Soccer comes to Charlotte as Arsenal meet Fiorentina in the International Champions Cup 2019

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When I heard back in the spring that Arsenal would be coming to Charlotte for a pre-season match versus Roma, I immediately bought tickets for myself and my nephew to attend (he lives in the Charlotte area).

It’s rare to see European clubs on US soil so it’s a fantastic opportunity for American supporters to gather to see the team they support from afar live.

The last time Arsenal came to the states was in 2014 when they played a pre-season match versus the New York Red Bulls. Arsenal legend Thierry Henry was playing in New York so it was a must see for fans. There were Arsenal fans all over New York and the energy and camaraderie was amazing.

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Roma had to pull out of the Charlotte match as they had to play Europa League qualifying matches. Filling in was Fiorentina; which was fine with me as I have attended a match in Florence before and root for them in Serie A.

There was a pre-match fan fest where there were soccer clinics, giveaways, musical acts and even an appearance from Megan Rapinoe.

Fans gathered at downtown bars before kickoff and there was a march by Arsenal fans to the stadium.

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Then it was off to the match. It was close to 95 degrees, yet the match was scheduled to start at 6PM., It was obvious that the heat was going to factor into the game (especially for the players used to playing in the cold and rain of London).

Arsenal dominated play and a number of the young academy players were given the opportunity to show what they got. That they did. 20-year-old Eddie Nketiah and 19-year-old Joe Willock provided the goals to give Arsenal a 3-0 win.

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It was great to see my team in person, but even better was to see the enthusiasm for soccer in the Charlotte area. There were tons of families at both the fan-fest and the match and it was great to see some of the kids wearing jerseys of the World Cup winning US women’s team.

It’s a great sign that the sport is truly taking off in the states and bringing people together.

The US Women's Soccer Team wins the World Cup and gives further proof they deserve equal pay

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The US Women’s National Soccer team are repeat World Cup Champions after defeating Holland 2-0 in France. No one is really surprised by this as they are the dominant force in women’s soccer throughout the world. What is surprising is the fact that they are still fighting to get equal pay with their much less successful male counterparts.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal gives evidence that the US Women’s team is far and away more of a draw than the men’s team: U.S. Women’s Soccer Games Outearned Men’s Game.

The crowds in France and at bars all around the country were massive for the Women’s World Cup. Of course interest in the men’s World Cup is huge as well. The difference in this country is what fans’ expectations are for the US national team.

The last time the men’s national side actually caused soccer fever was back in 2014 when the team made it to the knockout rounds (they lost to Belgium 2-1). Since then it’s pretty much been mediocrity to embarrassment:

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The men’s team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. It came down to a match versus the “mighty” nation of Trinidad and Tobago. If the US won or drew, they would make the tournament. The men lost 2-1 and they missed out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

In a recent friendly match with Venezuela, the US were pitiful and ended up 3-0 losers in a match they were expected to win.

The US Soccer Federation will soon be dealing with the USWNT gender discrimination lawsuit. Based on their popularity, as well as their on field success, this case is a no brainer. Let’s hope they do the right thing.

USWNT is proving a point at the Women's World Cup

The United States Women’s National Soccer team headed to France with its equal pay lawsuit still unresolved. In a nutshell the suit claims that the United States Soccer Federation is guilty of gender discrimination.

After two matches where the USWNT has dominated its opponents, it’s pretty evident that this lawsuit has merit. Women’s soccer has come a long way and the US Women are leading the way in making the sport popular at home and around the world.

It’s clear that in terms of soccer, the US women are way ahead of their male counterparts in terms of achievements. As outlined in the New York times the USWNT have accomplished a lot:

The United States women’s national team is the best in the world and has been for decades. Since the FIFA Women’s World Cup was inaugurated in 1991, the United States has won three of the seven titles, including the most recent one in 2015. Since women’s soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996, it has won four of six gold medals. The team has been ranked No.1 by FIFA for 10 of the last 11 years and has produced some of the biggest female sports stars of the last several decades, from Mia Hamm to Wambach to the current starting center forward, Alex Morgan

The Men’s national team did not qualify for the last World Cup in Russia and recently suffered a humiliating 3-0 defeat at the hands of Venezuela.

