Thursday, September 24, 2009
Since arriving back in the UK from my trip round Major League Soccer, MLS has continued to hit the sports pages on these shores, and is gaining an increasing amount of coverage despite several British players leaving the league.
This may be in part due to David Beckham's return from his loan spell at AC Milan, together with the very public criticism of him by Galaxy team-mate Landon Donovan in the Grant Wahl book 'The Beckham Experiment'.
The cause also been helped by the excellent performance of the US national team in the Confederations Cup this summer, where a win over European champions Spain raised a few eyebrows, before they let a 2-0 lead slip against the much-fancied Brazil in the final.
But while Danny Dichio (Toronto FC) and Darren Huckerby (San Jose Earthquakes) announced their retirement in recent weeks, and Rohan Ricketts (Toronto FC) and Ian Joy (Real Salt Lake) returned to Europe to continue their careers, it's clear there is still a strong British following for Major League Soccer despite a lack of British players.
The performances of Houston Dynamo's Scottish-American midfielder Stuart Holden have seen him earn his first caps (and goals) for the US national team, while Beckham's performances, despite a couple of blips including an incident where he confronted angry Galaxy fans, and a red card against Seattle, have seen his club mount a serious title challenge. Even Fabio Cappello has been impressed, including him in the last two England squads.
But there is plenty more to look out for in the MLS than Brits. Seattle's Colombian wizard Fredy Montero was recently linked with a move to Everton in the Premier League, after an explosive start to his career in MLS; last season's MVP Guillermo Barros Schelloto continues to defy his age and keeps banging in the goals for reigning champions Columbus; and US internationals Landon Donovan and Jeff Cunningham
have had no trouble finding the net either. Speaking of the net, you can even spot the ever-green Kasey Keller in goals for Seattle.
So with plenty to talk (and write) about, I'm going to carry on with this book. I'll keep you posted with how it's going...
Saturday, May 9, 2009
With one final Major League Soccer team to visit, there are worse places to end this trip than
But is there are a worse team name than ‘Red Bull
The latest incarnation of
The Red Bulls play in
Despite several hold-ups, the club recently held a ‘topping off’ ceremony to celebrate placing the final piece of over 7,100 tons of steel at the stadium, and it’s hoped the Arena will be ready for the start of next season.
Many of the ‘home’ fans at the Giants stadium still sing the Metrostars songs, refusing to acknowledge the new name and still hoping that, in time, they will get their Metrostars back.
The stadium also hosted seven World Cup 1994 games, including
With over 75,000 fans packed in to see Houghton’s goal, the atmosphere must have been superb. But given the Red Bulls’ average attendance this season of just under 10,000, it is always going to be difficult for them to create an atmosphere anywhere close to that.
Their game against
I joined some of their members for the pre-match tailgate, and enjoyed some of the cuisine on offer from their chef Leon. Grilled sausage, caramelised onions and kraut with some excellent German potato salad; not exactly your typical soccer grub – but very good!
It wasn’t the biggest turn-out the ESC had ever seen, but then an early season game against Salt Lake may not hold the lure of, say, a derby against DC United – an event the ESC members told me made for a pretty special atmosphere.
“Sometimes we get around 50 people here, others I have cooked for almost 600”, Leon told me over the make-shift grill at the back of his car. “That’s how many I catered for at the USA-Argentina game last year, and it ranges from pulled-pork BBQ to a Greek gyro to perhaps a Cuban sandwich Latino tailgate.”
With food and drink flowing, there was a pretty eclectic mix of supporters – both within the ESC, as well as in the other supporters groups.
I met Argentine, Brazilian, Mexican, American…….even an Egyptian, who claimed he could have been playing soccer at MLS level, but for an injury at college. He raised suspicion, however, by refusing to show the evidence – a scar on his ankle. “You would be too disgusted”, he said…..
After the tailgate, the supporters made their way in to Giants stadium to see the Red Bulls produce a decent display, beating
With players like Angel, and fellow striker Macoumba Kandji, the Red Bulls may have the opportunity to challenge for honours this season. And if the ESC can continue to spread their enthusiastic support at the Red Bull Arena, with its 25,000 capacity, there’s every chance that
But surely there’s something they can do about that name…..
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
At the beginning of each season, it’s almost impossible to predict who will be in the play-offs, let alone who might eventually be crowned champions.
The financial structure of the league (in particular the salary cap) helps to promote this parity, avoiding situations like the English Premier League’s ‘top four’ or the Old Firm’s iron grip on the SPL.
However, if there is one team in MLS that has enjoyed the most success it would have to be the one found in the nation’s capital: DC United
One of the original ten founding members of the league, DC won the first two MLS Cups back-to-back (in 1996/97) and also claimed back-to-back Supporters’ Shields in 2006/07.
They have also enjoyed success in the CONCACAF Champions Cup – becoming the first ever American winners of the trophy – and have won a record four MLS titles.
Last year, DC added the US Open Cup (the US equivalent of the FA Cup, known as the Lamar Hunt trophy) to their trophy cabinet, and while they have started the 2009 season slowly, head coach Tom Soehn’s new signings are still adapting to their new surroundings.
The black and reds currently play their home games at the 56,000 capacity RFK stadium, with plans for a soccer-specific stadium still underway.
When I visited the RFK, DC United defender Devon McTavish described the match-day atmosphere there:
“It’s great”, the 2007 Cosmo Bachelor of the Year entrant told me. “I think we have one of the best followings in the league….the best in fact.
“It’s tough to beat this atmosphere, and we get good attendances. I love playing at this stadium - playing elsewhere around the league remind you it’s tough to beat this atmosphere.”
Devon’s route in to professional soccer is fairly typical of an American player in the league. He grew up playing soccer with his older brother recreationally, but got more seriously interested in the sport during the USA ‘94 World Cup.
Two years later, when Major League Soccer and DC United came along, Devon realised there might be an opportunity to make a career out of the sport.
“It (MLS) came along at a good time for me age-wise, as I was 12 and starting to think a little bit about things. I started coming to home games here and realised that I would want to do this one day”.
