The Flag

It’s funny how we don’t have a word cap on Facebook, and yet everything attempting to be substantial seems to arrive in a meme or some piece of content taken from another source.

The currency of social media isn’t enough to move the conversation forward on why we saw more than 200 NFL players observe the pageantry of the national anthem by kneeling, locking arms, raising fists, remaining in the locker room, etc. this past weekend. Instead, they make it easy to immediately escalate a reaction to something hostile, with the reply directed at some faceless digital entity.

So this is my amateur attempt to try to redirect the conversation back to why these NFL players participated in some form of protest during the national anthem. No, the peaceful protests weren’t directed at the troops and soldiers who serve in uniform under our flag. The act of kneeling was always intended to be a respectful act to call attention to how our country has failed to live up to the ideal that every American will be treated equally well, especially concerning situations with law enforcement.

Just ask Eric Reid, one of Colin Kaepernick’s first teammates to join him in these protests in 2016, who wrote an eloquent column for The New York Times on Monday explaining why they chose to kneel to bring attention to this cause. (A Green Beret whom Kaepernick spoke to even recommended that kneeling was a proper and respectful form of action, in lieu of sitting on the bench.)

In the last few years, we’ve learned the names of a number of African Americans who perished after being confronted by law enforcement. Three of them follow, for review. As Eric Reid noted, Alton Sterling, while pinned on the ground, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Walter Scott, in a foot chase in South Carolina. Philando Castile, unarmed and in the act of producing his license during a traffic stop, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

And in a non-fatal incident, Orlando police stopped Florida attorney general Aramis Ayala on the odd combination of a random license plate check and tinted windows.

At a minimum, Kaepernick and Reid wanted to open a national dialogue on how society and our institutions can better treat black and brown Americans. Presumably, this dialogue would also produce reforms on how law enforcement can better fulfill their duty to minorities in a composed manner. This change would take time, though—America has been scarred by the legacy of a broken Reconstruction and the resulting Jim Crow Laws, which promoted inequity as a social and God-given (ack) “good” and empowered authorities to escalate interactions with black Americans to the point of violent punishment.

It’s been barely over 50 years since those Jim Crow Laws were dismantled by the Civil Rights Act and judicial rulings such as Brown v. Board (desegregating education) and Loving v. Virginia (eliminating anti-miscengenation laws and permitting interracial marriages). While we have the paperwork on hand for a more equal America, it’ll take years for the country to outgrow the poor cultural attitudes spawned by Jim Crow and passed down the generations—the ones you see when the broad stroke of “lazy” is painted on (non-white) welfare recipients, or when redlining (housing segregation) is sought because of that Not-in-my-Backyard attitude, or when a community is branded “SOBs” by an occupant in a position of power and gets cheered for that petty profanity.

For all the progress we’ve made, Kaepernick’s protest reminds us that we still haven’t fully escaped the grasp of Jim Crow. We can’t retreat from the conversation they’re trying to start because our interpretation of the flag blinds us from seeing that their peaceful protest is a patriotic exercise of the First Amendment. We can’t let our interpretations of the flag blind us to the inequities inflicted on minorities because of an historic inability to confront the elements of racism pervading society.

Stepping out of the comfort zone to see a different perspective of life here is just the next step in this trek toward achieving an America where everyone can view the flag in the same light.

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The Benz

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The only way I can afford anything with the name “Mercedes-Benz” attached to it is to attend a Major League Soccer game at Atlanta’s sparkling new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Last Saturday, I joined an MLS record crowd of more than 70,000 people to watch expansion side Atlanta United host Orlando City in the third MLS game ever played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta dominated the lively match, but it ended in a 3-3 draw thanks to Orlando City’s strike partnership Dom Dwyer and Cyle Larin, who made the most of their limited opportunities.

The stadium resembles a pinwheel from above, but when walking to the Benz from the nearby MARTA station, the new nest for the Falcons and Atlanta United resembles a spaceship. The exterior of the venue is a blend of shiny silver and spotless glass triangles that give the facade a jagged look. The size of the Benz adds to its extraterrestrial appearance; the new stadium dwarfs the neighboring Georgia Dome and Philips Arena, both of which come off as minions in the shadow of the Benz.

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And yet, despite its mammoth stature, there appears to be only one side of the Benz where the crowd can enter the stadium. After passing through the metal detectors, a soaring silver falcon grasping a football in its talons—hey, that looks familiar—and wearing an Atlanta United scarf greets fans before they cross through the doors of the stadium. The falcon—metallic and (wanting to be) menancing—looks like it came from the world of Cleatus the Robot.

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Step into the Benz and… wait, are we in church?

Dan Patrick (the former ESPNer, not the Lt. Governor of Texas, obviously.) called the retractable roof of the Benz a “halo”; my first thought upon seeing the transparent dome was that it resembled the dome of Washington DC’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The fact that everyone enters through the same front foyer to immediately see the dome added to the odd sensation that this was some religious pilgrimage.

