Thursday, February 26, 2009

Week 3 - Vancouver Whitecaps

If you're looking for a successful sporting city in North America, you don't need to look much further than Vancouver.

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' ( 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' ( 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

Week 3 - Seattle Sounders

"Get on up for the down stroke" – so a wise man once said. I still don't really know what it means.....

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 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

Week 2 - Portland

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!

Week 2 - San Francisco / San Jose

San Francisco is much smaller than I had thought - fewer than 800,000 people. I certainly didn't realise San Jose (almost 1M pop.) is bigger, and that may explain why they get an MLS soccer team and San Fran itself doesn't.

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!!"

Week 1 - LA Galaxy

Sadly, as you know, David Beckham left the USA when he heard that I was arranging a trip around the States to look at the soccer here. But Galaxy's assistant coach Trevor James was kind enough to spare some time to speak to me on the wet day at Home Depot Stadium.

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.

Week 1 - Chivas USA

Admittedly, I had been forewarned that it's nigh on impossible to survive in LA without a car, but I was adamant.

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.

Week 1 - Arriving in Los Angeles

Aside from the fascist sat next to me on the shuttle bus from LAX to Santa Monica (the guy who thought Barrack Obama should be in charge of Kenya, not the USA, 'as he was born there') the first day in Los Angeles was pleasant.

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......