Now 24, Devon plays a key role in the DC United defence and has big ambitions for his career. And while his feet remain firmly planted on the ground, he is aware that his generation are playing a part in shaping the future of Major League Soccer.
“The players here right now are helping to create history, and developing soccer in this nation” he said. “Some guys have to do other things to make a little more money, but that was how the NFL started too”.
Perhaps as a by-product of their college education, many of the American players in the league seem acutely aware that a career in soccer can be a short and fragile one. In MLS, it can also be a relatively low-paid one.
Devon realises this, adding: “We’re doing this right now because we love the sport, and a lot of the time it’s because we don’t want to enter the real world and get a real job!”
After visiting DC United, the final leg of my journey will see me visit New York, where I will watch the Red Bulls in action against Real Salt Lake.
Monday, April 20, 2009
And when you think about it, given that California has three teams and Texas has two, the statistic seems nigh on impossible.
It is made possible by New England Revolution. Whereas most MLS teams represent a single city, let alone a state, the Revs actually cover a large geographical area which includes an impressive six states in total.
Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachuessets and Rhode Island make up the New England area, and are represented by the team owned by Robert Kraft, the mulit-millionaire paper & packaging supremo who also owns the Patriots American Football team.
The Revolution (and the Patriots) play at the Gillette Stadium, also owned by Kraft, which is based in Foxborough, Massachuessets. Foxborough is about an hour drive outside of Boston, the largest city in New England.
So it seemed wise to visit Boston, meet with the fans and go to the stadium from there. If only it was that simple...
The 'visit Boston and meet with the fans part' went fine; the Revs fans were more than willing to share their experiences of supporting the team with me. It was the 'go to the stadium from there' part which proved difficult. In fact, make that 'impossible'...
Public transport only takes you to within about 10miles of the Gillette. On a match day, there are then shuttle buses that take you to and from the stadium. But on a regular day, you require a taxi.
Apparently the Red Sox home opener is not a regular day...
There was not a single taxi company in the area (and I tried several!) available to make the short trip. They were all booked up by excited baseball fans on their way to Fenway.
So, sadly, I cannot tell you any more about the Gillette stadium than what I was told by the fans. Although one of them, Sean, was hopeful about the rumour of the Revs moving from Foxborough to the much closer Boston suburb of Somerville.
“I really hope it's true”, Sean told me. “It would make the team much more accessible to fans – and that way I wouldn't have to rely on a ride from other supporters!”
The commute to games is a difficulty the Revs fans live with, and it doesn't stop one fan making a regular 1,364 mile round-trip from Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Another fan, Evan, told me the Revs and the league itself have developed so much since he started supporting, that it makes trips like that worthwhile.
“The differences are night and day”, says Evan, “not only in terms of the quality of play, but in how the game is treated by club owners and investors. Gone are many of the gimmicks first used to sell the sport to American fans, replaced by a level of respect for the culture and traditions of the game.”
With former Liverpool & Scotland star Steve Nicol as head coach, it is no wonder that the Revolution have embraced these traditions as much as any other team. Nicol has led the team to the MLS Cup final on four occasions, and won the Open Cup in 2007. I will be speaking to him later in the week, to find out how they are prepared for this season.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Given Toronto FC's reputation for having the best atmosphere in North American soccer, it seemed only appropriate that BMO Field should provide my first ever live MLS experience.
After all, they say you don't forget your first time.
On reflection, there was plenty to forget about the game itself, especially from a Toronto perspective, with Seattle handling the windy conditions far better and running out comfortable 2-0 winners.
But in terms of the whole soccer experience, there was not much wrong with it. Except for the Scotch egg incident.....
First up, and most importantly, the stadium was full. Despite the reported crowd trouble at the previous week's trip to Columbus Crew, the majority were in good spirits, and behaved impeccably. An alleged beer-throwing at Seattle's celebrity fan and co-owner Drew Carey was an isolated incident...
Speaking of beer, further brownie points were scored by Toronto for offering the beverage in various measures up to and including 24oz (approx two pints).
And again at the snack bar, which tempts you with a Scotch egg to accompany the giant beer. For those that don't know, a Scotch egg is a hard-boiled egg, coated in sausage meat and covered in breadcrumbs.
Thankfully there was someone front of me in the queue for the snacks to help me avoid falling in to such a trap...
When he stepped up to order his 'freshly cooked' Scotch egg, he looked as excited as I felt, both for the egg but also for kick-off, which by now was fast approaching.
His excitement soon turned to disappointment, however, at what was laid in front of him. The breadcrumbed object appeared to have been dipped in oil for a second or two, then plopped on to a paper plate.
The man's disappointment looked in danger of turning to fury when he pulled the Scotch egg open to find that the meat coating of the egg was still raw. It didn't help that the snack bar assistant told him 'I think it is supposed to be like that'.
So he told her otherwise, and waited for his replacement.....only for another, uncooked abomination to be handed to him.
Now, given North America's reputation for its lawsuit culture, this seemed like an accident waiting to happen. But the man decided that he had had enough, got a slice of pizza instead, and it was time for kick-off.
Freddie Ljungberg, the Sounders' 'designated player', was booed throughout – and he no doubt thrived on this, scoring one goal and setting up the other one for Seattle.
And if Toronto FC struggled to cope with Ljungberg, they downright failed to deal with the weather conditions.
As wind swirled around BMO Field, Seattle looked to find passes on the ground. But Toronto FC opted for the high ball, and I couldn't help wondering whether it was something to do with their strong British influence.
Mo Johnston, Toronto FC's (Scottish) Director of Soccer, has never been noted for his free-flowing football. And with two Englishmen (midfielder Rohan Ricketts and striker Danny Dichio) and a Welshman (midfielder CarlRobinson) in the ranks, the British contingent in Toronto is fairly strong.
And these Brits are certainly capable of producing better. In fact, the team is pretty strong throughout, and with local star Dwayne De Rosario on board, they have a player capable of producing something special. So there is plenty of time for improvement this season.
In terms of the MLS experience (Scotch egg incdent aside) Toronto FC have a very good thing going on. And with the inclusion of Vancouver's MLS franchise from 2011, a Canadian rivalry will add further spice to Toronto's already thriving soccer culture.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
In thick, black marker pen.
