Francois Bon: Speed Rider, Crazy Mofo

I was reading a recent issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine that was running a feature of the “Best of Adventure” of 2008 when I came across a little blurb on Francois Bon’s amazing trip down Argentina’s 22,834-foot Aconcagua.

What makes it so amazing is the way he came down the mountain.  Bon trekked all the way to the top just so that he could slap on some skis and a parachute, then fly down the side of the mountain 9,000 feet (in only four minutes and 50 seconds!).  Bon was airborne for most of the ride, occasionally touching down on the snow.  Watch the YouTube video of his “speed ride” here.  Trust me, it’s worth watching the whole thing, unless you get sick…

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More backpacking: Point Mugu State Park

 

Looking out over the Pacific from Point Mugu

Looking out over the Pacific from Point Mugu

I probably shouldn’t have gone backpacking two weekends in a row, but I knew school was about to get hairy, so Amy and I decided to head out to the trail to squeeze in one last weekend trip before law school took over our lives again.  I actually had lots of work to do that weekend, and I’m still paying for going on the trip – work-wise and physically – but you know, sometimes “shit comes to light” and you gotta say, “Fuck it.”

 

This was only my second backpacking trip, one that was very different than the first.  Most importantly, there was very little danger of getting lost on this trail, which begins at the Ray Miller Trailhead off PCH in Ventura County and winds its way along the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains to Point Mugu, then down into La Jolla Canyon on the other side of the mountains rising out of the ocean.  All the trails in the Santa Monica Mountains are well-worn and easy to navigate.  The prior weekend, there wasn’t really a “trail.”  The “trail” consisted of a number of canyons, which isn’t too hard to follow as long as you know when to cross over into what canyon at what mileage and what elevation.  In the desert, we never reached the campsite.  When the sun began to set on Mike and I in the desert, and we were nowhere close to where we needed to be, I feared breaking my ankle on a giant boulder, then falling uncontrollably into a razor-sharp cactus.  I imagined dragging myself through the scorching desert like Daniel Plainview in the beginning of There Will Be Blood.  

 

You can’t really imagine those kinds of situations in the Santa Monica Mountains because, frankly, someone – maybe a 5-year-old hiking with his family, or a helicopter flying overhead – would find you.  It’s not that there aren’t beautiful, secluded, wild places in the Santa Monicas – there are, and we saw them – but it’s not the desert.

 

The plan for Amy and I was to hike for three days at a relatively leisurely pace.  We started late on Saturday, probably around noon, zig-zagging along the western ridges to Point Mugu, the highest point in Point Mugu State Park.  As I expected, most of the people hiking the bottom part of this trail looked at us as if we were crazy.  Questions like, “Wow, how much does your pack weigh,” and “You guys are real troopers” were around every bend. 

 

 

Channel Islands, as seen from Mugu Peak

Channel Islands, as seen from Mugu Peak

Mugu Peak offered impressive views of the Pacific, with Malibu to the south and Port Hueneme to the north.  But there were still too many people, so we quickly moved on.  The descent from Mugu Peak into La Jolla Valley was the first highlight of the trip for me, with tall yellow grasses covering the entire valley, with a few groves of trees here and there, for a scene that looked straight out of Africa.

 

 

La Jolla Valley

La Jolla Valley

After about 7 miles, we reached La Jolla Campground and found a giant tree where we’d set up camp.  After we’d done everything to settle down, we began hearing loud voices through the trees, about a quarter mile off.  A group of men, yelling loudly in Spanish, suddenly turned what was sounded like angry bickering, began speaking in…tongues?

 

“Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh!!!  Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh!!!” 

 

I can live with coyotes yipping at night, or weird animals rustling in the nearby bushes when I’m camping in the wilderness.  But ultra-religious people speaking in tongues scare the SHIT out of me.  There’s a reason I think The Exorcist is the scariest movie ever made.  Dogma, when it takes hold of people and makes them speak in tongues, is a frightening thing.  When it’s happening right outside your tent, it’s more than just worrisome.  

 

But we proved to be lucky – the religious cult left after an hour of incomprehensible banter and we were left in relative quiet.  The coyotes started yipping, and I felt safe.  We built a great fire, watched the flames jump and tried to capture them on camera but failed, then waited for the flames to die down before retiring to the tent.

