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.