Now, having been to the city, that’s no longer the case.
You could probably get away with just a biro now…
Having said that, I can at least tell you a little about their soccer team. And it ain’t half bad.
Champions of their division last season, they went on to become MLS Champions, beating New York Red Bulls 3-1 in the final. And the man who set up all three goals that day, Argentine maestro Guillermo Barros Schelloto, was named the league’s Most Valuable Player shortly after.
The team is managed by former Everton midfielder Robert Warzycha, with MLS winning coach Sigi Schmid leaving for Seattle at the end of last season. Incidentally, Schmid doesn’t appear to have lost the midas touch, with the Sounders kicking off the 2009 in fairly formidable style.
But Warzycha obviously knows a good thing when he sees one, keeping changes over the close season to a minimum and hoping for some continuity from the champions.
One man hoping to force a change in the team, however, is Scottish midfielder Adam Moffat.
The former Elgin City & Ross County midfielder set the ball rolling (literally) in 2008, scoring the first MLS goal of the season and quickly became a fan favourite with the Crew. But a knee injury, from which he is only just recovering, cut short the 22 year-old’s season early in the campaign. And to make things worse, he picked up a slight hip injury late in pre-season.
With the Crew’s attempt to retain the MLS crown already underway, Moffat faces a battle to get fit and fight for his place in the side. But he’s relishing the challenge.
“It’s going to be an exciting battle”, Moffat told me after receiving treatment for his latest knock. “Last year was a wonderful one for the Crew, and this year it will be even harder as teams will be gunning for the champions. It’s really enjoyable here, and I just hope to get more involved in it this year.”
Entering his third season with the Crew, Moffat says he has noticed changes in the game, even since he arrived in Ohio.
“The crowds are louder, and the fans are getting in to it more (than when I arrived)”, says Moffat now. “It is definitely growing, and you see banners, flags, signs in restaurants and everything now, which I don’t think you would have five or 10 years ago”.
Moffat’s story, like many of the Scots in Major League Soccer, has taken him from lower league British football to top level in the US. And the fact that his club side are champions will make it all the more difficult for the Scotsman to break in to the side.
As for what else I have learned about Columbus? Well, every February the city hosts the Arnold Classic (or Arnold fitness weekend), a bodybuilding event named in honour of Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. If only I had been here a month earlier…..
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Sitting in the dinner cart with a basketball fan from New Orleans, he was keen to know how American Football, basketball and other American sports had developed in Europe.
And in discussing American Football, I mentioned that Edinburgh had been home to the now defunct Scottish Claymores from 1994-2005. When he asked if the team were any good, I decided that they probably wouldn't have lived up to his standards of the sport, and said 'no'.
At that moment, another gentleman, sat across the carriage from us, almost choked on his water. After composing himself, he looked over and said 'thanks'. So I asked if he knew the Claymores, and he told us that he had in fact played for them.
To say the man was giant would be an understatement, so I qualified my statement by saying that, in the same way as MLS isn't yet at the same level as the top European soccer leagues, NFL Europe was no match for the American version.
Thankfully, he had also played for the Green Bay Packers, and shared my opinion, so I was forgiven.
This incident re-emphasised the difficulty soccer has in generating interest in a sport that is not considered traditional to the United States. And Chicago in particular has a tough task, given their rich tradition in American sporting history.
The Chicago Cubs baseball team are (in)famous for their 100 year World Series drought, but are currently two-time defending champions of the National League Central Division. And their city rivals - the White Sox - are no slouches, winning the World Series in 2005.
In American Football, the Bears have more former players (26) in the Pro Football Hall of Fame than any other team. And there aren't many people on the planet who haven't heard of the Chicago Bulls basketball team - thanks largely to team legend Michael Jordan, one of the greatest sportsmen of all time.
So for soccer to make it in to the city's sporting mainstream, it faces something of an uphill battle.
This was particularly evident visiting the Globe Bar in the North Center area of the city - the bar for watching soccer in Chicago.
It was a huge day in soccer, not just in the United States, but worldwide, with World Cup qualifying on the agenda.
Arriving shortly after England's 4-0 friendly win over Slovakia, Scotland were just about to kick off against the Netherlands. From outside the bar, it was difficult to know if I was in the right place. But the second the door opened, a wave of Scottish jerseys, scarves and expletives told me I was.
Every Scottish person in Chicago seemed to have come out for the game, with many familiar accents flying around as I waited in line at the bar. The atmosphere was just what you'd expect in any pub across Scotland, right down to the misery at the final whistle, which quickly turns to optimism for the next game.
In the evening, some Scots remained to pick through the finer details of the match, while a handful of Uruguay, Mexico and Turkey fans groaned and cheered at the various screens around the bar.
With MLS side Chicago Fire facing DC United away that night, I was surprised to see the US mens national team were also in World Cup qualifying action (against El Salvador) at the same time. So we secured ourselves a table for watching the games, expecting an onslaught of fans and another packed out bar.
But 7.45 came and went, and there was no sign of the onslaught. In fact, there were a few empty tables and not even a hint of a line at the bar after both games had kicked off.
So the Scotland fans took some (great) enjoyment from seeing El Salvador take the lead against the USA, before both they and the Fire struggled to draws in their games. It was difficult not to notice that both matches were barely even acknowledged by the majority of the people in the bar.
Given that I'd heard the Globe bar was where I would find the hub of the soccer community in Chicago, (in particular the Fire fans) it seems that the sport is still a fair way behind in the city.
The next stop is Columbus, Ohio, where the Crew are reigning MLS champions.
Monday, March 30, 2009
For a start, you'd be struggling to find a climate in the developed world so distinctly different to that of Scotland, than in Texas. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing...
But blistering sunshine for the majority of the year, often bordering on unbearable in the summer months, is not exactly what you would call 'ideal' for a game, let alone a full season, of soccer.
It's also not as easy to fit in as I had thought. Or at least, not in a country & western bar following one of the biggest rodeos of the year, wearing t-shirt, jeans and white trainers.....when every other person there is in full rodeo attire.
