A moment’s pause as Sir Alex Ferguson says goodbye to Old Trafford

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Long ago, I thought I was a Manchester United fan, back when I assumed you had to have a team to care about any league. It wasn’t long before I grew out of it – an errant soul unable to believe any of his childhood dreams, disillusioned into a life of criticism and suspicion — but in the days when the only games you’d see if you were a kid growing up in rural California were late, English league matches tape delayed by your regional sports outlet, you either followed Manchester United, Liverpool or whatever other club happened to be playing when insomnia exposed your credulity. Even back when they weren’t good – before the Premier League, Cantona, and the boon of Sky’s bankroll – Manchester United were still on television all the time, albeit at ridiculous hours when even Australian Rules Football had a mid-day highlight shows on the not-yet Worldwide Leader.

I didn’t know who Alex Ferguson was, and I’m not sure when I found out, though when I did, I’m sure I didn’t bat an eye. Even to the pre-teen me, whose knowledge of soccer barely went beyond my AYSO league and Ryan Giggs’ ability to set up a defender before his next touch, there was already a ubiquity to man overseeing the Red Devils. To me, he was both unknown and omnipresent; a transcendent figure just waiting to be revealed. The only other people I could equate him to were Quincy Jones or Clive Davis – elusive, omniscient presences that forced me to stop and asked, “Oh, he’s running this? Oh, of course he’s running this. I knew that.” There were no English league-scouring friends or Twitter followers to offer alternatives, and without their second-guessing, I was sure Ferguson had been there all along.

For people my age (mid-30s), Ferguson is as prominent in our English soccer lives as the league itself – a league that fragmented and spawned a leviathan in our early fandom, leaving entities like Manchester United and its manager to transcend the turmoil. Once the chaos settled and the Premier League was born, the United boss was its central figure, having acquired its first big star (Eric Cantona) and featuring a class of player that would define the circuit’s early commercial success: the flare of Giggs; the skill of Scholes; the inspiration of Keane; and the draw of Beckham. And while the van Nistelrooys, Ronaldos, Ferdinands and Rooneys cycled in to played their part, it was the manager that remained the protagonist. In terms of plot, in terms of narrative, there was no Premier League without Alex Ferguson driving it.

source: Getty ImagesIt seems like a stretch, but with 13 titles in the 21-year Premier League era, it’s no exaggeration to say each year’s drama can been seen through a Red Devils’ lens, especially given the contrast of the club’s fortunes before and after the circuit broke of from the Football League. Prior to the Sky-travaganza that started in 1992, spurring a surge that has since redefined world soccer, Manchester United went 26 years without a title. But they won in year one. And every year since, a stretch that’s seen them claim 12 titles in 20 years, each season’s defined by two questions: Is Manchester United supposed to win? And if not, how will the favorite hold them off?

During that time, English football has gone from a lightly-exported regional league to the defining brand in world soccer, a journey which can be tracked by its exposure in this country. Whereas a soccer fan born in the times of an Eastern Bloc and divided Germany had to scrounge low-budget late night repeats for their soccer fix, converts were soon able to see games an honest-to-goodness national entity. And then there was a channel that broadcast soccer. Then there were multiple games, digital packages, and starting next year, a free-to-air network committed to showing games on a weekly basis. Now, South America, Africa, Asia all follow the league with the same zeal as we do. This is not the post-Heysel, pre-inclusion league Ferguson joined in 1986. From exclusion to exemplar, England’s become the commercial benchmark.

And amid that accompanying iconography, few presences have been as constant as Ferguson’s. Perhaps you could point to Manchester United’s titles or the metronomic Ryan Giggs as other heartbeats of the Premiership’s infancy, but that’d only be dodging the obvious. Ferguson is the backbone behind each. Within that handful of clubs (seven) that have been in the league since day one, Ferguson’s has been the protagonist. If you did nothing but track Ferguson over the lifetime of the Premier League – if you were nothing but a true believer who bought into the legend before it was born — you’d be as cognizant as anybody of what the Premier League is all about.