The point is not that the men’s team is bad, instead, it’s that the women are very good. They draw crowds to their matches, they sell tickets and they work just as hard as the men. Therefore, they deserve the same pay as their male counterparts.

The women’s team have already made it through to the knockout stages with one match to go. Whether they win this World Cup or not, they continue to make it clear that they are deserving of respect as well as equal treatment and equal pay.

What do you think?

The first American Soccer League was formed in New York City

New York City’s Brookhattan FC was formed in 1933

New York City’s Brookhattan FC was formed in 1933

A lot of people don’t realize that there is a rich history of soccer in New York and the United States that pre-dates what we have today.

Presently, Major League Soccer is in its 24th season and is in 24 different markets.

Before MLS, the North American Soccer League operated between 1968 and 1984. While the league didn’t last too long, the New York Cosmos put the sport on the map in the United States. The Cosmos gained worldwide recognition with a lineup that included Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto.

The first American Soccer League was formed by club owners in 1921 at the Hotel Astor in Manhattan

The first American Soccer League was formed by club owners in 1921 at the Hotel Astor in Manhattan

What many people don’t know is that the first American Soccer League was formed in New York City back in 1921. That May, representatives from eight of the country’s soccer teams met at the Hotel Astor in Manhattan’s to launch a new professional soccer league.

The teams included:

  • Philadelphia FC

  • New York FC

  • Todd Shipyards FC (based in Brooklyn)

  • Harrison SC (based in Kearny, New Jersey)

  • J&P Coats FC (based in Pawtucket, RI)

  • Fall River United

  • Falco FC (based in Holyoke, MA)

  • Celtic FC (based in Jersey City)

The sport was growing in the industrial Northeast due to the influx of immigrants who brought their love of soccer with them to their new home. Back then a lot of soccer clubs were sponsored by industrial companies that employed many of the players that represented their clubs. Thus teams such as Todd Shipyards, J&P Coats and later clubs like Bethlehem Steel.

Early on the league proved successful. Some teams drew crowds over 10,000 and the matches were covered by the local newspapers.

These northeast based companies were paying good wages and some of the ASL club were able to entice good players from the UK to come over to the states to work and play soccer for them. Believe it or not, the poaching of players became such a problem that fans in Scotland complained about what became known as the “American menace”.

It got so bad that in 1927 the top brass of the ASL were brought to Finland by FIFA and told to stop taking players from other countries or risk being dropped by soccer’s governing body.

The Fall River Marksmen played in the original American Soccer League

The Fall River Marksmen played in the original American Soccer League

The league was growing and doing well, but faced problems.

In 1924 the Johnson-Reed Act limited the number of immigrants that could enter the country. Then there was fighting between the ASL and the United States Football Association.

What really led to the league’s demise was the great depression. Companies could no longer afford to sponsor teams and fans didn’t have extra income to spend on tickets.

The ASL folded in 1933…but it would rise again. More on that later.


FYI UEFA...Azerbaijan is not in Europe

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Back in September I wrote an article for SB Nation entitled, Arsenal have a Qarabag problem. The story outlined how Arsenal’s Armenian player Henrikh Mkhitaryan was unable to travel with the team to a match versus Azerbaijani side Qarabag. An ongoing conflict between the neighboring nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan made it problematic for Mkhitaryan to travel to the area.

Eight months ago it wasn’t seen as that big of an issue as it was one match versus an inferior team. The Armenian did not travel with his side and Arsenal won the match easily and without incident. The only possible problem was down the road in May of 2019. That’s because the rocket scientists at UEFA had scheduled the Europa League Final for the very non European city of Baku, Azerbaijan.

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Well here it is eight months later and Arsenal are in the finals. Mkhitaryan is still Armenian and still an Arsenal player. Latest reports are that UEFA and Arsenal are discussing the issue and attempting to work out a solution.