However, Houston Dynamo's head coach Dominic Kinnear, and his assitant John Spencer, both of whom hail from Glasgow, are no cowboys when it comes to soccer – and have even launched something of a mini Scottish revolution at the club.
The revolution doesn't end there, either. Midfielder Stuart Holden, born in Aberdeen, moved to Houston at the age of 10, before returning to the UK with Sunderland FC.
A horrendous street assault on Holden, in which he had his eye socket broken, speeded up his return to Houston, where he is now making giant strides in the US game, not just domestically but also on the international scene.
That's right, Holden has been whisked away from Scotland's grasp by the US national team, appearing (and scoring) at the Olympics for the U23 side, before being selected in the squad that faced Mexico in last month's World Cup qualifier.
Head coach Kinnear has been involved in soccer in the USA for the longest of the three, moving to California as a toddler. As a result, he hasn't kept the Glaswegian tones like his assitant Spencer, but thinks a Scottish background has helped him in the MLS.
“I think it helps me out in a football sense”, he told me in a now strong American accent. “I grew up in a house where soccer was always on television. My dad coached, my brothers and sister played – I am number 5 of 6 kids, so it was follow the leader kind of thing. And we're all still involved at some level.”
Spencer, meanwhile, only recently returned to the league, having played for Colorado Rapids from 2001-04 before some media work with Chelsea TV. He came back to Major League Soccer with Houston in 2006, and noticed huge developments in the short time he had been away.
He says: “The difference, especially in the media coverage, during that 12 month period, was incredible. Now, youre getting Champions League games on TV, UEFA Cup games, all sorts. We can watch two live games of football a day now – Mexican, German, Spanish, French – we get every league. Over a weekend you could watch 15-20 games!”
Interestingly, Stuart Holden insists the one thing he misses about Scotland is the coverage of football.
The 23 year old, now in his fourth season at Dynamo, says: “I love the sport and I love watching it. You get more games over there (UK), and I miss the whole culture – I am a bit of a prankster and thats more embedded in the culture in UK soccer.”
This 'prankster' culture was apparent amongst all three Scots – and evidently they have tried to instill some Scottish spirit in the Dynamo team, highlighted when one of the American players greeted Spencer as 'bawbag' on his way home after training.
With all three committed to the Dynamo cause, and Holden in particular earmarked for a big future in US soccer, it seems that Scotland's loss will continue to be America's gain.
Monday, March 23, 2009
I was excited to get to Dallas, to experience my first taste of live soccer action in the United States.
Upon boarding the devil of American transport (aka the Greyhound bus) in Kansas City, I had been hoping to forget my surroundings and sleep through most of the 12 hour overnight trip to Dallas. Alas, it was not meant to be....
Having slotted in to what little space was afforded to me, I was soon shifting to make room for a new passenger. When he asked if he could sit down, I told him 'of course', but warned that there was very little space. This, he told me, was not a problem as he had 'not had much space for the past three years'.
I suppose I should really have guessed what this meant straight away, but before I had time to process the thought he asked me: 'are you nervous 'sitting next to a convict?' As it turned out, it seems that I was.
So arriving in Dallas at 7am, having slept barely an hour, I could probably have done with a little shut-eye. But once again, it was not meant to be, as I was whisked off to the St Patrick's Day parade on Greenville, a beer forced in to my hand before it had even hit 9am.
That evening, after what seemed like an eternity of green beads, beer and anything remotely Irish, FC Dallas were in action against Brazilian side Ateltico Paranaense at Pizza Hut Park.
It was not only my first opportunity to experience a US soccer match, but also my first taste of the American tradition of tailgaiting. Fans of the team congregate near the stadium prior to the match, have a few drinks and build up some anticipation with their fellow supporters.
The game was a pre-season friendly, and the FC Dallas 'Inferno' supporters group reminded me that it was not necessarily a fair reflection of a typical Dallas MLS game. But it was an enjoyable experience nonetheless, and n eye-opener in many respects.
The tailgait was fun, and the Inferno even had a Scottish beer in reserve for me. Enjoying the company of so many fellow soccer fans was something I had missed since leaving the UK, and it was great to gain an insight in to what these fans talk about before a game.
In all honesty, it turned out to be very similar to pre-game drinks in the UK, but instead of meeting in the pub they meet in the car park!
Once inside the stadium, however, you start to notice some subtle differences between the American experience compared to the British.
The Inferno fans were as vibrant and vocal as you might expect from a supporters group, singing, shouting and generally giving encouragement to the players for the full 90 minutes.
But the rest of the fans, outwith the supporters groups, were noticably subdued. Whether it was the fact the game was a friendly, or some other reason, there was a distinctly different atmosphere due to the lack of an away support.
After the game, which FC Dallas won 1-0 courtesy of a Jeff Cunningham goal, the scores were level on aggregate due to a 4-3 victory for Ateltico in the first leg, in Brazil. Atletico went on to win the shoot-out, securing the USA-Brazil Challenge trophy.
There was still time for post-game drinks and bit of match analysis with the Inferno crowd, before finally getting some much-needed sleep. And not a convict in sight...
Monday, March 16, 2009
First of all, it's true what they say about Kansas City barbecue. It is gooood!
The place was Oklahoma Joe's. The food was burnt ends (of pork) with a ton of barbecue sauce and fries. And beans. And bread. It was excellent, and made the typical stereotype of American portion sizes seem small...
I met Kansas City Wizards' self confessed 'dork in chief' Sam Pierron there, to chew the fat (literally) over soccer in the KC area. The guy knows his stuff...but then, as the only person I have ever heard of who has an MBA in Football Industries, I suppose he should.
In between mouthfuls, Sam gave me the lowdown on the Wizards, as well as telling me how he had been instrumental in founding the Supporters' Shield, a trophy set up for the MLS team with the best regular season record (ie. not including the play-offs), back in 1998.
Aside from the barbecue, the city has many other charms including its college basketball team, the Jayhawks.. They have won 52 national championships since they formed, an NCAA record, and are something of an institution in college sport.
The one thing the city so far lacks, though, is a soccer specific stadium. The plans are in place, though, and look pretty impressive. The site is a giant, derelict shopping mall, formerly one of the biggest in the US. At this stage, the mall is half way through being torn down, and is strangely eery – think zombies and Dawn of the Dead.
