Finding my inner Wenger
MANHATTAN, N.Y. -- I almost didn't make it to the biggest coaching gig of my life. There I was on my way down to Chinatown for Ethan Zohn's celebrity soccer match for charity when I took a wrong turn. You could hardly blame me. I saw cameras, I saw lights, I saw fans milling about. It wasn't until a woman with a clipboard asked me if I was here for makeup that I realized I had the wrong field. Turns out I had wandered onto the set of "Gossip Girl", which was filming an episode a couple of blocks away from the game.
"So you're the gaffer?" said the genial 49-year-old Aussie who was a pro goalkeeper Down Under in the late '70s. "I guess that means you call the shots. Just don't expect anyone to listen to you."
LaPaglia is the hood ornament for Hollywood United, a motley collection of soccer-playing actors, musicians and former internationals who together make up if not the best amateur team in the world, then certainly the most paparazzi-worthy.
Founded in the late '80s by a bunch of British ex-pats, the roster has boasted, among others, Mike Myers, Robbie Williams, Ziggy Marley, the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones, Def Leppard's Viv Campbell, British tough-guy actor and former football goon Vinnie Jones, World Cup stars Richard Gough (Scotland) and Frank LeBoeuf (France) and former U. S national teamers Eric Wynalda and Alexi Lalas.
It is not uncommon for LaPaglia to fuel up his private jet and take the whole rowdy bunch to Mexico or Monaco for a tournament where they play against the likes of Prince Albert, Michael Schumacher and Boris Becker. Not all of the regulars could make it to New York for Thursday's exhibition but there were enough bold-faced names to lure a couple of hundred fans to the Lower East Side at noon for the match between Hollywood United and Grassroots Soccer, the non-profit Zohn co-founded to raise awareness of the fight against HIV/ AIDS in Africa.
In the game, my lineup included not only Superman (Brandon Routh) but also the naked guy in the Sex and The City movie (Gilles Marini), who thankfully was fully clothed in his red HU kit. "Sometimes when we're in a close game," said LaPaglia conspiratorially, "we tell Gilles to drop his shorts to intimidate the other team."
"But this is a charity match," I reminded LaPaglia. "Isn't the idea to just have fun and raise some money for Grassroots Soccer?"
"Tell that to the boys over there," said LaPaglia, nodding toward a couple of grizzled guys lacing up their boots on the sideline. "So you're the top man?" said Gough, who like LaPaglia, seems to eschew the word "coach." "What's your game plan?"
I wanted to tell him "let's just out there, knock it around and have a few laughs." Then I remembered who I was speaking to: A man known as Captain Blood during his storied career for Rangers, Everton and Scotland because he was willing to spill a pint or two to keep opponents from breaching his defensive fortress. So what I said to Gough was this: "As a disciple of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, I believe in attack, attack, attack, with quick one-touch passing and fluid interchanging until you're able to walk the ball into the goal."
"Did you say Arsenal?" said Hollywood United's general manager Ian Carrington. "You get slapped around here for saying that word. Ain't that right, Frankie?"
As to prove my point, while warming up with my official Arsenal ball, LeBoeuf struck a volley with such ferocity and inaccuracy that it sailed over two buildings and even a caped Brandon Routh couldn't track it down. "Hey," I said to LeBoeuf, "that ball cost me a 100 bucks." "I told you to get that Arsenal rubbish out of here," he snarled.
Just then, a small, dark man appeared on the field and LeBoeuf ran off to embrace him. It was Youri Djorkaeff, who like Leboeuf was a member of France's 1998 World Cup-winning team. This would be the first time since they began their club careers in France --LeBoeuf with Strasbourg, Djorkaeff with Monaco -- that the two would square off against each other. Or to put it another way, " the last time I played against Frank he had hair," said Djorkaeff, laughing.
Djorkaeff was a last-minute recruit by Zohn to play for his Grassroots side, as was another Frenchman, Yannick Noah. The dreadlocked former French Open champion who became a popular singer throughout Europe is now probably best known as the father of Joakim Noah, a center for the Chicago Bulls. But he's far more likely these days to kick a ball than pick up a racket. "Soccer is in my blood," said the 48-year-old Noah. "My father was a pro in Cameroon and I've been playing all my life." "And your son?" "He's not very good. Once in a while, he'll get his head on the ball because he's so tall but that's about it."