This blog post isn’t about this particular conflict or how it should be solved. What it is about is why the hell a European championship game is being playing in a country NOT in Europe. Read the following article I found from December 2017 and you’ll see further proof why this final in Baku is a complete joke: Europe’s Map Is Redrawn As Azerbaijan Goes East.

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Here are some other reasons that holding the final in Baku is a mistake:

  • Azerbaijan is a corrupt country.

  • Both of this year’s Europa League finalists are from London. Baku is over 2500 miles away and Chelsea and Arsenal have each been given a paltry amount of tickets for their own fans. Who the hell is going to be in the stands? The atmosphere is going to be ruined by staging this match in another continent.

  • How can UEFA hold a major match in a country where some footballers are not allowed to enter and if doing so, could be in danger? Maybe next year they’ll consider Syria for the final…or Yemen. It’s ridiculous.

  • Azerbaijan has little if any football history and success.

  • Azerbaijan is in ASIA.

Thanks for listening.




MLS continues to expand and grow

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When Major League Soccer began play in 1996, the league consisted of ten teams and was met with skepticism. Now in its 23rd season, MLS is not only growing, it is flourishing.

The MLS board of governors recently voted to expand to 30 teams “in the coming years.” The league currently has 24 teams, with Miami and Nashville scheduled to join next season and Austin, Texas, in 2021. That makes MLS, which has added 17 teams since 2005, the fastest-growing league in North American professional sports.

According to Commissioner Don Garber, “We particularly, in the last 10 years, have been experiencing unprecedented growth. Expansion has been a key driver of that growth, and it really is a great measure of the enormous enthusiasm and really the commitment that our fans have in markets both new and old to support our league and our players and to see the support grow continually.”

FC Cincinnati is the newest club to join MLS

FC Cincinnati is the newest club to join MLS

Cities currently being considered for teams include St. Louis, Sacramento, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Detroit and Charlotte.

Some question whether the league is growing too fast? In Southern California, one of the nation’s most crowded sports markets, LAFC has sold out every home game it has played, while the Galaxy saw its own attendance jump 10% last season.,

That success isn’t shared throughout the league, however. Only eight teams showed attendance increases last season with three (Chicago Fire, New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew) experiencing double-digit declines. That led to the first league-wide attendance drop in five seasons.

FC Austin will join MLS in 2021

FC Austin will join MLS in 2021

The television numbers are better, with cable viewership increasing in each of the last six seasons and ad inventory selling out each of the last three years.

The overall numbers were modest, however, with the 2018 cable average of 276,000 ranking behind what the WNBA playoffs drew last year.

One problem the league faces is whether there are enough talented players to support its growth. The league was established, in part, to assist in the development of domestic players, but in the last five seasons the percentage of U.S.-born players on MLS rosters has declined nearly 9%, to 44.3%.

The growth of the league has been due to an increase in international signings. This has made MLS the youngest and most diverse sports league in North America. One problem in continuing to maintain this growth is the league’s current roster rules.

Inter Miami CF, partially owned by David Beckham, will begin play in 2020

Inter Miami CF, partially owned by David Beckham, will begin play in 2020

Currently each team is allotted a maximum of three designated players and eight international roster slots. If those numbers don’t increase, domestic players will have to fill the remaining roster spots. That could lead to a decline in play.

Garber disagrees, “We're in a global market. We have 30,000 registered professional soccer players to select from. Frankly, I think it's the opposite. You start thinking about the global interest in coming to our league, it's driven by the fact that there's so much opportunity, so many jobs. One of the byproducts of expansion is just opportunity.”

The problems that MLS is currently facing are good news. The league’s growth and fan interest means that MLS is experiencing success. The roster rules may need to change to accommodate this growth, but this change is a by produce of progress.

New York's first soccer specific stadium is the home of the New York Red Bulls

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When the New York/New Jersey MetroStars began play in 1996 they called Giants Stadium home. It was apparent early on that Giants Stadium was not an ideal place to watch a soccer game. The layout of the stadium and the sight lines were built for football. It also had synthetic turf instead of natural grass. To say that watching a soccer match at Giants Stadium was no ideal would be an understatement.