Anyway, the team currently trains on one side of the city, and play their home games at the Community America ballpark on the other. Watching them train is a joy, not least because of former Argentina star Claudio Lopez, at one time the world's most expensive player.
At 34, he is admittedly no longer able to unleash the pace he was once known for, but his tricks and first touch still set him aside from the rest of the Wizards team
I was personally more intrigued to speak to Kevin Souter, a former Aberdeen youngster who failed to make the grade in the SPL and decided to pursue his soccer dream in the States.
It is something of a Roy of the Rovers story for Kevin, who attended an open try-out at the Wizards in 2008 after going through the US college system with Graceland University.
He then travelled with the Wizards to Argentina for a pre-season tour, and beat over 200 other trialists from 15 different countries in securing a professional contract.
He made his debut as a substitute against LA Galaxy and boyhood hero David Beckham. Within minutes, he had robbed Beckham of the ball, simultaneously winning over the Wizards fans.
He already seems settled in the States, and doesn't plan on leaving any time soon.
“I want to make a pretty good impact here first of all” he told me in the Wizards' players lounge after training. “I love Scotland, I love the country and I like playing there. But for some reason, the coaching style and the way the game is, I think I'm more suited to playing out here”.
There is some real quality amongst Kevin's Wizards team-mates, and it doesn't end with Claudio Lopez. There is also Josh Wolff, the former 1860 Munchen forward, and Jimmy Conrad, the US national team defender and Wizards captain.
Yet while the team looks good on the field, the club itself faces a constant off-the-field challenge in attracting new fans. Last season, they had an average of just over 10,000 for each game. Not too bad, but given the new stadium will be able to fit almost twice that, there is still a fair way to go.
And they may face a challenge from another sport, who are also on the prowl for new recruits. Having a quiet drink in a bar one evening, I was discussing the Wizards with a fellow drinker, Dan. His English heritage had introduced him to Manchester United, and his affection for the sport had grown.
But Dan's real love was shooting guns. Not real ones, but Air-soft; the ones that fire plastic ball bearings. And his Air-soft team, he excitedly told me, had even beaten the US Army in a training game.
I was strangely fascinated, and when he told me that his guns were exact replicas of the real thing, the same size and weight, I made the mistake of telling him I'd like to see one....two minutes later, I'm standing in the car park holding what looks EXACTLY like an AK-47.
But I don't see Air-soft rivalling soccer in the Kansas City area. And neither are ever likely to overtake barbecue as the signature of the city.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
They had former Hibs & Dunfermline striker Tam McManus on their books last season, and fellow Scot John Spencer is an iconic figure at the club. They also include David Beckham's former room-mate and understudy at Man Utd, Terry Cooke, in midfield.
And their head coach, Gary Smith, was formerly a coach under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, whom the Rapids now have a strong link-up with. Indeed, Smith told me that his former colleagues at Arsenal 'take US soccer very seriously, and they are looking to use the league as a place to find new players in the future'.
The city of Denver was one of the places I had been most looking forward to visiting in the United States. And not just because it meant leaving Salt Lake City....
The hostel experience of Salt Lake had me contemplating new and exciting forms of accommodation for my trip, so I figured Mile High City was as good a place as any to try the phenomenon of 'Couch Surfing'.
Here's an idiot's guide: you visit the website (www.couchsurfing.com), sign up and look for a place to stay. At first it sounds pretty weird, but it's basically a community of people who are either travelling and looking for places to stay, or who have previously travelled and know what it's like having to shell out money for dirty hostel rooms.
To cut a long story short, I got in touch with a couple who were kind enough to put me up for a few nights while I was in town to see the Colorado Rapids. And it was great fun.
We played pool, went bowling, and went to the Frozen Dead Guy Days Festival in Nederland, high in the Rocky Mountains. That's right, Frozen Dead Guy.
Basically, a Norwegian family whose Grandfather (Bredo Morstoel) died in 1989, had his body cryogenically frozen in LA and stored in a shed in the small town of Nederland, CO.
Now, 20 years later, the town has a big festival once a year to 'celebrate', with coffin races, leaps in to a frozen lake and a hearse procession. All the while, Bredo lies dead in a shed up the hill. It's very weird.....
Denver itself is not generally as strange as that, in fact I was very impressed with it. And in stark contrast to Salt Lake, there WAS evidence of the soccer, particularly the Rapids, all over town. Adverts for season tickets, people wearing Rapids shirts – it seemed like the city follows their team pretty well there.
And while the Dick's Sporting Goods Park (catchy) is a little out of town, the stadium and its facilities, like so many of the cities I have visited in the USA, are incredible.
But once again, it was the people I met in the city that really made it most interesting. Brandon Blew, Executive Director of 'Denver Scores', was one of them.
The umbrella organisation 'America Scores' helps under-privileged children in 13 American cities, including Denver, by offering soccer programmes as an alternative to spending after-school time on the street. Brandon is in charge of the Denver branch, offering youngsters the opportunity to learn about and play soccer, while also teaching other skills including poetry writing.
Likewise, Victoria 'Chili' Baldwin, a prominent member of the Centennial Firm (Rapids supporters group) told me about her experiences with the Rapids and her dislike for anything Salt Lake!
And just before I left Denver, waiting for yet another Greyhound bus adventure, I spoke to a homeless man named Dan, who had lost his home during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Dan had travelled to Denver in search of work, but when it did not materialise he was forced to sleep outdoors. He was even kind enough to show me the tree had slept under, before he got on the bus to Miami!
Meanwhile, it was time for me to head to Kansas City, and eat some of its famous barbecue. Just another 14 hour bus journey til I got there......
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Let's start with the team – Real Salt Lake. Just like their NBA basketball team neighbours (the Utah Jazz) the name suggests a kind of glitz & glamour. Admittedly, the Jazz moved their franchise from New Orleans and kept the reference to the music scene there.
But the soccer club could have chosen any name under the sun when the team formed in 2005. The potential alternatives at the time were the Salt Lake Highlanders, Soccer Club, Alliance or Union. In that respect, they chose pretty well...
