodding to maintain possession of the ball against the ridiculously agile Lo-Pans. After a heart-attack paced first-half in which the Koreans held a 75% to 25% edge in ball possession and therefore generated many more scoring chances, Coach Greg Ryan makes no line-up or tactical adjustments for the second half. He obviously suscribes the the Karl Smesko school of crash-and-burn coaching.
  • The game was played under a light but steady rain, and both goalies had a horrible time controlling airballs. The first Korean goal, in fact, consisted of an innocuous cross that slipped right through Hope Solo's hands and somehow ended up in the back of the net. Solo's reaction was priceless. She looked shocked for about a second, then threw an epoch-making hissy fit, punching the air, screaming like a banshee, and actually smacking herself in the face.
  • The rain also exposed Hope Solo's beauty secret: she's wearing make-up!!! This wouldn't have been a problem under normal circumstances, but the drizzle and monsoon-season humidity took their toll on Hope's cosmetic embellishments. At the end of the first half, she looked like a chronic insomniac. By the time the second half was coming to a close, she had developed an uncanny resemblance to King Diamond. Not good.
  • Colour commentator Julie Foudy was one of my favourite players when she captained the US squad some five years ago. As an announcer, however, she's a shameless homer. As the Lo-Pans ran circles around us, she maintained that this was good for the US, for it would "toughen them up" for their subsequent games. When the Lo-Pans took a 2-1 lead in the second half, Foudy stated that this wasn't necessarily bad, because it would give the US a chance to prove their mettle by overcoming a deficit. When it looked like the game was lost for good, Foudy insisted that this was one of the best things that could happen, because the US would actually benefit from "getting a loss out of the way so they can concentrate on winning the cup" -- I'm still trying to comprehend that rationale. Hey, maybe if the US get knocked out of the tournament in the first round, it would be a good thing so they can concentrate on preparing for the NEXT world cup...right, Julie?????? Mon Dieu.
  • Foudy's also a bird of ill-omen: with the US up 1-0, Abby Wambach collided with one of the Lo-Pans and cracked her head open. Since she was bleeding, she had to leave the pitch, forcing the US to play a woman short for about eight minutes. Foudy pulled her "this is a good thing for the US, because now they can implement one of the coaching drills to see how to cope with playing short-handed." Of course, the US switched from a 4-4-3 to a 4-2-4 (a WTF tactic if I ever saw one), and the Lo-Pans took advantage of the suddenly open middle of the field to set up various dangerous attacks and score two quick goals. Way to go, Cassandra!
  • After the US miraculously tied the game on a gorgeous goal by Heather O'Reilly, King Diamond came up huge, preserving the tie almost single-handedly thanks to a couple of remarkable saves. It was good to see King Diamond redeeming herself after the slipped ball snafu. As a bonus, her smeared make-up qualified her as an honorary member of the Insane Clown Posse.
And so, I breathed a sigh of relief once the game was over, with the US barely hanging on for a 2-2 draw. Our girlies looked very shaky, were outplayed for a great deal of the game, and the coaching staff never came up with an answer for the Koreans' speed, whether by tactical or roster adjustments. To tell the truth, it's a good thing the weather was awful -- the game-long constant drizzle bogged down the pitch. If the game had been played under normal conditions, I fear the Koreans would have run circles around us. Our midfielders are tough but kind of slow, and the defense is a sieve. Up next for the US squad: Sweden. Look alive, girlies!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)

This past Thursday, Luciano Pavarotti died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. When I heard the news, I immediately remembered the first time I ever heard Pavarotti sing, some thirty years ago. Thirty years is a long time, but this particular memory is still fresh, as though it had happened yesterday. It was a Sunday morning at my Aunt Yvonne’s house. She had taped the weekly Opera Hour radio show for me the previous evening, because she knew I’d be spending the night at my Uncle Julian’s, and that particular grid was scheduled for a night-long power outage. (Ah, the joys of dictatorship… may every member of the Junta rot in hell!) The floor had just been mopped, and so was a little humid, giving off a peculiar but pleasant smell, a mixture of bleach and lemon soap, that I still associate with Uruguay. The tape player had a reoccurring squeak, a byproduct of my having dropped it a few months before, and because it was a one-speaker model, the sound had a tinny quality that made every tape played on it sound like it was recorded in the 1920’s.