 

That night we slept longer than expected.  We would hike a good 12 miles that day, switching from the Backbone Trail, which snakes along a ridge that separates La Jolla Valley from Sycamore Canyon, to the Sycamore Canyon Trail, then back along the Backbone Trail again.  The morning was filled with dodging mountain bikers, who love to fly down the side of the mountain, and attempting not to pay attention to the fact that my feet – both of them – were killing me, especially when I stopped on ground that wasn’t level.  I need new trail shoes.

 

But the trail only got more scenic as we descended into Sycamore Canyon.  This was my favorite part of the trail, crossing several dry streams while never knowing what would appear around the bend.  More hikers, less bikers. 

 

The Sycamore Canyon Fire Road is a wide, easy road that tons of families from the West Valley use for day hikes.  This was the least enjoyable part of the hike because we had decided to find a good place for lunch once we hit the Fire Road, but as soon as we hit the Fire Road there were no good places to sit to be found.  Two miles later, we found a decent spot to stop for lunch and took a load off.

 

The second half of the hike that day was spent ascending the Backbone Trail to meet the Overlook Trail that would take us back to our camp at La Jolla Valley.  While my experience in the desert the prior week had taught me not to take 12 miles lightly, we strolled into our camp around before 3 pm, with several hours of daylight to spare.  This rest was welcomed, though, as I spent a good 45 minutes lying on the wooden bench at our camp with my shoes off, finally, and staring at the leaves above me.  Working hard has such rewards.  You don’t know relaxation unless you’ve had suffering.  I remember how good a Gatorade tasted after playing football for two hours without a water break.  I still remember that taste.  It’s never tasted as good since, because my body has never needed it as much.  I nearly fell asleep on the bench that afternoon, and the only thing that kept me up were the afternoon flies that buzzed around my face.

 

 

It's what the generations of man have strived for

It's what the generations of man have strived for

As the sun fell on another day, Amy and I walked through the savannah grasses in La Jolla Valley waiting for the sun to go down and experimenting with our cameras.  This was the best part of the trip (despite the shooting pain in my leg near my knee, which came as a result of stepping on my foot the wrong way to avoid the pain).

 

 

Again, we overslept and got a later start on Monday than we had planned.  But we knew the last leg of the trip was only about 5.5 miles, so it didn’t really matter what time we left.  Monday, unlike the first two days, brought cool weather and a little wind as we crossed back over to the western ridge of the mountains.  Although we made it back to the car by 11 am, this was the most painful day for me, since walking mostly downhill forced me to put a great deal of weight on my leg, causing shooting pains.  But it was a short day of hiking, so I tried to enjoy as much of it as I could, while looking forward to getting back to the car.

 

After 23.1 miles of hiking, we reached the car, satisfied with our trek.  Amy had bought a new 65 liter pack for the trip, and it had worked out really well.  I had pains in my legs, but it hadn’t ruined the trip.  Ultimately, I wouldn’t do anything differently.

 

 

She looks like she could go for a few more days

She looks like she could go for a few more days

We pulled into Neptune’s Net a few minutes before it opened, so we crossed the street and watched the hoardes of surfers fighting for waves.  We sat down at Neptune’s Net and had giant 22 ounce beers, relishing in a hike well-hiked, and maybe looking forward to our next one.

 

Backpacking through Rockhouse Canyon

On a small ridge running through Mojave Valley

On a small ridge running through Mojave Valley

 

Well, I took my first backpacking trip.  I got my last piece of “necessary” gear – a packable stove – and I had a few days left of vacation, so there were no more excuses.  It was a success!  Mostly. 

Naturally, I chose Rockhouse Canyon in Anza Borrego State Park as my first destination.  For those of you who know me, I’m obsessed with the desert, and more specifically, the Anza Borrego desert.  I’ve gone there nearly a dozen times over the last six or seven years, and every time I discover something new.  This visit was no different.  I had been on Rockhouse Canyon Road before but had never taken it the full 9.6 miles to the junction between Rockhouse Canyon and Butler Canyon in the northeast corner of the park.

The challenge before Mike (my roommate) and I: finish the Rockhouse Canyon loop, measuring 24.7 miles, in two days.  Lowell and Diane Lindsay describe the trail in Backpacking California, a sizeable compendium of short backpacking hikes all over California put together by serious backpackers.  The Lindsays note that the trail should be completed in two to three days.  I only had two days to hike, so were left with little choice but to complete the hike in those two days. 