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The real halo is the 360 degree video board that sits just below the transparent, retractable dome. That board is an achievement in stadium communications: the size is not overwhelming to the point where the board distracts from the action on the pitch, but the novelty of the shape gave it a futuristic feel. The annular video board is a flashy way to present in-game entertainment and stats—and to hold people’s attention for the advertisements. Whether or not you take this admittedly cynical view, the transparent dome is a pleasant sight under the sun.

My seat for the match was in the uppermost tier of the stadium, lined up directly with the center circle. I had a near-perfect view of the entire field; the halo board could fill me in on any play that occurred along the near sideline, which was obstructed from my view by the lower rows. The press box, which was on the opposite side of the stadium and curved along the top left corner (from my vantage point) of the pitch, could have been placed where my seat to give the reporters a more complete picture of the action. Comfort isn’t sacrificed for the view, though. Leg room is treated as a commodity here and the seat widths give everyone some leeway to fidget and maneuver around.

I congratulate Atlanta United and MLS for shattering the attendance record, but the size of the stadium dampened the supporter section’s efforts in generating a unified atmosphere for the match. Despite sitting along the center of the pitch, the singing and chants from the supporters’ section during mundane moments of the match often dissipated before I could hear them. To be fair, the random times the supporters began clapping “A-T-L…” was audible for me and the fans surrounding me, many of whom stood up and joined in. But outside of the “A-T-L…”, the celebrations for each of the goals in Josef Martinez’s hat trick (complete with a goal horn!), and the booing of the refs and Orlando City keeper Joe Bendik, the nosebleeds felt detached from the atmosphere.

Overall, the Benz is a good day out, especially with the quality of play that Tata Martino has implemented into Atlanta United. Even if you strip away the product on the pitch, the Benz has the amenities, architecture, and technology to make the game day experience fun for everyone. (If you’re getting dragged to a game there, but hate sports, buy a $4 souvenir soda cup and spend the entire game refilling it for free at any of the soda fountains scattered through the concourses.) Now it’s up to Atlanta’s supporters to shrink the Benz by creating an intimate and intimidating atmosphere that overcomes the size of the stadium.

Six Opens

 

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Muguruza (left) v. Kvitova

The US Open night sessions at Arthur Ashe Stadium are closest I ever get to clubbing each year. Lots of people are crammed into one space, people are dressed up way too nice for the occasion, alcoholic drinks abound, deafening music, loud people, and (before the matches) flashing colorful strobe lights in the dark.

Since 2012, I’ve seen the likes of Novak Djokovic, Li Na, Roger Federer, Venus Williams, and Petra Kvitova play under the lights of the centerpiece court at Billie Jean King Tennis Center. This year, Garbiñe Muguruza, Sam Querrey, and Mischa Zverev joined those ranks; Kvitova would become the second player after Djokovic whom I’ve seen more than once when she stepped onto the court to play Muguruza.

Whether it was the nearly 1.5-hour delay to start the night session—Venus Williams capped off the day session around 7:30 pm with a three-set victory over Carla Suárez Navarro—or unfamiliarity with the four night session players, this Ashe crowd was a little more subdued than past ones I’ve mixed in with. In the women’s Round of 16 match, the most vocal support either player got was the smattering of encouragement directed at Muguruza as she lost her grip on the match in the second set. Querrey got the loudest cheers out of the four for each point he won—and he won a lot of them in a short span of time—because he was the lone representative of the homeland that night. Otherwise, most of the applause during Sunday night’s play was of the courtesy type after each point won.

The celebrity roll call on the big boards reflected the down night in the stands. The stadium production crew highlighted only Rick Fox as the lone star presence, but his image beamed on the big screens elicited only apathy from the crowd. (I gave a polite clap in recognition of his NBA titles, because I’m not loud by nature.)

At least the standard of play by Kvitova and Muguruza on the court rose above the atmosphere for the night. Muguruza raced to a 4-1 lead in the first set, using her speed to rush through her half of the court and parry the ball back at Kvitova. The Spaniard’s defensive play from the baseline, which valued positioning and ball placement over shot power, put pressure on the Czech to make her shots. If Kvitova kept the ball in play, Muruguza reacted quick enough to sprint for the ball and put it back in play in Kvitova’s half. The pressure on Kvitova mounted with each successful reply from Muguruza until the error came from the former. Through those first five games, Kvitova could only hit the ball long or into the net in her attempts to uphold her end of the rallies.

However, Kvitova began to flip the match upside down in the seventh game of the first set, when Muguruza went into the game with the serve and led4-2. Kvitova finally settled into the match at this point; she now started to crush her forehands with strength and accuracy.

Muguruza had no response. The Spaniard could still track down the ball with her speed, but she had to reach just to make to contact. Her hits started to glide into the net or wide of Kvitova’s sidelines. And just like that, Kvitova broke Muguruza to cut the deficit to 4-3 and back on serve to tie it up.