Giants Stadium had previously been used by the New York Cosmos of the NASL. (In fact, Pele’s played the last match of his career at the stadium in 1977.) It also played host to matches during the 1994 World Cup and the 1999 Women’s World Cup. It also hosted many international matches and friendlies.

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Change would come, but it would take another 20 years.

The MetroStars became the New York Red Bulls in 2006 when they were purchased by the Austrian energy drink of the same name. The team continued to play at Giants Stadium, but Red Bull had plans to build a soccer specific stadium for the team.

The wait was worth it.

Red Bull Arena officially opened in 2010 with Red Bulls facing Santos of Brazil. The stadium is in Harrison, New Jersey, not far from Newark. It seats 25,000, has 30 luxury Skyboxes and 1,000 club seats.

During the Giants Stadium era, even when there was a good crowd on hand, it looked empty in the 77,000-seat arena. There were seas of empty seats and the atmosphere was terrible.

Giants Stadium was a lousy place to see a soccer match

Giants Stadium was a lousy place to see a soccer match

Now, a match at Red Bull Arena is an amazing experience. Because of the design, the stadium is always loud, regardless if there is a full house of 25,000 on hand or a modest gathering. The sight lines were built for soccer, so every seat has a great view of the pitch.

The signature feature of the stadium is the curved roof. It’s made of Teflon and it’s translucent, so it lets some light through. It also protects the fans from the elements. If there’s rain, the field and the players will be out in the rain, but all the seats are covered.

New York Red Bulls fans fill up Red Bull Arena

New York Red Bulls fans fill up Red Bull Arena

While the stadium features an incredible fan experience, perhaps the most important feature of Red Bull Arena is the pitch. The natural grass field is what soccer was meant to be played on and the Red Bulls have one of the best fields of play in MLS.

Compare Red Bull Arena to Yankee Stadium with New York City FC currently play. It’s a legendary stadium full of history. However, it is a baseball stadium and the home of the Yankees. It was never built for soccer and watching a match in the Bronx is not a great experience. NYCFC must look at Red Bull Arena with a pang of jealousy.

The Red Bulls have had more success since moving to Red Bull Arena

The Red Bulls have had more success since moving to Red Bull Arena

The only thing that needs to be worked on to truly make Red Bull Arena an amazing venue to visit is the Harrison train station. On match days it gets overly crowded and is incapable of handling a crowd. This creates a dangerous environment for fans trying to enter or exit the station. It’s especially dangerous for families with small children. The stadium has been open now for almost ten years so it’s a shame that this situation still hasn’t been addressed. Fix this and Red Bull Arena will be a great place for a soccer outing.

The rise and fall of the original North American Soccer League and the New York Cosmos

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The North American Soccer League  was the top-level professional soccer league in the United States and Canada from 1968 to 1984. It was the first soccer league to be successful on a national scale in the US. Its popularity peaked in the late 1970’s.

The league averaged over 13,000 fans per game from 1977 to 1983, and league matches were broadcast on network television from 1975 to 1980. The league's highest profile team was the New York Cosmos. The Cosmos signed a number of the world's best players including Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto. The Cosmos averaged over 28,000 fans for each season from 1977 to 1982 while they averaged more than 40,000 in three of those years.

The NASL came about as a result of the surprisingly large North American TV audience of over 1 million for the 1966 FIFA World Cup. This led American sports investors to believe there was an untapped market for the sport in the U.S. and Canada.

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The NASL began play in 1968. In the early 1970s, the league was more of a semi-pro league, with many of the players holding other jobs.

On September 3, 1973, Sports Illustrated featured a soccer player on its cover for the first time; Philadelphia Atoms goalkeeper Bob Rigby. 

The 1975 season saw the signing of internationally known players, including Portuguese star Eusébio  and Pelé.

Pelé's signing for the New York Cosmos created a media sensation and transformed the fortunes of soccer in the United States. From the moment he signed his contract Pelé's every move was followed, bringing attention and credibility to soccer in America. The New York Cosmos' home attendance tripled in just half the season Pelé was there, and on the road the Cosmos also played in front of huge crowds that came to watch Pelé play.