As part of the naming process, RSL set up a link-up with Real Madrid who they will play a friendly match against every two years, and they've also made connections between their respective youth systems.
And of course, as is the requirement for MLS membership franchises these days, they built a soccer specific stadium.
The Rio Tinto stadium is incredible. Not too far from downtown (15mins in car), there was a sort of opening ceremony in 2006 - even Beckham was there! But the Rio Tinto did not officially open its doors until the end of last season. The best part is the giant balcony just off the corporate lounge, where you can enjoy a beer with an excellent view of the action.
It's funny, during my three-day stay in Salt Lake, I took two guided tours; one was the Rio Tinto, the other being the Mormon church's Temple Square. To say they were different experiences would be putting it mildly.
The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints dominates the landscape in downtown SLC – temples, tabernacles and offices make up the impressive Temple Square.
The Mormon 'sisters' who provided the tour of the Square were very friendly and interesting. But after a half hour tour, looking round the temples before declining their kind offer of providing contact information for future home visits, I was ready to leave.
On my way back through the downtown area, I noticed something. Well, more like the LACK of something.
One difference between many of the US cities I've visited compared to most UK cities is that, aside from around the soccer stadium you really don't notice a great deal of soccer elsewhere.
If only I could say the same about the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.....
As well as visiting the temples, I also had the pleasure of sharing my stay in the guest house (see previous post...) with two Mormon men.
They were both nice guys. But as time went on, they each revealed some rather personal and often fairly bizarre (and frankly alarming) little insights in to their past, before (or sometimes after) they subscribed to the Mormon faith.
An ex-marine, who had such a bad fall out with his wife that he had wound up in hospital with a minor heart attack (that day), is an interesting person to share a room with. And even more so when he talks about the time God convinced him not to use the knife he had in his hand, or his poetry about Adolf Hitler.
Going back to the expectations I had before arriving in the city, this kind of blew them out of the water.
Speaking of expectations, before I left Salt Lake I met with Real's General Manager Garth Lagerwey about the new season. He seemed fairly confident of a better performance than Playoff Finals, which they reached last season.
“It is easier to make the step up from being a bad team to a decent team”, he told me after team training. “But making the step up from a decent team to a great team is much tougher. That is what we want to achieve this year”.
Soccer in the Salt Lake area is thriving, and it would be no great surprise to see Real go on to win the MLS Cup at some point in the near future. But when it comes to my own memories of Salt Lake, I think my Mormon room-mates will be the real talking point. No pun intended....
from Robbin's Sports
Sunday, March 1, 2009
I could tell a lie, and say that I know what to expect from Utah. But besides the 2002 Winter Olympics being held here, I know that it's a predominantly Mormon state and that former Gretna striker Kenny Deuchar was playing up front for Real Salt Lake last season – that's about it!
It is shaping up to be an interesting stay already, though. The 'guest house' I'm staying in, near the downtown area of Salt Lake City, is one of the least welcoming places I've ever visited.
There's a key-code on the front door, so you can't get in unless you know the code. I was sent two different codes by email, yet neither worked. Eventually, after multiple attempts, a fellow guest let me in. Of course, no members of staff are actually on site, even once you're in the building.
So the next challenge was the 'self check-in' computer. It was switched off when I arrived. I tried to turn it on, and it crashed. Twice. The third time, it sprang to life, allowing me to enter my details. Not my name, or anything else I would know off-hand, but another code – this time a 16 digit (numbers and letters) code.
After a few failed attempts, I eventually figured out that I needed to enter the slashes and dashes as well as the numbers and letters, for it to finally allow me access. Access to yet ANOTHER code, this time to open a little box which had my key in it.
In addition to the code, the computer prompted me with a message, informing me me that if I dare to stay in the building beyond check-out time, my credit card will be charged for an extra night, and police may be called.
Welcome to Salt Lake City....
Anyway, as far as the soccer goes, it should be an interesting stop-off – much like Vancouver, outdoor activities are huge here, so perhaps the appetite for the sport is too. Real Salt Lake were only formed in 2005, so don't have the same history that the Vancouver Whitecaps enjoy.
Speaking of which, I was fortunate enough to interview the Whitecaps chairman, Bob Lenarduzzi, before I left. And there is no-one more qualified to talk about the Whitecaps than Bob.
He actually played for Reading FC in England before he first joined the team in 1974, but he has been with the Whitecaps ever since. He played for them in the NASL. He played for them when they were the Vancouver 86ers – he even played for the Tacoma Stars in the indoor Canadian Soccer League when the Whitecaps didn't exist for two seasons.
Not to mention that he played for the Canadian national team at their only ever World Cup appearance (Mexico, 1986), and later managed Canada from 1993-98, and is a member of the Canadian National Soccer Hall of Fame.
There are not many people who can rival that kind of experience, not just in North America, but anywhere in soccer. It will be an interesting contrast going from that, to a team formed less than five years ago – and one that I am looking forward to.
Now where did I put that key......
Thursday, February 26, 2009
The city has professional teams in ice hockey, Canadian football, baseball, soccer (men's & women's) and basketball, there is plenty to choose from.
With over 3,000 acres of parks and a wealth of rivers, mountains and lakes, it is no surprise that Vancouver's obesity rate is more than 10% lower than the Canadian national average. And with such an emphasis on outdoor sport, it is also little wonder that Vancouver was chosen to host the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympic & Paralympic Games.
It's a very impressive city visually, and one where you feel remarkably close to nature, even in the downtown area.
If it has a down side, it is the sheer number of homeless people on the city's streets. Having watched the Homeless World Cup in Melbourne towards the end of last year, I would say Canada could quite easily get a team together from this lot! Actually, on Granville Street I encountered a homeless man who wouldn't let me pass when I turned down his request for a quarter – perhaps a goalkeeper in the making!
But sport, and in particular soccer, is in pretty good shape in Vancouver . The men's and women's teams made history in 2006, both winning their respective league championships. And last year the men's team, the Whitecaps, lifted the USL-1 trophy once again.
It seems to be a fairly safe bet that the Whitecaps will get the MLS franchise for 2011. And if you ask Bill Currie, the founder of 'Friends of Soccer' (www.friendsofsoccer.org) he is “95% certain” they will be playing in the MLS in two years time.