With five minutes 'til kickoff, I wandered over to greet the two coaches it would apparently take to equal my tactical genius -- my old friend, the former Cosmos goalie and Red Bulls color man, Shep Messing, and U.S. women's national team star Leslie Osborne.
"Shep bailed," said Osborne when I got over to her sideline. "I think the idea of facing you freaked him out." "I'm impressed that you didn't bolt as well," I said. "After all, you're going up against a guy whose corporate team, HarperCollins United, hasn't lost in 39 straight games."
"I've done a little coaching myself," she said, being too polite to mention that it was a slightly higher level -- Santa Clara University -- or to say nothing of her 59 caps for the U.S. team.
"I just want you to know that we're out for blood," I warned her.
"Bring it on," she hissed.
Actually, apart from that one lapse, Goughie was a defensive colossus as we jumped out to a 3-0 lead, thanks to a couple of nifty goals from our strike partnership of Marini and Kyle Martino (the former Staples, Virginia and Columbus Crew star). "Coach, you look like a genius," said Alexi Lalas, the former Galaxy general manager. "Isn't that what you said to Ruud Gullit at the beginning of the season?" I replied.
Lalas was a late addition to our team and, in fact, replaced his brother Greg who was transferred -- a fee has yet to be agreed upon -- to the Grassroots side just before kickoff. I asked Alexi what he's been doing since leaving the Galaxy. "I've been hanging out with my one-month-old son Henry," he said. "He's a big guy and I can't decide whether he's the next center back of the national team or a target striker."
For a guy who is the first to describe his style as "lumbering," Lalas still has a pretty decent touch, though he lacks the guile and creativity of his younger brother who, along with Djorkaeff, bossed the midfield for Grassroots. "I was surrounded by Frenchman," said Greg, "so I had no choice but to bring out my Platini-esque game."
Up front, Grassroots showed flashes of skill and verve when Noah volleyed home a cheeky flick from Heather O'Reilly. "That girl's not bad," said Carrington, "does she play professionally?" "Dude," said Alexi Lalas, "She's won a couple of Olympic golds, a World Cup medal, her face is on a cereal box ..."
Lalas was interrupted by LaPaglia screaming at his defenders as he was forced to make several acrobatic saves from Djorkaeff and former U.S. goalkeeper turned striker Tony Meola. "There are two reasons that Pags is always great in these charity matches," explained Carrington. "First, he's at his best when there are cameras around and second, the goals are small and he fills the entire frame."
I was feeling pretty good about my coaching acumen when the half ended with Hollywood United ahead, 6-2. I even ignored the fact that LaPaglia lit up another cigarette during intermission. In fact, I was so pleased with myself that it took me 20 minutes to notice that Osborne, that crafty devil, had snuck on an eighth player in the 7 vs. 7 game at the start of the second half.
With Djorkaeff now spinning our defenders like a top and dishing to Noah and O'Reilly, Grassroots stormed back to within a goal at 8-7 and I was forced to play my last tactical gambit: I re-inserted Marini who was on a hat trick and told him to make believe he was Thierry Henry. Instead, at that exact moment, a Sex and The City tour bus pulled up outside the gates and out poured about 30 women, begging for a photo-op with my star player (apparently they recognized him with his clothes on). Not wanting to disappoint his fans, Marini ran off the field to greet them and Grassroots scored the equalizer as time ran out.
Afterward, I took full blame for our second-half collapse, although Alexi Lalas tried to ease my pain. "I'd rather hire a coach with a flawed game plan than a coach with no plan at all," said Lalas. "Look at it this way: Your coaching extended the entertainment value of the game for 90 minutes. And by the way, didn't anybody tell you that all these charity matches end in a tie?"
David Hirshey is a columnist for SoccerNet and the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of the forthcoming "ESPN's Ultimate Guide To The World Cup."