We never knew what we were going to hear during Opera Hour, but the host, Barrett Puig (he and my Aunt Blanche had been college classmates – I don’t know why that’s worth mentioning, but there you go), was meticulous about playing a healthy mixture of old and new recordings. The new recordings that day consisted of the phenomenal Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov’s rendition of “Oh, chi piange?” from Verdi’s “Nabucco” (it’s an astounding tour-de-force performance that may warrant its own entry in the not-too-distant future) and Pavarotti’s rendition of “Ah mes amis, quel jour de fête… Pour mon âme” from Donizetti’s “La fille du régiment.” Although I was familiar with Donizetti’s work, having already learned “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’elisir d’amore” by heart (I was and still am a dork), I was completely unfamiliar with this particular opera, and was furthermore puzzled by the fact that an Italian composer would produce an opera in French. Regardless, the aria in question is notable for requiring the singer to hit nine high C’s – yes, nine! Vocal pyrotechnics aside, what impressed me the most about Pavarotti was the quality of his voice. It was unique, unlike any tenor voice I had heard before or since, with a fluidity that belied its enormous breadth and power.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Pavarotti’s voice was the beauty of his timbre, pretty much throughout his register. His low notes were full and didn’t possess that unpleasant, “breathy” quality that’s pretty common among lyric tenors. His high notes had plenty of that most desired of all qualities, squillo – it’s a kind of pinging resonance, and it’s sorely lacking amongst most current-day singers. Pavarotti’s strident squillo allowed him to excel in heroic rôles usually reserved for dramatic tenors; his “Di quella pira” is, in my opinion, among the five best versions ever sung. But the middle register is where the beauty of Pavarotti’s voice really shone through, especially during his prime, when his legato was astonishingly smooth, on a par with those of Lauri-Volpi and Vanzo, my measuring sticks for all questions regarding tenors’ legato. If I were to take things a step further (my specialty) and dissect Pavarotti’s voice further, I would say that my favourite subsection is the upper portion of his middle register when articulating the vowel “e” – in English, it’s the “eh” sound. The criminally forgotten masterpiece aria “Angelo casto e bel,” from Donizetti’s “Il Duca D’Alba,” showcases that glorious “e” sound. Listen for it when he sings, “Angelo casto e bel” or “A lei le gioie” – it is unique, beautiful, and unmistakable:

During the second half of his long and illustrious career, Pavarotti branched out into the commercial mainstream, making a few cheesy but enjoyable movies, holding myriad benefit concerts in which he sang with the likes of Bono, Sting, Mariah Carey (ggggrrrrrroooowwwwllllll !!!), Bryan Adams, and even the Spice Girls (yikes!), and participating in the enormously successful “The Three Tenors” concerts with fellow operatic giants Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. These concerts illustrate the seldom-matched musicality of Pavarotti’s voice – while both Domingo and Carreras are phenomenal singers, every time the three tenors sang the same song in polyphonic sequence, Pavarotti’s voice shone out, being much more resonant, crystalline, and mellifluous.

Opera singers tend to abuse their voices over the course of their careers, so it’s very common for their voices to develop a wobble and an astringent, foghorn-like asperity as they get on in years. Although Pavarotti lost quite a bit of his phenomenal range, especially in the upper register, his voice retained most of its beauty until the very end of his career. I had the privilege of seeing him in concert in 1985 and again in 2001, and aside from having developed a few obnoxious, crowd-pleasing traits (the unnecessary and ridiculously exaggerated trill in the second verse of “O sole mio” comes to mind), he was in glorious form both times. Many purists make it a point to belittle Pavarotti’s enormous popularity – this is somewhat akin to a thriving metal band suddenly achieving mainstream success only to have all the hard-core metalheads accuse them of “selling out” – but in spite of his numerous and oftentimes unfortunate forays into popular music, Pavarotti remained true to his vocation, not giving up his opera career until illness made it impossible for him to maintain his heavy touring schedule. I happen to consider myself a purist, and my opinion is that on Thursday, the world lost a musical giant, and the last Great Tenor we’ll probably ever see.

I’ll close this little tribute blurb by including what I consider to be Pavarotti’s greatest recording, a seldom-heard version of “A te, o cara” from Bellini’s “I Puritani” – his legato is impeccable, his use of glissando is exquisite, and his voice is as sweet and smooth-flowing as golden honey.

Rest in peace, Luciano.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

I wipe my ass with Wolverine fur

Down goes Michigan!
To a Division I-AA school!!
In the Big Outhouse!!!
This could be the biggest choke job
by the Wolverines yet!!!!

Bomb Ann Arbor NOW!!!!!

I'll let my favourite Columbus band drive it home: