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......