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Pelé's arrival resulted in greater TV exposure for the Cosmos and for the league. Ten million people tuned in to watch CBS' live broadcast of Pelé's debut match with the Cosmos on June 15, 1975 against the Dallas Tornado at Downing Stadium in New York. It was a record TV audience for soccer in the US. By 1976, NASL was being picked up by the mainstream media, with the sports pages of newspapers covering the league.

The biggest club in the league was the Cosmos, who drew more than 40,000 fans per game at their height.

Giants Stadium sold out (over 73,000) for the Cosmos’ 1978 championship win.

At the end of the 1970s, the league seemed poised for moderate success. The 1979 season had seen attendance increase by 8%. An apparent era of stability seemed to have arrived. However, at the close of the 1980 season, NASL's woes were beginning to mount. The league was feeling the effects of over-expansion, the economic recession, and disputes with the players union. In the early 1980s the U.S. economy went south with unemployment reaching 10.8% in 1982 It was the highest level since World War II. The league’s owners, who were losing money.

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One of the biggest worries for the NASL was that owners were spending sums on player salaries that could not be covered by league revenue. In 1980 NFL owners were spending on average 40% of the team's budget on player salaries. NASL owners were averaging over 70% of their budget on player salaries. The Cosmos in particular, owned by Warner Communications, were spending a ton on player salaries. Teams such as Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Portland, Toronto, and Montreal (also owned by major corporations) could keep up with the Cosmos. Owners without financial backing could not keep pace. Owners spent millions on aging stars to try to keep up with the rest of the league and lost a lot of money in doing so.

The league’s 24 teams rang up a deficit of $30 million in 1981 and five teams folded at the end of the season.

The league lasted until 1984 with only nine teams taking the field. On March 28, 1985, the NASL suspended operations.

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Although the NASL ultimately failed, it did introduce soccer to the North American sports scene on a large scale for the first time. It was a major reason soccer became one of the most popular sports among American kids. It also led to FIFA awarding the 1994 World Cup to the United States.

Lastly, the NASL provided lessons for Major League Soccer, which has adapted a philosophy of financial restraint as the league continues to grow.

Five matches in 12 days, three stadiums and not one drop of rain - Part 2

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In my previous blog post entitled Five matches in 12 days, three stadiums and not one drop of rain - Part 1, I began to detail my recent trip to London where I attended five matches in less than two weeks. I first saw Arsenal defeat Bate Borisov at Emirate Stadium on Thursday, February 21st and then got to see West Ham beat Fulham at the London Stadium the very next night. That match also included West Ham’s “World Famous” bubbles. Here’s what came next in my football odyssey.

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Match number three was on Sunday, February 24th versus Southampton. This is the match that started my entire adventure. (I won a trip to London through the Arsenal NYC supporters club including roundtrip airfare and a ticket to this match).

The weather was very un-London like with bright blue skies and temperatures in the 60’s as I head out for this 2PM kickoff. I wanted to take in the full pre-match experience so my first stop was Piebury Corner where I ordered the Dennis Bergkamp.

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The Dennis Bergkamp pie from Piebury Corner

The Dennis Bergkamp pie from Piebury Corner

Then it was off to the Emirates where it was buzzing with anticipation.

This one looked like it was going to be a blow out as Arsenal led 2-0 after just 17 minutes. Lacazette got the first on a rebound off a Henrikh Mkhitaryan shot. Mkhitaryan scored the second just 11 minutes later.

Arsenal continued to dominate the game and had the bulk of the possession. There was no additional scoring, but it was great to see Arsenal keep a clean sheet in a league match for a change.

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Interestingly the two people sitting next to me were from Brooklyn. It turns out they are also Arsenal NYC members and were able to purchase tickets through the supporter’s club. As I’ve said before, it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, you’ll always run in to someone from NYC.

Three days later and the sun was still shining as I prepared to take in Arsenal’s third match in six days. Bournemouth were in town for a Wednesday 7:45PM kick off.