So if you’re relatively new to English soccer – if you were lucky or young enough to not have to wade through its ascendance, to land on the doormat of this pre-constructed Orwellian monolith – this is why day like Sunday’s against Swansea and next week’s at West Brom’s are so important. Today, Ferguson manages his final game at Old Trafford – the final chance for Red Devils supporters to pay tribute to a man who literally defined the club. And next week, at the Hawthorns, West Brom and their fans will get the honor of representing the Premier League at large. The ever-present, the backbone, the constant will be gone, saying goodbye in Sandwell in front of 26,272.

Nobody watching Sunday’s game will know a Premier League without Alex Ferguson, and only those old enough to remember Ron Atkinson can speak to what world soccer was before Ferguson’s arrival. But in our confusion we can still acknowledge our ignorance and realize the change that’s upon us. Most of us don’t know of a league without Ferguson, and many of us would not be watching without him. It’s worth a moment to consider before Sunday’s farewell.

As an American, I normally refrain from calling Ferguson “Sir Alex,” but eight hours before his final match in Manchester, I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute. You don’t have to cower to British honorifics to make “Sir” into something else, if only for one day. Use it to recognize his achievement. Use it to recognize his influence. But on Sunday, use ‘Sir Alex’ to recognize an icon is saying goodbye to Old Trafford.

USSF says nominations submitted for 8 president candidates

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CHICAGO (AP) The U.S. Soccer Federation says it received the required three letters of nomination for eight candidates in its presidential election, one fewer than the total of people who announced their intention to run.

The USSF is conducting background checks on the candidates whose nominations were received by Tuesday night’s deadline. The governing body said the check is to ascertain that a candidate has “no conviction or no contest plea to a felony or crime of moral turpitude” and it will announce the candidate slate after completing the process.

[ MORE: Atlanta acquires Nagbe ]

Sunil Gulati, the USSF president since 2006, decided after the Americans failed to qualify for the World Cup that he will not seek a fourth four-year term.

The nine people who announced they are running include former men’s national team players Paul Caligiuri, Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino; U.S. women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo; Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter; USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro; Boston lawyer Steve Gans; New York lawyer Michael Winograd; and Paul LaPointe, Northeast Conference manager of the United Premier Soccer League.

The election will be held in February.

Madrid rallies to beat Al Jazira, reach Club World Cup final (video)

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Gareth Bale scored an 81st-minute winner as Real Madrid came from behind to beat Emirates club Al Jazira 2-1 on Wednesday and reach the Club World Cup final.

Madrid will try to win its third world title in four seasons when its faces South American champion Gremio on Saturday.

[ MORE: Premier League Weds. roundup ]

The match had two goals disallowed by video review, one for each team.

Madrid struggled early and allowed the local league winners to open the scoring with a goal by Brazilian forward Romarinho just before halftime.

But Cristiano Ronaldo equalized early in the second half and Bale netted the winner less than a minute after entering the match as a substitute for Karim Benzema.

Paul Clement admits helplessness at facing Man City

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Swansea City manager Paul Clement may have the enduring quote of the season so far when it comes to facing the behemoth that is Manchester City.

[ RECAP – City hammer Swansea ]

The suffering Swans have had their share of poor performances this season — Clement later said January transfer spending “is a must” if the club wants to stay up — but he’s throwing his hands up in the air when it comes to Wednesday’s loss at the Liberty Stadium.

The man sounds exasperated, and sorry for his team. From the BBC:

“At times it was horrible to be on the sideline watching that, seeing my side trying but suffering for long periods. They’re not the games that will decide our season but it was hard to watch at times because they were so dominant. For me, one of the best sides I’ve ever come across. So many good athletes, so many intelligent footballers and it’s really hard to pin them down. We actually had some attempts on their goal so I’m disappointed we didn’t get on the score sheet but they were a far superior side to us. We’ve got to put it aside that game. We’ve got Everton away (next) and we’ve got to try and pick something up there.”

All that’s left is for Clement to pick up a clarinet, awkwardly blow into it, then point at Pep Guardiola and say, “He’s good.”

Free message board points to the first one to name the reference.

Premier League roundup: Reds, Gunners stumble

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The Top Four looks set for tumult on a weekly basis, and this week’s seen clubs move in-and-out at the lash of a whip.

[ MORE: Atlanta acquires Nagbe ]

Tottenham’s back in. Leicester City would like to come closer.

Burnley’s out. Liverpool and Arsenal, too.

