It has become a rarity for an athlete, in all sports, to spend his entire career with one club. Many players leave their first teams for bigger contracts or championships, sometimes the team wants to go in another direction and sometimes a player's ability diminishes as their age increases. As a fan, there's something special in seeing your favorite players retire with their longtime team. The Yankees recently saw a rare trio of players go through that process. Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter played 16 years together, all arriving in the Bronx in 1995. They won five World Series together, including three in a row in the late 90's. In 2011, Posada was the first to retire. Followed by Rivera in 2013 and Jeter in 2014. That's a combined 53 seasons, all in a Yankee uniform! The only trio that currently comes close is in San Antonio (Duncan/Parker/Ginobli) with a combined 45 (13 together). Crazy.
What is this all about? I didn't go into this looking to write about the Yankees, but it's the most obvious and prolific example of recent athletes spending their entire careers with one team. For it to be a big deal, it also has to be a long career. Someone spending three years in a league before exiting due to injury or lack of skill doesn't qualify. I'm talking about longevity in one place. There are very few active athletes who can claim that. For the sake of only mentioning the extremely long, I chose 15 as an arbitrary number of years to consider. In the NBA you've got Kobe Bryant (19 seasons with the Lakers), Dirk Nowitzki (17 seasons with Dallas) and the San Antonio trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobli (18, 14, 13 respectively). In the NFL, there are only two names that really stand out. Both Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland) and Tom Brady (New England) have been in the league and on their respective teams since 2000 (15 years). In the NHL, there is only one name that can be mentioned...Martin Brodeur. He spent 22 seasons with the New Jersey Devils, but technically he doesn't qualify since he is now playing for St. Louis. In the MLB, there also only seems to be one person who almost qualifies...Jimmy Rollins with 15 seasons playing for Philadelphia. He is now off to LA. It feels like David Ortiz has been in Boston forever, but he spent 6 seasons in Minnesota before becoming the face of Boston (12 seasons, 3 World Series). I'm sure I'm missing a few people, but I did my best.
I can't speak on soccer since my knowledge isn't as broad. Yet, this article is really supposed to be about soccer. The reason I got into the discussion of single-team longevity is that my favorite soccer player has announced his departure from the only team he has known when everyone (including myself) thought he would retire there. I am talking about Steven Gerrard of Liverpool FC who last week announced he will be leaving for the LA Galaxy of MLS after this season.
This might come as a surprise to Americans, but Stevie G first joined Liverpool at the age of 9. Throughout the soccer world, clubs (and countries) have U21 squads to develop young players that can hopefully one day feature as adults on the professional squads. He spent much of the 90s with the youth club, playing alongside other longtime notable Liverpool players Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher. One by one they were each called up to the senior team. First Carragher and Owen in 1996, then Gerrard in 1998 (at the age of 18). Carragher went on to play his entire 17 year senior career in Liverpool, while Owen moved on to Real Madrid in 2004 (and later Newcastle, Man U and Stoke) after a successful 8 seasons at Liverpool (158 goals in 297 appearances, 28 goals for England, Golden Boot, etc). The origin of my love affair with Gerrard and Liverpool can really be traced back to Michael Owen, English soccer and 2004.
In the summer of 2004 I was taking a class in London. The class was two weeks long, though I would stay longer after the class ended with my friend Matt flying out to spend the extra time with me. During those few weeks, I was fortunate enough to experience the UEFA European Championships (or Euro Cup). The tourney occurs every four years and is an international tournament in which European countries can participate in. The format is just like the World Cup in which there are group stages followed by an elimination bracket. Up until then my exposure to international soccer was limited. I played throughout my youth and was interested in World Cup, but only as much as an American child could be in a pre-internet world.