Highbury

Highbury

Before heading to the Emirates I decided to pay a visit to see what had become of Arsenal’s old home ground, Highbury. The stadium was turned in to a condominium community called Highbury Square in 2009. The front entrance to the old stadium still stands and the grass in the center of the community is part of the actual pitch that players such as Henry, Bergkamp, Adams, Seaman and more used to play on.

From there I paid a visit to my favorite Arsenal pub, the Tollington. It was starting to fill up with Gooners having a pint or two before the game. Then it was time to head off to the stadium.

The Tollington

The Tollington

This was the best match of them all as Arsenal ran riot. Once again Mesut Ozil was given a start and he quickly proved his doubters wrong. Ozil had the ball in the back of the Bournemouth net in the 4th minute. Goal number two was scored by Mkhitaryan in the 27th minute.

The only glaring error in this one was made by young Matteo Guendouzi who was caught in possession by Bournemouth’s Lys Mousset. Mousset easily pulled one back for the Cherries (yes, they are called the Cherries). In the end it didn’t matter but hopefully the 19-year-old will learn from his mistakes.

Koscielny, Aubameyang and Lacazette each scored in the second half to give Arsenal a comfortable 5-1 victory.

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Four matches were now in the books after just one week in London. There was one more fixture on my wish list and that was the North London derby scheduled at Wembley just three days later. The problem now was how to get tickets.

Since this is an in-demand fixture there weren’t a lot of options. I couldn’t get any from the Tottenham ticket office so I turned to Twitter. There were folks selling tickets here, but to say the prices were inflated would be an understatement.

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One of my friend’s in London happens to be know a Tottenham season ticket holder. My friend cleverly touched base with her and told her that she had a friend in town who really wanted to go to Wembley. (she conveniently left out the fact that this friend (me) supports Arsenal and cannot stand Tottenham). Well this Tottenham fan came through. As a season ticket holder, she was able to purchase two additional tickets for us. Problem solved. (Except for the fact that we would be sitting among the home fans.)

Aaron Ramsey scores, Spurs fans start that annoying come on you Spurs chant.

The match was scheduled for 12:30PM on Saturday. I met my friend outside the Wembley tube station and to my horror, I was surrounded by the enemy. Spurs fans were everywhere. Not wanting to find any trouble, I made sure to not wear any team colors and to try and keep my mouth shut.

The energy in the stadium was high as the match kicked off. When Aaron Ramsey ran free towards the Tottenham goal it felt like time stood still. He coolly slotted home and for a moment I started to celebrate. I caught myself as I didn’t want all the bummed out Spurs fans sitting around us to find out that I was a supporter of their hated rival. I did chuckle to myself though and enjoyed the moment.

One nil to the Arsenal courtesy of Aaron Ramsey

One nil to the Arsenal courtesy of Aaron Ramsey

Arsenal played great and everything seemed to be going well until Harry Kane did what Harry Kane always does and dropped to the ground at the slightest touch to win a penalty for his side. He scored from the spot and celebrated as if he had won the World Cup.

Late in the match Aubameyang was fouled and the ref pointed to the spot. I knew right then that Arsenal were going to win 2-1. I was ready to celebrate. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Aubameyang’s shot was saved and the match ended 1-1. It was one of those draws that felt like a loss, but Arsenal played really well and took 4 points out of 6 against Spurs for the season.

I’ve always heard these North London derby matches are dangerous with a lot of fighting among rival fans. While I did see some fans yelling at each other while surrounded by police, I didn’t see any hooliganism on display at all.

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The worst part of the entire day was trying to get out of Wembley. 62,000 people poured out of the stadium at the same time and headed for the tube. We encountered nothing but human gridlock. Basically we were trapped and had to figure out how to “Escape From Wembley”. Two and a half hours later after two bus rides and a train, we finally made it home. Definitely a nightmare scenario.

The next day I was off to Heathrow for my flight back to New York. I had seen four Arsenal matches and five games in total in 12 days. It was definitely an amazing experience.

Five matches in 12 days, three stadiums and not one drop of rain - Part 1

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I am an Arsenal fan and therefore was thrilled when I received a notification from the NYC Arsenal supporters that my name had been chosen at random to win a trip to London to see an Arsenal match including roundtrip airfare and a ticket to see Arsenal play Southampton at Emirates Stadium.