Kvitova would hold her next serve to even the first set at 4 apiece, but the set went into a tiebreak because of calamitous serving games by both players after that. In the tiebreak, though, Kvitova asserted her control of the match with her forehand. The muscle that Kvitova pumped into each shot ran Muguruza ragged, and all the latter could do was flail at each ball she managed to get within her reach. Kvitova won the tiebreak to take the first set 7-6 (3) with the most emphatic of exclamation points in tennis: a forehand smash.

The tiebreak turned out to be a foreboding episode for Muguruza. Kvitova continued to dictate play with her forehand; Muguruza was boxed into playing a passive, reactive role with each ball in play. Muguruza held her serve in the game, but after Kvitova broke her next serve and consolidated the break, the body language from the forthcoming World No. 1 signaled she was done. (Yeah, it was bad enough that I could see the negative vibes from my perch on the 21st row out of 25 in my section.) Kvitova raced 4-1 lead into the second set before Muguruza rediscovered her service game.

Kvitova led 5-3 in the second set to serve for the match, but Muguruza handed her the win on a silver platter. The last three points that won Kvitova the match turned out to be an apt summary of how Muguruza lost her way in the match:

Muguruza loses her advantage with a backhand error.

Muguruza concedes Advantage to Kvitova with a forehand error.

Muguruza then lost the match with another forehand error.

Muguruza exited the tournament in sloppy fashion, but in some way, she won in the end. Karolina Pliskova’s loss to CoCo Vandeweghe was enough to push Muguruza to the World No. 1 spot, in spite of the Wimbledon champion’s failure to reach the quarterfinals. (Serena’s absence from the tour has created a wonderful vacuum of players cycling through to temporarily keep that No. 1 mantle warm until Williams returns.)

For Kvitova, it was another chapter in her storybook recovery from the injury she suffered to her racket hand when robbers attacked her at her home. She is a symbol of perseverance and of the power of modern medicine. We were all lucky to see Kvitova continue to rise above the trauma of that attack for another night.

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Querrey (right) serving to Zverev

The men’s match between Querrey and Zverev was the antithesis of the women’s match that preceded them.

If Muguruza and Kvitova represented the modern game—baseline play, shot placement, excellent movement—Querrey and Zverev harkened back to the by-gone days of Pete Sampras with the emphasis on serve and volley.

Well, in Querrey’s case, he dropped the volley because his serve was sufficient enough.

Querrey’s 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Zverev was as lopsided as the score indicated. The American—playing in his first night session match at Ashe—reeked of efficiency in his service game, hitting 18 aces and winning 92 percent of his first serve points. The cameras kept zooming in on the radar gun whenever he upped the limits of the speed of his first serve. The radar showed 132 mph… then 133 mph… oh, hey, Sam hit 134 mph… nope, he still hasn’t maxed out yet after reaching 135 mph… whoa, that’s 136 mph.

Whew.

He was ruthless in all other circumstances, though. To add on to his impressive service stats, Querrey hit 55 winners, won88 total points, and converted six of his 12 break point opportunities. This match resembled hitting practice rather than a Grand Slam nightcap with the destruction that Querrey wreaked on the court.

Poor Zverev tried to keep up with Querrey with his serve and volley approach, but the strength of the American foiled that plan, and the German had no back-up that he could rely on. Many of Zverev’s ventures to the net ended with him meekly dropping the ball into the net or serving up a meatball into Querrey’s service box. In the latter cases, Querrey ran up to the service box and used his forehand to blast the ball past a helpless Zverev.

Querrey won the first two sets in under an hour, and the third in just 21 minutes. The only drama in the match was whether or not Zverev would win a game in the final set.

When Zverev finally won a game in the third set—after Querrey was up 5-0—the crowd gave Zverev a loud cheer of sympathy and approval. In the following game, the most predictable outcome ever happened: Querrey won that game and the match with another forehand winner.

And with that final stroke, Querrey blasted the crowd out of Arthur Ashe Stadium and into the streaming into the bridge that led to the 7 train and the LIRR platform. We started nearly 1.5 hours late and still managed to start clearing out of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center before midnight.

The party ended too quickly this year. It better go long in 2018.

The Buzzer Beater

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Chris Chiozza redefined what March Madness means to me and more than 20,000 other people standing inside Madison Square Garden on Friday night.

With four seconds left in overtime and my Florida Gators down 81-83 to the Wisconsin Badgers in their Sweet 16 match, Chiozza sprinted from the left end of the court, slipped past Nigel Hayes at the center line, then lofted a one-handed Hail Mary of a floater from behind the arc as the clock hit 0.4 seconds. The ball began its descent from apogee as the light on the backboard clock flashed its white rectangular perimeter to show time’s up. But even from the nosebleeds of Section 209, an orange and blue oasis of Gators in the desert of Badger red that took over much of the Garden, the trajectory of the shot appeared—somehow—to be nothing but net.