Mike and I arrived in Borrego Springs, the small town surrounded on all sides by state park, at 11:30 at night on Thursday, planning to pitch a tent at a primitive site near town.  Whenever I arrive in the desert this late, I always choose to camp at Yaqui Well, which lies at the intersection of S-2 and S-3, across the way from the more developed Tamarisk Grove campground.  Yaqui Well is a great place to pitch a quick tent at night because the ground is relatively flat.  It’s in a wash, so the dirt is soft to the touch.  And the vegetation is mostly friendly, with very little cactus in the area.  For people who have never been to the desert, Yaqui Well is a rehearsal for the real show.  It’s relatively close to the highway, so the desert silence is intermittent, as you’ll probably hear cars drive by in the night.  For some reason, I couldn’t sleep much that night.  Once I got it in my head that I couldn’t fall asleep, it was all over.  I was destined to toss and turn all night. 

Sun rising at Yaqui Well

Sun rising at Yaqui Well

Friday morning came, and the first order of business was to grab a hearty breakfast at Kendall’s in The Mall.  We ordered Kendall’s Big Breakfasts, and big breakfasts are what we got – two pancakes, two eggs, hash browns, two sausages, two bacon and giant slab of ham.  We were done by 7:15, so we headed out to Rockhouse Canyon Road, about 5 miles northeast of town.  Traveling at a safe speed, it takes about 45 minutes to get to the junction of Butler and Rockhouse canyons.  You can either drive the next 3.1 miles if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, or you can hike it.  I was borrowing my dad’s SUV, so I decided not to risk breaking down in the middle of the desert from slashing a tire and damaging the undercarriage.

We set out for the hike at about 8:30 am at the canyon junction (elevation 1200 feet), eager to knock out a good number of miles before we broke for lunch.  I put my pack on for the first time since I backpacked through Europe and my back was aching within 5 minutes!  I almost panicked before I adjusted the waist straps so that most of the weight was sitting on my hips.  Much better. 

The first 3.1 miles are kind of drab, following vehicle tracks to the beginning of the canyon.  At 3.6 miles we reached Hidden Springs, which is kind of a misnomer.  Yes, it is hidden, because it barely exists.  But that means it’s not hidden because it’s not there in the first place.  How about “Springs Just Kidding,” or “Bet Your Guidebook Says There Are Springs Here.”  Just as another blogger had warned, the only water at Hidden Springs was indeed hidden behind foot-long reeds but contained only about two cups of water.  But we didn’t come here for no water!  After all, we had packed 5 gallons of water for two days, and it was already taking its toll on our backs, legs and waists.

 

The "Hidden Springs" near the beginning of Rockhouse Canyon

The "Hidden Springs" near the beginning of Rockhouse Canyon

The real treasures of Rockhouse Canyon lay beyond Hidden Springs, where the canyon begins to narrow, and giant boulders of all types of rock are strewn in different formations across the shaded canyon floor.  The guidebook instructed us to hop a few boulders about 15 yards before a huge granitic barrier blocks the way up the canyon.  It took us about 15 minutes to figure out how we were supposed to get up, but we eventually spotted a few ducks left by previous hikers and scrambled our way up the canyon. 

Rockhouse Canyon eventually opens up to the Mojave Valley, which houses several Indian rock house ruins.  These rectangular rock houses sit on a small ridge in the middle of the valley and consist of rocks stacked about 3 to 4 feet high.  Some people set up camp inside the houses, but we were only halfway, with several miles to go, so we moved on. 

One of three Indian rock houses in Mojave Valley

One of three Indian rock houses in Mojave Valley

Following the banks of the wash on the western edge of the valley, we reached Alder Canyon, which held even more impressive rock formations.  You never know what the desert holds beyond the bend.  Bland desert landscapes can suddenly turn into gorgeous ridges of sprawling ocotillos, otherwordly wind caves, or narrow canyons littered with fallen boulders.  Like I said, I always find something new in Anza Borrego, and I’m sure the same will be true for my next trip.