As I planned the trip I noticed that Arsenal had three other games in London during the time that I would be there. Two were at home and one was the North London derby versus Arsenal’s hated rivals Tottenham. That match would be at Wembley Stadium and would prove a bit difficult to obtain tickets for.

Purchasing tickets for a Premier League match is hard work. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I was able to secure tickets for the two other Arsenal matches at the club’s home stadium as well as tickets for West Ham’s home match versus Fulham. Friends of mine in London are West Ham fans so I thought it would be a nice idea to get tickets for everyone to see this game.

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The first match was on Thursday, February 21st and it was the second leg of Arsenal’s Europa League round of 32 meeting with the “mighty” Bate Borisov. Somehow Arsenal managed to lose the first leg in Belarus so there was a bit of tension among the fans heading in to the game.

That didn’t last long as Arsenal took the lead within four minutes as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's cross was kindly turned in to the Bate goal by Bate defender Zakhar Volkov. Arsenal had a 1-0 lead and the tie was now 1-1 on aggregate.

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Arsenal dominated play and despite the fact that none of the Arsenal offensive players were able to score, the defenders contributed with goals. Shkodran Mustafi headed home just before half time and Greek defender Sokratis put the match to bed with a header of his own in the 60th minute. Arsenal won the match 3-0 and the tie 3-1 on aggregate.

The funniest thing about the match was that the family sitting next to me were from Glen Cove, Long Island. Also, my friend Marianne, who went to the match with me, lives in London but is originally from Brooklyn. As I always say, wherever you go in the world you will meet New Yorkers.

Another great thing is that Marianne lives directly across the street from the stadium and we could walk home in about five minutes. So while everyone was pouring out heading for the tube or a car park, we were able to simply walk out and cross the street for home (or head to a cheap and cheerful Vietnamese restaurant near the stadium and then head home; as we did.)

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Game two was the next night as West Ham hosted Fulham at the London Stadium in Stratford. The stadium was built for the 2012 London summer Olympics and is the new home of West Ham United.

As we walked up a never ending set of stairs, we found our seats in row 72. It was the second to last row in the stadium. Despite this the mood was jovial and I was looking forward to the bubbles…yes, the bubbles. A lot of the teams in England have theme songs. Some make sense (Leeds Marching on Together or Manchester City Blue Moon) while others are a bit odd. West Ham adopted the 1918 song I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles as the club anthem in the 1920’s. In keeping with the theme, the club releases bubbles in to the stadium before the match and every time the home team scores.

The song is a bit nerdy but that didn’t stop the fans and lots of big guys with beer bellies from belting out the lyrics with gusto as the bubbles flowed.

Even thought it was a rare Friday night match, the crowd appeared family oriented. Despite this fact, the guys behind us in the 73rd row (the LAST row in the stadium) didn’t think twice about sneaking in beers, yelling at the ref as if he could hear them and using cute English swear words for all to hear including the kids sitting all around them.

West Ham seemed to be asleep at the beginning of the match. Fulham went ahead in the third minute and the tension inside the stadium grew. Luckily that didn’t last long as West Ham were ahead 2-1 by half time. First, Chicharito equalized in the 29th minute. Apparently his arm helped the ball go over the line and it was therefore a controversial goal. (Of course we couldn’t tell that from the 72nd row but we read about it the next day in the papers). The second goal came on an Issa Diop header in the 40th minute.

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West Ham dominated the second half and the bubbles flowed once again when Michail Antonio scored the Hammers’ third goal in added time. The final score 3-1 to the home team.

The crowd left happy and we were shuttled out of the stadium with the crowd and ended up in the middle of a mob of fans shouting come on you Irons, come on you Irons, come on you Irons (the nickname for West Ham) over and over as we slowly made our way to the tube.

I had two more matches remaining and possibly a third if I was able to secure tickets for the North London derby at Wembley Stadium.

Stay tuned for all the excitement next time in Part 2 of Five matches in 12 days, three stadiums and not one drop of rain.