Friends of Soccer has been going since 2005, with the primary target of helping the Whitecaps secure a 15,000 all-seater, soccer specific stadium in Vancouver's downtown waterfront. As yet, the process has not been given the green light, despite Bill's best efforts.
“The Whitecaps own the land, and were willing to build the stadium without using one cent of taxpayers money” Bill told me. “But the council has not given it the go-ahead yet”.
Bill remains confident though, and hopes that if the Whitecaps do obtain the MLS franchise for 2011, the cause would gain even more support.
Another of Bill's projects, a documentary on the history of soccer in British Columbia, will be released on DVD this autumn. Part of the documentary will focus on the start of the NASL in 1968, when the Vancouver Royals team secured Bobby Robson as manager, only to lose him before the season even started when the Royals merged with the California Golden Gate Gails – who were managed by Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas!
Bill is hoping his documentary will appeal to a soccer hungry Vancouver public. “There is a soccer culture out there in Vancouver”, he maintains. “You just have to seek it out to find it”.
As for the other fans, the Whitecaps' main supporters group are the Southsiders. They are fairly notorious for creating an atmosphere at the Whitecaps' Swanguard stadium, and sit behind the goal in the south stand. The Southsiders are renwoned for their harrassment of visiting goalkeppers, and they do their homework....
According to one of the Southsider's more recent additions, Michael McColl, the Southsiders chanted the name of the opposition 'keeper's girlfriend for almost the entire match once, much to his embarrassment.
Michael is Scottish, so I thought it only polite to meet him in a pub (in the morning), and watch the Real Madrid-Liverpool Champions League tie.
He is an East Fife fan, and very active in the East Fife community. Although he lives in Vancouver, he still runs East Fife fanzine 'Away From The Numbers' (www.aftn.co.uk). He is keen to get just as involved with the Whitecaps, having moved here just short of two years ago. But how does supporting the Whitecaps compare with East Fife?
“The (Swanguard) stadium is set in the middle of a park and the build up to matchdays is all beer, barbeques and, a lot of the time, sun”, Michael says. “We can relate to a third of that!”
It may not be conducive to keeping the obesity rate down, but it does sound fun!
Friday, February 20, 2009
Now I know this is really meant to be a soccer blog. But I was interested to find out why Kevin Calabro, one of the most famous announcers in the NBA basketball league, won't be using this (brilliant) catchphrase to describe some Seattle Supersonics action any time soon.
The poor Sonics, around since 1967, have vanished and been replaced - and moved to Oklahoma - by the new franchise 'City Thunder'.
Apparently, a giant black cloud hovered over Seattle the day the Sonics lost their battle to survive, in July last year. It's sad to see a team just disappear, but I suppose they can always hope to re-launch in future, in much the same way as the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team have.
Calabro is doing a bit of re-launching himself, continuing with basketball commentary but adding soccer to his repertoire. He is now the official 'play-by-play' announcer for Seattle Sounders FC, and when the fans heard this I am told the reaction was similar to when they were told that their team had signed Swedish star Freddie Ljungberg - though I'm not sure if I believe it. Incidentally, Ljungberg was not training with the Sounders when I visited – he has a couple of injuries.
So as the Sonics basketball team fades in to the night, it seems appropriate that the new soccer team steps out of the relative wilderness in Seattle. The city was awarded an MLS expansion team at the end of 2007, so they've barely had a year to get organised.
Starting a new team, almost from scratch, can't be an easy job. And on the whole, expansion teams don't tend to do to perform very well in their first season in the MLS. Chivas USA in particular set new records in poor performance when they debuted in 2005. It certainly won't be easy for the Sounders.
Having said that, the team has a really professional aura – their Qwest Field stadium is superb, and the players and even journalists all ooze a kind of optimism about the team, which is very refreshing in a country where so much negativity is attached to soccer.
Taylor Graham, their centre-half, told me the club has “a lot more resources, a lot more excitement, a lot more media buzz – and hopefully we can translate that in to wins.”
The Sounders have even announced a friendly game against Chelsea to be played at the Qwest Field in July, which season ticket holders will be able to attend as part of their subscription.
It's exciting times in Seattle, and they have already sold almost 20,000 season tickets. I'd probably rather watch their games on TV though, with the prospect of hearing some more Kevin Calabro specials.....like these:
“Nobody can do the voodoo like you doo!”
“Two in the cake; one in the pudding” (what??)
"This is a jam fest! Gimme some peanut-butter and we'll make a sandwich!"
But I still don't know what "Get on up for the down stroke" means....
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
I have always been pretty alarmed at the general standard of US beers that we get in the United Kingdom. Budweiser.....Miller.....Rolling Rock!!
So I was looking forward to getting to Portland, Oregon, where there are more breweries than any other city in the USA - perhaps even the world.
On the train from San Francisco (the one that took 17 hours), there was a guy with a t-shirt that read "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." If the Beer God really exists, I think he set up home in Portland.
The first I tried was a Black IPA in a bar called the 'Blue Moon' on 21st Avenue. It tasted good, but that might have been because I didn't pay for it. And no, I didn't steal it.
I was sat at the bar and there was basketball on the TV. I could see that Portland Trailblazers were playing, but couldn't make out the opposition. On the screen, the score said POR - GSW. So I had to ask who GSW were (Golden State Warriors), and the guy who told me bought me a beer.
The Black IPA was good. In fact, during my brief stay in Portland I didn't taste a bad local beer. It made me wonder why the soccer team isn't called the Portland Beermen or something ....
Actually, they're the Portland Timbers - and they were the first non-MLS team I would speak to on my trip. The Timbers play in the United Soccer Leagues (USL), the second tier in the American Soccer Pyramid. They have actually applied to become an MLS expansion team for 2011, and are set to find out by March whether it will be them, the Vancouver Whitecaps or a Miami-Barcelona franchise who gets the spot.
The Timbers home stadium is the PEG Park, plonked slap-bang in the middle of the city they call 'Soccer City'. The PEG doubles up as the home ground of the Portland Beavers baseball team, and is also used for American Football. It's been there since 1926, and if you're one for pub quiz triva, Pele played his final competitive match here.