The junction of Alder Canyon and Nicholias Canyon

The junction of Alder Canyon and Nicholias Canyon

At 2800 feet in elevation and well into Alder Canyon, we reached a meeting point between Alder and Nicholias canyons.  Of course, the book told us this (well, not exactly), and the elevation listed in the book was almost accurate with my GPS, but seeing as how there were three 10 foot dry waterfalls that we needed to pull ourselves over in order to get into Nicholias Canyon, we figured that it couldn’t be the way.  An hour and a half later, the sun dipping behind the mountains and our chances at reaching Cottonwood Bench Camp at 4800 feet slipping away, we ended up a few hundred feet farther than the point at which we began to doubt ourselves.  We had tried to backtrack to a point where we could scramble up the side of the eastern side of the canyon, walk along the ridge toward the junction, and figure out which way Nicholias Canyon bent.  But the only thing the ridge was good for was cactus pricks, slippery rocks, and virtually no way of moving around at a decent pace.  By 4:15 we were finally in Nicholias Canyon, beyond the waterfalls, but in no mood or position to go any further.  We pitched the tent in the only clearing around, surrounded by cactus.  The wind would be rough that night, and the cold was bitter (at least by my standards).  Mike built a fire while I cooked up some steak and potato soup and dehydrated Mexican chicken and rice (not half bad). 

This clearing in Nicholias Canyon just big enough to fit the tent.

This clearing in Nicholias Canyon just big enough to fit the tent.

So we had reached 4000 feet in elevation where we had set a goal to reach 4800 feet, but I wasn’t too upset.  I knew that I would get back here again and understand how to complete the loop.  Here, we only had two days, so we knew our only choice was to head back down from the camp in the morning.  The wind was relentless that night, but I wouldn’t know because I had a few shots of whiskey and a Tylenol PM that knocked me right out.  I needed the sleep, because I had only gotten a couple hours the night before.

After making a tasteless meal of oatmeal mixed with some leftover trail mix, and a good cup of coffee, we set out for Day 2.  The soreness was evident from the beginning but nearly as bad as I thought it would be, and of course our pace was much faster going downhill.  Ultimately, we were back at the car by 2:30 in the afternoon, and though our feet were killing us for the last three miles, it was generally a relaxing hike (with no fear of getting lost).

Mike getting ready for Day 2

Mike getting ready for Day 2

Back in town, for lunch we headed to the Red Ocotillo at the Palms Hotel and sat poolside with Bud Lights.  The other patrons must have thought we were bums.  We limped to our table, scruffy beards and all, unashamed that we smelled.  A good beer, a great sandwich, and the satisfaction that we had just hiked 25 miles out of shape.  Next time, I’ll finish the loop.

Back at the car, after 25 miles

Back at the car, after 25 miles

 

 

 

5 Things Right with MLS

A few weeks ago I wrote an entry entitled “5 Things Wrong with MLS,” which was my way to fume about what I felt Major League Soccer was doing wrong with the league in its quest to because a respected soccer league worldwide.  A reader made some interesting comments about the entry, some affirming what I had written and some challenging some of my points.  In the end, he challenged me to write the counter-piece, 5 Things Right with MLS, and I was more than willing to do so.

Of course, that’s because I really do believe that MLS is doing some great things, both on and off the field.  While my first impulse is to criticize the league for some glaring mistakes, it has done some great things since 1996 to develop its fan base, drastically improve the level of play, and establish a legitimate identity among the more established leagues of the world.

So, here are five things that MLS has done right in the past 12 years:

 

  1. Soccer-specific stadiums have proven to be a great investment.

Stadiums like the Home Depot Center and Pizza Hut Park are not only beautiful parks that make watching the game more enjoyable, they are also symbols that U.S. cities are willing to support a franchise.

I’m sure the players love it too.   Would you rather play on the hard turf of the football field at the University of Utah, distanced from the fans, or would you rather play on a real soccer pitch, in an intimate venue where the fans feel much closer to the action?

 

  1. Extending franchises to Canada, especially Toronto, has been a great success (and should continue with Vancouver).

The Toronto FC franchise now has the reputation for having the best fans in the league.  Their fans show up to the games (whether or not Beckham is visiting), they cheer loudly, and create a unique atmosphere that helps provide home field advantage for their club while making it tough on visiting clubs.

Steve Nash of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns has publicly expressed interest in bringing a franchise to Vancouver.  While the notion that a franchise would work in Vancouver because it has worked so well in Toronto is not a perfect inference, it certainly acts as a good indicator that a Vancouver franchise would do well.  Of course, the Seattle Sounders will be around next year, and the Pacific Northwest market might get a little crowded with two franchises, but there’s something to be said for a little across-the-border rivalry between Canadians and Americans.  Just look at the rivalry between the Galaxy and Chivas.  Which brings us to reason number three…

 

  1. Chivas USA recognized their market and have pursued a club image consistent with their marketing scheme (while also keeping the quality of play high) 

Chivas USA set out to grab the attention of the emerging Latino fan market, and they have done about as well as could be expected.  While the fanfare and media attention have been greater and more magnified on their Home Depot neighbors, all the news coming the Chivas camp, while never being extraordinary, is all positive.  They currently hold some of the best young players in the game and have now qualified for the playoffs three straight years.  Consistent play, a smart, passionate coach, and an organization that is willing to take success step-by-step should all be credited for the emergence of a club that in its debut season looked destined to inhabit the Western Conference cellar for its first few years.

