I Watched an A-League Game Last Night
Well, I watched the first half of an A-League game last night, at least.
During the winter I always try to watch as much soccer as possible -- my unbalanced work schedule almost always dictates that in the spring and fall I am occupied for somewhere around 80 hours a week, while during the summer and winter that number hovers around 20.
And in late December and early January, I really have nothing to do. It's a great opportunity for working on long-term projects, reading, playing golf, and watching soccer.
Sadly, on New Year's Eve, I found myself starved for a game, looking up the day's fixture list to find that I either had to wake up extremely early for La Liga (not going to happen) or stay up late and take full advantage of my ESPN+ subscription to watch the Central Coast Mariners host the Newcastle Jets.
It would be my second Newcastle game in the past 24 hours as I also watched United draw Liverpool 0-0, and I was hoping that the Jets would be able to surpass the entertainment value provided by their 2-13 NFL namesakes.
Up until last night, my entire knowledge of the A-League came from Wikipedia, the excellent A-League: The Inside Story of the Tumultuous First Decade by John Stensholt and Shaun Mooney, and this column years ago that once argued that the A-League had far surpassed MLS.
I wish I could find that column now, because it was truly horrible and off-base, but the idea to compare the two leagues was sound -- the A-League is probably the most similar league to MLS in the entire world.
Like MLS, the A-League is relatively new (founded in 2004), features franchises that cannot be relegated, employs a designated player rule, and has a salary cap for a competition that exists in a vast, English-speaking country in which soccer is not the most popular sport. The A-League also includes a club from a culturally similar neighbor whose population isn't large enough to support a top league of their own -- the Wellington Phoenix are the league's New Zealand entry.
What differs seems to be simplicity -- you can actually look up a truncated, detailed explanation of the A-League salary cap on their website, while in MLS the rules often appeared made up as the league goes along. Historically to support the LA (Carson) Galaxy.
If you're wondering what drove me to research the A-League's salary cap (which stands at less than half of MLS's $4.9 million), it was the broadcast's mention of "scholarship players." According to the rules, each club can contract up to nine domestic players under the age of 23 and pay them the national minimum wage AND have their salaries not count towards the cap.
This mechanism seems eerily similar to the old developmental players in MLS, who made something like $12,000 a year. The difference: at $19.84 an hour, the Australian minimum wage actually might be livable. For context, our minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
It was a scholarship player who opened the scoring for the Mariners on the night, with 19-year-old Sudanese-born Alou Kuol capitalizing on a defensive error to head home the only goal of the match just before halftime.
Following the strike, the Mariners lit off a cannon, filling the playing field at the 20,059 capacity Central Coast Stadium with smoke. A limited amount of fans were allowed inside the grounds and they cheered emphatically -- not only was this the first Mariner goal of the season, but this was a derby match.
Situated just 92 km apart, Central Coast and Newcastle play in Australia's oldest rivalry game: the F3 Derby. Even though the name of the highway that connects the two was changed from the "F3" to the "M1" in 2013, the name stuck and the two top division sides have now met 53 times, with each winning 17 in addition to 19 draws.
I don't know if it was due the absence of a packed stadium, but the rivalry seemed a bit muted as the Mariners duly leveled the all-time series with a win on what was each side's opening match of the season.
The only player on either team I was aware of was former San Jose Earthquake Marco Urena, who was horrible in MLS, but scored twice for Costa Rica against the US in a 2018 World Cup qualifier. Urena didn't dress.
Overall the match was fine. The level was okay. The kickoff time (12:05 a.m.) was awkward, but I think I'll tune in again the next time I'm up late. I mean, it's soccer. Regardless of the level of play, it's worth your time. Especially when you have the opportunity to learn about a new league and new players.
I'll leave you with this: the broadcast mentioned former Vancouver Whitecaps FC manager Carl Robinson as the former Toronto FC and Wales midfielder was hired by Newcastle early in 2020, only to almost immediately leave for the Western Sydney Wanderers.
In 2014, Robinson's Whitecaps were making a late playoff push and visited Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara to take on the San Jose Earthquakes on the penultimate matchday of the season. I covered that game during my short stint at SBI Soccer and was treated to an extremely boring scoreless draw that proved a good result for Vancouver. The scoreline didn't matter for the Earthquakes, who were already eliminated, and therefore the story was only about Vancouver.
Several reporters converged on Robinson in front of a makeshift sponsorship board in the Santa Clara gym after the game. Before any of us could ask the Welshman a question, he just came right out with it. "Bet you fucking enjoyed that game," he said. "Didn't ya?"
This has nothing to do with the game last night but I've been waiting for six years to put that quote in a story and figured it would be a fitting end of my writing for 2020.
Stay safe, everyone. May next year suck less than this year.