The team had not yet begun pre-season when i got to Portland, so I had a chat with Marc Kostic, the team's media manager, about the team, the past, and the future. I will be speaking with a couple of their players over the coming weeks, and will also have the honour of meeting legendary team icon 'Timber Jim'.
I knew nothing of the man before I arrived, but my Portland friend Bob assures me that Jim 'abseils from the rafters, climbs a huge tree trunk and does a bunch of crazy sh*t with a chainsaw.'
Jim, you sound like a maniac. Can't wait to meet you!
The San Jose Earthquakes are one of only two MLS teams (along with Seattle Sounders) to have kept their name from the NASL (North American Soccer League). For those of you not familiar, that was the league in the 1970s that Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff & George Best played in.
The 'Quakes have gone through their fair share of hard times since then. They've had their name changed, they've disappeared for seasons at a time only to return in a different guise.....they've even been moved almost 2,000 miles away to Houston to reform as the Dynamo.
But watching them train at Santa Clara University, you would never know it. They look like a good, professional team - which isn't bad since they only (re)joined the MLS in 2008.
Darren Huckerby, the English striker who played for Newcastle, Coventry & Norwich, moved to the Earthquakes around a year ago. He told me about his experiences in the MLS so far.
"Starting to score goals straight away was really good for me" he said. "And winning the MLS Newcomer of the Year award was a real highlight."
I was particularly interested to find out what brought Darren to the MLS, and to San Jose in particular. He told me: "I thought about it when I was younger – maybe 22 or 23. I was fortunate enough to play in every division in the English leagues, and it is well documented that when I left Norwich City, I said I didn't want to play against them for another club."
He seems pretty settled in San Jose, and eager for the new season to start. But there is one negative aspect of the game that Darren would like to see changed.
"The turf pitches should be banned. Three or four of the teams here play on them, and after 16 years of playing on grass I find it difficult to adapt. They are not good for training or playing on, and in my opinion they should be banned."
Darren's team-mate and captain is more of a veteran of the MLS. Nick Garcia has played eight full seasons in the league, seven of which were with the Kansas City Wizards. He is part of a golden generation, growing up and playing alongside the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Tim Howard and Steve Cherundolo. And he thinks the Earthquakes are well-equipped to challenge this season.
"I think we are ten times better this time around" he told me after the Earthquakes training session. "Last season, we were always talking to people, they really needed pushing. This season, we're looking for more from everyone, and I think we will get more. I know these guys can do better than last season."
So when it all comes to an end, and it's time to hang up the boots - what does an MLS player do?
"I'm quite happy to become a stay-at-home Dad!" a happy Nick told me. "Realistically, with more expansion teams coming in to the league, there will be a whole range of new roles out there. I'd love to be a part of that. Coaching is not really my cup of tea, but I think there are plenty of roles out there where I can offer something."
Before I left the sunny Santa Clara university training facilities, Nick had one last comment: "Are you going to Kansas? Try the barbecue there!!"
Trevor grew up in East Anglia, playing for Ipswich Town, Colchester Utd & Cambridge. He moved to LA as a player in 1984, and has pretty much been here since.
He was an assistant coach of the Canadian national team before he got the job at Galaxy. And he told me about how it compares with the UK.
“Soccer in the US is different from back home”, he told me. “The way the system is set up, the games throughout the season don't matter as much as they do in the UK.”
But Trevor was quick to point out that LA is not necessarily typical of the rest of the USA, especially when it comes to soccer.
“It's much easier to attract players to LA than most places in the USA. The lifestyle here, the weather, it is a very attractive option.” That day aside, I would certainly agree.
A guy who spends a typical day speaking with other coaches, scheduling coaching sessions, as well as scouting players and running the youth setup at the Galaxy, I felt Trevor was in as good a position as anyone to tell me what the standard of players in the US was like. And he didn't let me down.
“I used to think that the standard was good – I mean technically good – and that the major difference was the pace; that the Americans were slower”, he said. “But I realise now that the standard has generally got better; that that wasn't necessarily the case. Now that the games are on TV, I think that's really helped.”
I finished chatting with Trevor shortly after 3.00pm, and didn't get back to Santa Monica until after 7.30pm. The bus trip was fairly uneventful, but travelling through some of LA's worse neighbourhoods was pretty intimidating. And long.
In short -if you go to LA, drive.
I only had to get to the Home Depot Center (the stadium, not the store). I could get there and back no trouble.....
For the most part, I was right - it took two hours by bus to get to the stadium, so I was there in time to see the end of a Chivas USA training session.
When I arrived, a mixture of youth team players and trialists were playing a pre-season practice match against local team Dominguez Hills. Former Hearts midfielder Fernando Screpis was one of the trialists for Chivas, whose first team players had a day off.
David Lindholm, the communications co-ordinator for Chivas, talked me through some of their history - formed in 2005 as a branch of the Mexican side Chivas Guadalajara, and with a strong emphasis on maintaining a strong Mexican core. And for a team that is barely four years old, an average attendance at the Home Depot Center (they share it with bitter rivals LA Galaxy) of 15-17 thousand is mighty impressive.
Interestingly, David told me that Chivas previously targetted their marketing towards families, but that the twenty-something professional is now the desired audience. Something to look out for in future, possibly.
I will soon be speaking with one of the Ultras supporters for the Chivas, John Sandate. John has already told me, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks of David Beckham & the Galaxy - but I will save that for next time.
And apart from the Greek woman at the hostel who kept looking over my shoulder to see what I was typing, the people I met were pleasant too.
Santa Monica is a beautiful place. Lovely beach, nice shops, rich women walking around with yoga mats under their arms....
And everyone that lives there seems to work in the media! I was involved in radio for over two years, and can't remember the last time I met anyone socially who was involved in the entertainment business. But in Santa Monica, if it wasn't Warner Bros. it was NBC, and if someone wasn't an established Steven Spielberg they were at least a failed actor or photographer.
An interesting place. And nice weather - perfect for 'soccer' - was the norm, except for the day that I had to get to LA Galaxy's Home Depot Stadium in Carson, of course......