Swish. Florida: 84 – 83: Wisconsin, 0.0 seconds.

Hooooooollllllyyyy crap.

Eat your heart out, Aaron Rodgers.

An eruption of screams and raised arms burst out of Section 209 as soon as the ball fell into the hoop. Then, the hugs poured in. A man in his 40s, who had stopped walking up the stairs to watch Chiozza’s one-man improv show unfurl, turned to me with outstretched arms and hugged me. I then turned to the seat to my right to hug a (rare) college student who made his way to New York for the weekend. Then, he, his buddy (another of that rare specimen of college student who made it this expensive extravaganza) to his right, and I shared a group hug, taking care to avoid falling into the row of folks in front of us.

Watching a buzzer beater play out on TV adds a layer of cushioning that softens the blow of the shock that follows. You see the play on screen and hear the commentator’s reaction simultaneously, which helps confirm or add questions to what you think you saw. No matter, you or someone seated to your side will say to wait for the replay before getting carried away. The instant replay shows up a couple seconds later to pound it in your head that you did, in fact, see things correctly. The shot did go in and that yes, the ball was released before the clock hit 0.0.

Inside the Garden, the suddenness of that One Shining Moment made it a hard party. The euphoria took over as soon as the ball fell into the hoop, and without the distraction of a replay of the shot looping on the giant video board above the court, the celebrations plowed forward unabated. We celebrated the result of the buzzer beater and the abrupt nature of it with anyone and everyone within reach. The head struggles to pump the brakes on the joy with the possibility that you may have seen the whole play incorrectly.

I mean, what if my eyes were wrong and Chiozza didn’t get the ball out his hand before the clock hit 0.0? Or what if there was a foul or some other stupid infraction away from the play that would have nullified the shot? What if you didn’t hear a ref’s whistle because everyone started screaming instantaneously?

The public address announcer’s words—“The call stands”—aren’t as emphatic as the NFL’s when seeking validation, but they were enough. The celebrations in Section 209 continued at full blast, trampling over the Wisconsin’s band performance of their alma mater. The only interlude came when the PA requested Florida fans to sing and sway along to “We are the Boys” to send the Florida basketball team back into the locker room. The high of celebrating then resumed from where it left off, with chants of “It’s Great to be a Florida Gator” starting in the arena and continuing into the concourse as people squeezed into the frozen escalators to walk to the exits of the Garden.

On Friday night, Florida lost the race for most fans in attendance, then Bucky Badger (who photobombed the Today show) defeated Albert the Alligator (who wore a Lady Liberty crown from a touristy store) in a dreadful mascot dance-off. But Chiozza rescued Saturday morning for the Gators with his buzzer beating heroics, just as the real-time clock struck 1 am.

And with that miraculous floater, Chiozza created One Shining Moment in the Garden and a lifetime’s worth of madness for the legion of Florida fans lucky enough to witness it in person.

The Supper Club

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We went into Angie’s Little Food Shop as strangers for roast Jerusalem artichoke soup, slow cooked venison, almond and orange cake, biscuits, cheese, and chocolate truffles, but left the restaurant together as a community.

I, along with 27 other souls from all over the globe who happened to be in London at the same time, met at the Chiswick restaurant on 28 January for a supper club dinner hosted by Grub Club’s A Little Lusciousness. The supper club trend in the United Kingdom is an interesting social experiment: a chef runs a pop-up restaurant for one night only and provides a full course dinner to a limited number of diners, who all occupy the same table (space permitting) for the night. When you’re sharing the same space for an extended period of time—three to four hours seems is a common window on Grub Club—the diners are forced to interact with one another, despite knowing nothing about each other before walking in.

Think of it like a group blind date.

But the beauty of this set-up is that it’s suitable for both extroverted and introverted individuals. The outgoing person will thrive from the thrill of meeting and entertaining new people, while the intimate environment of the pop-up restaurant will help a reserved person open up to the new individuals surrounding him or her.

I somehow made it to Angie’s Little Food Shop 10 minutes before the official start of the dinner. Traffic from the Madejski Stadium to the Reading train station almost caused me to miss the 1740 train to London—I hopped in the train as the doors were about to close. After the hour-long train ride into Paddington, I had to make a quick detour to a grocery store to do something new: wine shopping. Belated welcome to adulthood, me!

Grub Club dinners are Bring Your Own Bottle; the bottles of wine are shared by the diners. The chef recommended a bottle of Chianti to pair with the main course’s venison. It took me 15 minutes to Google how a bottle of Chianti would look like, get lost in the wine shelves looking for the red wines, find a cheap Chianti, then run to the back of the store to pick up a bottle of water and bottle of Lucozade Sport for myself, and pay.

I arrived at the restaurant at the same time as a middle-aged couple and a woman who looked like she was also in her late 20s. Four people were already seated in the square wooden table at the back for eight, so my quartet sat in the main table at the center of the restaurant. This table, which eventually sat 17 people, was a long wooden table across from the main counter, with the silverware, white saucers, and white napkins set at each seat.