First place might be out of the question, with unbeatable looking Man City 11 points clear of the pack. But nearly everything else is in play.

Manchester United 1-0 Bournemouth — RECAP

United didn’t have it’s A-game, but that was okay thanks to fine defensive play from star backstop David De Gea and some gutsy tackles from Phil Jones. The goal came when Juan Mata‘s cross was nodded home by Romelu Lukaku in the 25th minute, and United rode that marker for all it was worth to stay three points ahead of third place Chelsea.

Swansea City 0-4 Manchester City — RECAP

How good is Man City? Pep Guardiola‘s bunch have now won a Premier League record 15-straight in a single season, and have scored 52 goals while conceding just 11. Markers 49-52 came from David Silva (two), Kevin De Bruyne, and Sergio Aguero. Tottenham is next.

Liverpool 0-0 West Bromwich Albion — RECAP

A ball bounded off Ahmed Hegazi’s body, and off Dominic Solanke‘s body and forearm to give Liverpool its presumed breakthrough, but the call was intentional handball. The Reds had myriad chances to score before that, but instead hand a point to the visiting Baggies.

Newcastle United 0-1 Everton — RECAP

Mikel Merino and Matt Ritchie both hit goal posts as Sam Allardyce‘s Everton rode its luck and a Karl Darlow spillage to a 1-0 win. Wayne Rooney poked home the rebound, and the Toffees’ relegation worries are officially a thing of the past. Newcastle? Not so much, but money’s a-coming to Rafa Benitez at St. James’ Park.

West Ham United 0-0 Arsenal — RECAP

The chances were there for dominant Arsenal, but the winning goal did not materialize at the London Stadium. Marko Arnautovic did everything but score when West Ham did manage the ball, and Javier Hernandez rattled the cage late, but David Moyes men had to settle for a well-earned point.

Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 Brighton and Hove Albion — RECAP

Spurs are back in the Top Four thanks to a long Serge Aurier cross that fooled Mat Ryan and a Heung-Min Son deflection of a Christian Eriksen offering. Brighton’s just three points away from the drop zone with the loss.

Southampton 1-4 Leicester City — RECAP

Claude Puel‘s Foxes are flying, scoring goals for fun and encroaching on the Top Four after a horrible start to the Premier League season. Shinji Okazaki bagged his first Premier League brace, while Andy King and Riyad Mahrez also scored for Leicester, who is within five points of fourth and next faces Crystal Palace. Southampton’s goal came from Maya Yoshida.

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Manchester City 17 16 1 0 52 11 41 7-1-0 9-0-0 49
 Manchester United 17 12 2 3 37 11 26 8-0-1 4-2-2 38
 Chelsea 17 11 2 4 31 14 17 5-1-2 6-1-2 35
 Tottenham Hotspur 17 9 4 4 30 14 16 5-3-1 4-1-3 31
 Liverpool 17 8 7 2 34 20 14 4-5-0 4-2-2 31
 Burnley 17 9 4 4 16 12 4 5-2-2 4-2-2 31
 Arsenal 17 9 3 5 30 20 10 7-0-1 2-3-4 30
 Leicester City 17 7 5 5 27 23 4 4-1-3 3-4-2 26
 Watford 17 6 4 7 26 29 -3 2-3-3 4-1-4 22
 Everton 17 6 4 7 21 29 -8 5-0-3 1-4-4 22
 Southampton 17 4 6 7 17 23 -6 3-3-4 1-3-3 18
 Huddersfield Town 17 5 3 9 12 29 -17 4-2-3 1-1-6 18
 Brighton & Hove Albion 17 4 5 8 14 23 -9 2-4-2 2-1-6 17
 Bournemouth 17 4 4 9 15 20 -5 2-2-4 2-2-5 16
 Stoke City 17 4 4 9 19 36 -17 3-2-3 1-2-6 16
 Newcastle United 17 4 3 10 16 26 -10 3-1-5 1-2-5 15
 West Bromwich Albion 17 2 8 7 12 22 -10 1-5-2 1-3-5 14

 Crystal Palace 17 3 5 9 12 28 -16 3-3-3 0-2-6 14
 West Ham United 17 3 5 9 14 32 -18 3-2-3 0-3-6 14
 Swansea City 17 3 3 11 9 22 -13 2-1-6 1-2-5 12