Yesterday saw one of the most exciting sporting events I've seen all year. There was no last second basket, no field goal as time expired, nor was it a walk-off home run. In fact, it was a game tying penalty kick in extra time as Liverpool salvaged a draw with London-based Arsenal in English Premier League Football.
Had it not been for two injury delays, the game might have ended in a scoreless draw. And it still would have been more intense and hard fought than some American football contests.
Before you start thumbing your nose at "the beautiful game," realize that the Premier League features a lot of the top talent in the world. The level of play in England makes our MSL look like Division III hoops. In soccer, you can't go sit on the bench and rest an on field injury, only to re-enter the contest later. There is no stoppage of play in soccer, which features a running clock. Teams are only allowed three substitutions, so managers (coaches) must use them very judiciously.
Arsenal, currently second in the twenty team league, is six points behind Manchester United, the New York Yankees of English soccer, and desperately needed three points, but had to settle for one.
The Gunners feature Cesc Fabregas from Spain, Samir Nasri from France, Robin Van Persie, one of the top Dutch players in the world, and home grown talent in Theo Walcott, a member of the English national team. In fact, team England manager Fabio Capello was on hand to see Walcott as well as his fellow countryman Andy Carroll, Liverpool's striker, and Jamie Carragher, defender.
Other top talent for the Reds, includes Holland's Dirk Kuyt and Luis Suarez from Uruguay.
Sunday's match featured everything you'd want in a sporting event - tenacious defense, relentless attacking, and in this case, outstanding goal keeping. There were twenty-two shots at net, twelve of which were "on target," and thus saved by either Liverpool's "Pepe" Reina who turned back twice as many shots as his counterpart, Wojciech Szczesny. Several of his stops were on leaping grabs in traffic.
The only real scoring opportunity came early in the game when Van Persie's header caromed off the crossbar atop the goal. The two teams continued to attack and counter attack for the remainder of regular time. One of the quirks of soccer is the inclusion of added time due to injury and other stoppage of play. In the waning moments of the game, each team converted a penalty kick, due to infractions committed within the eighteen-yard penalty area.
As someone who dabbled in the sport as a player in junior high, and coached youth teams as my kids were growing up, I have an appreciation for how skilled the play is at that level. For every world-class striker out on the pitch, there are some of the best defenders in the game to stop them. No one should ever mistake the lack of scoring for a lack of action.
You can catch games from England every Saturday and Sunday morning. The time difference ensures it is the only live sporting event on at that early hour. Even ESPN has gotten into the act, televising selected Premier League contests on their ESPN2 channel. Every scrum on the corner kicks, and every rocket shot launched from thirty yards out, looks fabulous in high definition. There are no playoffs in soccer, so the regular season means everything, and with the draw, the Red Devils of Manchester United are that much closer to recapturing the title from defending champion Chelsea, currently in third.
Like it or not, soccer's popularity is on the rise, and with contracts on two big networks, it might take a run at hockey as the one of the big four sports.