Richard and Judy, the middle-aged couple, sat to my left. Richard is a former British journalist, while Judy is an American who was also born and raised in the Chicago suburbs. The couple and I had a lot more in common than Chicago, despite the age gap. They traveled to Florida a week before the dinner to buy a home in the Gulf Coast. (Florida: my gateway to talking to anyone with ease.) Their daughter got married in my Connecticut town; she lived in New York, but now lives in Los Angeles, which is nearly the reverse order of how I’ve moved around the country.

Claire, the woman about my age, took the seat across from me. She is a PhD holder from Australia who has spent the last five years in London conducting research on diseases. But the coolest thing about her is that when she travels, she likes learning about a place by grocery shopping.

Finally, I learn I’m not the only nerd who loves grocery shopping away from home. The fact that she has a PhD further validates this travel hobby of ours.

Ben and Sarah, a couple in their 30s, joined us a few minutes later and took the seats to my right. They live in Croydon, just minutes from the lovely Selhurst Park, but they’re northerners at heart. Ben is the first Manchester-born Manchester United supporter I’ve met and Sarah hails from Sheffield. Ben was so fascinated by me traveling all the way to England to watch soccer matches from Brentford to Palace that he gave me a quiz.

“What are the two clubs in Sheffield?” Ben asked.

I shot him a confused look. “Is this a trick question?”

“No, no! I’m curious.”

“Wednesday and United.”

“Wow, haven’t met anyone from another country who knew this much,” Ben said. He then turned to the Sheffield native, Sarah. “What are the two clubs in Sheffield?”

Sarah found the question incredulous, but told him Wednesday and United.

Seated to Ben’s right was Sonya; as an African-American, she was the only other person of color besides me at the table. She’s a Texas native—we exchanged Hook ‘Em Horns in what must have been an odd sight for the others—who lived in New York before her job sent her on a temporary two year assignment to London. Her tenure in London ends in the summer, so she’s trying to soak up as much of the city as possible before returning home. I asked her if that meant she was moving to Texas or New York.

“Texas will always be home because of my roots, but I’m moving back to New York,” she said. “Especially with the election results, Texas won’t be as welcoming now. I’m culturally more at home in New York.”

Across from Sonya and to Sarah’s left sat Annika, a Dutch national living in London. When she spoke, though, she sounded American. It turned out that she lived in California for a period of time before moving to London, which explained the slight, but noticeable, Southern California twang to her voice. She’s also the first person who ever greeted me with the European double kiss, which I thought I butchered at the time because for each cheek, my cheek bumped her cheek and I gave an air kiss. Two YouTube videos after the dinner told I had no need to be embarrassed about myself at the table.

At the head of the table, to my left, was Michael, who spoke with me as the four people between us (including Richard and Judy) cycled in and out of the bathroom. He was a native of Johannesburg who now called London home for the past seven years because of his work as a counselor.

Our varied backgrounds and the tense political climate created by the US Presidential Election and the Brexit made politics an inevitable topic in the table. (The wine also facilitated the chatter. Yes, Claire even talked subborn me into a glass of wine.) There was a general agreement that the isolation isn’t a good move for either country and we sifted through the reasons why the US and UK veered in that direction.

This was a calm and composed discussion on politics and immigration that felt poignant because of the occupants of the table and the timing of the dinner. Our dinner was on the day that the Executive Office of the US signed the first attempt at a travel ban, which was protested all over the globe before the US courts halted the Executive Order. And here we were—three Brits, three Americans, an Australian, a Netherlander, and a South African—in a tiny restaurant in one of the world’s financial capitals, sharing a meal and the incredible professional accomplishments that they’ve all made because they were able to leave their faraway homes and settle in London.

People can accomplish amazing feats if they have the opportunity.

Just as amazing as their professional accomplishments was the part where no one took out their phones (except to show pet photos). Everyone engaged with each other in conversation—the tiny restaurant had the noise level of a high school cafeteria—and made a sincere effort to listen, contribute, and get to know each other. It felt like all the folks seated near me and spoke to were friends of mine by the time we left, which always make it a tad tough to accept that you’ll never see them again. There was a lot of levity mined out of Richard and Judy’s life in the US before moving to London, Claire’s love for The Shins (I appreciate Richard’s wingman efforts to set me up as Claire’s plus-one for the two tickets she has for the band’s show in London, but alas, the show is in two weeks) and travels around the world, Ben and Sarah’s search for a home so they can adopt a dog, and my soccer trek through London and Leicester.

The food was excellent—can we get more restaurants in the US to serve venison?—but the people made the dinner an experience worth having. After all, the bonds we have or make with others are why we share meals.

The Super Bowl with Ranieri and Mourinho

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My first Premier League match in the King Power Stadium turned out to be the last Premier League fixture at home for Leicester City with Claudio Ranieri as the manager.