The same goes for the Houston Dynamo.  After MLS decided to start a franchise in Houston, the process of selecting a name for the club began.  After much deliberation, team officials and MLS agreed on the name “Houston 1836,” which, according to MLS and AEG, would commemorate the year that the city of Houston was officially founded.  Problem was, 1836 also reverberated in Texans’ minds as the year the Battle of the Alamo, when a Texan army defeated the Mexican army at the Alamo.  It also referred more generally to the year in which Texas sought independence from Mexico.  Of course, the inevitable happened when members from Houston’s large Latino population protested the club’s name. 

The importance of this historical aside?  MLS, AEG and the Houston organization responded to the calls of its fans by changing the name to “Dynamo,” which referenced Houston’s energy-based industrial economy.  They made a mistake initially (a pretty big one, actually), but they took the steps to correct it and, in the process, put their fans first.

 

  1. The level of play has improved greatly over the course of 12 years due to marquee signings of proven international stars, an improved stock of young American players, and an ability to nab some lesser-known footballers from around the world, especially South America.

Not all of MLS’s signings have worked out, but a lot of them have carried teams and been the face of their organizations over the years.  Let’s take the Galaxy:

Mauricio Cienfeugos:  The diminutive playmaker from El Salvador may not have been a “star” in every sense of the word, but he was undoubtedly the most important piece of the Galaxy clubs that were so successful in the first few years of the league.  In my opinion, he was not only the Galaxy’s best signing ever, he was also the best player (team-wise) to put on a Galaxy uniform.

Luis Hernandez: The tremendously popular character and once-prolific scorer from Mexico added instant excitement to the field when he was first signed, but his influence soon dwindled and he became a non-factor.  It was clear that his best playing days were behind him, and he could not keep up with the pace of play in the States.

Eduardo Hurtado: “El Tanque” was a goal scoring machine for the Galaxy until the club sent him to the MetroStars in 1998.  He was a huge personality and, together with Cienfuegos, provided instant offense on the field.

David Beckham: We’ve talked about it way too much, but why not some more?  Beckham has obviously brought more attention to MLS than ever before, but the product on the field has not improved since his arrival; in fact, you could say it’s regressed, especially since the Galaxy has no shot at the playoffs this year despite fielding players like Beckham, Landon Donovan, Carlos Ruiz (now gone), and Eddie Lewis (mid-season acquisition).  I won’t blame this all on Beckham.  In fact, I put very little of the onus on him.  His play has not been as good as it could be (after watching him simply demolish the Kazakhstan defense in 14 minutes of play last week, I’m convinced that he plays infinitely better when surrounded by better players, or maybe just when he’s motivated), but even if he were playing at a higher level, the Galaxy probably still wouldn’t grab a playoff spot.  So for right now, given the circumstances surrounding Beckaham’s signing, it has been a failure.

However, for the most part, the signings that the Galaxy, and MLS in general, have made have improved the league, in one way or another, immensely.

Young talent brought from the high school and college ranks has also improved.  Some of the best players in the league came into the league through the SuperDraft, and their games have steadily improved since coming into the league. 

The signing of quality Latin American players has, of late, been very helpful for the league.  Older stars like Cuauhtemoc Blanco have had overwhelmingly positive effects on their teams, while younger stars, perhaps more important to the development of the league, are being given the chance to blossom here in the United States.

 

  1. MLS doesn’t shy away from competition.

The league may not be ready for the real limelight – I’m talking about playing Champions League football – but who is, save for a few elite clubs from elite leagues?  MLS regularly pits its clubs against top clubs from Mexico and South America, and each year their all-star squad takes on a top-drawer club from Europe.

Beckham’s first game with the Galaxy ended with a 1-0 loss to Chelsea at the Home Depot Center.  Yeah, it didn’t mean anything to Chelsea, and they didn’t seem to put any stock into it.  But for an MLS club, especially one like the shambled crew like the Galaxy, to compete with one of the best clubs in the world was extremely encouraging. 