Thus began my introduction to the exciting world of international soccer. The MLS existed at that point, but not too many people cared. I was taken aback by the pride that resonated throughout London (and probably the rest of the country) for their national team. The only international sports we experience in the US are the Olympics, and even then you don't see people waving the US flag throughout the competition. The flag of England was everywhere. The competition was all over the media. How could I not get sucked in. So I found myself watching the games at our local pub in Richmond, The Roebuck. Going in I really didn't know much about the England national team except for David Beckham. As I watched the games however, there were a few players that really stood out for me. Wayne Rooney was the up-and-coming young player who exploded on the scene by leading the team in goals in the tournament at the age of 18. The other players I took a liking to were Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard. I discovered they played for Liverpool and jumped on board.
It was disappointing to soon see that Michael Owen was heading off to Real Madrid, which is when I purchased the Madrid shirt I won't where anymore. Wayne Rooney, who was an exciting star of that summer, used the opportunity to sign with Manchester United. I had already figured out Man U was the enemy in Liverpool and was also disappointed in that move. But I still had Gerrard (and Carragher) from the national team. Considering all my other favorite sports teams were bred into me (Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Whalers/Bruins, UConn), it was a bit of luck and timing joining the side of The Reds. I say lucky because it turned out they were a pretty good team. The roster featured not only Gerrard and Carragher, but also guys like Xabi Alonso, Milan Baros, John Arne Riise, Luis Garcia, Djibril Cisse and Jerzy Dudek. They were a fun team, but ended up only finishing 5th in the league. I was however treated with one of my more favorable sports memories (and favorite Liverpool memory).
Liverpool were definitely underdogs in the 2004-2005 UEFA Champions league tournament, which is a continent-wide tournament for club teams. They finished as a runner-up in their group stage (top two teams from each group advance). After some close rounds with Real Madrid and Juventus, Liverpool was matched up fellow English club Chelsea in the semi-final. The Blues just so happened to win the English Premier League that year and was considered a heavy favorite. Liverpool managed a scoreless draw in the first game at Stamford Bridge then scored their one (and only) goal in the 4th minute of their second game at home. Keeping Chelsea scoreless for two games was quite a feat. It was then off to Istanbul for the final against AC Milan, who were also favorites over Liverpool.
I didn't get to watch much English soccer live on television, but this championship was featured on a weekday afternoon in the summer on ESPN. It was a difficult game to watch. Milan took a 1-0 lead in the first minute and it was 3-0 by halftime. It seemed pretty hopeless at that point. Then began the Miracle of Istanbul. Gerrard started the scoring with a header early in the half. Liverpool would go on to score two more in the next six minutes to bring the game to a draw at 3-3. It was absolutely incredible, and then we reached the shootout. I was very nervous about this. My first experience in really supporting a team in a tournament saw England go out in a penalty shootout to Portugal in the Euro Cup tourney the summer before. There is something especially heartbreaking about being tied up at the end of regulation only to be eliminated in a shootout. The shootout was exhilarating to watch. Liverpool goalie Dudek attempted a "spaghetti legs" tactic to distract the kickers. It was pretty hilarious and may have even worked as Milan missed their first two attempts. Liverpool went up 2-0 but Milan would tie it up with their fourth shot. Liverpool then took a one goal advantage with one shooter left for each team. Liverpool had Gerrard left to shoot if Milan tied it up, but first that would have to be done by Milan's Andriy Shevchenko.
Shevchenko was not only the reigning European Player of the Year, but he ironically scored the winning penalty shot two years earlier to win the Champions League Final for Milan. Thankfully Dudek's spaghetti legs must have gotten to him as Shevchenko blasted it right down the middle and Dudek was able to get a hand on it for the deflection and the win.
So it has been an exciting run having Gerrard at Liverpool and growing my love for international soccer. I am very sad to see him go, but also a bit excited to finally have an opportunity to see him play live when the Galaxy visit Denver. Here's to hoping for a return to Anfield in his final playing days to retire in the place he began.
Good luck in MLS. Hopefully you can get some more hardware for your shelf.
And at least we'll always have Istanbul...