That fixture pitted the reigning Premier League champions against the reawakened giant of Manchester United, led by Jose Mourinho. That the TV execs scheduled them to play on Super Bowl Sunday felt appropriate for the stature of both teams. But game fell flat inside the first half as United tamed the Foxes in what became a leisurely stroll to a 3-0 win over the champs.

In light of Ranieri’s sacking on Thursday, there’s a layer of irony to United being the last Premier League opponent he’d face at home. Ranieri’s last job in England, as manager of Chelsea from 2000 to 2004, ended when Roman Abramovich sacked him and hired Mourinho as his successor. Thursday’s news also allowed Ranieri to join Mourinho as the second member in the exclusive club of managers who have won the Premier League and then got sacked in the following season.

But the thought of the Leicester hierarchy sacking Ranieri was far from my mind (and probably many others’ at the King Power Stadium) in the pregame build-up. My mind zipped all over the place as soon as I arrived in Filbert Way; the Premier League at the summit of the English pyramid is overwhelming compared to the Premier League I experience at humble Selhurst Park.

The King Power Stadium is a massive modern arena with every inch of the exterior and inside the concourse covered in blue and white. The size of the stadium is accentuated by having a power station, a few car dealerships, and short brick buildings as neighbors. Banners and signs scattered throughout the ground mark Leicester’s title-winning 2015-16 season, including a navy wall scroll of a championship banner taking up most of a wall in the stadium. The individual program(me) sellers outside the turnstiles have their own blue kiosks—each kiosk looks like a short and plump TARDIS—that protect the employees from the elements. Even the program(mes) come sealed in a plastic bag to protect your £3.50 investment.

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Inside the vast bowl of the King Power, the club ratcheted up the noise ahead of kickoff with the Andrea Bocelli performance of Nessun Dorma from when Leicester lifted the Premier League trophy. When the recording of Bocelli ended, the supporters carried the load with the help of those infamous clappers.

Those clappers are annoying.

The clappers, which are basically paper fans, do too good of a job in generating noise. My ears started to hurt from the increased volume that came when the supposed used the clappers to applaud the player introductions. But from an outside observer’s perspective, those clappers are the perfect tool against opposition: they’re loud, the Leicester supporters love them, and they get under the skin of the traveling support.

Thank God for the kickoff whistle, which ended the continuous stream of clapper-supported applause.

The managers emerged mere moments before the whistle blew. Ranieri and Mourinho both looked like they dressed for a funeral with their long black coats and dark dress slacks, grim contrasts to the vibrant red and blue that would be running all over the pristine green pitch.

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Both men expressed their personalities in their in-game management; neither spent long periods on the bench all match, instead opting to stand and watch everything from the touchline. Mourinho took on the subdued version of his hyperfocused self, jotting down observations in a notepad, walking around in a circle during breaks in the action, and using gentle gestures to his players to get them to reorganize their shape. He only became animated when he chirped at the referees for missing a call.

On the other hand, Ranieri was more active in the box. After applauding the home supporters for signing his name at the beginning of the match, Ranieri often provided instructions to his players while the ball was in play. His fingers pointed at players and spots for positioning; his arms moved back and forth to encourage aggression; his voice reached his players despite the noise in the stadium. In the moments when Ranieri just watched the action, he stood still and had his hands behind his back, like a professor proctoring his students in an exam.

Leicester almost had the breakthrough in the 18th minute, when United cleared a header off the line. The attack encouraged the home support, who then began chanting

“Your city is blue

Your city is blue

Just like Leicester,

Your city is blue.”

United grew into the game from that point on, with Marcus Rashford hitting a half volley high in the 22nd minute and Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel saving a low drive from 10 yards out in the 34th minute. Schmeichel was as expressive as Ranieri in the match, applauding Leicester attacks that sputtered out and raising his fists up to pump up his defensive corps after a good stop.

Seven minutes later, Leicester could no longer contain the pressure from United.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan took the ball, burst past an out-of-position Robert Huth at the center circle, and started a race with Wes Morgan in a sprint to the box. A moment before Morgan slid to try and block Mkhitaryan’s shooting lane, the Armenian midfielder took aim at Schmeichel, and the ball bounced off the keeper and into the net. As United celebrated, Schmeichel reacted in disgust to the unlucky deflection he caused.

Two minutes later, United doubled their lead after Leicester’s back four collapsed again.

Antonio Valencia took the ball into the right edge of the box without any challenge from his marker, Christian Fuchs. Valencia used the space between him and Fuchs to send a low, driven pass into the center of the box. The ball rolled just out of the reach of Huth and Morgan, even though the pair were ball-watching. Because Leicester’s heart of defense was tracking the ball, neither one of them bothered to track any United players in the area.

Among the United players lurking around: one Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Even though Ibrahimovic was the most imposing figure in the United starting XI, Morgan left the Swede unmarked from 12 yards out. That gave the Swede just enough space to meet the ball behind the penalty spot and one-time it into the net.