MLS believes in the quality of the product on the field, and they don’t back down from any competition.  To get better, you have set a standard.  MLS has set the bar high, and the players understand where the league wants to go.  It seems like the quality of play improves incrementally every year, and there isn’t much reason to believe why it shouldn’t continue.

5 Things Wrong with Major League Soccer

Soccer in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds since it started to grow popular as a spectator sport (beyond the youth games at local parks) in the early 1990s.  With a growing fanbase for soccer eager to watch competitive games in the United States and an increasingly talented corps of recent college athletes eager to play at home, Major League Soccer opened its doors in 1996.  Since then, MLS has grown to become a (somewhat) legitimate league that (sometimes) compete with the elite teams from Mexico, Central America and South America.

Perhaps the slow, steady rate of growth the MLS was experiencing up until a few years ago was not enough – last year it made big waves when it signed David Beckham to a deal worth up to $250 million over 5 years to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy.  The MLS insists that it wasn’t putting all its eggs into one (overaged) basket, but the evidence is on the field: while attendance for Beckham games has been outstanding, attendance figures show that the league has failed to produce new fans that will show up when Beckham isn’t around.

Signing Beckham was not the wrong thing to do.  But the MLS needed to complete the picture before they did so.  The media circus surrounding Beckham’s arrival was in one sense a public relations boon, but it inevitably painted Beckham as a savior of the sport in this country and placed unreasonable expectations and scrutiny on a league unprepared to handle it.  Now, with the media expecting more from the league, making their inner workings ever more transparent, glaring weaknesses have been exposed that, compared to established leagues like the NBA, NFL and MLB, have crippled the league’s legitimacy in the eyes of the media and soccer fans.

I’ll continue to watch MLS games and support the Galaxy because I love soccer, and it’s fun to head to the Home Depot Center and catch a game.  But the league frustrates me to no end.  Here are five things that the MLS has done wrong and that it doesn’t seem to understand:

5.  The MLS doesn’t understand its fan base

I will give the MLS credit for organizing with Chivas of Guadalajara in the creation of Chivas USA.  Given the fanbase that already exists in Los Angeles for the most-celebrated and popular side in Mexican history, they’ve created a team that would immediately strike a proud chord in Southern California.  They started with a side that consisted almost exclusively of Latin players and have slowly integrated into the league with players from all over the globe.  In this sense, and through what it has done with Toronto FC, it does understand its fan base.

But what the league does not understand is that sports fans, above anything else, love a winner.  If they can’t have a winner, then they want an organization dedicated to building a winner.  The MLS is hell-bent on modeling its system after the Barclay’s Premier League in England, which since the mid-90s has proven to be a gigantic success.  But the Premier League does not value parity among its teams.  The league elites always land at the top of the standings, the ones in the middle scramble for a chance to play in one of the European tournaments, and the ones at the bottom are just trying to stay in the league. 

If the MLS wants to be successful, it needs to model its league after domestic leagues in other sports – the NBA, NFL and MLB for example – where each team has a pretty good shot at winning sometime in the near future.  If they’re losers, then at least there’s hope.  How do you do this?  Don’t always assign the best international signees to Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.  Spread the wealth.  Be fair.  Give yourself some legitimacy.

4.  The MLS surrounded David Beckham with a bunch of nobodies

Let’s be realistic.  When David Beckham was deciding whether or not to come to the MLS, he was only going to one of two places – Los Angeles and New York.  And even though Becks loves New York City, I’m sure the only real choice was Los Angeles. 

Problem is, there were no other considerations involved.  If Beckham wanted to go to Los Angeles, there would be nothing the MLS could do about it.  But by throwing Beckham into a mix of young, unexperienced players (and Landon Donovan), it assured that the Galaxy would fall further down the standings than it was the year before.  The results?  The Galaxy failed to qualify for the playoffs last year, and this year they are on pace to miss them again, currently on a 10-game winless streak (5 losses and 5 ties).  It’s almost embarassing to think that Beckham could miss the playoffs (what should be the MLS’s premier attraction instead of the All-Star game) his first two years here, and possibly beyond. 

They tried to remedy the situation this year by hiring Dutch soccer legend Ruud Gullit to coach the team, but that experiment failed after only 20 games.  Gullit had expressed his frustration at having to coach young players were not well-schooled in the fundamentals of the game, and he admonished Galaxy management when they allowed a stadium usher to fill in for an undermanned Galaxy developmental team.  No wonder he left.

