Boxing Day: One of English soccer’s greatest traditions

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“Boxing Day… what the heck is that all about?”

Going back to my college days in Pennsylvania, that question was often thrown my way. So, as a proud Englishman, here it goes, this is what it’s all about.

First and foremost, it’s about a full slate of 10 Premier League games all taking place on the same day. That doesn’t happen often, New Years Day and the final day of the season are the only other times, so that special feeling of non-stop soccer really gets the juices flowing. The eyes of the world are on the Premier League on Boxing Day, it is the one day of the year when only games in the UK dominate global soccer coverage and bumper crowds draw in millions in revenue for the clubs on a special day for everyone involved.

For many soccer fans in England, including myself, this day is perhaps the most sacred on the sporting calendar for a number of reasons. For instance, you have to understand that Boxing Day is pretty much treated the same as Christmas Day in England… Just 24 hours later, but without the presents.

Families get together on Boxing Day to celebrate yet another Yuletide feast consisting mostly of leftovers, as they nurse hangovers communally and most importantly: watch soccer. This year, like every year, is no different as every PL team will be in action on this joyous occasion. I love it.

WATCH EVERY BOXING DAY GAME LIVE ONLINE, VIA NBC SPORTS LIVE EXTRA

The atmosphere buzzes with excitement, as the season of perpetual hope springs fountains of unrealistic optimism within fans. Families gather around the TV to watch the games throughout the day, much like family feasts on Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. are centered around ‘What time are the football games on?’

To many people, Boxing Day in England is their favorite holiday. For many, it provides an escape of the rigors of Christmas.

Travel distances for Boxing Day

193 miles, Stoke to Newcastle
188 miles, Swansea to Chelsea
172 miles, Sunderland to Everton
139 miles, Southampton to Cardiff
133 miles, Crystal Palace to Aston Villa
125 miles, Fulham to Norwich
123 miles, West Brom to Tottenham
103 miles, Manchester United to Hull
35. 6 miles, Liverpool to Man City
9.4 miles, Arsenal to West Ham

The endless meals of stodgy stuffing and dry meat, mixing with relatives and in-laws, watching boring black and white movies and pretending to get excited about the pair of socks Aunt Barbara bought you… Boxing Day is a haven away from all that. The matches are usually set up so away fans don’t have to travel far away from their families to see their team play, but this season for whatever reason that really hasn’t happened. Look at the table on the left which shows how far each set of away fans will have to travel on this sacred day. Respect to those traveling fans on Boxing Day.

As a player and a fan, the crackling atmosphere on December 26th can perhaps only be rivaled by the opening and final days of the season, in terms of the excitement levels inside the stadiums. With thousands of new sweaters adorning the terraces across England, there’s no secret that this is often the most attended weekend of PL action in the entire season.

Tickets for Boxing Day matches are snapped up like gold dust as families unite to attend the matches and cheer on their team as one. The spirit, even between opposing sets of fans, is usually quite cordial around this special holiday fixture. And let me tell you, that’s something that doesn’t happen often. Friendly and non-offensive banter is a rare thing in and around PL stadiums.

There’s just something about being huddle together on a cold winter’s day cheering on your side with the memory of Christmas Day fresh in your mind. There’s definitely been games I’ve played in that should’ve never have gone ahead as the pitches were waterlogged or frozen, but rarely are they cancelled. Players are excepted to perform, despite seeing their festive season completely overlooked but when they signed a deal, they knew what they were getting into.

source: Getty Images
Festive spirits switches from the dining rooms to the football stadiums on Boxing Day, creating a special atmosphere.

It’s Boxing Day, there has to be soccer. Just like on Thanksgiving, when there has to be football.

Boxing Day matches go back to as far as I can remember, and sporting tradition runs deep on Dec. 26. The famous horse race, the King George VI Chase is run on Boxing Day, as well as rugby matches and the Scottish, Welsh and Irish soccer leagues in the U.K.

Officially the UK, Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Malta celebrate the day, with many other commonwealth countries also observing it. But why is it called Boxing Day? Well, traditionally this is when tradesmen would go to the houses of the people they worked for to receive gifts in boxes, as congratulations for a year of hard graft.

Today the Boxing Day sales get in the way of PL crowds slightly, as retailers slash their prices to attract the punters in their droves. Oxford Street in London on Boxing Day makes Black Friday at the Mall of America seem like a cake walk. Soccer is an escape from all that nonsense too.

For foreigners looking at the madness of 40 PL games being wedged into 12 days in and around the Christmas and New Year period, it must look like absolute madness. Every other major European league takes a winter break at this time of year. In the much more moderate climates of Italy, Spain and France, players are given two weeks off to spend with their families and recharge the batteries for a grueling second half of the season. That’s particularly helpful when national teams compete in massive tournaments in summer months.

source: Getty Images
The big game on Boxing Day sees Man City welcome Liverpool to the Etihad Stadium.

In England, the attitude is “get stuck in son, slog it out on that wet, muddy pitch.” The quality of play doesn’t matter, as long as it’s on offer. I recently spoke with Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino about his first-ever time managing in England during Boxing Day and the busy festive period.

“Me and my staff are really looking forward to this [the Christmas period]. It’s going to be crazy with many games in a short period of time but I think it’s a very good time for [people] to get together, come to the stadium and come together as a family. It’s something that the people and many families enjoy doing in this country, we as well. We want to enjoy. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Another foreigner who enjoys Boxing Day is Jose Mourinho. Following Chelsea’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal on Monday, he had this to say about no winter break in England, and the aura around Boxing Day.

“I love it,” Mourinho said. “I don’t play of course, so for the players it is more difficult than for me but it is a fantastic occasion. I feel proud of working on Boxing Day and giving the people what they want.”

No matter how much resistance there is for change over the festive season and to give PL players a winter break, (there are some out there, scrooges we call them, who think it should be stopped) it will simply never happen.

This revered day in English soccer is a joy for all the reasons I’ve listed and more. Long may it continue.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the festive feast set to unravel before your eyes the morning after Christmas in America. You won’t regret it.

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

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What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

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Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —