Friday Newsletter: The Old Firm Is Back in Force (USMNT Included)
What's your bucket list rivalry game to see in person someday?
It has been 23 years since the first USMNT player played in the Old Firm, arguably the world’s greatest soccer rivalry, between Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow. I happened to be there at Parkhead for that famous 1999 game featuring U.S. and Rangers midfielder Claudio Reyna, which included a first-half Celtic red card, angry home fans hitting referee Hugh Dallas with a coin (drawing a stream of blood from his forehead), a 3-0 win by Rangers, 113 arrests in streetfighting afterward and Rangers clinching the league title for the first time ever at Celtic’s home ground.
“Sometimes you don’t experience all those things in your entire career,” Reyna told me at breakfast the next morning. “They happened to me in the same game.”
I wrote about all of it in an article for Sports Illustrated, which detailed the history of sectarian strife in the rivalry between Catholics (Celtic) and Protestants (Rangers), visits to the hardcore bars for both clubs, the complex context to the modern rivalry and Reyna’s reaction to being thrust into all of it.
“It’s the last bastion of the sins of our fathers,” my friend and host, Ian McGarry, a writer for the Scottish Daily Mail, told me. “In the past the division represented
itself in the workplace and in everyday society, but now the only place where it’s still acceptable is a sporting occasion.”
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What do I remember about going to the game that day? Wearing all black so that I wouldn’t be seen as supporting one side over the other. Learning as much as I could from McGarry, who would become a friend. (Ian sadly passed away earlier this year at far too young age of 53.) And being absolutely floored by the passion and edge inside the stadium. In 1995, I had been to a River Plate-Boca Juniors game in Argentina, which could also stake a claim for the world’s most passionate rivalry. It had nothing on the Old Firm.
I was thinking about all those things when I woke up on Saturday morning to watch the latest Celtic-Rangers showdown (which is a heck of a lot easier to see on TV these days being broadcast on CBSSN). The rivalry is at its fiercest on the field in years. Both clubs are in the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2007. And more USMNT players are involved in the Old Firm than ever, with three Americans starting on Saturday: Celtic’s Cameron Carter-Vickers and Rangers’ James Sands and Malik Tillman.
Up in the stands, meanwhile, was USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter, who happens to be a childhood friend of Claudio Reyna. (It’s a small world: Reyna’s son Gio was named in part for Gio van Bronckhorst, a close friend and former Rangers teammate who now coaches Rangers.) With Celtic and Rangers playing in so many big Champions League games and the trio of Yanks starting regularly, all three have a shot to earn their way onto the U.S.’s World Cup roster for November.
In the end, Saturday’s game was just as much of a blowout as the one I saw in Glasgow in 1999. Celtic went up 3-0 in the first half and won going away 4-0 to take a five-point lead over Rangers in the league.
Which soccer rivalry game is at the top of your bucket list? Feel free to share it in the comments below.
OPENING THE MAILBAG
How much of Christian Pulisic's struggles at Chelsea do you attribute to the way Tuchel uses him? I look at all the attacking talent Tuchel has failed to get clicking at Chelsea and wonder whether any attacker can really thrive in his attack.
Tuchel really likes wide players, and Pulisic is naturally a wide player, so in theory he should be a good fit for Tuchel’s system. But the reality is that Tuchel doesn’t totally trust Pulisic. With Champions League starting this week, though, Chelsea will be playing a lot of games, so Pulisic has to see more playing time, and we’ll see if he can use that PT to earn more time in the games that matter most. He’s done it before. I’m not one of these people who are totally writing off Pulisic’s chances to be in form for the World Cup now that Todd Boehly wanted Pulisic to stay at Chelsea and not go out on loan. It’s not impossible. But moving out on loan to a place where he would have been a starter every week would have been preferable.
Pretty much every Arsenal fan I spoke to before the season set our expectations for the season as a top four finish or a Europa League title. Five games, 5 wins. Should the expectations be higher now?
I’m not ready quite yet to say that Arsenal is a genuine title contender with Manchester City. We’ll learn more, obviously, when Arsenal plays at Man United on Sunday, but the first really tough opponent doesn’t come until October 1 against Spurs. On the one hand, the schedule was a lot more friendly to Arsenal this season than it was to start last season. On the other hand, we’re seeing some very good performances and reason to think this Arsenal team could be significantly improved.
Which team had the best transfer window and which one had the worst?
Is it weird to say Barcelona had the best and the worst? The best in terms of the actual upgrades to its team, and the worst in terms of the reputation hit the club took for how it went about doing things. From a pure sales perspective, Ajax had an unbelievable window selling Antony, Lisandro Martínez, Sebastien Haller, Ryan Gravenberch and others for crazy money overall.
Who do you think were the winners and losers among USMNT players during this transfer window?
From a pure USMNT perspective, anyone who’s getting more playing time and/or against good competition has an improved situation, so winners would be: Tyler Adams, Brenden Aaronson, Malik Tillman, Jordan Pefok, Zack Steffen (to some degree), Ethan Horvath (to some degree). The jury’s out on: Sergiño Dest, Chris Richards, Luca de la Torre, Ricardo Pepi. Losers: Christian Pulisic, Matt Turner (but only in a USMNT sense), Tim Weah.
If World Cup started today and based on current form, what's your USMNT starting XI?
If the World Cup started today, I think this would be the U.S. starting lineup (based on what I think Gregg Berhalter would do): Steffen; Dest, Zimmerman, Long, Jedi Robinson; Adams, McKennie, Musah; Aaronson, Ferreira, Pulisic.
What is real and not real so far in the Premier League? Is Arsenal good? Is Man United bad? Are Liverpool's struggles a blip or sign of a larger decline? Can Leeds keep the good vibes going?
Erling Haaland is very, very real! Liverpool will not finish within 10 points of Manchester City. Arsenal is top-four good but not title-contender good. Leeds will not be in a relegation battle this season. Fulham won’t yo-yo down again.
What are you looking for from the USWNT in these two upcoming games?
I’d like to see the USWNT upgrade its attacking fluidity and goal production from what we saw during most of the CONCACAF tournament to the point that I feel like the U.S. can win at England next month. Admittedly, the U.S. won the CONCACAF title and had a good performance against Canada in the final, but there’s most definitely a higher level the U.S. can get to.
Probably more of an investigative journalism question, but what is going on with the Spanish women's national team? It seems like there is some weird boys' club backdoor agreement to keep Jorge Vilda in the job. Why keep a coach when you've lost the locker room? (Same question can be asked of Corinne Diacre.)
We’ve just seen the Spanish women’s national team try to get Vilda removed and be unsuccessful with the federation, with Vilda now indicating certain players won’t be called up because of it. It’s similar to the situation we saw with France and Corinne Diacre. Look, players on good women’s national teams trying to get their coach removed isn’t an uncommon thing (it’s happened a lot with the USWNT!), but it’s fair to say that neither Vilda nor Diacre has gotten anywhere near the best out of their teams, and it’s mystifying to me that they’re still in their jobs.
Have a good weekend!
For me it's the North London Derby. Want to go watch my Gunners at the Emirates win an NLD. And then I want to infiltrate the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and win there too.
There are two matches on my bucket list:
1. Mexico-USMNT at the Azteca
2. Belgrade Derby between Red Star and Partizan, preferably at Red Star