Now Bruce Arena and the MLS are left to pick up the pieces.  First order: get someone who can actually play defense.

3.  The MLS schedules regular season games that conflict with national team games

As Grahame L. Jones of the Los Angeles Times recently noted, the MLS makes the mistake of scheduling regular season games near dates when national team games around the world are being played.  Nearly no other league does this. 

This weekend, Toronto FC will be missing 9 of its 11 starters to national team call-ups for its game against Chivas USA.  In addition to starters and bench players who are injured, this creates a situation where Toronto will essentially be fielding a developmental team. 

This is an affront to season ticket holders who expect to see a professional team on the field every game.  The same thing happens to the Galaxy – Landon Donovan and David Beckham are always gone for call-ups, giving the Galaxy a rather dull product on the field and a ZERO chance of winning.  If I’m a season ticket holder, I’m selling my tickets for those games.

2.  The MLS does not abide by its own rules

The MLS has a designated player rule whereby each team gets the same number of “designated players” (marquee signings of players arriving from abroad) to keep the league competitive.  Most teams, especially ones that aren’t in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, have only one designated player.  With the David Beckham signing, the Galaxy had three designated players – Beckham, Donovan and Carlos Ruiz. 

This was not the first time it happened.  When Donovan came back to the United States from a brief stint with Germany’s Bayern Leverkusen, the San Jose Earthquakes still owned the rights to him.  The league forced San Jose to trade the rights to Donovan to the Galaxy, which the league thought would be the better fit for its best player. 

Funny, the Galaxy has benefitted from breaches of the rules, yet they haven’t been able to make the playoffs in either of the last two years (and probably this year too).

1.  The MLS cannot keep young American talent from going abroad

I may be placing too much blame on the MLS, but while they have garnered a lot of new talent from abroad, especially South America, it has failed to keep the players who would have become the true stars of the league.  At times, there is little the league can or should do about it when an exceptional young player wants to leave.  But a confluence of factors – some of which I have described above – contribute a player’s leaving his own country to play abroad, and it’s not just the competition.

It was a foregone conclusion that Jozy Altidore, an explosive young striker who played for the New York Red Bulls, would leave for Europe.  But other players like Clint Dempsey, Brad Guzan and Kenny Cooper are players who have the ability to play in top-flight leagues in Europe but will probably not become stars. 

When the MLS loses domestic players to second division teams in Norway (this is happening), you know they are at least partly to blame.

If you want to build an attractive soccer product, it starts with the quality of play.  If you want to build the quality of play, it starts with keeping what should already have been yours.  

Bringing Ixtapa to my table in LA – tiritas de pescado

Tiritas de pescado   

Tiritas de pescado

As I mentioned before, the subjects of this blog would be as wide and varied as my interests, and to prove to you that this is NO LIE, I’m reporting on my official reunion with a functioning kitchen that I’m comfortable with using, and my first dish made since returning to LA from Boston.

I flew into LAX last Saturday, and my parents took me to lunch at El Puerto Escondido, a little Mexican seafood dive in Inglewood, right next to the airport.  Nearly everything on the menu is seafood.  I was about to order a plate of octopus sauteed in olive oil, but at the last second something caught my eye, and instantly I knew I had to have it.  Rare are the days when I know exactly what I want at a restaurant without a shred of doubt – but this one of those days, so I threw down the menu and made my proclamation: I would be ordering tiritas de pescado.

Tiritas de pescado is a dish developed in and unique to the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo region of Mexico.  While on vacation on a few years back, my dad and I took a fishing trip into the ocean off Ixtapa, about a mile out, and caught some monstrous fish.  The guys who took us out fishing told us that eating the fish tiritas-style – that is, marinating in lime rather than cooking it conventionally – increases the sex drive.  Why take Viagra when you can eat fresh fish everyday?  I imagined the driver of our boat going home and eating tiritas, then telling his wife, “Hey let’s get down to business, I’ve only got an hour tell this stuff burns off.”  Anyways.

We caught a dozen or so fish, and the boat dropped us off on a small island off the coast, where our whole family spent most of the day resting in hammocks overlooking the sea as our fish was being prepared.  When we were finally summoned to eat, we got a meal fit for a (seafood-obsessed) king, with several fish cooked a la plancha, and others made into tiritas.  Oh boy.  If I could tell you how good they were in a blog, I would have more than 5 or 6 readers, I can tell you that. 