This time, Schmeichel laid into his defenders for neglecting to mark the most dangerous goalscorer on United. Rightfully calling out his teammates wasn’t enough to soothe Schmeichel, so he continued his shouting and redirected it toward the blue sky above.

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Halftime came with United up 2-0 and their supporters signing “Going Down” to the Foxes faithful. That’s rich coming from supporters of a club with the financial muscle and international recognition to make that awful season outcome an impossibility for them.

As bad as Leicester’s defense was in the first half, their attack let them down just as much. Too many cheap giveaways and a lack of inventiveness limited the number of opportunities they had; the strikers were not clincical enough in the few real scoring chances they had. Ranieri did indeed have a couple ideas in the dressing room to retool the toothless attack: Demari Gray replaced Shinji Okazaki and Andy King came on for Ahmed Musa before the second half kickoff.

Juan Mata extinguished any hope of a comeback for the Foxes within three minutes of that kickoff.

Once again, United ran down their right to exploit the struggling Fuchs. Mata took the ball to the same spot along the right edge of the box before passing it to Mkhitaryan in the box. Fuchs, watching the ball while trying to put Mata offside—a teammate marking Ibrahimovic kept Mata onside—let the Spanish midfielder get behind him as Mkhitaryan passed the ball into open space on the right. Mata met the ball at the six-yard box and knocked it past the helpless Schmeichel.

At this low moment in the match, Leicester’s supporters rallied for one last surge of positive energy to try to lift up their players. The words “LEICESTER! LEICESTER! LEICESTER!” roared through the King Power. Schmeichel raised and shook both his fists toward his teammates to get them to fight.

By the 53rd minute, United already began to play to kill the clock with possession. Yet, Leicester finally found some attacking rhythm. In the 56th minute, Leicester had their first real chance of the game since that cleared header, when a Rihyad Mahrez free kick struck the side netting. Gray took charge of the next attack, running down the left before cutting the ball back outside the box to Danny Drinkwater, who could only shoot it high. Gray kept going, though, and later gave the ball to Mahrez, who could only send a cross too high for Jamie Vardy to reach.

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That was it for the Leicester attack, though. Fans nearby me got flustered at the rest of their play—sideways and backward passes and generous giveaways to United—to the point that one of them yelled “This is rubbish” to no one in particular.

The seconds continued to climb toward 90 minutes—and everyone knew the game was winding down when Mourinho brought in the fro of Marouane Fellaini in the 76th minute to shore up the defense. By the 82nd minute, the United supporters once again starting singing “Cheerio, you’re going down” to the Foxes faithful. Boring.

The full time whistle blew and Ranieri and Mourinho gave each other a sincere good game before Ranieri disappeared from sight. Mourinho remained on the pitch to congratulate and shake hands with each of his players walking off the pitch. United had conquered Leicester and for one night, the Midlands city was red instead of blue.

Tigers Tamed in the Cottage

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It felt like I returned to America when I dropped by Craven Cottage to see Fulham’s 4-1 thrashing of Hull City in their FA Cup Fourth Round tie on 29 January.

The words “Visit Florida,” printed in blue above ocean waves, are splashed across the chest of Fulham’s white shirts. (I’ll never escape you, Florida.) US Men’s National Team stalwarts Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride, Kasey Keller, and Clint Dempsey have all played for the Cottagers; McBride has a restaurant named after him in the stadium. The American contingency on the pitch continues today with Tim Ream. Off the pitch, Shad Khan, a Pakistani immigrant to the United States who went from Illinois engineering grad to businessman billionaire to owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, now owns Fulham.

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And in the crowd, an eclectic set of American sports teams headgear was scattered through the Riverside Stand: a Penn State cap, an Anaheim Mighty Ducks beanie, your standard fare Yankees cap, a Cincinnati Bengals beanie, and a San Francisco Giants cap.

But I didn’t go to the quaint Craven Cottage to feel like I was at home. I was here to take in an historic ground, one I wouldn’t have had access to without the extra fixtures created by the FA Cup.

The atmosphere in Craven Cottage itself was tame—almost polite—for the first 20 minutes of the match, with neither side controlling the action on the pitch or in the stands. The home supporters on the Hammersmith End on the north side of the stadium and the away supporters at the Putney End on the south side took turns singing about their team. When it fell quiet in the stadium, one of the stands would start singing. The opposing supporters waited until they finished before responding.

Meanwhile, a ball was put out of play to allow Hull to bring on Harry Maguire for the injured Curtis Davies in the 10th minute. The tall and stocky Maguire looked like he would fit in better in a rugby game; his build made him the most imposing figure playing in this Cup tie.

The game finally sprung to life in the 24th minute, when Sone Aluko scored against his former employers to put Fulham up 1-0. Stefan Johansen curled a free kick that glided toward the far post, where Fulham defender/Chelsea loanee Tomas Kalas headed the ball across the face of goal for Aluko to slam home. Aluko celebrated against his old club, as it should be.