So it’s been about five years since then, and I hadn’t eaten tiritas since.  Turns out it’s a very local dish, and only a few places around here serve it.

Back at El Puerto Escondido, tiritas de pescado arrived on our table just a few minutes after we ordered, a concoction of whitefish (I’m pretty sure it was bonito), sliced red onions, cilantro and a little bit of chile, all soaked in lime.  Slices of tomatoes, cucumber and avocado dressed it up a bit.   I told my parents I would try to replicate it. 

A few days later, I took it on.  The best part of making the dish is how easy it is to make, and how rewarding it is to eat.  Everything I needed I was able to buy at Vons – a pound of whiting (next time I will buy some other whitefish, but this was all they had), fresh cilantro, eight limes, two red onions, eight serrano chiles, an avocado, tomato, cucumber and, of course, Tapatio.  I already had salt, pepper and oregano, so I was ready to go. 

It took me about 20 minutes to cut the fish in small strips that you could lift with a tortilla chip, then another 10 minutes to squeeze the juice of 8 limes into a bowl that would marinate the fish.  I marinated the fish in lime juice, covered, for about 30 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time to chop up the cilantro, onions, chiles, cucumber, tomato and avocado.  After 30 minutes, I threw together the fish, which had turned slightly darker from being cooked in lime juice, with the onions, cilantro and chiles, then threw the cucumber, tomato and avocado around the plate to finish it all off.

Pair all this with Trader Jose beer (tastes the same as a Corona, trust me), Tapatio and corn tortilla chips, and you have magic in your mouth.  Well, make that a-little-bit-too-spicy-magic in your mouth, at least for me.  Next time I’ll make it with four to six serrano chiles instead of eight.  But other than that, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

I don’t like to brag, but…(strike that, reverse it) well I DO like to brag, and this is the dish that I am most proud of making.  I never forgot this dish from Ixtapa, and I’d like to think that I stored the details of its distinct taste in the deep recesses of my mind, so that one day, a day such as yesterday, I could make it on my own.  Victory!!!!

Thinking Blue and Acting Green

The Los Angeles Dodgers announced a week ago that they would begin offering a free shuttle service from Union Station, downtown’s public transportation hub, and Dodger Stadium, beginning 90 minutes before every home game.  The Dodgers have been in Los Angeles for over 50 years since moving from Brooklyn.  It’s amazing that it has taken this long for them to create a service like this.

This summer I’ve had the chance to see games at Fenway Park in Boston and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.  Getting to the game couldn’t be easier, even for someone with a limited knowledge of the public transportation systems of the cities.  The subways in Boston and New York will literally drop you off at the doorstep of the stadium from wherever you are in the city – and all for $2.

If you want to see a Dodger game, you’ll have to drive to the stadium and pay $15 for parking.  And you can’t even tailgate.  (NOTE: You can tailgate, but that means parking in a remote area of the parking lot, slouching down in your car seat, throwing back your beer in a bag (or flask, depending on how you booze) and generally avoiding authority, which can be fun in a this-reminds-me-of-high-school kind of way.)

I’ve been a Dodger fan my entire life.  Every season I try to make it at least one game – usually more.  But one thing I’ve noticed, having been to other ballparks around the country, is that Dodger fans don’t always form the same kind of close community that fans in other cities do.  Many it’s because we’re so diverse.  But I’d like to think that at least part of the problem stems from our culture of driving to the game in our own cars instead of taking public transportation. 

It’s a microcosmic example of what people having been complaining about LA forever.  We shut ourselves out from the rest of the world in our cars, rarely taking the chance to mingle with the other people that cross our paths on the way to work, restaurants, the bars, and Dodger games.  When you get on the train to Fenway, AT&T Park in San Francisco, or Yankee Stadium, you feel the comaraderie before you get to the stadium.  It’s all part of the experience. 

It remains to be seen how efficient the shuttle service will be and how many people will use it once the novelty wears off.  The shuttle might have problems navigating up Sunset at rush hour.  Also, it doesn’t solve the driving/parking problem for most fans, who are coming from all different parts of Southern California to Dodger Stadium.  Would they really want to park at Union Station, then take a shuttle to the stadium, just to save a few bucks?  We shall see. 

Regardless, it is important that the Dodger organization provide the option to take the shuttle to the game.  It’s pretty impressive, too, considering that such a large portion of their revenue likely comes from parking sales.  Well done.