As the rain began to fall in the 30th minute, both teams had opportunities they should have scored on. Aluko had a run on his own to the net before Hull goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic smothered the ball to safety. Hull had the ball in the box and caught Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli out of position, but they could only slam the ball against the crossbar as the refs whistled for an infraction committed by the Tigers.

Fulham went into halftime up 1-0, largely thanks to the composed play at the back by Ream and Kalas, whose partnership ensured goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli had little to do. It was good to finally see the tradition of an American doing well in a Fulham shirt for myself.

After the halftime whistle, I returned to the concourse of the Riverside Stand, shuffling through the tiny gaps of space left by the fans standing in line for concessions and the ones already eating the burgers and chips they bought. The gorgeous view of the Thames from the concourse is one reason why I chose to have my seat in the Riverside Stand for this match.

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Staring at the Thames drowned out the crowds chatting and chomping behind me and the sound of former Fulham and Palace defender Brede Hangeland’s center circle interview that was broadcast through the PA. The river had a sense of tranquility as it flowed by the stadium quietly and without any other visible life—save for the one rowing team that just had to pass through and force this aside—loitering in the water. If it was allowed, I would pay to just hang out at the concourse for the day, eat lunch, and watch the river.

Despite Fulham going into halftime with the lead and the momentum, Hull equalized through a diving header by Evandro in the 50th minute. No one in a white shirt was marking Evandro when Andrew Robertson’s cross met the Hull midfielder’s forehead.

The equal footing was brief, though, when Chris Martin gave Fulham a 2-1 lead in the 54th minute in the best attack of the game. Aluko, from just behind the center line, sent an incisive pass that sliced through the gap on the right side of Hull’s defense. Fulham left back Ryan Sessegnon, the club’s 16-year-old academy graduate, made a run down his left and cut inside to beat Jakupovic to the ball in the box. Sessegnon then sent a one-touch pass across the face of the net for the unmarked Chris Martin to one-time it into an empty net.

To reach the quota for the obligatory cliché: scenes.

Martin and Sessegnon immediately ran to each other, then Sessegnon leaped into Martin’s arms for the bear hug. After the hug, Martin and Sessegnon walked toward their teammates, with arms clasped around each others’ shoulders. As they walked together, Martin pointed at the teenager to get everyone to acknowledge Sessegnon’s superb run and pass in the build-up to the goal.

The floodgates opened for Fulham after that, with Sessegnon capping off another fine display of passing to give the Whites a 3-1 lead in the 66th minute. This time, Martin repaid the favor to Sessegnon with a one-touch pass into open space in the box. Sessegnon, who outran his marker in the space, just had to tap the ball through Jakupovic’s five-hole for the goal.

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Sessegnon’s goal sealed the tie for Fulham, but Hull’s shoddy defending continued and gifted Fulham their fourth of the match in the 78th minute. Tom Cairney, Fulham’s captain for the match, received the ball in space in the right side of the box. Cairney shook off two defenders—Cariney beat the second defender with a 180 degree twirl—then slid the ball, while falling down, toward the penalty spot. No one in an amber and orange shirt was there, but Johansen in white marauded to the ball and launched it into the net.

Those poor Hull fans who made the trip south for this mess. Little did they know that it was only going to get worse.

A foul in the box in the 86th minute gifted Hull a penalty kick. Abel Hernandez stepped up to the kick… and Bettinelli dove to his left and denied Hernandez! But then Bettinelli also brought down Hernandez in the box as they scrambled for the loose ball, so Hull had a second opportunity from the spot for a second consolation goal.

The men seated behind me predicted that Hernandez would again aim at Bettinelli’s left.

Hernandez stepped up… and Bettinelli dove to his left and denied Hernandez! Again! But the ball was cleared this time! They may have had four goals to celebrate earlier, but Craven Cottage hit peak euphoria at the double penalty saves by Bettinelli. So much so, the Hammersmith end poked a little self-deprecating fun at Hull.

“Are you Fulham in disguise?” the Hammersmith End serenaded to Hull and the Tigers’ supporters. (Finally: some vocal hostility between the supporters, even if it’s of lighthearted kind. Reading and Cardiff spoiled me.)

Fulham has been abject with penalties in the Championship this season, earning eight penalty kicks and scoring only two goals off them. Of those eight penalty kicks, three have been against QPR’s Alex Smithies—and none of them have gone in for Fulham. Hell, Fulham missed a last-minute penalty in the game that preceded this FA Cup tie, and it resulted in a 1-0 win for Reading.

But for one rainy Sunday afternoon, Fulham supporters had the joy of seeing another team suffer through the penalty woes that have plagued their club. It was the icing on the cake of an excellent team effort that pushed the Cottagers onto the next round of the FA Cup.

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The Hammersmith End